The Canadian Institute for Mediterranean Studies at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, along with the Institute for Hellenistic Studies at the University of Waterloo and the Royal Ontario Museum, is planning a major international conference on the topic of Migration in the Mediterranean: from Alexander the Great to Suleiman the Magnificent.
For much of recorded history, the Mediterranean has been one large highway that facilitated the movement of peoples, goods and ideas. It is an activity in which we Jews have been important participants.
Migration has played a major role in our history. One could say that our ancestor Abraham began this history when he migrated from Ur of the Chaldees to the land of Canaan on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean. Abraham also briefly sojourned in Egypt, a place that would figure prominently in our story for thousands of years.
Abraham’s grandson, Jacob, and Jacob’s son, Joseph, were responsible for a migration to Egypt that would last for hundreds of years and lead to the defining event in our early history – the Exodus and the theophany at Sinai
Historically and archeologically, scholars at one time linked us and our initial stay in Egypt with a group called the Hyksos, who took over the country from about 1700 to 1500 BCE. These people came from Canaan and spoke a language related to Hebrew. However, for about the last few decades, most scholars no longer accept this theory.
More often than not, our migrations were forced upon us. Such was the case in 722 BCE when we experienced the trauma of the destruction of the kingdom of Israel by the mighty Assyrian Empire and the expulsion of its people that led to the legend of the Ten Lost Tribes. A hundred and twenty-five years later, the same fate would befall the southern kingdom of Judah when the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple, put Jerusalem to the torch and exiled its people “by the waters of Babylon.”
Archeology has borne vivid testimony to this destruction. It was something that I saw first-hand in the late 1970s and early 1980s when I was involved in the excavations of the City of David led by Yigal Shiloh of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Institute of Archaeology.
By the middle part of the first millennium BCE, migrations had become common in the Mediterranean. Between the eighth and sixth centuries BCE, the Greeks led a mass migration around the Mediterranean when they established numerous colonies along its shores, spreading their language and culture in the process. Their new cities became magnets for settlement, especially Alexandria, which was established at the mouth of the Nile River by Alexander the Great. Jews flocked to this city in large numbers, and it is estimated that at one time we made up 25 per cent of its population.
The Greeks also gave us the word “diaspora.” It is a word that has defined much of our history for the last 2,500 years.