Monday, March 18, 2019

Jewish Kingdoms Outside Israel

Over the centuries there have been quite a few "Jewish" kingdoms outside of the Land of Israel/Palestine, however these have not achieved the fame or influence of Judea/Israel and have never undermined the Jewish religion's territorial focus on the "Promised Land".
I find these minor Jewish states fascinating and thought it would be a good idea to list them. What is suprising about these kingdoms is that they lasted no less time then the Jewish kingdoms in Israel and that in some cases they covered a lot more territory. Another interesting feature is that they almost entirely date to the post-exile period and that all came into being after the Romans adopted Chrinstianity.
These kingdoms were located outside the centers of recorded history (such as Italy or Turkey) and the documentation attesting to their existence is sparse.  Why there is so little record is one question that arises and I suggest several reasons:
1. Jewish kingdoms were not "empire builders" and empires have written human history.
2. Unlike Israel, Jewish kingdoms were not in strategic locations and not on major trade routes.
3. History, West of China and India, has been written by Christians and Moslems, who attach less importance to Jews.

Major Kingdoms

1. 380 - 520 (about 140 years) The Himyarite Kingdom  (West Yemen). See also
Image from Wikipedia
Wikipedia -
Like all the other Jewish kingdoms outside Israel, sources are sketchy, however unlike many of the others, there is archaeological evidence for the existence of a Jewish kingdom in the Yemen which used Hebrew as a medium for public inscriptions. The kingdom was involved in wars which were documented by Christian sources outside the Yemen, fighting Christian kingdoms in Ethiopia and fighting Christian tribes in Arabia. In his book, "The Throne of Adulis", Glen Bowersock suggests that these conflicts may have contributed to the emergence of a third way - Islam in the 6th Century. The Koran also mentions Jewish tribes in Arabia, which may be connected to the Himyarite Kingdom.

2. 695 - 700 Berber Jrawa tribe, ruled by queen Dihya  (North East Algeria).
Wikipedia - see also
The Berbers are native North African tribes who are not Arab and are known to predate the Arab presence. There are a number of sources suggesting that some tribes adopted Judaism in Roman times. Queen Dihya achieved fame when the 13th Century Tunisian-Arab historian Ibn Khaldun wrote about her (500 years after her possible existence), saying that she had held up Arab Imperial progress in North Africa. It is likely that the tribe she governed had been Jewish for much longer and controlled a significant area, but there is little source material outside of Ibn Khaldun and North African oral traditions. Because the Berbers were largely nomadic and illiterate there is little scope for archeological evidence backing up the oral traditions.

3. 740 - 920 (about 150 years) Kingdom of the Khazars (Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia) .
Image from Wikipedia

The Khazar kingdom was a buffer state between the Moslem Mongol kingdoms and the Christian Rus. The largest Jewish state ever (in territory), but the documentary evidence, while persuasive and contemporary with the time is a little sparse. The writer Arthur Koestler famously wrote about this kingdom suggesting that many Ashkenazis may carry Khazar blood (  Not much remains of Khazar Judaism, leading some to suggest that only the aristocracy and government really practised Judaism. There are a group in this area known as the "Mountain Jews" (, who do sound like they might be related to the Khazars. It is also said that there are no "Cohens" (descendants of the temple priesthood) among the Georgian Jews which could also be explained by Khazar origins.

4. 900 - 1620 (700+ years) The Kingdom of Semien (North-West Ethiopia).
Wikipedia - See also
If this oral tradition among Ethiopian Jews is even partly true, then the Jewish kingdom in Ethiopia may be the longest lasting Jewish kingdom that has ever existed.  There was a Jewish traveler in Europe called "Eldad HaDani" ( who said he originated from East Africa. The Cambridge History of Africa (volume III page 102, 2001 edition), quotes a 10th Century Arab historian called "Ibn Hawqal" as saying that a Queen of "Hadani" defeated the Christians on the edges of the land of "Habasha".  The original text gives no statement as to her religion.
Glen Bowersock, who writes about the Jewish kingdom in the Yemen, also appears to have evidence for a Jewish kingdom in Ethiopia, but there is little details of its location and size.
Unfortunately the evidence is sparse, because written histories were rare and little if any archeology gets done in Ethiopia. Even so, it would seem to make the Ethiopian Jews a very significant feature of our collective Jewish past. .

In addition to the list above, there have been a number of cities which were briefly independent and ruled by Jews, the most notable I have seen was in Fifth Century Sasanid Persia, on the site of modern Iraq: The "Exhilarch" Mar Zutra II, who claimed to be a direct descendant of King David, proclaimed independence and governed "Mahoza" for seven years.  Mahoza is now known as Al-Mada'in.
Mar Zutra's son escaped after the rebellion was put down, and moved to Tiberias where he headed a religious seminary.

1 comment:

  1. Given the recent misuse of the Koestler's theory about the Khazars by people with a political interest in suggesting that Ashkenazi Jews have no relationship to ancient Israel, it might be good to clarify that while Ashkenazi Jews may carry some Khazar blood, this is only a hypothesis, and it would only be one part of their genetic heritage anyway.

    I remember going to a meeting about Palestine organised by a far-left student group in the University of Sussex some years ago, and hearing the speaker claim that Jews actually descend from the Khazars and thus have no connection to Israel. Not that it should matter whose genes Ashkenazi Jews carry, but this is still a politicised misuse of an academic theory.


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