Sacred Toponymy Matters: the Territory in the Map

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 modern 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.

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

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