Before Greek civilization developed in the northeastern Mediterranean basin—thus, long before the important Axial Age that happened about twenty-five centuries ago—an island civilization centered in Crete flourished for many generations. They traded products with their neighbors, including the Egyptians and Asians on the Mediterranean coast. They built large cities, complete with palaces and temples. They developed a plumbing system—always an indication of advanced civilization. They produced beautiful artwork. They had a written language, mostly untranslated, although a few inventory lists have been deciphered. Modern historians call this the Minoan civilization, since we have no idea what they called themselves.
Hints of their relationship with early Greeks are revealed in Greek mythology. The story of Theseus tells of a time that young men and women were taken from their home cities in Greece and brought to a foreign capital, where they were imprisoned in a Labyrinth and eventually killed and eaten by a monster—half-bull and half-human—called the Minotaur. Artwork in Crete suggests a slave class of entertainers who were not fed to a monster but who entertained the wealthy and powerful by gymnastic feats. They leapt over a live bull and performed maneuvers on its back, rather like the gymnastic routines involving the vaulting horse and the pommel horse, except that the ancient entertainers used a live animal.
Some Greek records also describe a civilization called Atlantis. Plato says he learned about Atlantis from Egyptian historians. Atlantis was said to be a rich and powerful nation, but the pride of its people led to its downfall—Atlantis was destroyed by natural forces, including earthquakes and floods, and fell into the sea. The legend of Atlantis may reflect the reality of Minoan Crete, although Plato’s Atlantis was larger than Crete. It was located west of Spain and Morocco, in the ocean that now bears its name. Greek historians even insisted that the Atlantic Ocean was not navigable because the wreckage of lost Atlantis made the waterway too shallow for boats.
Much evidence indicates that a massive volcanic eruption—one which caused earthquakes and tsunamis—occurred in the Mediterranean Sea about the time that the Minoan civilization collapsed. Historians cannot agree on the date—even the century—when the volcano erupted, but such an event would have impacted the Minoans on Crete and on nearby islands. Many of them would have died. Some would have tried to rebuild—and, in fact, after its collapse, the Minoan ruins were repaired, but eventually the depleted kingdom was added to the growing Greek civilization. Yet others would have sought a new home, and that also appears to be the case. Once again, though, historians do not agree on the details that appear to follow the destruction of Minoan cities.
Egyptian records describe a group of would-be settlers who tried to make a home for themselves in the Egyptian delta. Egyptian force resisted their settlement, and they moved up the coast until they found a land they could call their own. Archaeological evidence from Canaan indicates that various invaders forced their way into Canaan. Some of those invaders were, of course, the twelve tribes of Israel. But another group became established in southwestern Canaan around the same time. They built five cities, demonstrating skill they brought with them from their earlier home. Although at first the Israelites had some success clearing the land promised to them by the Lord, they later shared the land with Canaanites and other cultures. The five cities of the Philistines remained long after the time of the Judges, dwelling on land that had been assigned to the tribe of Dan (which chose to relocate to the north, according to the Bible) and to Judah and Simeon.
This history does not end in Biblical times. When the British Empire laid claim to the western Asian lands bordering the Mediterranean Sea after the First World War—land that had been part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries before the Great War—they called that land Palestine, a corruption of the earlier name Philistine. The Palestinian natives were of mixed ancestry, including Arab and other ethnic origins; perhaps some of them are descendants of the Philistines from long ago. After the Second World War, the British divided the land between Jewish settlers and Palestinians. Israel had to win a war against its neighbors to preserve its independence, and in the process the government of the Palestinians collapsed. Rule of their land was taken by Jordan for almost twenty years, but in the 1967 War Israel captured that land and held it for military security. In all the years since 1967, Israel has not fully incorporated its captured land and its population. Israel is a democracy, and fully incorporating the Palestinian land and people would make the Jews a minority in their own country, apt to be voted out of power. Instead, they have negotiated some autonomy for the Palestinians living in the Gaza strip—that piece of land on the coast of the Mediterranean that once included Gaza and four other Philistine cities. So the tension between Israel and its neighbors that was known under Samuel and David remains a reality down to the present. J.