The Origins of the Palestinian People

I recently came across a fascinating book entitled The Handbook of Palestine by H.C. Luke and E. Keith-Roach.  Produced in 1922 by the British Mandate government which had just taken control of the country after a long Ottoman Turkish rule, it’s a fascinating snapshot of the Holy Land beginning its transition to the State of Israel and the other claimants of the land.  I plan to reproduce some of the more interesting parts of the book on a sporadic basis.

In this post they discuss the origins of the Arab-Syrian population, which is now referred to as the Palestinian people.

The Arab population falls naturally into two categories, the nomads (bedawi), and the settled Arabs (hadari). The former are the purer in blood, being the direct descendants of the half-savage nomadic tribes who from time immemorial have inhabited the Arabian peninsula, and who to this day dwell in portable tents of black goats’ hair (‘the tents of Kedar’). The camps of the different tribes vary in form: some, such as those of the Ta’amireh, are as a rule rectangular, others are circular, others oval. Small in numbers, the tribes generally avoid open places for their camps, not only for shelter but in order not to be conspicuous; for similar reasons they pitch their camps at some distance from their watering places. Natural caves in the wadis are preferred by some families [e.g. at Mar Saba), as they afford better shelter and protection. There is little or no cohesion between the various tribes. Their watering places are springs, standing pools of rain water, and cisterns roughly cut in the rock in the valley bottoms. On the border between ‘the desert and the sown’ the people tend to change their mode of life ; the nomads become partly or wholly sedentary, the sedentary become semi-nomadic. Thus the people on the western edge of the Judaean Desert, as, for example, the Ta’amireh, who were originally fellahin, take their cattle out into the desert and live a nomadic life; on the other hand, genuine Bedouin in the desert regions, such as the Rasha’iden of ‘Ain Jidi, remain so long in certain places as to become almost sedentary.

The Bedouin are for the most part Moslems, but are on the whole less devout than the settled Arabs. Some of the Bedouin, especially around Salt and Madaba in Trans-jordania, still retain the Christianity which they adopted in the early centuries of the Christian era.

A Negroid element is found among the inhabitants of the tropical Ghor region in the lower Jordan Valley and around the Dead Sea. The presence of these people is attributed by some to a settlement from the Sudan, by others to the introduction of Negro slaves purchased at Mecca by pilgrims and retailed at Ma’an.

The settled Arabs are of more mixed descent than the Bedouin, and form the link between these and the Syrians, by whom we understand the descendants of all those peoples, other than the Jews, who spoke Aramaic at the beginning of the Christian era. Some of these have retained their Christianity, but the majority have in the course of ages embraced Islam. The Aramaic language, after holding its ground for a considerable time in Palestine and Syria, ultimately gave place to Arabic (though surviving among the Samaritans and, as regards Syrians, in three villages north-east of Damascus), and this process was facilitated by the continuous replenishment of Palestine and Syria from the tribes of the Arabian Desert. This Arab infiltration has created and maintains the specific racial character of the population. The distinction between the Arabs and the Syrians is now not so much racial as cultural. The Syrians are agriculturists and dwellers in towns, civilized, industrial, and of peaceful inclinations; the Arabs are a pastoral people organized in tribes and with a natural tendency towards inter-tribal warfare. Palestine and Syria offer, on their eastern border, examples of every stage of transition from the nomad Bedouin to the settled fellahin; the Arab conquest of the eighth century was only the flood-tide of a continuous overflow from the desert into the cultivated land of the West.

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