Tag Archives: Mapping Palestine

Sacred Toponymy Matters: Framing Canaan, between Sacred Site and Jurisdiction

Symbolic maps of the Holy Land are unlike the local maps created for establishing territorial boundary lines or land-ownership that set.  But they have come to enshrine shared precedents and common recognized grounds of law, defining property lands of cultivated land.  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 territoriality or for dividing rights to areas where no evident natural boundary existed, and were to an extent imitated in these maps of the Holy Land.  The influential fourteenth-century jurist Bartolus of Sassoferato, among whose many briefs of Roman civil law  one had defended the legal governmental rights of city-states in the area of central Italy, famously appealed to the authority of maps to resolve disputes over river rights and alluvial deposits between towns by maps.   Although Bartolus’ influence, considerable before 1800, developed outside of a clear notion of government territoriality, he appealed to maps to resolve ownership boundaries outside of local statutes, in ways to create a common understanding and consensus about the occupation and ownership of a potentially disputed plot of land. The determining tools of cartography afforded the authority for manufacturing the map in ways that provided a precedent for drawing property lines, and bounding a landscape’s expanse which could be regularly provided and widely recognized.  This 1689 image of Bartolus’ treatise on the manners of measuring river rights uses a quadrant of Euclidean derivation to transpose a river’s winding serpentine course into geometric fixity, translating his discussion of to seventeenth-century surveying practices. illus244s Lines of jurisdiction are of course still particularly fraught, despite Bartolus’ appeal to the rule of the quadrant, and difficult to transmit, and not only around rights to rivers, some centuries later, but the value of maps in recording an authoritative transcription of rights emerged as a powerful judicial 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; indeed, to argue that the map conjures the territory or synthesizes it into existence collapses the complex process of mediation, causation and transmission, in which the map serves in very powerful ways. Sacred maps demarcate a sacred space that collapsed historical time in powerful ways. But once translated into historical terms, such maps materialized cartographical precedents, even if they when more rooted in a cartographical imaginary than in surveying practices or jurisdictional claims of a state. But historical maps of Palestine acquired a sense of authority as precedents in what might be seen as a sort of cartographical promise, as the map came to offer a tangible image to the historical imagination that also suggested a record of historical precedent.

For although they were less easily treated as precedents of similar binding force, historical maps increasingly came to stake claim to the inhabitation of the land. And in few cases can the relation between map and territory become more fraught with complications, and more delicate–especially when the same map is also being used to construct a nation, and is so strongly conjured from biblical writings as a way to imagine the existence of a new homeland. The historical maps of Palestine, framed in considerable detail long before the eighteenth century rise of jurisprudence, offered a compelling basis to organize and encourage readers’ familiarity with sacred toponymy and bounds that long anticipated European settlement of the land–and encouraged increasingly complex narratives to be attached to their own reading. The description of the historical borders of ancient land of Canaan encouraged an outpouring of early modern cartographical materials in the first age of widespread cartographical literacy, or familiarity with the authority of the map. The expansive fourteen-sheet wall map of Canaan executed by that industrious seventeenth-century mapper of England‘s territories, John Speed, is lost, but it expanded the 1611 “mappe of Canaan” he designed for the King James Bible–whose design was sufficiently tied to his cartographical competence that he secured a privilege for its reproduction. The map organized narratives about the Holy Land in ways that invested the region with a clearer sense of territorial identity it seems not to have earlier enjoyed. When Speed mapped the Holy Land in the seventeenth century, the map created a model for reading biblical space; William Stackhouse amply provided extensive maps in his 1744 New History of the Bible from the Beginning of the World to the Establishment of Christianity as historical documents of the boundaries dividing Canaan: the map of Canaan in his History afforded a material basis to understand how the Roman census divided inhabitants of the Holy Land, a territorialization of tribal divisions lended 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 earlier fabricated provided a precedent for mapping Canaan–not only as the “eye of history,” as the humanistically-educated Jean Bodin and Abraham Ortelius proffered in their maps–but as a form whose boundaries constituted something like a precedent to a modern nation-state. Speed had received a privilege for 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 not invoke sovereignty. The curate Stackhouse, former grammar school headmaster expanded the authority of engraved maps in Bibles printed from 1733, and expanded in a two-volume edition of 1742-4, “rectifying Mif-Tranflations and reconciling feeming Contradictions, the whole illuftrated with proper Maps and Sculptures.” In it, Stackhouse’ “Map of Canaan, Divided among the 12 Tribes” was a surrogate for the map Revernd Stackhouse surmised with due consideration God provided “to shew Moses the compass of the land.”

Twelve Tribes Mapped in Stackhouse by Hinton

The Reverend 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,” scriptures had it that the 120 year old Moses’ eyes “were not dim;” no doubt, Stackhouse surmised, “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 visual presence of 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 indeed that the map had assumed as register of national identity. The notion of demarcating a legal territory in biblical times echoed the five maps Speed designed for the King James Bible, and gained a privilege for designing, although based on the earlier efforts of “the learned divine” John More. These maps were commissioned to encourage vernacular biblical readership, but respond to a sense of cartographical literacy unlike earlier maps of Palestine or Canaan. Speed’s maps coincidentally paralleled his 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 cartographically imagined. The widespread republication of Speed’s atlases and Theater in the 1670s and 1680s that included maps of “His Majesty’s Dominions Abroad” on its title–and maps of New England, Virginia, Barbadoes, and the Carolinas, broadening the canvass of the nation. Reverend Stackhouse built on 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” were proper since they set a standard for the symbolic mapping of the region that might have been read by Abraham, and offered a basis to understand the distances from Nazareth to Bethlehem 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, as much as its cities. In addressing a larger readership of printed bibles, such maps concretized a detailed and palpable relation to the territory.

The translation of the findings of surveys to such widely diffused maps–and the translation of surveyors’ findings from these maps to later maps that won a large readership in sacred texts–deserves to be examined as a subject of cultural history.  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.”  And the emergence of “historical” maps of the Holy Land raises questions of how the map only becomes the territory over time. Where the palpability of such images derived from, and how they were deployed for a wide readership across a broad geographically dispersed readership, raises questions of the sort of cartographical literacy that came to be communicated about the Holy Land. The layers of translation from territory to map and back again open something like a chasm of misreading how a map maps to a land.  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 transpose a sacred text to the project of  the mapping of the nation, current among some  more right-wing parties of the current Israeli state.  The multiplication of alternative maps expresses a dueling between contesting visions, still needing to be fully mapped, and exchange between an imagined unity and the state’s actual boundaries.  As the reality of the state of Israel has grown, the map that informed it, however, takes on new urgency–if only because of the expansion of a mythical-historical perspective on the identity of the same land.


The inclusion of a series of geographically situated Battlefields of the Twelve Tribes in this 1864 map of the same territory lent considerable tangibility to the map of the Holy Land as a detailed historical topography, based on the current surveying of the same landscape.    The positioning of the sites of ancient battles against this field of clear elevations, hillocks, rivers, the Dead Sea and other topographic realities created a sense of concreteness that bestowed a sense of strategic encounters in an actual lived terrain–something 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 Hungarian journalist Theodore Herzl called for the creation and foundation of a Jewish homeland in his 1896 Der Judenstaat, help to conjure the territory? For by 1897, Herzl described the goals of Zionism “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”–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 to which numerous counter-maps have been articulated at the same time as maps are used to try to narrate the geographic displacements and renaming that occurred–so often in the name of remapping the map to the territory, and re-asserting the complex narrative that was itself generated from the increasingly fraught relation between territory and map. The concrete detail of the maps realized the imaginary existence of the region with a concreteness that provided a recognized and recognizable image of lands settled by the Twelve Tribes by 1900 as if it were their property.


And, to jump wildly–and fairly irresponsibly, it must be admitted–across time, after 1948, the negotiation of these sites of settlement and creation of places of habitation was considerably more complex to negotiate, as this recent map of Israel’s relation to the occupied territories reveals, a process of negotiation building from and negotiating the attempt to integrate Gaza or the West Bank in an earlier notion of a “Greater Israel.” More pressingly and compellingly, than this cartographical fantasy is the manner that the image of land defined the bounds of the land’s inhabitants by 2007.


The “other” side of the historical story is presented in this 2012 map of the scope of the declining expanse that was bounded in the Palestinian state from virtually the same date–1897–up until the present, a map that seeks to conjure, if it obscures 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, at a moment commemorated on May 15 as the Nakba Day [يوم الن], or the Day of Catastrophe.


The map is striking for how it reveals a counter-example to the above fantasy of occupation–paralleled a 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 delegated with the task of creating Hebrew names as when David Ben-Gurion affirmed “We are obliged to remove the Arabic names for reasons of state,” dedicating the nation to the project of determining place-names in the Negev, or southern half of Israel. For a more expansive version of this post, please click here.

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Filed under Bartolus of Sassoferato, Holy Land, Israeli toponyms, Israelite Tribes, Mapping the Holy Land, Michael Chabon, Nakba, Traditional Palestine, Twelve Tribes, William Stackhouse

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.

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