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Geography of Palestine

(For this article map references are not given; Map 1 and the index to the maps should be consulted.) From the time of the Greek historian Herodotus (fifth century BCE), the term “Palestine” (derived from the word for Philistine) designated the western tip of the Fertile Crescent, namely, the area on both sides of the Jordan River, limited on the north by the Litani River and Mount Hermon, on the east by the Syrian desert, on the south by the Negeb desert, and on the west by the Mediterranean Sea. It falls into six broad geographical regions: the coastal plain, the Shephelah, the central mountain range, the Judean desert, the Jordan Valley, and the Transjordanian plateau. These can be visualized as north‐south strips set side by side.

The Coastal Plain.

This strip is divided into three unequal portions by the Ladder of Tyre (Rosh ha‐Niqra/Ras en‐Naqura) and Mount Carmel. Above Rosh ha‐Niqra, the plain widens to the north reaching its greatest width at the Phoenician city of Tyre, which in biblical times was an island. Between Rosh ha‐Niqra and Mount Carmel, the plain averages 8 km (5 mi) in width. In addition to an annual rainfall of 600 mm (24 in), it is thoroughly watered, particularly south of Ptolemais (Akko), where the alluvium deposited by the Naaman and Kishon rivers has pushed the coastline forward into the Bay of Haifa. The two tips of the bay form natural harbors at Akko and Tell Abu Hawam.

South of Mount Carmel, the smooth coastline is devoid of natural harbors, but in antiquity there were lighterage stations at Dor, Strato's Tower, and Jaffa. In this area, the plain is much broader and runs all the way to Gaza. It is characterized by three parallel kurkar ridges, the remnants of prehistoric coastlines. The sand outside the first ridge gave way to swamps within, caused by the failure of rivers and wadis to drain completely. In biblical times, the third ridge was covered with oak, and the rich soil of the land reaching to the foothills was ideal for agriculture. The plain is divided in two by the Yarkon River, which begins at Aphek (Rosh ha‐ʿAyin). The plain of Sharon north of the Yarkon receives almost twice as much rain (300 mm [12 in]) as the plain of Philistia to the south. The great commercial highway, the Way of the Sea, had to pass through the 3 km (2 mi) gap between Aphek and the hills. This became a major crossroads when Herod the Great built the first artificial harbor at Strato's Tower and named it Caesarea Maritima.

The Shephelah.

As the biblical name (“lowlands”) indicates, this is an area of low, rolling hills roughly 45 km (28 mi) long and 15 km (9 mi) broad, lying south of the Aijalon valley. The soft chalk and limestone hills are cut by wide valleys running both north‐south and east‐west. Even the driest part in the south receives about 250 mm (10 in) of rain, and in the biblical period it was intensely cultivated. Olives, sycamore figs, and vineyards are mentioned explicitly in the Bible. The key cities were Gezer in the north, which dominated both the plain and the easiest access to the mountains, and Lachish in the south, which controlled the main route through the center to Beth‐shemesh and also the lateral route to Hebron.

The Central Mountain Range.

This region is by far the biggest, and can be divided into three areas, Galilee, Carmel and Samaria, and Judea.


This mountainous area is bordered on the north by the Litani River and on the south by the Jezreel Valley, which runs along the north side of the Carmel range and broadens out into the great plain of Esdraelon (365 km2 [140 mi2) before sloping gently to join the Jordan Valley at Beth‐shean. Because ancient settlements appear only on the edges, it must have been subject to flooding in biblical times. It was, nonetheless, a very important east‐west route.

The classical division into Upper and Lower Galilee is based on the simple fact that the three highest peaks of the former are all over 1000 m (3300 ft), whereas the two highest of the latter barely attain 600 m (2000 ft). Even though both benefit by an average rainfall of 800–500 mm (30–20 in), the terrain is generally unsuited to agriculture, and in the biblical period was covered by oak forests. The isolation of the perfectly rounded Mount Tabor (588 m [1929 ft]) gave it a numinous quality. Beside it ran the Way of the Sea, angling out from Hazor to the coast through the Carmel range.

Carmel and Samaria.

Running southeast from the coast, the Carmel range is cut by two strategic passes, the Nahal Yoqneam and the Nahal ʿIron, the latter with Megiddo at its northern end. South of the Dothan Valley, the ridge coalesces with the mountains of Gilboa to create a much wider range with no Shephelah on the west and a steep drop into the Jordan Valley on the east. The central core of the area is constituted by Mount Gerizim (881 m [2889 ft]) and Mount Ebal (941 m [3083 ft]). The pass between them, controlled by Shechem (Nablus), carried the major east‐west route coming from the Jordan via the verdant Wadi el‐Farʿah, in which Tirzah, (Tell el‐Farʿah) is located, and out to the coast just south of Samaria. This was the heartland of the northern kingdom of Israel, and the contrast between the closed site of Tirzah and the wide prospect to the west from Samaria is symbolic of the shift in policy that took place under Omri in the ninth century BCE (1 Kings 16.23–24; see Israel, History of). In this period, the hills were heavily wooded, but the valleys, which are wider in the north, produced grain, olives, and grapes. North‐south travel was difficult, except on the crest running south from Shechem. The first 20 km (12 mi) of the route lay in the fertile Michmethath Valley, but after the ascent of Lubban the road wound in narrow wadis past the sanctuaries of Shiloh and Bethel.


Geographically, the Jerusalem hills are a saddle between Ramallah and Bethlehem, which is some 200 m (650 ft) lower than the highest points of Samaria to the north and Hebron to the south. This facilitated east‐west travel, and there have always been relatively easy routes to the coastal plain and the Jordan Valley. The forests that covered the hills when the Israelites first occupied the area gradually disappeared. The demands of a growing city were intensified by the insatiable appetite for firewood of a sacrificial cult that endured almost a thousand years. After the hills had been denuded, terraces began to be built on the slopes. The small fields thus developed supported mainly olive trees, but some grain crops as well. The average rainfall is 560 mm (22 in). Enveloped by higher hills with a poor water supply and a location off the natural routes, Jerusalem would have been doomed to insignificance had David not given it political weight by making it a religious center.

South of Bethlehem, the hills rise toward Hebron (1000 m [3300 ft]) and then descend to the great plain around Beer‐sheba. The tree cover in the biblical period was oak with patches of pine, but Genesis 49.11 attests the intense cultivation of the vine in the valleys and on terraces. The only significant route ran north‐south with only one good branch route to the coastal plain. The geographic homogeneity of the Hebron hills helps to explain why it was always the territory of a single tribe, Judah.

The Judean Desert.

This region borders the Hebron hills on the east. The rainfall decreases sharply some 5 km (3 mi) east of the watershed, and in 20 km (12 mi) the land drops 1200 m (4000 ft) to the Dead Sea. The vegetation is sufficient to support only sheep and goats. In biblical times, this was the grazing land of the settlements on the eastern edge of the hill country (see 1 Sam. 25.2). There are few springs, but runoff can be collected in cisterns to water the flocks. The character of the terrain makes travel difficult. It descends to the east in a series of steps, the most important of which is the Valley of Achor at the northern end. These are cut by the deep gorges of the Wadi Murabbaʿât and Wadi Ghiar, which drain into the Dead Sea; both had extensive prehistoric occupation. In the biblical period, the only significant route was that from Tekoa to En–gedi.

The Jordan Valley.

From its principal source at Banyas (303 m [995 ft]) in the foothills of Mount Hermon, the Jordan River runs south in a great crack in the earth's surface where two tectonic plates meet. It continues down the Gulf of Aqaba/Eilat to become the Rift Valley in Africa. In biblical times, the area south of Dan was an impassable swamp with Lake Huleh at its center. The Sea of Galilee (21 by 12 km [13 by 7½ mi] at its longest and widest) is a freshwater lake 210 m (700 ft) below sea‐level. It contains twenty‐two species of fish, and fishing has always been essential to the local economy.

Shortly after the Jordan leaves the lake it is supplemented by the waters of the Yarmuk. In the 105 km (65 mi) to the Dead Sea the valley drops 194 m (540 ft) but the river meanders through 322 km (200 mi). The river bed with its tropical undergrowth that sheltered large wild animals is some 7 m (23 ft) below the valley, which widens to 23 km (14 mi) near Jericho, where the rainfall averages only 150 mm (6 in).

The Jordan ends in the Dead Sea (404 m [1285 ft] below sea level), which has no outlet. Water is lost only through evaporation (in the 40°C [105°F] heat of summer about 24 mm (1 in) each day), producing a high concentration of all the chlorides (26 percent as opposed to the 3.5 percent salinity of the oceans); in Hebrew it is called the “Sea of Salt” (Gen. 14.3; etc; NRSV: “Dead Sea”). It averages 16 km (10 mi) wide, and its length was reduced to 50 km (30 mi) in 1976 when the area south of the Lynch Straits dried out. This may have been the size of the sea in the historical period, but some fifty thousand years ago the water level was 225 m (731 ft) higher, and the valley as far as Galilee was a long inlet of the Red Sea. The gradually rising continuation of the valley to the Gulf of Aqaba/Eilat is now called the Arabah, though in the Bible that term generally means other parts of the Rift Valley.

The Transjordanian Plateau.

This region is a strip roughly 40 km (25 mi) wide starting at Mount Hermon and limited on the west by the escarpment of the Jordan Valley. On the east it gradually shades into the Syrian desert. The Golan, lying north of the Yarmuk river, was biblical Bashan and is a basalt plateau characterized by the small cones of extinct volcanoes. The fertile volcanic soil of the southern part gives way to wild pastureland in the north. The center of biblical Gilead is located between the rivers Yarmuk and Jabbok (Nahr ez‐Zerqa), but the term is also employed to designate the area as far south as the Arnon River (Seil el‐Mojib), which is also called Ammon. The terrain and vegetation cover is very similar to that of the hill country of Samaria. At an average of 1000 m (3300 ft) above sea level, the plateau of Moab lying between the Arnon and the Brook Zered (Wadi el‐Hesa) is higher than the land to the north. In biblical times, it was proverbial for its fertility, and 2 Kings 3.4 highlights the productivity of its sheep farming. Edom extends south of Moab as far as the Gulf of Aqaba/Eilat. Its average height parallels that of Moab, but the central peaks rise to 1700 m (5600 ft). Winters are very cold and the snows can last until March. Due to the altitude, the tree cover of this area extends much further south than the corresponding forests west of the Jordan. The great commercial route, the King's Highway, ran the length of the plateau linking Damascus with the ports of Elath and Ezion‐geber on the Gulf of Aqaba.

See also Maps of the Biblical World


Jerome Murphy‐O'Connor

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