Where did the name Palestine come from and for how long has it been in use?
After reading the book “Palestine a four thousand year history” by Nur Masalha, a Palestinian historian and academic, it became clear that the name Palestine has been used since the 13th century BC until today.

This is a full transcript of the podcast episode:

In the podcast we never talked about where the name Palestine came from and how long it has been in use. And I noticed that a lot of people find it difficult to use the word Palestine because they are not sure whether it is appropriate to use it as there is no recognized country for Palestinians. And in the last decades using the word Palestine has also been almost demonized. A lot of people associate the word Palestine and Palestinians with violence, because that’s the only thing they hear through the main stream media. So definitely the word Palestine has gotten a negative connotation.

There is a very good book, written by Nur Masalha, called “Palestine, a four thousand year history”, that describes the history and the use of the name Palestine from the earliest references in Egyptian and Assyrian texts up until today. In his book he emphasizes that geographic names are very important and were often changed when new rulers came to the land and they wanted to leave an imprint of their presence by using different names for provinces, cities and towns. 

But the name Palestine has been commonly used for more than 3000 years and it is interesting how today there are such strong attempts to erase that memory. There is also great effort to spread the myth that Palestine was a land without people for a people without land. A typical Zionist myth. When Israel was established as a State there were cities, towns, villages, harbors, an airport, a train network with train stations, cinemas, theaters, newspapers, a Palestinian currency, a Palestinian passport, Palestinian postal stamps and a population of about 2 million people.

Another typical Zionist myth is that there was never a Palestine and there were never Palestinians, that their national identity and their nationalism was only formed after the establishment of the State of Israel. They claim that there were some Arabs and Bedouins roaming around the area with their flocks and they had no national identity, no connection to the land in particular. And that comes in very handy when they say that these Arabs can move to one of the 22 Arab countries. Have you ever heard that? It’s something that Zionists will say easily: we only have one country and they can move to 22 countries. As if these countries would happily accept them just like that. I mean that’s already such a strange thing to say. Imagine someone told me, you can just move to Belgium, they also speak Dutch there. Yeah, true, they speak Dutch but I don’t know anybody in Belgium, I have no history there, no ties, I do not relate to their habits and their traditions, I don’t have family or friends there, I don’t understand their sense of humor, we don’t share a common history or similar experiences. 

But the main issue is that Zionists will deny that these Arabs as they call them, have any heritage, have a long connection to the land, share traditions, culture, food, music, dance, embroidery, stories, story telling, family relations, tribal relations, knowledge of the land and its nature and animals.

In a future episode I will interview Bassam who produces the podcast: Pre-Occupation, a NOT so short history of Palestine to talk to him more about this issue of Palestinian identity.

But now I will focus on the name Palestine

The name Palestine is the most commonly used name for the region from the Late Bronze Age onward, that is from around 1300 BC.

There are some other names that can be found in ancient texts. The Egyptians speak about ‘Djahi’ and ‘Retenu’ for example before they change to using the word ‘Canaan’. We read the name Canaan and Canaanites in the Bible books and in the Amarna letters. Those are correspondence between the Egyptian Pharaoh and the Vasal Kings of the City States in the region that was called Canaan. The people who lived in that region were multiple different groups of people or tribes that were called the Canaanites or the inhabitants of Canaan. They were the indigenous population, some of them were settled, living in one place, others were pastoral or nomadic, taking their flock around the land for grazing. There are scholars who say that the Israelites and Philistines were Canaanites just as for example the Moabites and the Ammonites. They had their own cultural identities but they were ethnically all Canaanites. 

There are also scholars who link the Canaanites to the Phoenicians who lived on the coastal area of what is today Lebanon, their main port cities were Tyre and Sidon. The Phoenicians were known for the purple dye they produced from a molusk, a sea snail, that they cooked in a specific way to extract the purple color. It was a very difficult and hard job and the color purple became used mainly for the robes of royal family members. It seems that the name Phoenicians derived from a Greek word that was used for the purple dye. And some scholars make a link to the Accadian word Kinahhu that was used for this purple dye and that sounds a bit like Canaan, making the suggestion that the Canaanites were related to the Phoenicians.

But we were going to talk about the name PALESTINE! 

The root letters of the word Palestine are PLST 

The first time that we see these root letters are in Egyptian sources in the Medinet Habu temple dating to around 1185 BC when Rameses III reigned Egypt. The word is pronounced as Peleset. And it was used to refer to the people in the Southern Levant. On the Merneptah stele some other peoples of the Levant are identified such as the Shardana, the Ekwesh, th Teresh, the Tjekker, the Lukka, the Kheta, The Amor and the Shasw. 

From the late bronze age the names that were used before, such as Djahi, Retenu and Canaan, all gave way to Palestine. 

From the 8th and 7th Century BC the Assyrians referred to the southern coastal region as Palashtu or Pilistu. It literally meant the land of the Peleset. When they wrote Phalashtu, Piliste or Philistia they did not only refer to the well known cities, the Pentapolis, the five cities on the coast that were: Gaza, Ekron, Ghath, Ashdod and Ascalon, but it was also used for the interior country and generally for the entire area between Lebanon and Egypt. 

The well known Via Maris, the Way of the Sea, a trade route between Egypt and Damascus, was also known as the Way of the Philistines.

So the name Canaan was only used for a limited period in the Late Bronze Age time. Then Peleset, Philistia and eventually Palaestina became the most used name for the region. 

Let’s move on to the Hellenistic period, the 5th and 4th century BC, to the earliest classical literature of the Greek writers and especially Herodotus and Aristotle.

Herodotus was a contemporary of Socrates and he is often called the Father of History. He was the first historian to systematically investigate historical subjects, arrange material into a historical narrative. One of his most famous historical texts is called Histories and it is still studied by all history students and academics around the world. 

In this classical text written in the 5th century BC Herodotus talks about Palaestine, Palaestine-Syria and the Syrians of Palestine and he distinguishes the Phoenicians from the Syrians of Palestine. When he uses these terms he does not only refer to the coastal strip from the Carmel to Gaza but also to the interior of the country. 

He visited Palestine himself and according to his own words: he traveled extensively through the part of Syria called Palestine, and he refers to Palaistine-Syria or simply Palaistine many times – as an area comprising the whole region between Phoenicia and Egypt. 

Herodotus never mentions Judea, nor does he mention Canaan or Canaanites or Israelites and he also does not speak about monotheism in the country. Archaeological evidence shows that monotheism was a much later development in Palestine and the Near East. And may of the Old Testament religious and ideological dogmas evolved centuries after Herodotus. 

About a century after Herodotus, the Greek scientist, philosopher and historian Aristotle also talks about Palestine. And also he does not mention the term Canaan. 

I will quote a paragraph from his famous work Meteorology written in 340 BC

“ Again if, as is fabled, there is a lake in Palestine, such that if you bind a man or beast and throw it in it floats and does not sink, this would bear out what we have said. They say that this lake is so bitter and salt that no fish live in it and that if you soak clothes in it and shake them, it cleans them.” 

This is widely understood by scholars to be a reference to the Dead Sea.

Another important scholar of the Hellenistic world is the writer and cartographer Claudius Ptolemaeus who lived in the 2nd century AD. He produced a world map on which he clearly distinguished between the Koile Syria, Phoenicia and Palestina. This distinction that Ptolemy made on his map between the three countries, Palaestina, Koile Syria and Phoenicia, had a large impact on future historians, geographers, travelers and cartographers who would produce similar distinctions.

During the Roman rule in Palestine, and especially in the period between 135 and 390 AD, Palestine became one of the Provincias of the Empire. By this time the name Palestine was more than a thousand years old and it was now consolidated and popularized in Latin and Greek which were the two most spoken languages of the Roman Empire and the Easter Mediterranean. 

A Roman Provincia was the largest territorial and administrative unit of the Roman Empire. There were minor provinces, smaller ones and major provinces. In 135 AD the Roman emperor Hadrian officially combined the minor Roman province of Iudea with the old Philistia, the Galilee in the north and Iduemaea in the south to form a new major province called ‘Syria Palaestina’. 

During much of this period of Roman Provincia Palaestina, Jerusalem was one of the two administrative and cultural centers of the country with the seat of the Roman Governor and the Royal Court. The other important city was Caesarea Palaestina. 

The name of Jerusalem at this time was Aelia Capitolina, Aelia after his second name Aelius and Capitolina was dedicated to Jupiter Capitolinus, the chief god of the Roman state religion. The name Jerusalem almost became extinct. Aelia Capitolina was the common name for the city and in the first Muslim period the Arabized version was Iliya which was still used in some medieval Arabic sources in the 10th century, together with the other Arabic name for Jerusalem, Bayt al Maqdis from which Al Quds derives. (You can listen back to one of the earliest episodes I produced on the many names of Jerusalem)

In the course of time the longer name of the province Syria Palaestina became simply Palaestina. And this term, Palaestina, can then be found in may works of important Roman writers such as Strabo, Pliny the Elder, and classical Jewish authors including Flavius Josephus and Philo of Alexandria. 

After the Christian Byzantines replaced the Romans, they created three administrative provinces that were called Palaestina Prima, Palaestina Secunda and Palaestina Tertia. The capital of Palaestina Prima was Caesarea. The capital of Palaestina Secunda was Scythopolis, later known as Bisan and the capital of Paleaestina Tertia was Petra. 

The name Peleset that had changed into Palaestina became Filastin under the Arab Islamic rule that started from 638 AD. The Arabic alphabet does not have the letter P and while often the P changes into a B, in the case of Palestine it became an F. Not Palestine but Falastin. 

The new Islamic rulers divided the region they conquered into five districts or provinces that they called ajnad (that is plural, jund is single) There were five governors, for Jund Damascus, Jund Filastin, Jund al Urdun, Jund Hims and Jund Qinnasrin. 

The capital of Jund Filastin was initially Lydda or el Lod, a city that still exists today and gave its name to the first airport of Palestine, that was later taken by the State of Israel and it’s name was changed to Ben Gurion airport. But when Sulayman ibn Abdel Malik, the son of the caliph who built the Dome of the Rock, decided to built a new city close to Lod, the city of Ramle, this became the capital of Jund Filastin. You can learn more about Ramle and Lod in the second part of the episode on the way from Jerusalem to Jaffa.

Jund Filastin was the riches province of the Al Sham region. I will quote from historian and geographer Al Maqdisi from his book The Best Divisions for the Knowledge of the Regions. He writes in the 10th century about the agricultural produce and manufactured goods of Palestine:


In the periods that follow, the Crusader period, the Ayyubid, Mamluk and Ottoman periods, the name Palestine appears on several Arab and Venetian world maps. The name Filastin is mentioned by writers such as Yagut al Hamawi who writes in the 13th century that: (quote) Filastin is the last of the provinces of Al Sham towards Egypt. Its capital is Jerusalem. Of the principal towns are Askalan, Ar Ramlah, Gazzah, Arsuf, Kaisariyyah, Nablus, Ariha, Amman, Yafah and Beit Jibrin.

Under the Mamluks, who started their rule in 1260, the Bilad al Sham region was divided into six large administrative provinces, each called a mamlakat, literally kingdom. The six provinces were Damascus, Aleppo, Hamat, Tripoli (modern Lebanon), Safad (Palestine) and Karak (Transjordan.)

The town of Safad in the north of Palestine, became the regional capital in Palestine for the first time in its history. It remained the capital of northern Palestine for several centuries. 

When the Ottomans came they changed the name of the administrative province of Safad from Mamlakat Safad to Sanjak Safad. The area included modern day Galilee, Marj bin Amer valley, including the towns of Al Lajjun and Jenin and some of the area that is today considered South Lebanon.

In the 14th century under the Mamluks the name Filastin was cited by Arab and Muslim travelers often also in connection with the city of Al Ramla, the former capital of Jund Filastin province. 

Let me read something from Ibn Battuta, the famous Muslim traveller and scholar from North Africa who travelled through most of the Muslim world and visited Palestine in the summer of 1326. (p 204)

But also local writers and historians use the term Filastin when they write about their native country. 

Under the Ottoman empire that lasted from 1517 for four hundred years until 1917 Palestine was used as a general term to describe the Arab Muslim country in the southern Sham region. It was also used among the the indigenous people of Palestine as a social and cultural term. But Palestine was not an official designation under the Ottomans and some Arabs during this period referred to the area as Al-Sham.

Some historians claim that the term Palestine was entirely forgotten by local Arabs in the Ottoman Period and was only brought back to the by Arab Christians who were in touch with Europe. 

But there are several leading Palestinian Muslim jurists and writers who used the term Filastin to refer to the country, such as Khari al Din al Ramli and Mujir al Din al Ulaymi. 

Also the writer Salih ibn Ahmad al Tumurtashi writes in the 17th century a book called: The complete knowledge and remembering the holy land and its boundaries and remembering the land of Palestine and its boundaries and Al Sham. 

He used the terms Filastin, the land of Palestine, the people of Palestine, the boundaries of Palestine and the memory of Palestine, to describe his own country.

In the 19th century we see that more and more pilgrims come from Europe to visit the Holy Land and the maps and travel books that date from that time use the terms holy land, terra sancta and Palestine interchangeably. For example Thomas Wright’s book : Early Travels in Palestine, about early pilgrims that went to Palestine. And Leslie Porter’s Handbook for Travelers in Syria and Palestine. And there are many more, but I won’t bore you with that, you can read all of that in detail in the book of Nur Masalha.

But not only the Christian pilgrims, even the Jewish Zionists used the term Palestine when they made the famous poster dating from the year 1936 on which you see a view of the old city of Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock and the text in big font : Visit Palestine

In the British Mandate period the name Palestine was very common, they actually called it the British Mandate of Palestine. The Palestinians received a British issued passport with the word Palestine prominent on the cover. The name Palestine appeared on newspapers, on the local currency (the Palestinian pound) on posters for the Palestinian railways, on postcards and stamps and on telegrams from the Palestine posts, telegraphs and telephones company.

I could go on giving more examples, but I think by now it is clear that the name Palestine that originally started in the late bronze age with the root letters PLST and via Peleset, Philistia and Palaistine, has remained a common name used to describe the area that Palestinians, the inhabitants of the land, consider their homeland Palestine. These inhabitants have seen empires come and go, they have had different rulers, governors, they paid taxes to different administrations. And while the rulers came and went, the natives, the locals, kept working the land, producing food, producing artisan work, developing intellectually, having dreams and hopes and creating a common history, heritage and culture with habits, food tradition, dance, music, embroidery and many more aspects of their common identity.