Sacred Toponymy Matters: the Territory in the Map

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 Amsterdam

Bar-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.

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

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