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 mark 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.

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.  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.

Such maps collectively created an affective tie to “place” and moving their readers and mapmakers in particularly compelling ways in ways that led the territory currently occupied by Israel and the Palestinian authority to be redefined, and this post hopes to illuminate how they did so.


1.  The particular power of toponymy in evoking a place of settlement–and resettlement–indeed reveals the power of maps in making territory.  The excitement at the prospect of bounding and demarcating the region is clear in the prominence that Abraham Ortelius gave in his chorography of the Holy Land to the indication of its most famous metropoles and cities by his cartographical skill in a map of the reigns of Judea and Israel, originally from the collection of historical maps, or Parergon.  The map itself offers a sort of cartographical commentary on history that Ortelius, a great humanist as well as a cartographer, who saw his maps as encyclopedic compilations of worldly knowledge, printed simultaneously with the first printed atlas, or Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, in 1570, to great acclaim.  The coloration of a slightly later version of 1589 highlighted how local qualitative detail functioned to communicate a more concrete or immediate–enargaeic–notion of place to its readers, in which they might voyage as both map-readers and observers, and suggests the rapidly increased levels of map-reading and interpretation among Ortelius’ audience.




The Dutch map bound the regions by mountains, as biblical precedent described, and did not derive its authority from citation or footnotes, but presented an impressively coherent arrangement of toponymy against the field of a richly defined landscape, combining the density of its coast with a richly populated interior–and provided a model for defining and demarcating fixed regions of the Holy Land.  Part of the deeply humanistic function of the Ortelian map, which made it such a monument, was to create a legibility of the Holy Land, instantiating the regions of “Israhel,” “Judeae,” and “Arabic Israel” in the historical map printed in conjunction with his early atlas,  embodying that legibility unlike the Christocentric tradition of medieval mapping.  The map created a concrete cognitive relation to a region removed from readers’ experience, exploiting its properties for demarcating expanse and noting place.


Greater Judeah


Such a relationship could not have been conceived in earlier epochs in similar terms.  Widely reprinted in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and commands significant prices on EBay, even in its reprinted versions, the written density of the map was originally crafted as a vehicle both for exploring a region removed both in time and space; the map wove coherence among places most often occupied in the mind, and served as the basis for Ortelius in 1570 to map the Itinerary of St. Paul round the Mediterranean–in a map included in Ortelius’ comprehensive collection of maps, the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, to stake the historical unity of the Mediterranean region more cogently than had ever been articulated or expressed. The particularly detailed toponymical density of Ortelius’ 1570 map of the Holy Land reflect intense interest in assigning these places a tangible form, and a deeply humanistic sensitivity to preserving a register of place and region able to be mentally and cognitively occupied that invested a transparency in the map’s surface, as it naturalized the spiritual landscape.  The image had religious and cultural implications for the artifice of map making:

Ortelius - Palestinae SiveTotius (Holy land) (1572)_002.jpg.png


Ortelius’ map created something of a precedent for the legibility of later maps of the Holy Land.  As much as it offered a projection of terrestrial continuity, the map itself served as a field of projection, on which a viewer’s relation to the region that it described could be written in ways that its authoritative form lent a new level of credibility and materiality as a cartographic document.   If all maps are ‘arguments,’ the mapping of sacred space around Jerusalem, from the space occupied by the Twelve Tribes to the itinerary of St. Paul, presented vehicles and media for collapsing time and forging an affective relation with “space” across different cartographical standards and competencies. The space of the Holy Land was mapped and re-mapped as if to affirm its existence as a space of redemption–a space of redemption by whose mapping you could affirm yourself as also redeemed, and whose readers could affirm themselves, by being vicarious witnesses to the continued presence of a Holy Land, redeemed.  In a land haunted by many ghosts, multiple narratives link to its powerfully evocative toponymy.

Perhaps the strangest part of any map of the “Holy Land” lies in the intense play between the distance and proximity of how it is imagined:  hence, no doubt, the compulsion to remap the area, and to wrestle for its identity.  Those who first mapped the Holy Land in Europe did so to preserve an image of the far-off land for future generations–men like the church father Eusebius, or his follower Orosius, or the monk Honorius of Autun, reconstituted place-names as a form of reading space in a tradition of “imago mundi” popular among early members of the church.  Their written geographies created set a basis for translating narratives into a map by which to imagine greater proximity to a distant sacred land. Early manuscript maps that accompany their texts set a basis both for locating specific places in the broader canvas that a map offers for weaving them into a cohesive territory.  The function of mapping grew as a practice of preparing a legible field for the translation of toponyms, and preparing a surface that could be readily read and that existed to be internalized.  Rather than being only associated with a religious age of scholastics, consultation of the map as a vehicle of redemption  have continued to inform a contemporary search for spaces of redemption, even as they offered a reassuring view of the world for earlier readers of the Bible or Christian monks.

2.  As much as telling their readers where they were, maps of the Holy Land had long earlier oriented viewers to the continued occupation of sacred space.  For the contents of such map, whether either symbolic in nature or naturalistic in their construction, holding something of a contract and promise for the continued inhabitation of that space both in the medieval period and through modern worlds.  This post hopes to place the investment of importance and the historical resonance of place-names in these maps to understand the debates of mapping toponyms and indeed mapping the settlement and continued territoriality of modern Israel against such a broader canvas, where place-names have an ability to summon up not only a sacred narrative, but, in neo-Biblical terms, a land that was unlike and distinct from other nations, and places whose historically sacred nature defined their relations to specific people. One of the greatest barriers that existed in the premodern world was not only geographical, but between human and divine.  Indeed, the practice of medieval mapping might be understood as reconciling the divine and human eye, as Denis Cosgrove argued, by mapping a divine perspective in terms men could understand.


Medieval maps of the Holy Land listed place names with few orienting guides, but seemed to promise to traverse geographical distances, allowing a sort of imaginary travel not only across space–as Cassiodorus was quick to tell his monastic followers of Christ–but also across time. The map provided a reassuring model of reading the toponyms mentioned in the Bible, even when, as this extract of the Holy Land from an encyclopedic world map of c. 1110, probably executed by Henry of Mainz from a geographic encyclopedia, they derived from lists of place-names whose classification is removed from a coherent territorial record.  Rather than assembling a coherent description of space that provided a base-map, Henry of Mainz’s map  ordered toponyms that referenced other sources and narratives to offer a reassuring relation of the relations among the sacred city of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, land of Judah, the sea of Galilee, and Antioch in relationship to the Mediterranean–Hellespont, Alexandria, Egypt and Libya–that could lend spatial coherence and concreteness to existing biblical passages, trigger stories, and lend them proximity.  And already its regions were separately distinguished by clearly ruled lines.


Detail of Middle East:Holy Land on Mainz world map c. 1110


Such manuscript world maps may evoke the barrier between human understanding and sacred history by noting sites associated with the story of Christ, such as Jerusalem.  But these maps also allowed readers places to enter a parallel narrative structure of the Old Testament and other historical periods, framing the Kingdom of Judah, for example, the tribes of Asher, Dan, Benjamin, Simeon, Issachar, or Antioch in Syria, for the benefit of its readers. Did the map create the territory?  While abstract in nature, during the time of the crusades, Jerusalem was a far more familiar place than it had previously been for Christians.  Maps of the Holy Land and Palestine collapse time and space more immediately than other maps, instantiating categories as timeless, and often offering pleasure not only in their universal and encyclopedic scope but in their labelling of place:  such sites as Mount Sinai, the Tower of Babel, Babylon, Jordan, Sumeria, the Dead Sea and Twelve Tribes offer entrances to familiar sacred narratives.  Ruled lines divided the region along clearly drawn regions, which, unlike the undulating shore or the islands of Rhodes or Canopus, offer points of access to a narrative.  Although the Sea of Galilee, Babylon, Damascus, Antioch, Tarsus and Nazareth, seem atomized to us, they allow readers to imagine a sense of proximity to narratives.   Even if the form what appears discontinuous and schematic , and to not describe continuity in a meaningful frame of reference to modern eyes, the map offered a sense of crossing a boundary from profane to sacred space, inviting viewers to enter a sacred topography disclosed to privileged observers:  it makes one consider the huge power for ordering space by lines in maps, as if to impose fictional divides on space in order to better process them.

Oxford, c. 1110 extract


The sort of concrete connections that maps might produce from individual narratives or sacred history existed as a conceptual space for its sacred readers that could be divided into plots–no doubt as if to better emplot places in an accurately mapped space. If the above map was drawn at the same time that the region gained new materiality and presence, as one that was visited by crusaders, it was removed from geopolitical bounds as we know them, and was never seen as a region by most of its intended readers.  It creates, however, as all maps do, invitations to explore space, and to provide a way of telling its readers “You Are Here“–a particularly poignant invitation when it comes to the toponymy of a region drenched with sacred connotations and narratives, which served as keys to memory as much as points of orientation, and provided orientation to a sacred space, as much as the space medieval crusaders had sought to recapture. Yet the territorial unity clearly emerged from the map, if only from the verbal map of sovereignty that the Bible described.

For readers of these maps perhaps more than for others, they weren’t there, and the map was more of a marker of a site of existential importance more than being a place that they would ever actually stand in and occupy.  In establishing the distance of readers from place, as much as opening it for them, the place-names opened a region where time collapses–the present poised to dissolve into the past for the foreseeable future.


3.  This heritage of drawing lines that bound the regions of the Holy Land will return in the construction of present Israel.  Indeed, only in delineating the region as a form that maps are able to give form to the region as a “geobody,” and to become a territory over time.  One can trace something like an archeology of this becoming in maps, and to attend to the ways–both mythical and historical–by which the territory comes to appear as such a compelling (if fictional) construction, as it is translated in somewhat circuitous circular fashion from territory to map and back again.  The materiality of relation to a region was translated and mediated through maps in crucial operative ways.  Few boundary lines have been evoke with such absoluteness as the biblical border lines demarcating the lands granted to the Tribes of Israel in the time of Abraham.  When Kings 23:8 describes the “towns of Judah” as extending “from Geba to Beer-sheba” or Judges 20:1 evokes an expanse “from Dan to Beer-sheba,” they powerfully conjure a territory with considerable staying power across time as divinely sanctioned, although they predate our familiar notions of how space and expanse are demarcated and defined.   Numbers 34:8-12 conjures a similarly mythical verbal map of land allotted the Tribes of Israel extending from the Mediterranean to Mount Hor “to the border of Hamath so that it ends at Zedad” and from there extends as if by clearly bounded limits.  “The border goes to Ziphron and ends at Hazar Enan,” and extends to the eastward “from Hazar Enan to Shepham; from Shepham the border goes down to Riblah, east of Ain, and continues along the eastern slope of the Sea of Galilee along the Jordan River” to end at the Dead Sea. Did these places so clearly bound the region as has been assumed?  Before the map assumed its own authority, the scriptures opened a search for precedents among boundary lines, as if in the hope of recuperating lost territory.

So powerful evocative did the verbal map of the scriptures conjure a region that the region became a mental space at the same time as it described a physical place.  Maps of the Holy Land hence come to resemble a place where time collapses–where the present is poised to dissolve into the past–and that threatens to do so for the foreseeable future.  To be sure, the collapsing of time in the region created a longstanding confusion as to what counted as relevant precedent.  The odd notion of “biblical boundaries” juxtaposes a mythical ancient homeland, based on the boundaries transmitted in Mosaic tradition (Numbers 34:8-12), with the conventions of mapping the boundary lines of a state, investing a coherence in the region beyond the current state of Israel–whose current boundary lines here appear colored a lighter shade of lime green as if to invest it with a mythical status and harmony that it arguably never enjoyed within such clearly drawn bounds.

The attempt to restore the bounds of a broader “Greater Israel” beyond the national bounds of the nation–and returned its bounds to the “Promised Land” described in Ezekiel or Genesis 15:18-21–bizarrely transposed a sacred text to the project of  the mapping of the nation, current among some more right-wing parties of the current Israeli state. While the map’s naturalistic topography seems more real than the disjoined toponyms drawn on sheepskin in the medieval maps above, it links historical place to narratives of the drawing of mythical boundaries of a “Greater Israel” whose boundaries is shown in lime green.  Drawn between and around recognized toponyms, the conjectured boundary lines on the map create imaginary boundaries that frame the land as if to give it coherence in modern recreations of the past, in ways that collapse time.  The invocation of a restitution of “biblical boundaries” in Israel today is premised on investing a similar coherence in the region whose current boundary lines.


Biblical Boundaries


The above map is a constellation of meaning or pastiche that invites the consideration of boundary lines in something approaching transhistorical terms.  Indeed, it reminds us of the repeated compulsion to draw boundaries in the region, even as it blends multiple mythic-historical narratives with reality that evoke the multiple narratives that grow up around the region, rather than how it was experienced by its inhabitants at a historical time.  For in taking the topography and current boundaries of Israel as its base map, the map shows possible boundaries described as running between towns and settlements in Numbers 34:8-12, without interrogating how the land was experienced or existed for its inhabitants any map than the maps associated with Henry of Mainz or the Imago Mundi of Honorius of Autun.  In using the Israeli state as a base map, it may reveal the impossibility for us of reading any map at a remove from a territory–even if the concept may have been far removed from people at that time, few of whom if any could likely imagine the territorial entity existing with the coherence and continuity that the map describes. To argue that a map conjures a territory or synthesis it into existence collapses far more complex mediation, transmission, and translation by which the descriptive powers of maps transformed, augmented and grew.  What, indeed, does it mean to lend coherence to this land of narratives as a legible territorial block, in ways that would of course have little meaning for its inhabitants?  Although maps enjoyed little authority as bounding a continuous authority in King David’s time, we make such maps in order to create a sense of historical precedence by sorting them, as well as to register what archeological digs have revealed about the geographical spread of economic dominance.  They also provide a form of time-travel.  The map forces us to confront the problem any historical mapper faces in introducing analytic tools not accessible to or used by people of that time.   Even as maps such as the above are based on archeological findings suggesting economic or political influence, the limits of the map’s descriptive properties are concealed, and a bit mystified.

This post takes maps of the Holy Land as a basis to perform an archeology of the significance that was attributed to the region and its landscape–reviewing the meanings invested and projected through maps, and how maps invited readers to invest significance in specific locations they defined–to perform something like an archeology of how the region was mapped.   For by examining the strata of significance that linked the map with the territory, or performing such a cartographical archeology, we can prepare ourselves to uncover the meanings and ends for which the territory is so often remapped, and indeed the rhetoric of remapping its extremely significant and evocative toponymy.




The expanse of the mythic Kingdom of King David is oddly mapped above, noting few places other than Jerusalem–despite contextual markers of Babylon, Nineveh, Typsa, or Tyre, and, further afield, Suma.  The Kingdom is moreover  anachronistically shown as an entity.  Although it places Jerusalem at the center of David’s Kingdom, colored bright red, the boundaries of regions it suggests “under direct central administration” are provisional, and conjectural, and unclear in significant ways, as well as mutable over time.  What does it man to lend coherence to this land as a continuous block?  The cited scriptural passages conferred a concrete reality on these sites before the map assumed authority, opening the way for church fathers  and later erudite readers over the region’s expanse that has continued to the present day.

The preparation of a mental space of settlement long predates an acceptance of standards of cartographical accuracy.  The tradition of grouping or listing place-names afforded an aid for spiritual meditation, expanded in world chronicles beyond biblical history, in geographical inventories that offer an odd sort of visual proof.  What sort of places did these maps indicate?  What sort of orientation did they provide to their readers?  Although the map is to some extent based on archeological records, this post seeks to suggest the importance of performing something like an archeology of the map, and to use a cartographical archeology to trace the practice of mapping the Holy Land. Part of any mapping is a cultural translation of boundary lines into the expectations of what one finds in maps–or the authority of the map as a document that unites a set of recognized place-names in a form that one can readily scan and imagine as an entity.  There is  particular sedimentation of historical space in Palestine that makes all biblical discussions of the region of interest or significant as offering a form of precedent.

But can the invocation of a Hebrew Nation, or indeed any nation, be adequately understood by our notion of the territorial precision that is usually implied by a printed map?  Or is our historical notion of the map not in itself something that is anachronistic as a device to map the Holy Land?  When the reign of Solomon is conjured in the biblical narrative, or the Kingdom of Herod described in scriptures as having reached to the Trans-Jordan from Beersheba, or a festival in the age of Solomon showed the kingdom said to include people up to “the Wadi of Egypt,”  can such passages be said to justify boundary lines, or even for an authoritative map as we know it?   But boundaries are instantiated in new terms once drawn in a map–and in part prepare for the project and prospect of the historical resettlement of the region by the modern Israel, as if to anticipate the now-historical process of its resettlement.


4.  Maps allowed a neat trick of legitimate resettlement.  The historical sedimentation is apparent in massive projects of erudition partly prepared the prospect of resettlement of the territory by shifting its toponymy; the erudition expressed in the contemporary Oxford Bible Atlas in twenty-seven gloriously detailed full-color maps of the region’s toponymy, shown on a clear topographic base-map.  The sequence of maps suggest a melding of historical time within a particular place as the place is described as both timeless; the Bible Atlas offers a resource to imagine a timeless a geographic entity, based on a fixed notion of the inhabitation of the land around principal areas of settlement, providing little detail about what level of inhabitation it actually seeks to register.


%22Towns of Judah


Any map as in some sense a record of the conquest of space, investing inhabitation with something like political terms:  this map seeks to peel away the level of Roman conquest of the Holy Land, but presents a richly evocative image of a landscape where time is collapsed, but a historical base-map is comfortingly assumed, and whose familiar categories provide a template against which we can read both the narratives we know about the ancient habitation, and the difficulty of drawing clear boundaries of the modern state. Any imagined construction of space–a construction that manufactures and cultivate rich emotional connotations and affective ties that did not exist before–risks or threatens an endless cycle of conflicts with mapping that construct onto a space that is actually occupied–as the historical-mythical construction of place, or of a fictional place, is forced to be mapped onto an actual site and, even more, as the bounding of a notional relation to region is mapped by the delineation of an actual boundary line–it is, indeed, both quite jarring difficult to imagine the mapping of the region without place-names or boundary lines–most particularly without the claims of division that organize the region’s deep historical divisions between Israelite and non-Israelite people from the 13th century B.C., between the Hebrew kingdoms of Judah and Israel or among the Twelve Tribes, but also such familiar landmarks of Mt. Carmel, Mt. Lebanon, the River Jordan, and the Planes of Sharon–all bleached from the map below.

Indeed, it is hard to look at a map of the region, stripped of its toponymy, and not be reminded of the claims for legibility that all maps make for this historically sacred space.  The very format of mapping is indeed something of a mystic writing pad, not only, in the Freudian sense, as “a materialized portion of my mnemic apparatus,” but a field to realize and embody the traces transmitted in a collective memory, much as, in the Oxford Atlas of the Holy Land, celluloid layers of the shifting toponomy of the Holy Land in different historical epochs were layered on one another, able to be removed and reimposed by the user to better read its surface and to register its organization, and indeed to perceive the region’s settlement.


Palestine No Name!


The above delicately colored base map, now stripped of all toponymy, curiously evokes a notion which gained wide currency in the 1930s, incidentally.  Early visitors to the region who observed the Bedouin tribes that moved in the area argued the region was at first a site of semi-nomadic peoples who came to settle the region they called Canaan as they transitioned from nomadism, in the very way that the Bedouins lived in the desert that they observed–as a people without clear bounds.  There was a serious argument that the land became inhabited by a gradual and peaceful process of regional settlement–although the a gradual shift to sedentarization and settlement from nomadism seems less removed from displacement.

The image of a primordial nomadism derived in large part from the encounter with nomadic Bedouins in Palestine by visiting Europeans since the sixteenth century, who believed they were observing people who had the same customs since Abrahamic times, fit well into notions of the societal evolution common in the late nineteenth century:  that model tended to essentialize maps of the region as an area where present and past melded, time flattened, and societal organization had never changed.  The timelessness of the Holy Land was, in a sense, recapitulated in many of the early maps of the region long transmitted in the West.  (Ironically, perhaps, it is the very community of some 70,000 semi-nomadic Bedouins that was made by Israelis to leave the land on which they have lived for generations (and of which they comprise almost one-third of the inhabitants) into government-planned towns–a plan of forced resettlement which has been recently withdrawn after being widely condemned.  The plan calls for the destruction of some thirty-five “unrecognized towns.”

The Arab human rights center in Israel, Adalah, argues that “The real purpose of the legislation [is] the complete and final severance of the Bedouin’s historical ties to their land.”) For all of its mythic qualities, the “Land of Canaan” is in fact notoriously difficult to map.  Any project of clearly drawing lines of habitation and settlement in earlier times includes–as the below map shows–multiple uncertainties about the locations of historical sites–and indeed several question marks.  Indeed, it is divided more broadly into regions–rather than lands.



Moab Sector



5.  The renaming of place in modern Israel proceeded from a biblical-historical imaginary.  Such toponyms had acquired such considerable mythical-historical significance by the mid-twentieth century that the remapping of the Middle East–and especially the Holy Land–was a sort of foregone conclusion.  The prospect of the settlement of the land was inseparable intertwined with the refamiliarization of a map with rich historical significance, in ways that led to a mapping of the past onto the present, an evocation of reserves of collective memory, and a reconquest of a land whose places were known, even if only from a distance, for centuries, but that had recently begun to make their appearance once again upon terrestrial as well as historical maps.  In confronting and renaming the land, there was a constant sense of the affirmation that “You are Here,” or had arrived, and the project of renaming and refamiliarizing oneself with the wealthy toponymical catalogue of the scriptures was an ongoing project of remapping the land for a large audience of readers.

The shifting narrative of Israeli settlement of Palestine began from a quite different picture of how the land was inhabited, if one examines the 1911 ethnographical maps that attempted to parse the populations of the land over which the Ottoman empire continued to hold sovereignty.

The mythical-historical connection between the land and the Jewish people suggest not only a transposition or importation of the coherence and unity of “Jewish nation” from scriptural to territorial meanings, but a cartographical redefinition of the land that moved us from the composition of Palestine from a region almost exclusively populated by Palestinians.  The “Map of Eastern Turkey in Asia,” published by the Royal Geographical Society in 1910, suggests the problems of negotiating a historical mapping of the region with its inhabitants, and the difficulty of relinquishing the authority of a cartographical fantasy by how the land was already occupied: Palestine was overwhelmingly Semitic, but filled with Arabs (Palestinians), save small enclaves of Jews.

Palestine's Ethnography in 1910 pre-WWI

Library of Congress

While nominally part of the Ottoman Empire before World War I, the region had entered in through the mental back door of broader cartographical literacy, long before it was actually mapped.  “Israel, or a place more or less coextensive with Israel as we know it,” Michael Chabon eloquently wrote, has been cast as a home for Jews “spiritually and in physical fact” from the time when the Jews of the first Babylonian Exile “began to wire a longing for Jerusalem, for the restoration of the Temple and the sovereignty of the Jews over Israel, into the core circuitry of [the] religion.”  In creating this hard-wiring, first word maps and later five-color maps provided extremely powerful tools, able to conjure and shape narratives about place scarcely imaginable without them.  We would do well to interrogate the map as a performance of meaning, both of naming places and creating a comfortingly concrete surface.  The practice of the re-naming places was tied to a process of repossession in the American West (where local names were erased and replaced by cities with Christianized names), in New England, or in central Europe and Russia in Soviet times (and again for cities that sought to erase the Soviet past in post-Soviet times).  But the renaming of lands in the Middle East was distinguished by the fact that thy drew from a rich historical reservoir of memory, dense with connotations and mythic narratives, and to which others could readily attach themselves.


6.  The detailed engraved fold-out image of the Holy Land in the 1689 Bar-Jacob Haggadah from Amsterdam–one of the most literate sites of mapmaking in the early modern world–transposes biblical toponymy to set boundary line.  This late seventeenth-century map, produced in a capital for the engraving of maps, offered an urgent vehicle of memory–consolidating an imagined Holy Land–even if it lacks the pretense of staking territorial claims.  In a book whose yearly reading concluded with the hope or wish of active longing, “Within the coming year, may we be in Jerusalem”–words whose recitation have been part both of the annual Seder as well as the Yom Kippur service since the middle ages– the presence of the map was the concrete manifestation of a sort of promise.  For the engraved map printed in the Dutch Haggadah created a tangibility for names transmitted in common memory, concretizing the eventual return to a land with the Messiah, in response to the melancholy experience of exile.


Bar-Jacob Haggada, 1695 AmsterdamBar-Jacob Haggadah (1695)


The mapping of this land for Jews living in the Netherlands no doubt engaged with the detailed maps of the Holy Land that were engraved by Abraham Ortelius of the land of St. Paul just a century previous.  But it recalled the laments that dated from the Babylonian Jews–“If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither” (Psalm 137)–balanced by the metaphorical embrace its topography offered:  “Jerusalem,” reads another Psalm, “is surrounded by mountains as God surrounds his people forever” (Psalms 122:2-6).  If culture is the system of meanings by which people orient themselves to the world, the map mediated  a spiritual orientation toward Jerusalem, the lost integrity of the lost past and a real topography of spiritual narrative of return.  The hope expressed each Seder–Leshannah habah b’yrushalayim–was less an actual hope for a homeland, than, after the recounting of Exodus at the Seder, something more like a hope for future peace, in a period when the idea of a Jewish homeland was not only foreign, but the Jewish people described and understood themselves apart from the community of nation-states.  (Goyim, from Genesis 10:5, acquired the sense of non-Israelite nations or non-Jews; if the Jews were a unique nation, the Yiddish sense of non-Jewish people first emerged among Jews living in foreign nations.) In the face of the absence of a homeland, or actual territory, the ritualized incantation of place-names and narratives of religious identity inseparable from the map created an intense familiarity with the reading and ingestion of place through the map so that it was, indeed, readily dislodged from the territory.

Indeed, the map–verbal as much as physical–served as a precedent for a home, wired not only into the “core circuitry” of the religion but orienting readers to the refoundation of the temple and the restoration of a region coextensive with ancient Israel.  Such maps invited readers to imagine their own place as coextensive with it. The conclusion of the annual Seder with the optative prayer, “Within the coming year, may we be in Jerusalem”–also part of the annual Seder as well as the Yom Kippur service since the middle ages, oriented readers to the Haggadah’s narrative of exile with a tangibility transmitted in common memory, no doubt comforting in response to the melancholy experience of exile as well.   The ritualized incantation of narratives of religious identity created an intense familiarity with the ingestion of the concept of place through the map.  If culture is the performance of a meanings to orient oneself to the world, the map mediated  a spiritual orientation toward Jerusalem and the lost integrity of the lost past and a real topography via a spiritual narrative.  The return to scriptural names of place provided a basis for meditation on a vanished homeland–the “land of Israel” or אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל–as if that homeland could be mapped, but less as a hope for a homeland than a hope for peace.  The attempt to restore the bounds of a broader “Greater Israel” beyond the national bounds of the nation–and returned its bounds to the “Promised Land” described in Ezekiel or Genesis 15:18-21–have now lent an oddly literal sense to the mapping of the nation, among some of its more right-wing parties of the current Israeli state, as if that land could be re-mapped.  The multiplication of alternative maps expresses a duel between contesting visions, and an exchange between an imagined unity and the state’s actual boundaries. Yet as the reality of the state of Israel has grown, the maps that informed it take on new significance. In literally speaking across ages by creating a new affective relation to the story of Exodus from Egypt, the map created a material form of reassurance that, to borrow from Jean Baudrillard, long preceded the territory:  especially when it was so firmly rooted in the historical imagination.

The map existed before the land,  mapped by the earliest of land-grants to be inscribed in the imagination, in ways that raise questions about whether the territory can ever be disentangled from the considerable staying power of the paper map:  and its mythical-historical precedent has provided a lens to view the land.  It also, needless to say, presents an image that can be readily accessed and inhabited in one’s imagination.  If the wanderings of Jews in Palestine were not often so clearly mapped in Haggadot, the pictorial map designed by the illustrator Fritz Kredel, painted in Mainz in 1927, who later immigrated to America where he was a successful artist; in his map, printers’ red ink names both registers familiar places of historical settlement and serve to chart the territory it describes.  The thick black lines suggest the status of as a network and a mental space as much as an actual territory.  The boundaries transmitted in Mosaic tradition in the above-cited passages from Numbers 34:8-12 that seem removed from a modern sense of territoriality provided a basis for meditation on a vanished homeland–the “land of Israel” or אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל.


Kredel Haggadah Map


What sort of a sense of historical precedent did such maps create?  What sorts of categories of jurisdiction or territory did they come to convey? 7.  Symbolic maps of the Holy Land were of course qualitatively unlike the local maps created for establishing territorial boundary lines or land-ownership that set and shared the precedents commonly recognized in law of defining property and cultivated land.  For such maps acquired the status of legal precedents–indeed, they were ways of enshrining rights of possession in the law, even when limited legal grounds existed for defining rights to areas where no evident natural boundary existed.  Yet the definition of legal boundary lines seem to have been to an extent imitated in these maps of the Holy Land.  The origins of legal definition or status of lines on maps are difficult to map, but the influential fourteenth-century jurist Bartolus of Sassoferato, among whose many briefs of Roman civil law had defended the legal governmental rights of city-states in the area of central Italy,  appealed to the authority of maps to resolve disputes over river rights and alluvial deposits between towns by maps that were not clear in local statutes.   Although Bartolus’ influence, considerable before 1800, wrote outside of a clear notion of governmental territoriality, he appealed to maps to resolve ownership boundaries, invoking maps to create a common understanding and consensus about the occupation and ownership of a potentially disputed plot of land. Tools of cartography afforded considerable authority for manufacturing the map as a precedent for drawing property lines.  The divisions within a surveyed land were translated into physical maps able to bound a demarcated expanse which could be regularly provided and widely recognized in courts of law–although usually about relatively small plots of land–that lent cultural status to map making as a formalized enactment of ownership and shared memory.  This 1689 image of Bartolus’ treatise on determining river rights uses a quadrant of Euclidean derivation to reconcile by geometric precepts and surveying techniques a river’s serpentine course, illustrating the value of seventeenth-century surveying practices as a technology of exact mapping of territorial rights.


Lines of jurisdiction are of course still particularly fraught, despite Bartolus’ appeal to the rule of the quadrant and to geometrically informed expertise.  Bartolus’ procedures and reasoning responded to these difficulties of transmission, creating something of a share standard for acknowledging ownership that extended not only around rights to rivers.  Some centuries later, the value of maps in recording an authoritative transcription of rights emerged as a powerful juridical concept in similar quaestio, providing a precedent to which one could appeal as a form of priority.  The authority of the map as a form of access to a precedent emerged in a context of reading that shifted from historical terms to juridical terms in an oddly circuitous way, in which the conjuring of territories came to be invested with quasi-legal qualities as a technology of surveying jurisdictional rights or ownership; indeed, to argue that the map conjures the territory or synthesizes it into existence collapses the complex process of mediation, causation and transmission.  As secular nations reflexively appropriated mapping as a means of rationally drawing boundary lines around lands, and defining national boundaries with a coherence that they lacked, the redrawing of sites of sacred toponymy gained new persuasive coherence.

Sacred maps demarcate a sacred space that collapsed historical time in powerful ways.  But once translated into historical terms, they materialized cartographical precedents, even if they were more rooted in a cartographical imaginary than in  jurisdictional claims of a state or techniques of surveying that might be informed by a neo-Bartolan tradition.  Historical maps of Palestine acquired a sense of authority as precedents that might be seen as a sort of cartographical promise that also suggested a record of historical precedent and appealed not only to the historical imagination, but was translated to a territorial description in increasingly tangible ways.  For although they were less easily treated as precedents, historical maps increasingly came to stake claim to the inhabitation of the land.  And the relation between map and territory became in few cases more fraught with complications, and more tenuous, than when maps of the Holy Land were used to construct a nation that was so strongly conjured from biblical writings and to imagine its existence as a new homeland.  The historical maps of Palestine framed the region in considerable detail long before the eighteenth-century rise of jurisprudence.  But technologies of surveying offered a compelling basis to organize and encourage readers’ familiarity with the evolution of sacred toponymy that long anticipated European settlement of the land–and encouraged increasingly complex narratives to be attached to their own reading the region as a nation.
The description of the historical borders of ancient land of Canaan encouraged an outpouring of cartographical materials in the first age of widespread cartographical literacy.  For audiences that were increasingly familiar with the authority of the map as the transcription of a continuous territory or space.  The expansive fourteen-sheet wall map of Canaan executed by that industrious seventeenth-century mapper of England’s territories, John Speed, is lost, but they expanded the 1611 “mappe of Canaan” he designed for the King James Bible, and lent the land a coherence comparable to his maps of England.  The map’s design was so tied to his technical expertise in mapping England that he was able to secure a privilege to reproduce it in printed form.  The Enlightenment maps of the Holy Land prepared after Speed or Ortelius linked cartographical expertise to a discourse on the real–as much as the legible–that offered a powerful way of reading both their form and content, investing them with a proximity and tangibility that bridged the materiality of their ties to readers.  In ways that bridge historical discourse with a realistic discourse, these maps combine their descriptive and explanatory elements that broadened their appeal as artifacts.
These maps organized narratives about the Holy Land in ways that invested the region with a clearer sense of territorial identity it seems not to have enjoyed earlier.  When Speed mapped the Holy Land in the seventeenth century, he created a model for reading biblical space that William Stackhouse expanded by amply providing extensive maps in his 1744 New History of the Bible from the Beginning of the World to the Establishment of Christianity that he presented to readers as historical documents of  the boundaries dividing Canaan.  His map of Canaan afforded a material basis to understand how the Roman census divided inhabitants of the Holy Land that they could read against their own familiarity with national maps.  The map suggested a process of the ‘territorialization’ implicit in its mapping of tribal divisions, moreover, that lent concreteness to the occupation of the region by Israelite tribes into discrete regions administered by Roman governors on clearly drawn lines.  The national maps that Speed had fabricated just a few years earlier had provided a powerful precedent for mapping Canaan–not only as the “eye of history,” as the humanistically-educated Jean Bodin and Abraham Ortelius offered to readers of their maps–but as a form whose boundaries constituted something like a record of a modern nation-state, whose continuity was present in its map.

Speed had received a privilege for printing his “description of Canaan, and bordering countries” in 1610 that took advantage of recently increasing cartographical literacy to extend biblical readership by supplying maps of ‘the Ancient World’, ‘Palestine as Divided among the Tribes of Israel’, ‘Palestine in the Time of Christ’, and ‘The Eastern Mediterranean World in the First Century.’   Such images recast the functions by which maps invited religious meditation in the early printed bibles of Lutherans, by evoking territorial terms that prefigure if they did not invoke sovereignty.  William Stackhouse expanded the claims for the legibility with which a map of the Holy Land could gain in his own commentary and edition of the Bible, using it both as a historical document and an illustration for his readers to understand their own relation to the Holy Land, and indeed to experience the revelation to Moses of a newly named land. The curate Stackhouse, formerly a grammar school headmaster and no doubt eager to exploit the pedagogic and didactic ends of mapping to render believers present at the scenes they illustrated, expanded the authority of engraved maps in Bibles that were printed from 1733, and then expanded in a two-volume edition of 1742-4, “rectifying Mis-Translations and reconciling seeming Contradictions, the whole illustrated with proper Maps and Sculptures.”  Stackhouse’s “Map of Canaan, Divided among the 12 Tribes” was a surrogate for the map Reverend Stackhouse surmised with due consideration God provided “to shew Moses the compass of the land.”  Even though it is primarily divided among tribes, the boundaries are defined in the manner of European national regions.


Twelve Tribes Mapped in Stackhouse by Hinton

Stackhouse explained to his readers that, given the difficulty of displaying the land of Canaan from Mount Nebo, “Jews indeed have a notion, that God laid before him a map of the whole country, and shewed him therein how every part was situate; where each valley lay, each mountain, each river ran, and for what remarkable product each part was renowned”–although he expressed doubts that this was the case, since it would dispense with any reason to ascend the mount “since in the lowest plains of Moab, he might have given him a demonstration of this kind every whit as well.”  But what Moses saw from the mountain was itself quite comparable a map:  although the “visive faculties” required to see Dan and Mt. Lebanon to the north, and the lake of Sodom and Zoar to the south, or the Mediterranean to the west and land of Gilead to the northeast, were “a compass above the stretch of human sight.”  Scripture had it that the 120-year-old Moses’ eyes “were not dim”; no doubt, Stackhouse mused, “God strengthened them with a greater vigour than ordinary” that “‘gave his eyes such power of contemplating it, from the beginning to the end, that he saw hills and dales, what was open and what was enclosed, remote or high, at one single view or intuition'” (vol. III, chapter IV, 34-5)

The map that Stackhouse imagined bequeathed a sense of concrete entity and identity to the territory that no doubt reflected the authority that printed maps of England had recently assumed, and the actual maps printed in his Bible.  In ways that conjured an authority similar to the map as register of national identity, Moses held a map to better imagine the territory he had been shown by God. The notion of demarcating a legal territory in biblical times was echoed in the five maps Speed designed for the King James Bible, and gained a privilege for designing, although they in fact had been based on the earlier efforts of “the learned divine” John More.  These maps were commissioned from Speed to encourage vernacular biblical readership, but respond to a sense of cartographical literacy unlike earlier maps of Palestine or Canaan.  Speed’s maps paralleled his famous project of uniting the parcels of English territory in the 1610-11 Theater of the Empire of Great Britain, creating a composite legible image of national sovereignty across England, Wales, Ireland and Scotland, in ways that abstracted an entity from the land that was earlier difficult to be imagined as a unity which revealed evidence of administrative integrity.

The widespread republication of Speed’s atlases and Theater in the 1670s and 1680s included maps of “His Majesty’s Dominions Abroad” on its title–and maps of New England, Virginia, Barbadoes, and the Carolinas, broadening the mapping of the nation beyond the island of Great Britain, but affirming its continued integrity.  Reverend Stackhouse built upon this precedent of recording imperial unity by offering a territorial explication of biblical narrative in his New History of the Holy Bible:   his “proper maps” set a standard for the symbolic mapping of the region that might have been read by Abraham, and offered a basis for understanding the distances between Nazareth and Bethlehem by showing the territory in which they lay as bound by legally binding frontiers, linking the name of each tribe to a region that reflected the Roman imperial administrative divisions drawn across the Holy Land. To argue that the map conjures the territory or synthesizes it into existence collapses a complex process of mediation, causation and transmission, in which the map delineated an imagined “geobody.”  The translation from this mental imaginary of a historical space to a geobody (a territorially and juridically bounded body of worldly territory) is complexly fraught:  the strength of mental images–and the mental construction of the territory–threatens to upend and stand in conflict with the people who actually inhabit (or inhabited) the land.  The emergence of “historical” maps of the Holy Land raises questions of how the map becomes the territory over time.

Biblical scholarship on sacred toponymy was crucial in assigning and defining at atlas of sacred toponymy, and led maps of the Holy Land to be inscribed; the process of its mapping (and the precedents for its mapping) difficult to disentangle.  While we tend to discount the symbolic value of most medieval maps, for many medieval readers of these maps, Jerusalem might have had more considerable reality when mapped in the eleventh century among societies familiar with crusaders as for Bible-readers of the seventeenth century,  as it described the actual geographical place in a recognizable context.  “The map is the territory; science is an atlas,” runs one maxim in the history of cartography:  yet the map only becomes the territory over time–often in ways that seem to emerge from the map, like Minerva from Zeus’s head, as much as that maps create.  These might be some of the charges, as least, that a cartographical archeology could provide.


7.  The translation from map to territory assumes several layers of translation in the case of the Holy Land:  from scriptures to  map to territory, to the process of being recodified within a map.  But the layer of translation as one moves from text to map to territory and back again sometimes opens something like a chasm of misreading or interpretation of the ways that a map conform (or actually maps onto) a land.   The image of a land of memory had taken on particular cartographical concreteness by 1898–three years after Theodore Herzl called for the creation of a Jewish Homeland of Palestine–as the region filled by the borders of the Twelve Tribes.  The twelve tribes of “Palestine,” in this late nineteenth-century American engraved map of considerable toponymical and topographical detail, shown below.  The map showing “Palestine, After the Conquest” employs four-color conventions to map a contiguously defined sacred land around Jerusalem, as if assuming an entity earlier absent, by focussing on a dense network of cities, rivers, and mountains to give physical integrity to its division by Biblical tribes.  This 1885 map, destined for American Sunday Schools, staked a surprisingly concrete relation to a lost land–presenting the territory after the conquest as both a scenario and a background for historical events.  Did its makers presume a similar rhetorical intent?




The inclusion of a series of geographically situated “Battlefields of the Twelve Tribes” in this 1864 map of the same territory similarly lent credible tangibility to the Holy Land’s historical topography based on current surveying of the same landscape.    Indeed, the transference of the results of actual surveys to a topography designed for sacred reading demands further investigation as an area of cultural history.   The positioning of sites of ancient battles against this field of clear elevations, hillocks, rivers, the Dead Sea and other dense topographic realities created a sense of concreteness on the region.  Indeed, they invested the map with a sense of strategic encounters in an actual lived terrain–in somewhat of a proxy for the hopes for territorial repossession of an actually remote sacred land.




Did such glorious four-color relief maps, published before the journalist Theodore Herzl called for the creation and foundation of a Jewish homeland in his 1896 Der Judenstaat, help to conjure the territory?  By 1897, Herzl described the goals of Zionism as “to establish a homeland in Palestine [that was] secured under public law.”  The idea gained resonance because the map had already concretized a claim to the territory and the “legally assured home in Palestine,” long before the the 1917  Balfour Declaration affirmed “the establishment in Palestine of a national homeland for the Jewish people.”  It almost effectively transposed the sacred map into a legal precedent, mapping a mythical historical toponymy onto an actual territory in ways with which we continue to struggle and contend. Numerous counter-maps have been articulated to narrate the geographic displacements and renaming that occurred, re-asserting the complex narrative that was itself generated from the increasingly fraught relation between territory and map.  By 1900, the concrete detail of sacred maps seems to have realized imaginary existence of the region with a concreteness in a recognized and recognizable image of lands settled by the Twelve Tribes as if it were their property.



1759 detail Palestine


After 1948, negotiating these sites of settlement and creation of places of habitation was considerably more complex to negotiate, as the below map of Israel reveals. 8.  For, to jump wildly–and perhaps a bit irresponsibly, it must be admitted–across time, Israel’s relation to the occupied territories shows a process of negotiation building from and negotiating lands, as much as the attempt to integrate Gaza or the West Bank in an earlier notion of a “Greater Israel.”  This very broad chronological leap is meant to raise questions for clear rhetorical effect.  For more pressing and compelling than the above cartographical fantasies  is the holding power of the map as an image of the nation, and what a nation constitutes as something that is able to be mapped–questions that are evoked, here, by the manner that the image of land defined the bounds of settlement by 2007.  It also suggests the deep tensions by which, in the end, as boundaries were increasingly drawn around the same land, the territory came to threaten to fall to pieces as the map was redrawn.




But to make such a leap is valuable, because it suggests the readiness to map the nation of Israel on a land that was, in fact, occupied, and the extent to which the historical-mythical construction of a place of clear boundaries is impossible to map onto a land that is inhabited.  Indeed, the prospects for the two-state solution seem to rest on the abandonment of such mythical boundaries as the “Biblical Boundaries” associated with scriptures and Mosaic tradition, as sedimented as they are in a language of sovereign or monarchical rule–and the relatively clear confines of Palestinian people within the bright green areas is a radical expansion of the partition of 1947, when Jerusalem appeared a neutral orange; the since-defined confines are understandably not ready to be enshrined in print.


SMALL_map-i_unpartition SMALL_map-i_unpartition


Moreover, the practice of “mapping Israel” was not only a practice of technologies of surveying, much recent research and documentation has shown.  It was predicated upon the active displacement of its earlier residents.  The destruction of Palestinian houses within occupied territories–according to data released by the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories,” or B’Tselem, numbering some 4,170 Palestinian homes as of 2000, in a process that extended back to the beginning of those territories occupation in 1967.  The homes of some 1,400 residences were demolished during the first two decades of the occupation after 1967; another 700 were destroyed by way of reprisal at the time during the four years of first “intifada,” and another 600 since then through 2004.  (According to Middle East Watch, the only other country in the world to have demolished homes as a form of punishment was the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein.)

The stakes are high.  Only after the March of Return to Independence Day of 2002 did agreement emerge to identify with Arabic names Palestinian villages that had existed in Israel before 1948, as well as their Hebrew names; many were taken by surprise by this strange proposal as late as 2000. The “other” side of the narrative of Israel’s settlement is presented in this 2012 map of the diminishing expanse of land occupied by Palestinians from 1897 up until the present.  The below map cannot capture the human cost of displacement of some 5 million Palestinian refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars and their descendants, now living in Jordan, Libya, and Syria, as well as the West Bank; it cannot adequately present the moment of the expulsion of Palestinian people from the former Palestine, still commemorated on May 15 as the Nakba Day  [يوم الن], or the Day of Catastrophe, as a day of tragic loss of regional autonomy and land-ownership.


Map6_RefugeesRoutesPalestine Remembered


The map is striking for how it exposes a counter-example to the above fantasy of nation-building, however, that began from the passage of existing confines of the Balfour Declaration and 1917 Mandate for Palestine, or that the notion of a Jewish state in Palestine led to “the mapping of a homeland for the Jewish people” as Balfour had hoped–and the messiness with which “Palestine was reconstituted as the Home of the Jewish People,” in Rothschild’s words to Balfour.  The expulsion of residents of Palestine paralleled a massive project, only recently reconstructed, of renaming of the land, and a government committee dedicated to the erasure of some thousands of Arab place names, from cities to hills, valleys and springs, was assigned the task of creating Hebrew names; David Ben-Gurion affirmed, “We are obliged to remove Arabic names for reasons of state,” dedicating the nation to the project of determining place-names in the Negev, or southern half of Israel. (The Bedouin who were asked to leave the Negev are omitted from the rural and urban refugees above.)

The Government Names Commission was established in 1951 in order to consolidate the nation’s identity.  Indeed, by, creating a new national landscape that was distanced from Arabic names, extending the place of Hebrew toponyms across the map of Israel, Ben-Gurion government hoped not only to invite Jewish settlers, but to illustrate sovereignty.  The project of naming places in ancient Hebrew when possible, despairing at the “foreign-ness of place-names, mostly Arabic, [that] exuded foreign spirit” actively sought to purify the land of Palestinian toponymy in 1951 and actively “to abolish foreign sounds and to enrich the map of the Negev with original names, close to the heart of the Hebrew defender of and settler in the Negev” (my italics); newly printed maps “purified of foreign names” confirm the identity of the Israeli state.  Ben-Gurion–who effectively re-baptized himself in taking his Hebrew name from the medieval Jewish historian Joseph ben Gorion, instead of his given name David Grün, as an illustration of his Zionist passion:  he similarly valued the aim of the commission as an ability to “to redeem the entire area of the Land of Israel from the rule of foreign language” in ways they concretely represented in maps.  The “Hebraicization of Israel” was achieved by a “Hebraicization of the map”:  the state promoted a project intended to “Judaize the map of Israel and to affix Hebrew names to all the geographical features of the map of Israel. Yet the costs and consequences of eliminating toponymy is poorly understood.  To be sure, the interests of Palestinian residents are extrinsic to a deep historical commitment to restoring the recognizably Jewish historical geography through toponymy.  From 1925 to 1951, Jewish memory provided a pool from which to draw Biblical or Talmudic place-names, such as Hebron or Jerusalem, conflating Jewish history and Zionist memory with the empiricism of geography from the time of the British Mandate.   Maoz Azaryahu and Arnon Golan have found that over four hundred names of villages were altered and obliterated after the 1948 war.

This very process of renaming no doubt left scars or festering wounds as familiar sites were replaced by Hebrew toponyms, drawing from both the 174 toponyms that were mentioned in the Old Testament studied in late nineteenth-century historical geography.  The degree to which Biblical studies itself came to provide a new Hebrew toponymy in not clear, and places often drew from Arabic place-names but modifying them in Hebrew to identify them with the Israeli state.  The new map recognized by Jewish residents or settlers seemed to recognize and cement the traumatic loss of territorial land by inscribing it upon the surface of the map, to re-embody the Holy Land by cartographical tools and familiar place-names.  By imposing Hebrew names of settlements on a 1942 British Mandatory Survey, this map on a scale of 1: 100,000 illustrates the transformation the region of the Negev on the surface of the printed map, as Azaryahu and Golan reveal an ardor of cartographical re-description and the resurrection of lost toponomy to recreate the landscape as it appeared on maps, and would be recognized by the state, absent of earlier inhabitants.


Toward a New Hebrew Toponymy OVerprint


The creation of a new, Hebrew landscape on the topographical surveys that were crafted in Israel was intended to provide a “Hebrew map” for the general public, bleached of Arabic toponyms.  As Azaryahu and Golan write, the Israeli government instructed the Ministry of Education from 1951 “to influence the schools, their teachers and pupils, to take upon themselves the task to uproot foreign names and to root the Hebrew names”– a metaphor linking the replanting of life within the desert lands to cultivating a national consciousness, and that was promulgated both by the military and on the radio in later years.  By 1992, over 7,000 Hebrew names had been determined by the Commission “according to the geographical-historical truth of the Land of Israel,” as if it were by excavating the true meaning of the land and exorcising traces of any previous inhabitants. The perspective that is offered in any map must be recognized–for the perspective is one of reading territorial space and its actual inhabitation, both by bounding and, moreover, by narratively situating the boundaries that define the coherence of a territorial expanse. The narratives that are told in maps are particularly powerful, as Ben-Gurion realized, not only for “reasons of state,” but for orienting readers to a narrative of how they occupy expanse.  The appeal to the map as precedent that has arisen after the Hebraicization of Israeli toponymy seems to seeks to establish a new common ground, revealing the narrative uses of maps as extending far beyond what they describe.  The actual loss of land and contestation of the region’s territorial bounds has been not only commemorated but actively engaged by Palestinian authorities.  Indeed, Palestinians hae created quite polemical counter-maps of the transformation of lands that the redrawn map, creating a sort of counter-commemoration of the Nakba–inverting the more familiar and triumphal narrative of the re-acquisition of the (lost) territory of the Jewish state by casting the nation’s growth as mirroring an erosion of Palestinian landholding in the Middle East.  The below images maps an alternate narrative context for Israel’s accommodation to its boundaries:


Loss of Land--1897 to present (2012)


The increasing rigidification of these boundaries–clearly drawn about the crucial toponyms of local habitation and control–reveals an ongoing process of territorialization, expressing the final culmination of the process that the Ministry of Education had set into motion back in 1951, on account of which an increasing number of narrative were tied to and wrapped around the map, reflecting the dramatic  expansion within the levels cartographical literacy across the several generations since regional maps were introduced to schools as teaching aids.  The process of territorialization drawn about increasingly rigidly demarcated boundary lines of frontiers in Israel itself was reflected in the below map of land concessions that provided a sort of inverse portrait of the Nakba over a restricted historical record:  the relation of the mapped land to the place-names are omitted in this alternative map of attempted repatriation or historical compromise, but it presents an alternately wrenching narrative of sacrifice, itself evocative of narratives of its own; it aims to demonstrate the preservation of a united and still cohesive territorial space in times of increasing duress, as the expansive “greater Israel” imagined by right-wing parties contracted and were dramatically reduced from 1967–although it omits the dramatic territorial expansion that the 1967 connotes:




In beginning from the boundaries of 1967, the narrative created about the maps have shifted to the defense of boundaries, although the boundaries of pre-’67 Israel are clearly delineated within its cobalt blue. The tables of territoriality seem to have been turned again–and the rhetoric of mapping gained the upper hand–in a powerful a cartographical translation of the figurative archipelago of Palestinian settlements recognized by Israel on the West Bank into a nautical chart. It can almost be said that in the negotiation for new jurisdictional bounds of the Palestinian Authority.  For as much as a map of territorial unity, territory lies in something like shreds.

Those  territories cobbled together and granted autonomy at the Oslo accords remain raise the question of what map could be drawn about regions where they were granted varying degrees of autonomy in a coherent manner–and the implicit fragmentation that such degrees of concessions of autonomy creates.  Julien Bousac made the point when he mapped the territories as an archipelago or an early modern island-book–or perhaps evocative of the fantasy maps of Robert Louis Stevenson–to question what sort of lands were actually surrendered or sovereignty granted in the “name of peace.”  In mapping Palestinian sovereignty as a landlocked archipelago registers the unsatisfactory results of the process rather than actual distances or proximities, by providing its viewers with a literal reminder of the extent to which such a compromise over territoriality implies a cartographical dismembering of the two-state solution:


Palestinian Archipel -- Boussac, Le Mond DiploLe Monde diplomatique/Julien Bousac


The pointedly polemical nature of Bousac’s map charts the deeply compromised nature of the coherence that the Palestinian Authority holds in the very regions where it was conceded authority in the Oslo Accords, and the level of fragmentation that the Accords instantiate across the territory. Despite multiple proposals that have been entertained indifferent cartographical renderings of a two-state solution, Bousac’s 2009 map registered his apprehension of the process already in place to accelerate the fragmentation of existing territories by zoning produced by the Oslo accords.  For his map suggests a fragmentation and denaturing of the very idea of territorial unity–the zoning would have limited communication among Palestinian territories.  Indeed, their autonomy would be  overseen by surveillance at Israeli checkpoints, and which would effectively permanently divide Gaza Strip from the West Bank into two states and allow only limited restricted internal communication among them.  Bousac’s map reveals an imaginary archipelago where none exists of questionable viability as a state.


9.  A more familiar cartographical image maps a Palestine settled by Palestinians in traditional costumes, while intentionally erasing the existence of Israeli cities, to retrieve an imagined community and affirm and imaginary continuity with a land  lost long before 1948, staking a fictive communion with the past by perpetuating a harmonious image of a counter-mythology that belies the current country’s deep-set divisions.  The map not only embodies territory but actually settled the region with figures in traditional garb–as if in a throwback to the early modern Ortelian atlas, but placing the traditionally costumed figures at the center of a current map, rather than on the margins of its ornate borders–and affirming them as the resident inhabitants of the land, if it might double as a tourist map.


Based on 1945 Palestine, ommitting Israeli cities


But more accurate registration of the dispersion and displacement that was experienced underlies this fantasy map, which in light of their actual geographic displacement, might in fact be termed something of an exercise in mapping as a survival skill.


Refugee Bubble MapMonde Diplomatique


For the stakes are particularly high, if one needed any reminding, in the current mapping of Israel as in much of the Middle East, where the numbers of refugees overrun actual borders, and seem to constitute something like a mobile population.  The above map of displacements aligns nicely with the diffusion of maps in textbooks used within the Palestinian Authority, although their remapping of the region to omit Israel reflects a somewhat terrifying refusal in large numbers of textbooks that are produced on either side of the Green line to reflect the “other” in adequate ways: the claim that only some 4% of schoolbooks for Palestinian schoolchildren depict the Green Line, and six out of ten show no boundary between Israel and the PA is not only an act of wish-fulfillment typical of colonized lands, or a form of wish-fulfillment, but an act of actual resistance:  in Israeli textbooks, just over three quarters do not label Palestinian territories or omit these boundary lines, by presenting a “unilateral national narrative.”  But the complex omission of boundaries  are not only disinformation, so much as, for many Palestinians, no doubt an act of resistance, as much as an intentional fostering of a demand for reclaiming lost lands.

While such maps have gained most media attention for their secondary aim of denying the existence of a Jewish state, a major obstacle to the negotiating process, although the earlier erasure of Arab toponomy was an active remaking of the same map.  The erasure of Arabic toponymy in East Jerusalem shortly after it was taken over by Israeli forces in 1967 had already brought the removal of Arabic names. In ways that foreshadow the recent kerfuffle about the political meaning of the public display of embroidered maps that not only affirm an Arabic presence in the region but erase the state of Israel–and reinstate the pre-1948 borders–in a UNRWA center serving Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.




The considerable brouhaha provoked by the public display of this map by UN officials was of course about its refusal to recognize Israel’s claims to statehood–and existence as a state–and apparent erasure of a national history.  But the omission is a common occurrence in many maps produced in the territory of the Palestinian Authority–and indeed in many of the lands that still do not recognize Israel as a state.

Yet the proximity of these maps to as highly map-literate a culture as Israel–and indeed one in which maps provide a clear basis for affirming and defining the sovereignty of the modern nation–constituted a huge cause for alarm.  The lack of consensus about the territorial boundary lines in the Middle East and Holy Land in an age of Google Maps is in fact stunning: only 4% of maps in school textbooks used within Palestine show the green line separating Palestinian territory from the Israeli state, or include the place-name identifying “Israel” to the west.  The effect seems to obliterate the country’s historical existence: some six out of 10 maps depict no borders, and another third include the green line but make no reference to Israel.




A Palestinian map proudly charts a bright green and united territory as if to bestow identity upon the region, imaginary cleansed of its current political boundaries or place names, as if to restore the land to its earlier toponymy, in a quite intentionally bizarre obscuring of Hebrew place-names with Arabic toponyms that seems to revise the map as a potent site for argument:




The concern over the placement and instructional use of maps in educational texts and the classrooms controlled by Hamas within the Palestinian Authority; Israelis argued that they openly deviated from standing agreements about the school curriculum within the Palestinian authority.  Despite considerable concern that the omission of borders is mutual wish-fulfillment, the oppositional nature of this mutual self-acknowledgement threatens to derail the possibility of a two-state solution.




The refusal to recognize Israeli state gives new currency to earlier debates about imagining and representation of Israel as a state–and a tradition of melting history into the surface of the map, where Palestine was presented and transmitted as an integral and coherent cultural form.  The stakes are oddly different–Israelis guard their right to exist, while Palestinian teachers try to rearticulate their own relation to what they see as lost land. The 2001-2 map of “Palestine” used in a 7th grade textbook within the Palestinian authority imagines a single country, omitting any Israeli place-names and casting all toponyms in Arabic script–


Topological Map of Palestine, 7th Grade (2001-2002)

The 2002-3 schoolbooks prepared for third graders invited students to learn to locate cities in a “map of Palestine” as an undivided entity, with no evidence of a green line, and indeed the region of Israel and neighboring states tinted the yellow-and-green of the Palestinian authorities.
Map for 3rd Graders to Complete of Palestine, 2002-3


One should never dismiss the map as less than an argument, one might quite correctly conclude.  This 2002 Hamas “map” of Israel openly evacuates the region of the area of a state, and retains toponymy in Arabic script.  When found in the tent of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, co-founder of Hamas and often named as its spiritual leader, the discovery of the map was taken as evidence of his denial of Israel’s right to exist as well as an outright denial of Jews’ historical settlement of the same land.  It was quickly associated with Yassin’s demand that “Israel, as the Jewish state, must disappear from the map” and his fiery claim that the Islamic land of Palestine was “consecrated for future Muslim generations until Judgment Day.” (The map, produced by Hamas and including data about the Palestinian diaspora and the refugee camps from 2000 on its left margin, beside the map, was allegedly found in Sheik Ahmed Ahmed Ismail Hassan Yassin’s tent after an attempted assassination in September 2003, however seems standard fare within the Palestinian Authority–not to mention Abu Dabi.)


Hamas maps Palestine


The mapping of the region becomes a creative act of remembering locations, and restoring, in some sense, a region whose toponomy was erased and rewritten since 1948, when the landscape, cemeteries, sites of worship and family dwellings were eradicated and renamed, and became of what is now Israel.  According to a recent 2012 study–albeit one that received some criticism from Israelis-94% of Palestinian textbook maps fail to identify of Israel while 87% of Israeli maps lack mention of Palestine or the Palestinian territories.  Demand for a bi-national textbook project has been greatly advanced by Prof. Sami Adwan as a result.  But the fights held on cartographical space (or maps) reveal something of a bloodless war, in which no shots are as of yet fired, for redrawing boundary lines in paper, with full-color visualizations of the absence of the state that settled it.  There is a constant dialogue in them, not between different practices of mapping, but between maps and memory–or how memory matters in the structuring of the map, and matters perhaps more than written knowledge, as in this version of the tapestry map similar to that delivered to the UNRWA.


'Popular' embroidered map of Palestine found in  Operation Defensive Shield

But such resistance, clearly, did not occur in a vacuum.

When the medievalist Meron Benvenisti, retired as deputy mayor of Jerusalem, in which capacity he had administered East Jerusalem and been the city’s chief planning officer in  Teddy Kollek’s administration from 1971-78, he converted some of his expertise on the role of the Christian crusaders who had transmitted so much knowledge of the Holy Land–and so many myths of the middle east–to the West, to compile a new database of place-names and political developments in the contested West Bank from 1984.  A fierce advocate of a binational state and critic of the “extreme inequality” Arabs face in the Israeli state, and a critic of the destruction of Arab homes in Palestine from 1948 too often disguised under such self-serving justifications like the “evacuation of intruders from state lands,” Benvenisti was skeptical of the mysticism with which the love of or longing for the Israeli territories had been for so long imagined as a “Land destined for us in the depth of its experience [sic] as was written in the Bible,” or the cult of the Homeland that underpinned the transfer of power to settlers after the 1948 war as if it were a practice of repatriation. The remapping of Palestine was in a sense a nationalization of a doubly spiritual and physical space–in which the map serves  as one means among others “for establishing and proving the claim of ownership over the redeemed Land of Israel.”

The cult was enacted by the attempt in 2009 to Hebrew counterparts in ways presented as “purifying” the toponyms exhibited on road signs, maps, and communities by removing the Arabic versions, in ways that were feared as an attempt to “erase Arab heritage from much of the Holy land,” as Jonathan Cook wrote;  when the transportation minister Israel Katz in the government of Benjamin Netanyahu issued an edict to remove Arabic names from Israel, East Jerusalem, and parts of the West Bank, he presented the change in the guise of a move of “standardization”–erasing the Arabic “al-Quds” or “al-Nasra” from signage identifying Jerusalem and Nazareth–in ways that received significant push-back.    Katz argued with barely concealed polemical undertones that “This government, and certainly this minister, will not allow anyone to turn Jewish Jerusalem into Palestinian al-Quds,” although Arabic, Hebrew, and English names had been exhibited on parallel signs in the past; Ahmed Tibi, an Arab legislator in Israel’s Parliament, objected ruefully that “Minister Katz is mistaken if he thinks that changing a few words can erase the existence of the Arab people or their connection to Israel.”  The attempt was recognized as an attempt to force the recognition of all Jerusalem as part of the Israeli state, and render invisible the Palestinian presence outside of areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority. 10.  The country becomes just difficult to map, even if granting territorial maps the status of legal precedents.  Indeed, the map of land-ownership by Jews before 1948, based on a 1947 British survey of the region prior to the partition plan that is often cited as a rebuttal of the origins of the Israeli state, reminding viewers of the memory of a land where Jewish ownership was limited, before the legal entity of the state of Israel existed, to keep alive a map that has been obliterated, lest it be forgotten.




A historical map of  Palestinian and Jewish land ownership that was developed at the same time for the United Nations reveals a slightly more mixed picture, much debated by different parties, and also clearly reveals (or forecasts) the problems of uniting the territory within the boundaries that Israel would come to occupy:



If the practice of mapping and remapping is in a sense a therapeutic act as a staking out of place, a reclaiming of memory, and act of possession, or a braiding of all the three, the negotiation on the land is far more contested, and rendered more potent, as it is cast or rendered as a covenant, as much as mere territorial bounds.  The territory, while drawn on the map, seems to remain both separate from it, as a result, given the provisional nature of maps–maps only approximate as a secondary version of a vision that exists, sadly, without little consensus or negotiation ever being able to be actually reached.  As, at the same time, new maps seem to always multiply, whose very multiplication opens new land for potential contestation–and push resolution (one fears) further down the road. But perhaps it is worth remembering that the map needn’t be the territory.  The sort of cartographical archeology uncovered in crumbling pages of archives, rare book rooms or on the internet provides a nice way to distance map from territory, paradoxically, by recovering the inhabitation of the map.

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Filed under biblical maps, historical maps, Holy Land, Israeli-Palestinian relations, sacred territory

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