When History Repeats: Verdi’s 'Nabucco' (597 BC)
“I don’t think that history will repeat itself, but these things do happen; from selfishness, a desire for power."
One week after Hamas militants invaded Israel and Israel declared war on its attackers, I went with my grandma to the opera. I’d never been to the Metropolitan Opera House before and two months prior, perhaps as some sick joke of foreshadowing, we bought tickets to see Verdi’s Nabucco.
Composed in 1842, the Italian opera has been running for nearly two centuries. The title, Nabucco, comes from the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II, a ruler best known for his military efforts in the Near East. The opera takes place over the course of roughly 70 years, from the time Nebuchadnezzar pillaged and conquered what is now Jerusalem, destroying the First Temple and exiling Jews from the fallen Kingdom of Judah, subsequently taking them as slaves.
Inspired by biblical and historical context, Verdi takes creative freedom in centering the story around fated love and political turmoil. A love triangle forms between the son of Jerusalem's king and Nabucco’s two daughters - one of which turns out to be the child of slaves. Stolen crowns and betrayal occur. Nabucco, in his madness, deems himself not just king of Jerusalem and his empire, but rather a god amongst men. Ultimately, the Israelites are freed as the Babylonian conquest falters and Nabucco, who converts to Judaism, allows the Israelites to return to their land and rebuild the temple which had been destroyed.
It’s a compelling tale; Fiction, of course, based on teachings found in biblical literature. But the events of the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem did take place. The Israelites were freed, albeit by Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great after he similarly conquered the Babylonians. One trial after tribulation. In Verdi’s opera, one particular song, "The Chorus of the Hebrews," inspired his own people in Italy living under Austrian oppressors. It’s as if history repeats itself; while circumstances differ themes remain the same.
The Babylonians were not the only empire to have invaded Judah - Judah itself was eventually dissolved by Israel. They were not the first nor the last. That small strip of land cornered by the sea and surrounding nations stands as a popular spot for conflict. For trade. For religion. For history conquest. Contention is bound to occur in a region so valuable for trade and archeological development; many lifetimes occurred here long before 1948.
*Disclaimer: In writing this, I am not claiming to be an expert. Information might be left out or misinterpreted. This is not to diminish the real humanitarian crisis that is currently unfolding or what can be done about it - this is more than just a "complex discussion." Objectively, I want to learn about the contested region from prehistory through 1948.
A timeline of the land itself from prehistory to the modern era; from the bible to actuality. As with many events in prehistory - or even a few millennia ago - we will never know precisely what had taken place. Archeological findings and genetic testing offer support but are not definite. Biblical literature, similar to Greek and Roman myths or even Grimm’s fairytales, are reflections of what the creators observe but not necessarily what takes place. Together: archeologically, scientifically, and biblically, we can piece together history as it sees fit.
The origins of the land are the same: the earliest signs of Homo Erectus in the region date back 1.5 million years, a result of migration out of Africa. There is evidence of Neathrandal remains within cave systems around Israel, dating back as far as 600,000 years ago. By 100,000 years ago, the region was found to have remnants of anatomically modern humans, living alongside their predecessors for at least some time. Then, a little over 10,000 years ago, the first peoples settled in the ancient world: the Natufians, an early culture defined by permanent settlements who inhabited the Levant - defined as the South Western region of Asia that included what is now Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and parts of Syria and Lebanon.
Evidence of Canaanite culture can be traced back as early as 10,000 years; probably a young branch of Natufians who remained on the land. Jericho came sometime around 8,000 BCE - one of the earliest and longest-running urban settlements marked by construction, culture, and religion. And then a number of Egyptian cities were erected, their empire stretching well into modern-day Israel as they pillaged Canaanite settlements, leaving them vulnerable.
Around 1200 BCE, developments in the Iron Age led to the rise of major civilizations to develop; Israelites migrated to and cultivated the Canaanite land; “Sea People” arrived along the coast in an area stretching from the southern tip of modern-day Israel up through Syria and Lebanon.
The history of Israel is the history of Palestine; they are the result of Canaanite culture's
diminishing control. There is newfound scientific evidence that groups who derive from the ethnically Semitic Canaanites - Arabs and Jews - are somewhat similar genetically. Of course, the gradual mixing of nearby religions and cultures will allow for some discrepancies and differences. But for the sake of argument, these groups inhabited the Levant for so long, that they are linked by borders and blood. The southern coastal region “Philistine” became “Syria Palastenia” and then “Palestine,” while the “Kingdom of Judea” became “The Kingdom of Israel” and then “Israel.” One came by sea, the other land.
There are 3 or 4 major turning points in Israel and Palestine’s history; by title and territory. But from Prehistory until 1948, the timeline remains the same for each. Why do we see these borders repeat? Why do they exist in the first place? One after the other: The Assyrians, Babylonians - as depicted in Verdi’s Nabucco - Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arab-Muslims, Crusaders, and up until the Ottoman and British Empires.
The first attack came around 722 BCE when the Assyrians conquered the Kingdom of Judah; subsequently destroying the the twelve tribes of Judah, as told to us through the bible and archeology.
Let’s return to Verdi’s Nabucco, placed at a time when Israel was split between The Kingdom of Judah and the Kingdom of Israel. The opera shows a rift in the borders as the Babylonian Empire conquered the Kingdom of Judah, taking control of Jerusalem and exiling Jews (586 BCE). Judah possessed the holy city of Jerusalem leaving the kingdom a target of attacks across centuries. What follows are many eras of conquering and conquests, fallen empires, and the frequent banishment and return of Israelites.
By 538 BCE, Cyrus the Great of the Persian Empire allowed Jews who were exiled and held captive to return to “their promised land” and rebuild Jerusalem.
Circa 400 BCE, Greek linguistics interpret “Philistine” as Palastine.” A historian at the time - Herodotus - explained that this land was a “district of Syria” between Phoenicia and Egypt.” Under Hellenistic and Selecuid control, this concept was spread by Alexander the Great, though never enacted in the colloquial (165 BCE).
In 63 BCE, the Roman Empire conquered Jerusalem, and Judah as a whole. It is believed that they began using the term “Syria-Palestinia” as a means of suppressing the legitimacy of the Jewish people. They destroyed the Second Temple of Jerusalem, constructed during the rebuild in 538 BCE and, after years of battle between Romans and Jews, the latter were enslaved by their oppressors (The Bar Kokhba Revolt, 132 CE).
It is noted in the bible that Jesus was born between 6 BCE and 4 BCE; raised in Bethlem and considered to be a "Jewish Galilean" within the Roman territory of Palestine.
Arab-Muslim ideology spread throughout the Middle East by the 7th century, accounting for the large population of Arabs in the region, and in particular Palestine. Despite this, Jews, Arabs, and Christians all had a place in Jerusalem.
Christian Crusaders took the Kingdom of Jerusalem in 1099 CE, about 500 years after the rise of Christianity throughout much of Europe. At this time, the entirety of the region was simply referred to as "The Kingdom of Jerusalem; “Syria-Palastenia” or “Kingdom of Israel” were not recognized entirely.
Jerusalem was once again captured in 1187 CE, this time by Egyptian sultans and so the conquest of the Holy City took place, with Jews allowed to enter its walls again for the first time following the Crusades.
For centuries, up until the final defeat of The Mamluks by the Ottoman Empire circa 1500 CE, Palestine was considered a territory since the empire’s official religion was Islam. As a result of centuries of conquests and conquering, the Arab and Jewish populations became intermixed with neighboring regions - and each other. Here, the two were able to live with little fear of persecution or exile. From Canaan to Philistine/Judea times, there had been battles over borders, naturally. But the oppressors were more likely external, rather than internal.
This changed in the later part of the 1800s, when Austrian journalist and political activist, Theodor Herzl introduced the concept of Zionism. After centuries of exile and enslavement, the Jewish population had spread throughout the world. Sometimes by choice, other times by chance or force. But Zionism called for the creation of - or return to - a Jewish State that was now considered Palestinian territory. For the first time in the region’s long history, we were dealing with matters of politics and law, rather than conquests. Or, perhaps, the circumstances were similar, and we lack the knowledge of missing history to think otherwise.
Regardless, the diaspora of Jews to their “Homeland” persisted in the late 19th and early 20th century. As a result, The United Kingdom beckoned to the Zionist Movement and enacted the Mandate for Palestine in 1917, under the guise of The Balfour Declaration.
By 1922, the now-defective League of Nations granted the United Kingdom control of most of the Ottoman territories. While many of these territories became their own states, Palestine did not. According to BBC, this deemed the Palestinian territory a “national home for Jewish people,’ so long as doing so did not prejudice the civil and religious rights of non-Jewish communities living there.”
The United Nations proposed new borders, allowing for both Arab and Jewish areas of settlement, but these were rejected. By the time the British Empire ended the Mandated in 1948, there were no set borders; Israel found itself at war not just with Palestine but with surrounding Arab nations as well. This small nation the size of New Jersey was at the heart of political prowess. Only this time, beginning as early as 1949, the land was divided from within.
Now a political machine, conflict, naturally, is bound to ensue; nearly seven decades of war came to a climax on October 7, 2023.
They say that history repeats itself. Not in cycles but in waves; what may be true then can be so now, albeit under different circumstances. My grandfather participated in the 1994 Holocaust Testimonies through the Steven Spielberg USC Shoah Foundation. A Holocaust survivor, he shared his story as a reminder to those around him and a lesson for future generations. There is one quote in particular that I return to each time:
“I don’t think that history will repeat itself, but these things do happen… from selfishness... a desire for power. My fear is that it could happen again, I think I had that suppressed for a while.” – David Brenner, My Late Grandfather (Steven Spielberg Holocaust Testimonies, 1996)
This is not explicitly about the Holocaust; it tells a greater narrative. There will always be men seeking power. It will come from selfishness; god, glory, gold. Land.
This has happened before, shown above through a simplified timeline of a small region of a large world. It might happen again. It is happening again. Unfortunately, we will not know what comes of it until it becomes a part of history. Or maybe, this time, we will have learned the lesson my grandfather proclaimed.
Before 1948 there was no “State of Israel” or “State of Palestine.” According to the Jerusalem Post, Jews would even refer to themselves as “Palestinians,” using the term colloquially for newspapers, foundations, airlines, and entertainment.
We often remember history through a series of events on a linear timeline; through borders drawn and fallen empires. Archaeological findings and fantastical literature. But in the context of Antiquity - and prehistory - there will always be stories that we may never know. In a century - a millennium - will this be turned into myth, a modern re-telling for current circumstances, as Verdi did with Nabucco?
Political motivations tend to remain the same; they act out of selfishness and power. Whose land is this? It’s mine. Where do the borders lie? Wherever I can access the best trade routers. Sometimes, when trying to understand the past as it occurs in the present, there is the risk of repeating man’s hubris for destruction. Against the backdrop of political and religious tyranny, characters - people - move the story forward.
The closer we get to modern history, the more documentation we possess, hence we continue to think we are getting closer to an answer. But sometimes, it’s worth it to examine further; whether in theory or actuality. Look far enough back and it seems that, rather than enemies, we are cousins of sorts. Look even further, the region that is now filled with bombs and missiles was once the Fertile Crescent; home to the earliest civilizations in the world. I don't want it to be home to the last.