Daily Archives: December 7, 2013

Sacred Toponymy Matters: the Territory in the Map

In very few cases are the associations of place-names so powerfully resonant as in those that derive from a biblical frame of reference:  they speak across time, in a powerfully incantatory way, unveiling a sense of space in maps, and claims to that space, even if they may no longer exist in space.  If Palestinians may ruefully note that Jews–or Israelis—live in ruins, the resonance of past inhabitation inhabits the present through place-names.  Local toponymy on a cartographical canvas is rarely (if ever) so evocative of narratives that are present in a collective memory as in maps of the Holy Land, whose readings are designed to orient readers to a sacred space, as much as within a territory.

Although many of the best-known maps of the regions are reconstructions, the location of holy sites as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, Caeserea or Mt. Sinai create points of entrance, more powerfully than siting points, for plotting multiple master-narratives across a historical gulf and spanning different epochs; the map is alternately the container and the field, the historical synthesis, but also the screen.  Toponyms both powerfully mark place and offer a sense of access to sacred space in the Middle East, in ways that illustrate the dual deictic functions all maps have of showing or making present and of conjuring narratives.  So evocative is the verbal map of the region in scriptures that the map they help to weave and any later maps that respond to this image create a place where time collapses–where the present is poised to dissolve into the past.

If the Old Testament discussed military maps, administrative maps, and historical maps, these were written, instead of drawn.  Reading the Pentateuch or New Testament extends an invitation to organize an image of regional coherence absent in the Hebrew or Christian Bible, however, and in a society where maps were increasingly familiar medium of information, they offered a powerful poetic and increasingly a polemic means to create a palpable present for readers of scriptures even when they were–or perhaps especially because they were–both physically and geographically removed from the region and the very space that they described, but preserved in a different space of the book, and through it into the very different register of collective consciousness.

Maps drawn of Palestine and of biblical history combine the ostensive functions of displaying place (showing) with the connotative functions of map signs to make present a landscape that was perhaps never seen as such:  in so doing, they show readers where they might be, and offer a map that corresponds to their reading of sacred narrative, and indeed of giving enargaic power to that narrative in the present.  But they are most powerful examples of a form of “distanced reading,” around which one can weave multiple narratives about the territory, or narratives of pilgrimage and sacred visitation, without necessarily going there and visiting the very sites that the maps situate before the viewer.  For the particular power of maps of the Holy Land lies in how they offer the possibility for a reader to enter the narratives as much as they provide a description of space.  When the most familiar verbal map of Canaan–“from Dan to Ber-sheba” (2 Sam. 24:2)–created a very loosely defined region, it allowed viewers to enter the specific sites it described.  Drawn maps served to frame the pilgrimage across and intellectual inhabitation of a region and emplot specific events for viewers who become, even when physically removed from the region, vicarious witnesses to an always-present Holy Land.

This makes them especially difficult to translate into territorial records, so much as mental spaces, or to exist as a sort of Moebius strip of mental spaces and physical grounds, in ways that makes their status as territories all the more difficult to negotiate–or to place oneself.  Such drawn maps offered spaces of mental inhabitation, even when removed from an actual territory, by organizing place-names redolent of biblical events from Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Kings, and lending concreteness to sacred places in a collective memory.  This post seeks to trace the reading of the drawn map across communities of readers, moving from how early and Enlightenment maps of the Holy Land collapsed a sense of time, bridged spatial distances for their readers, and rendered them particularly powerful vehicles of thought and imagination.  If Google Maps invite readers to place themselves in a real-time map, the maps of sacred lands exist to preserve a historical relation or tie to aland, in which one permanently places oneself.

For such maps collectively created an affective tie to “place” over time, compelling map  readers to develop affective ties in particularly compelling ways that led the territory currently occupied by Israel and the Palestinian authority circumscribed. The recent discussions of the impact that generated in the Obama White House at a map showing the circumscription of Palestinian presence in the state of Israel–or in their own homeland in the West Bank–suggests the tenacity of refusing to relinquish any sense of territorial continuity that would be needed to gain a sense of sovereign independence or territorial identity in wha was coyly if rightly described as a “Palestinian archipelago” by French cartographer Julien Bousac published the year Obama took office as President–with cartographic brio to reveal the inaccessibility to Palestians of areas under full Israeli control and occupation, revising the alleged Palestinian territory as essentially fragmented into islands removed from each other with what seemed natural barriers–even if they include areas populated by Palestinians–and the difficulty of imagining the territories recognized as Palestinian as approaching a territory.  Indeed, the fragmented nature of the land is a set of outposts confined by military presence under surveillance, rather than anything approaching an actually autonomous or independent state.


image©Julien Bousac, 2009


–if open to misreading that Bousac’s rendering connoted an Island Paradise or vacationland by its self-conscious use of the colorful iconography of a tourist map was disarmingly out of synch, and not a case of the brio of Francophone cartooning.  For even if the cartographer rejects interpreting his map figuratively as “a ‘drowning’ or ‘flooding’ the Israeli population, nor dividing territories along ethnic lines, even less a suggestion of how to resolve the conflict,” but objectively describes the fragmentation of Palestinian population surrounded by lands that are occupied by Israelis and Israeli military soldiers.  The map invites a reading of just how much Palestinian negotiators found themselves “at sea” in negotiating with the Israeli state given the current situation on the ground, or swimming in an Israeli fantasy of concessions.  It reflects the stark contrast between the fantasies of taking the concessions at the Oslo Accords as a working solution and the “grim realities” of actuality, where each outpost lies at a remove from the de facto capital of the Palestinian Territories, Ramallah, with which none are contiguous, even as all are surveyed.


Bousac key



The tenacity of such an effective fragmenting any territorial presence of the Palestinian Territories would provoke a realization of the political obstructionism of the Jewish State when virtually the same map circulated in the US State Department over six years later, in 2015.  For the map of the same data, from hen presented within the context of a briefing book to inform American special envoys on negotiations between Palestinians and Israeli authorities, whose impact as a rendering of the isolation of Palestinian population centers in the West Bank was considerably grimmer.  In the Oval Office, it didn’t allow room for misreading as a systematic isolation of the Palestinian people–


imageNew Yorker


Rather, the disarming symbolism of the dry region of land only underscored the sense of an intentional dismemberment of settled lands.  The dismembering of continuity or territorial integrity seemed only irrevocable response to the very notion of a two-state agreement, and a grim assessment of the project of two states that Israelis intended to pursue.   The version of the ironic map of Boussac, at any rate, when it reappeared in the form of a state document by 2016, at the end of the Obama presidency, struck members of the U.S. State Department–though they were hardly new as a reflection of the situation on the ground–as they depicted “What a One-State Reality Looks Like,” as if lifting the veils from observers’ eyes who hadn’t grasped the geopolitical strategy of fragmenting Palestinian outposts int heWest Bank.

The description of broad shock on Obama’s part at evidence of such systematic isolation of Palestinian population centers sparked concern that it not be shared with Israelis, as if it were a state secret, even if it reflected the extent of Israeli settlement in the West Bank.  (Some high-level U.S. negotiators though it could “raise awareness” about the systematic attempt to thwart Palestinian unity when Jews lost a majority status in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and current State of Israel–but the map was treated as a state secret.)


palestinian archipelagoNew Yorker

Perhaps the earlier appearance of Boussac’s map without a text–the State Dept. version informed its readers that the 6,335 million Jews then living in the longstanding sacred lands that stretch from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Ocean were effectively outnumbered as of December 2015 by 6,561 million non-Jews who also lived in the same region–made the map less directly effective as an argument.  But the figures–even if contested by Israeli officials–suggest that Jews are no longer a majority in the lands of Israel, Jerusalem, and the West Bank, in ways that suggest a new need to isolate the Palestinian presence there.  The power of these observations rest in the presumption that the argument of jurisdiction is fundamentally one of democratic consensus, however.

This line of thought however runs the danger of dismissing the power of mapping territorial coherence in a religious imaginary, and indeed the scriptural power of the revealed nature of the map:  if the map of Palestinian fragmentation, reprising the map, first published in Le monde diplomatique and widely shared during the Palestine Festival of Literature of 2012 as “brilliant,” it is perhaps better seen as tragic.  For what was a revelation and wake-up call for the Obama administration and both the usually aware President Obama and his special envoy for Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, Joseph Lowenstein, who were loathe to share the map with Israeli allies, as if it were a secret, the maps’ revelatory power for the Americans must be balanced with the truly revelatory power maps gained as counterparts to scriptural reading.  For the authoritative status of the map of middle eastern territories in the imagination as a record of the territory to which a people was implicitly and indissociably tied has long motivated in a way that is deeply internalized the mapping of Israel as a state.

Of course, the Boussac map was in the past rather superficially read as rendering a painful area of contested residence and war by such a “cheerful color scheme.”   Rather than seeming to suggest a tourist map of an archipelago–with a “vacationy vibe,” as Big Think had it, echoing fantasies of a paradisal archipelago far from the “grim realities”–the starkness of imagining the actual locations where settlements were confined was made by the presence of battleships along the paradisal islands to denote zones “under surveillance.”   Broussac presented the bucolic image as if in response to an interrogative as to whether the Palestinian people would ever be likely to regard this state of divided discontinuous regions of rule as constituting anything satisfactory.  Much in the manner that the bucolic spaces of pastoral poetry were described as far removed from war, the “offer on the table” of dislocated outposts lacking continuity was in not in fact removed from war or a plan for the future, but evidence that the confines in which Palestinians were recognized would be a state of perpetual war rather than a starting point for peace.

Yet the map was also testimony to the deep resonance of the toponymy and cartographic mapping of the region within the Israeli and Jewish imagination–a prominence that plays no small part, pace Boussac, in the tenacity of territorial claims by the current Israeli state.

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Filed under biblical maps, historical maps, Holy Land, Israel, sacred territory