The region covering roughly the same area as the modern states of Israel and Palestine has been variously known as Canaan, Israel, Samaria/Judea, and Palestine. For simplicity's sake, we will describe the region as the 'Holy Land'... not because the land is in and of itself particularly sanctified1, but because any other term implicitly endorses one of the historical claims.
Rarely has the Holy Land been governed by its own residents. Through most of history, it was ruled by neighbouring empires. These empires have successor states, which could have the ability to present a historical claim on the Holy Land if they so desired. Not all of the modern nations mentioned below would still wish to exercise this claim - indeed, some of them would be horrified at the idea of taking responsibility for the region again. Practically all of the claims presented here fall into that category, but these claims will still be considered in this entry since this can be useful in evaluating the claims which people take more seriously.
Claims presented here are limited to those nations which exercised effective control over the entire Holy Land for a generation or more. During much of its history the area was actively contested and briefly occupied by rebellious factions or invading nations whose troops were expelled by the original occupying power after a few years. (For example, ancient Jewish rebellions did this; so did ancient Armenian and medieval Persian kingdoms). Also, neighbouring nations such as Jordan and Phoenicia sometimes had control over parts, but not all, of the area. All such claims are discarded for the sake of simplicity.
Claims due to cultural ties are noted by footnotes. Each claim is assigned to a modern nation, wherever such nations exist. When the nation does not exist in recognizable form, this is noted. Each modern nation which exercised control at a later date, has that claim noted in a subordinate list.
In a few cases, the Holy Land was ruled by someone who lived there. Whenever the Holy Land was locally ruled, this will be noted with the claim, as Local Rule.
Dates in this article are BC/AD format, and are intended to be as accurate as possible. In some ancient cases, accuracy to within a century is only guesswork. Each date is noted with an event that has been construed as a transfer of power over the Holy Land.
So, with these preliminaries out of the way, let's look at the claims which include (at least) the following, in chronological order:
Canaanites - Local rule. Nation no longer exists2. 3000 BC (Canaanites enter the area). Civilization first came to the Holy Land from Mesopotamia, whose settlers spread westward through the Fertile Crescent. These settlers were never centrally ruled from their homeland, however. Iraq has a cultural claim to the Holy Land on this basis. However, it also has claims via rulership, which will be considered later.
Egypt - 1479 BC (Egypt defeats Canaanites at Megiddo). Throughout the time of the Pharaohs, Egyptian rule waxed and waned. At its height, the Pharaohs exacted tribute3 from the Holy Land, and even from points northward.
- 1187 AD, the Mamelukes (Saladin defeats Crusaders at Hattin).
'Sea People' - Local rule. Nation no longer exists. 1170 BC (Philistines enter the area). At the beginning of the Iron Age, the Egyptians were limited to bronze weapons, which were softer than swords of iron. This gave their armies a distinct disadvantage. During this period of Egyptian decline, the Holy Land reverted to Canaanite local rule, but it was invaded from every direction other than Egypt. The most successful invasion (at first) was from the sea, by people known variously as the 'Sea People' or the Philistines. They are thought to be a Greek/Canaanite hybrid civilization, based out of Cyprus. Cyprus is therefore the closest thing the Philistines have to a successor state. Cypriots did not exercise rule over this area, but they still have a cultural claim. They inhabited five city-states centered on Gaza, and took tribute from throughout the Holy Land.
Israel - Local rule. 1006 BC (David declared King of Israel). At the same time the 'Sea People' invaded the Holy Land from the west, a coalition of nomadic tribes armed with Egyptian weapons invaded from the east. These tribes traced their ancestry to a man variously known to later generations as 'Jacob' or 'Israel' Jacob changed his name to Israel at one point, and never changed it back. However, later chroniclers almost uniformly call him Jacob throughout his life. These people took the latter name to represent themselves, and are therefore known as 'Israelites'. Their invasion made some progress in the general confusion. Unfortunately, their weapons were no better than those of the empire they were trying to replace. It took them centuries to make their claims stick.
- 141 BC, the Maccabees (Seleucids abandon Jerusalem)4.
- 1948 AD, the modern state of Israel is established.
Syria - 701 BC (Assyria besieges Jerusalem). The Assyrians, based on the headwaters of the Euphrates near modern Syria, conquered half the Holy Land outright and exacted tribute from the rest.
- 306 BC, the Seleucids (crowning of Seleucus I).
Iraq - 586 BC (Babylon conquers Jerusalem). The Babylonians, based in modern Iraq, were the first Asian empire to effectively conquer the entire Holy Land.
Iran - 538 BC (Persia conquers Babylon). The Persians, based in modern Iran, conquered all Babylonian territories (including the Holy Land) plus Egypt. Later kingdoms based in Persia (such as the Parthians, the Sassanids, and the Khwarizmians) often held the Holy Land briefly, but were usually expelled from there within a few years.
Macedonia - 333 BC (Macedonian conquest of Jerusalem). The Macedonians conquered all Persian territories, including the Holy Land. The subsequent rule by the Seleucid empire can be considered to stem from this conquest5.
- 141 BC, the Maccabees6.
Italy - 63 BC (Roman conquest of Jerusalem). The Roman Republic conquered all lands adjoining the Mediterranean Ocean, including the Holy Land. The subsequent rule by the Roman empire7 can be considered to stem from this conquest. Starting in 330 AD the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, empire8 took over that claim.
Saudi Arabia - 635 AD (Arabic armies take Jerusalem). The Islamic surge of conquest placed more than half the Mediterranean basin under its rule, originally from Medina. The subsequent rule by Baghdad and Egyptian caliphs, as well as the current claims of the Palestinians, can be considered to stem from this conquest.
Turkey - 1071 AD (Turks invade Byzantium and take Jerusalem). Waves of Turkish nomads penetrated the Byzantine and Islamic domains for hundreds of years, and would eventually overwhelm them both9. The Holy Land was among the first to fall, to the Seljuk Turks. But this touched off a counter-invasion...
- 1517 AD, the Ottoman Turks take Jerusalem.
Crusaders - Local rule. The Crusaders were immigrants to the area, who settled down for generations. The Pope claimed spiritual authority over the Crusader kingdoms, but did not exercise effective political authority over them. For the purpose of this discussion, the Crusaders are therefore considered local rule. Nation no longer exists10. 1099 AD (Crusaders take Jerusalem). Landless European noblemen were persuaded by the Pope to go to war to conquer the Holy Land. Against all odds, they won, and established a set of independent kingdoms which lasted for 200 years. They ruled in the Holy Land for almost 100 years, and had a presence in the area for 100 years more. The first Crusader rulers in Jerusalem were Godfrey of Bouillon and his brother Baldwin of Boulogne, originally French noblemen from the territory occupied by modern Belgium. France and Belgium therefore have cultural claims on the Holy Land.
- 1187 AD, the Mamelukes; see Egypt.
- 1517 AD, the Ottoman Turks; see Turkey.
United Kingdom - 1917 AD (British and Arab forces take Jerusalem from the Ottoman Turks). After the Crusades, Egyptian Arabs took back the Holy Land. Ottoman Turks took it from them, and held it for hundreds of years, until World War I. The United Kingdom conquered the area then, and held it under League of Nations mandate for 30 years. But, much like the Seleucids, Britain was exposed to subsequent wars which weakened its hold. Again like the Seleucids, Britain relinquished its claims in favour of the native inhabitants: Jews and Arabs, both of whom claimed an understanding with Britain for overall rule of the territory. Like the Seleucid succesor states, the native inhabitants fought among themselves to establish their own claims. The most successful of these established itself as the modern state of Israel.
- 1948 AD, modern Israel; see Israel.
Palestine - Local rule. Islamic local rule never existed in the Holy Land before Israel granted autonomy to parts of Palestine. Palestinian claims to the land are derived from the original conquest from Arabia, and from presumed agreements between Great Britain and Arab rebels against Turkey. 1998 AD (Palestinian Authority government is established). The Israelis (whose claim is discussed above) managed to expand their territory from 1948 onward, until in 1967 they occupied the entire Holy Land. But the Palestinians maintained political support from other nations, and in the 1990s got a measure of self-rule in parts of the Holy Land. The Palestinian Authority has never controlled the entire Holy Land; they haven't even declared statehood yet. Therefore they don't really meet the criteria stated above for claims. Their claim is included here, however, because it actually has a legal standing (limited self-rule) assigned by one of the other claimants, namely Israel. Ironically, given the enmity between the modern entities of Israel and Palestine, their current relationship is the closest the Holy Land has come to a peaceful transfer of power since at least the Crusades.
As has been seen, at least 11 modern nations are in position to present claims to the Holy Land. No attempt is made here to judge these claims. However, it is noted that the two most prominent claimants in the modern day have different ideas as to whether ancient claims or modern claims have the higher priority.