Main Geographical Regions of Palestine
The coastal plains
The cliffs of Ras an‐Naqura, also known as the ‘Ladder of Tyre’, which divide the Plain of Phoenicia to the north from the Plain of Acco to the south, form an appropriate northern boundary. The Plain of Acco reaches to the point where the limestone Carmel Promontory juts out into the Mediterranean and the plain is reduced to an extremely narrow coastal strip before it broadens somewhat to form the Plain of Dor which stretches down to the Crocodile River (Wadi Zerqa), around whose mouth was an area of marshland. South of this is the much broader Plain of Sharon, once thickly forested. The southern limit of Sharon was the Valley of Aijalon, through which ran the road to the port of Joppa.
One of the apparently surprising facts about the ancient Hebrews is that, despite dwelling along the coastline, they were not seafarers, unlike their northern neighbours the Phoenicians. The reason is probably that there were few natural harbours. Another feature of the coastal plains, particularly in the south, is the sand dunes which sometimes stretch inland for some distance. But there was a port at Joppa, mentioned in the story of Jonah as the point of his embarkation on his ill‐fated sea journey (Jon. 1: 3 ); its existence is implied in 2 Chronicles 2: 16 and Ezra 3: 7 . Ultimately Herod the Great had a harbour constructed at Caesarea (Maritima).
South of the Plain of Sharon lies the Plain of Philistia, so‐called because it was where the Philistines had settled.
The central hill country
Galilee, the northernmost section of the hill country, is a continuation of the Lebanon range. It is usually subdivided into Upper Galilee, whose highest mountain, Jebel Jermaq, rises to 3,962 ft (c.1300 m), and the gentler slopes and wider fertile valleys of Lower Galilee. To the south, the line of hills is interrupted by the Plain of Megiddo or Esdraelon, an approximately triangular shaped area which linked the Plain of Acco to the Valley of Jezreel and the Jordan Valley. The apex of the triangle is marked by the conspicuous limestone dome of Mount Tabor, and the base is formed by the Carmel hills which link the promontory to the region of Ephraim. The hill country of Ephraim (sometimes subdivided into Ephraim and Manasseh) is an area of rolling limestone hills and valleys, but east of the water‐parting the land is largely wilderness. The successive capitals of the northern Kingdom of Israel (Shechem, Tirzah, and Samaria) were situated in this area. To the south is the hill country of Judah, separated from the coastal plains by the foothills of the Shephelah; the name means ‘lowland’ so it must have been given from the perspective of the higher hill country. On the whole the region is more rugged than Ephraim, and it falls away in the west into an area known as the Wilderness of Judah, even more desolate than that further north. The southern capitals, Hebron and Jerusalem, lay in the heart of the hill country of Judah. Further south, beyond the Valley of Beer‐sheba and the Valley of Salt, the hills continue into the Negeb, a largely inhospitable region of steppeland but where some pasturing of crops and limited agriculture was possible. The Negeb extends from the Mediterranean coast in the west to the Arabah in the east, merging with the Sinai peninsula to the south‐west.
The Rift Valley
In the vicinity of Dan are the springs which form the sources of the River Jordan, fed by water from the snow‐capped Mount Hermon to the north‐east. From these springs, the waters flow into the Huleh basin where, in biblical times, there was a lake whose Greek name was Lake Semechonitis. From Huleh, 223 ft (68 m) above sea level, the Jordan drops rapidly to the Sea (or Lake) of Galilee (or Chinnereth), which is already 695 ft (212 m) below sea level. The name ‘Jordan’ is probably connected with a root which means ‘go down’, so the name is very appropriate. The descent continues south of the Sea of Galilee, as the river continues to drop towards the Dead (or Salt) Sea whose surface is nearly 1,300 feet (400 m) below sea level, and whose deepest point is another 1,300 ft lower still. Between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea, the Jordan flows though a valley known as the Ghor, in which it has formed a lower flood plain, the Zor, an area of thick vegetation and probably that which is described in Jeremiah 12: 5 as the ‘jungle [NRSV thickets] of the Jordan’. A feature of this stretch of the river is its meandering. The distance ‘as the crow flies’ between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea is about 65 miles (105 km); but the river flows nearly 200 miles (about 320 km) to cover the distance. The most noteworthy feature of the Dead Sea is the extremely high level of saltiness of its water, some six times the salt content of the oceans, so high that no marine life can survive in it. This is due almost entirely to evaporation, since the Jordan does not wash down appreciably more chemicals than other rivers. South of the Dead Sea, the Rift Valley continues some 100 miles (160 km) until it reaches the Gulf of Aqaba. This region is known as the Arabah, although sometimes that designation is used with reference to the whole of the Rift Valley south of the Sea of Galilee.
Much of the territory to the east of the Jordan comprises relatively high tableland, divided by four major rivers. Because of its height it receives a significant amount of rainfall, though this decreases further east and the land becomes desert. To the north of the River Yarmuk, which joins the Jordan just south of the Sea of Galilee, Bashan is the broadest part of the fertile strip, known for its produce and cattle (Deut. 32: 14; Amos 4: 1 ). East of Bashan is the Leja (whose Greek name was Trachonitis), a rugged area of basalt hills. South of the Yarmuk is the territory of Gilead, divided by the River Jabbok. This region too was noted for its cattle (for example, Num. 32: 1; S. of Sol. 4: 1; 6: 5 ) and is mentioned alongside Bashan in Micah 7: 14 in a context which suggests they were noted for their fertility. Further south are regions which, in the period reflected in the Hebrew Bible, were separate kingdoms. To the east and south of Gilead is the territory of Ammon. Further south again, and to the east of the Dead Sea, lies Moab, through which flows the River Arnon. The biblical narrative records that Moab was known as a sheep‐breeding centre (2 Kgs. 3: 4 ), and the Book of Ruth opens with a reference to people of Judah seeking refuge there in time of famine (Ruth 1: 1 ). Separated from Moab by the valley of the Zered and south of the Dead Sea is the rugged region of Edom.