- The Sacred Bridge – The Land of Israel lies in Western Asia/the Near East/the Middle East/the southern Levant/the Fertile Crescent, and is a nexus between the continents of Africa & Asia—literally linking the African (Sinai subplate) & Arabian tectonic plates. In ancient times, it connected the superpowers of Mesopotamia and Egypt, as well as the Hittite Empire (in Anatolia & the northern Levant). Several vital trade routes traversed the Land of Israel, facilitating commerce throughout the southern Levant: Derekh HaYam (The Way of the Sea/The Coastal Highway), Derekh HaAvot (The Way of the Patriarchs/The Ridge Route/The Watershed Route), Derekh Shur (The Way of Shur), Derekh HaMelekh (The King’s Highway/The Road to Bashan), and Derekh Midbar Moav (The Way of the Wilderness/The Desert Route). These ancient arteries were key factors in the country’s primacy, and enabled not only the transportation of goods and services but also the communication of news and ideas. The trade routes of the Land of Israel were crucial to its historical role as a sacred bridge.
- Tribal Math (Part 1) – While the Tanakh refers to the “half” tribes of Menasheh (i.e., the eastern half and the western half, with the Jordan River as the dividing line), this is an imprecise locution further complicated by several conflicting scriptural passages: depending on the verse (especially from Num. 26 and 32, and Josh. 17), and on one’s method of reckoning clans, there were either only two of eight clans (Makhir and Gilad, but not Avi’ezer/Iezer, Heilek, Asriel, Shekhem, Heipher, or Shmida), or only one of seven clans (Makhir, but not Avi’ezer/Iezer, Heilek, Asriel, Shekhem, Heipher, or Shmida), or only two of eight sons (Makhir and Ya’ir, but not Avi’ezer/Iezer, Heilek, Asriel, Shekhem, Heipher, or Shmida) of Menasheh that settled in Transjordan (Ya’ir might have been childless, and thus never developed his own clan).
- Tribal Math (Part 2) – The myth of the Ten Lost Tribes exiled by the conquering Assyrians is belied, first and foremost, by the simple fact that the vanquished northern Kingdom of Israel never actually comprised 10 tribes. As Judah had previously largely absorbed the tribal territory of Shimon during the era of the Judges (c. 1228–1020 BCE), so too it soon absorbed the tribal territory of Benjamin once the latter tribe agreed to a shared destiny with Judah at the time of the division of the United Monarchy of Israel (931 BCE). In addition, the tribe of Levi—which had no contiguous territory of its own—possessed cities in the southern Kingdom of Judah (i.e., in the tribal territories of Judah, Shimon, and Benjamin); also, the Levites did not dwell exclusively in Levitical cities. Moreover, while Emperor Tiglat-Pileser III of Assyria deported 13,520 captives from the Kingdom of Israel (734–732 BCE) and Emperor Sargon II of Assyria deported a further 27,290 captives variously to Hilah, Havor, the Gozan River, and the Median cities ruled by Assyria, then replaced them with pagan gentiles from Babylon, Khutah, Avva, Hammat, and Sipharvayim (722–720 BCE), the more than 40,000 deportees from the Kingdom of Israel represented only a fraction of its entire population (according to one estimate, merely one-fifth), and some scholars maintain that at the advance of the Assyrians many refugees from the north had fled south to seek refuge in Judah—especially in Jerusalem—which apparently expanded fivefold around this time. Thus the term “Jew” applies not only to members of the tribes of Judah, Shimon, Benjamin, and Levi, but in all likelihood to descendants of several other Israelite tribes as well.
- Levitical Cities and Kohanic Cities and Cities of Refuge, Oh My! – On average, the Levites received by lot four cities in each of the 12 tribal territories (Naphtali gave only three cities, while Judah and Shimon together gave nine cities), for a total of 48 Levitical cities and the open land around them; of these 48 cities, 13 were Kohanic (priestly) cities (sited in Judah, Shimon, and Benjamin) and six were cities of refuge (three on each side of the Jordan River, whereto those guilty of manslaughter could flee from avengers and wherein they would be granted asylum). The cities of refuge comprised Kedesh, Shekhem, and Hebron (in Cisjordan) and Betzer, Ramot-Gilad, and Golan (in Transjordan). The 13 Kohanic cities comprised Hebron, Livnah, Yattir, Eshtimoa, Holon, Kiryat Seifer (Dvir), Ayin, Yutah, Beit Shemesh, Givon, Geva, Anatot, and Almon. The 48 Levitical cities comprised Hebron, Livnah, Yattir, Eshtimoa, Holon, Kiryat Seifer (Dvir), Ayin, Yutah, and Beit Shemesh (in Judah and Shimon); Givon, Geva, Anatot, and Almon (in Benjamin); Shekhem, Gezer, Kivtzayim, and Beit Horon (in Ephraim); Eltikei, Gibton, Ayalon, and Gat-Rimon (in Dan); Ta’anakh, Gat-Rimon (or else Yivli’am/Bil’am), Golan, and Bi’eshtirah (in Menasheh); Kishyon, Davrat, Yarmut, and Ein Gannim (in Issachar); Mishal, Avdon, Helkat, and Rehov (in Asher); Kedesh, Hammot Dor, and Kartan (Naphtali); Yokne’am, Kartah, Dimnah, and Nahalal (in Zevulun); Ramot-Gilad, Mahanayim, Heshbon, and Yazeir (in Gad); and Betzer, Yahtzah, Kideimot, and Meipha’at (in Reuven).
- Memorial Hamlets – Havot Ya’ir (“the tent villages of Ya’ir”) in Transjordan, within the tribal territory of eastern Menasheh, straddled the Yarmukh River and constituted a district of both Bashan (in its south) and Gilad (in its northeast). Originally the district, comprising 60 hamlets (with either 30 or 23 of them sited in Gilad), was ruled by King Og of Bashan; after the latter’s defeat in the Battle of Edrei, during the period of the Israelite repatriation to the Land of Israel (c. 1273–1245 BCE), Ya’ir ben Menasheh conquered the hamlets within Argov (perhaps the slender district in Bashan between the Yarmukh River tributaries Nahal Rukad/Wadi ar-Ruqqad and Wadi Alan) and Gilad and renamed them after himself (according to medieval sage Solomon Yitzhaki, also known as Rashi, Ya’ir did so as a memorial because he was childless). Despite their collective name, the district’s hamlets were fortified with walls and gates, and their inhabitants, perhaps nomadic or seminomadic herders, might have transferred with their herds from one hamlet to another in search of pastures.
- Rise of the Scorpions – Ma’aleih Akrabim (The Scorpions’ Ascent) is a steep pass constituting a portion of the southeastern border of the tribal territory of Judah, thereby linking the Aravah Valley and the Negev Desert. Ma’aleih Akrabim, long believed to derive its name either from the scorpions or the thorns found on-site (but perhaps more plausibly from the site’s distinctive, multipronged rock pattern suggestive of scorpions’ grasping pincers and segmented abdomens and tails), ascends from Nahal Tzin and beside Nahal Gov onto the desert plateau between HaMakhtesh HaGadol/Makhtesh Hatirah and HaMakhtesh HaKattan/Makhtesh Hatzeirah. The original path was the Tzafir Pass (in Arabic, Nakb el-Safa/Naqb es-Sfar), on the western side of Nahal Gov. During the Hellenistic era (332–167 BCE), the Nabatean Arabs used this path as part of their overland Incense Route between Oman and Sheba/Himyar (Yemen) in southern Arabia and the Mediterranean ports of Gaza and Rhinokoroura (El-Arish); the Nabateans built (along the route segment between their waystations of Tamar and Mamshit) at the base of Ma’aleih Akrabim a lower fortlet and caravanserai/khan (Rogem Tzafir), an upper fortlet and caravanserai/khan (Horvat Tzafir), and a nearby fortress (Matzad Tzafir). During the Roman era (63 BCE–313 CE), the eponymous ascent lent its name to the surrounding region, known then as Akrabattene; in addition, Roman engineers constructed dams at Horvat Tzafir and Matzad Tzafir and improved the road (hewn into the rock and stepped, thus intended for the passage of pedestrians and beasts of burden), which remained in use during the Byzantine era (324–638 CE). The modern path is a scenic and serpentine road (Route 227), initially built in 1927 during the British Mandate (1923–1948) to link the British police stations at Mamshit and Hatzeivah and later expanded and paved with asphalt by Israel Defense Forces engineers in 1950, on the eastern side of Nahal Gov.
- The Many Layers of Lower Galilee – The region or province of Lower Galilee comprises five mountain ranges separated by five valleys (running east-west), which from north to south are as follows: the Plain of Ramah/Beit HaKerem Valley, the Shagor mountain range, the Sikhnin Valley, the Yodefat mountain range, the Beit Netofah Valley, the Tur’an mountain range, the Tur’an Valley, the Nazareth mountain range, the Khsulot Valley, and the Givat HaMoreh range. In addition, the Yiftah-el Valley (either Nahal Tzippori/Wadi al-Malik, southwest of the Beit Netofah Valley, or Nahal Evlayim/Wadi Abellin, northwest of the Beit Netofah Valley) connects the center of the region to the northern Coastal Plain. Topographically, Lower Galilee resembles the Shfeilah region (as a network of ridges divided by valleys) so much that occasionally the same name was applied to it (e.g., Josh. 11:2).
- The Coast with the Most – The Land of Israel’s Mediterranean coast stretches in almost a straight line from the southeastern curve of the sea upward to the promontory of the Kharmel mountain range, with the sea depth gradually increasing in proportion to the country’s elevation; north of the Kharmel headland, plains and bluffs alternate along the coast, which stretches northward from Haifa and Akko past Akhziv to Rosh HaNikrah, where the Hanitah mountain range of Upper Galilee reaches the sea, until Tzur (Tyre) and southern Phoenicia. The shore is smooth, without islands detached from the mainland. From its south the Coastal Plain progressively narrows northward and is disrupted by the Kharmel and Hanitah headlands, north of which the coast recesses to form embayments including Haifa Bay and its small northern extension, the Bay of Akko. The beaches are covered by quartz sands from the Nile Delta and the coast of the Sinai Peninsula conveyed by shore currents, and comprise shifting sand dunes and low ridges of calcareous sandstone (kurkar). The Coastal Plain may be subdivided into seven sections: the Negev Plains; the Judean Plain (including its southern Philistine Plain); the Sharon Plain (also known as the central Coastal Plain); the Kharmel Coast Plain; the Haifa Plain; the Plain of Akko/the Plain of Asher (also known as the northern Coastal Plain or the Galilean Coastal Plain); and the Tyre Plain (north of the Rosh HaNikrah promontory). The belt of coastal sand dunes formerly obstructed the debouchures of watercourses, thereby fostering the formation of swamps, especially in the Sharon Plain and in the Haifa Plain; these were eliminated in the 20th century with intensive settlement and drainage work. Most of modern Israel’s population centers contour the Mediterranean coastline, including such seaside cities and towns as Nahariyah, Akko, Haifa, Atlit, Caesarea, Binyaminah, Haderah, Netanyah, Herzliyah, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Bat Yam, Rishon L’Tzion, Ashdod, and Ashkelon.
- A Yehudah by Any Other Name – Etymologically, Judah—Yehudah in Hebrew—was known to the Assyrians (Semites) as “Yaudaya” and to the Babylonians (Semites) and the Persians (Aryans who used the Semitic language of Aramaic as a lingua franca) as “Yehud” (which Aramaic form is found in the biblical books of Daniel and Ezra); “Judea”, the Greek version of Judah, was perhaps initially employed late during the period of Classical Greece (c. 510–323 BCE) but it is first attested—and it first gained widespread usage—during the Hellenistic era (332–167 BCE), and was subsequently Latinized into “Judaea” (wherein the digraph “ae” was sometimes fused into the ligature “æ”, rendering the spelling “Judæa”) by the Romans.
- The Good Thief’s House – Latrun is where in the 12th century crusaders erected the fortress Le Toron des Chevaliers (“The Knights’ Tower”) on the crest of a hill overlooking a historic crossroads that included the ancient road from Jerusalem to Lod (Lydda/Diospolis) and Jaffa (which fortress was destroyed by Sultan Saladin of the Ayyubid Sultanate, and which in the 14th century Christian pilgrims mistakenly called Domus boni Latronis, or “House of the Good Thief”, after Saint Dismas, the penitent thief crucified with Jewish reformer Jesus of Nazareth), and where fierce fighting attended the Jewish effort to pass supply convoys through to besieged Jerusalem during Israel’s War of Independence (1947–1949).
- The Red Ascent – The interregional road (running northeast-southwest) directly linking Jericho and Jerusalem via the ridge overlooking Nahal Prat (in Arabic, Wadi Qelt) to the north was named Ma’aleih Adumim (“The Red Ascent”) due to the reddish hues of the limestone tinted by iron oxide that lines its course in patches. The road extended from Jericho southward into the Valley of Akhor, then veered westward to climb the ridge into the central hill country toward the Levitical and Kohanic city of Anatot, whence it curved southwestward until it reached its terminus in eastern Jerusalem. The Ma’aleih Adumim ridge constituted a portion of the border between the tribal territories of Benjamin (to the north) and Judah (to the south). During the Byzantine era (324–638 CE), the fort of Maledomni was erected along the ridge, midway between Jericho and Jerusalem, to protect the interregional road, but it was replaced by the Templar fortlet of Maldoim (in Arabic, Qal’at ad-Damm) during the Crusades.
- The Descender’s Plunge – The Jordan River Valley extends from Mount Hermon in the north to the Salt Sea (Dead Sea) in the south and constitutes the northern half of the larger Jordan Rift Valley, which extends from Syria to the Red Sea, and which in turn constitutes part of the Dead Sea Transform fault system, which in turn constitutes part of the Great Rift Valley/Syrian-African Rift extending from southern Turkey to Mozambique. The valley features the Jordan River, the primary watercourse in the Land of Israel, formed by the confluence of a quartet of headwaters (Iyon/Ayun, Snir/Hasbani, Dan, Hermon) at the southwestern base of Mount Hermon (today the Snir/Hasbani and the Dan converge on the grounds of Kibbutz Sdei Nehemiah). The Jordan River (in Hebrew, yarden denotes “the descender”/“descending from Dan”) extends for about 225 miles southward through (the former) Lake Hulah, then between the Khorazim Plateau (the Khorazim Sill/Ramat Khorazim) and the southern Golan (Geshur), then through Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), and continues descending southward along a significant gradient until as a delta it empties into the north shore of the Salt Sea. Declining some 3,000 feet from its northern source to its southern mouth, the river is shallow in summertime and profound in wintertime.
- Lake Now You See Me – The southern basin of the hypersaline lake known as the Salt Sea (Dead Sea) has an alter ego when all dried up, namely the Valley of Sidim, which is periodically submerged following flooding from the lake’s northern basin and which was otherwise known for its clay wells or bitumen pits, which might have referred to asphalt quarries and/or perhaps even sinkholes. The Valley of Sidim’s southern tip (between Nahal Tzin and Wadi al-Hasa), an area whose brown soil is flecked with salt, was additionally known as the Valley of Salt.
- Eponyms & Namesakes – Regarding toponyms (placenames) in the Land of Israel, a general principle exists that might best be known thusly: “civilization lends, wilderness borrows”. In other words, a distinct urban site/locality gives its name to proximate natural features, for example: Ramah/Plain of Ramah, Khsulot (Xaloth)/Khsulot Valley, Gerar/Gerar Brook, Meirom/Water of Meirom, and Kideimot/Kideimot Wilderness, etc. While this is the norm, there are occasionally exceptions, most notably Lake Kinneret, whose name derives from kinor, denoting a “stringed musical instrument” such as a lute/lyre/harp, in Biblical Hebrew (not “violin”, as in modern Hebrew). Another exception may be the modern example of the short-lived (2005–2008) Galilean Arab city ash-Shaghur, whose name derived from the adjacent Shagor range, although the eponymous range is in turn probably the namesake of the tannaitic village of Shezor (modern Sajur, a modified toponym resulting from Arabic sound conversion).
- Recipe for Mixups – When it comes to the Land of Israel, toponymy is not for the faint of heart. Several sites throughout the land’s tribal territories and regions bear identical names because of their generic meaning, for instance: Mitzpah (“lookout”; Benjamin, Judah, Moab); Ramah (“height”; Benjamin, Ephraim, Naphtali); Geva (“hill”; Ephraim, Benjamin); Apheik (“channel/streambed”; Ephraim, Asher, eastern Menasheh); Aro’er (“stripped bare/juniper bushes”; Reuven, Judah, Gad); Ayalon (“place of deer”; Dan, Zevulun); and Gilgal (“standing stones circle”; various). There are even a number of famous placenames with lesser known sites bearing the same appellation: Hatzor (Naphtali, Benjamin); Tzfat (“Safed” in Naphtali, Hormah in Shimon); Be’ersheva (Shimon, Be’ersheva of the Galilee/Bersabe in Naphtali); Beit Lehem (Judah, Bethlehem of Galilee in Zevulun); Beit Shemesh (Judah, Naphtali, Issachar); Givah (Benjamin, Judah, Ephraim); and Jezreel (Issachar, Judah). Sometimes sites can be distinguished by their spelling (e.g., Kanah/Cana/Khana, Timnah/Timna/Timnatah), by other versions of their names (e.g., “Bozrah” is Botzrah in Edom or Bostra in Hauran), by extensions to their names (e.g., Caesarea Maritima vs. Caesarea Philippi), or because they constitute a twin site (Upper & Lower Beit Horon). Especially confusing are multiple sites bearing the same name within the same tribal territory (e.g., Kedesh in Naphtali, Kiryatayim in Reuven).
- To Be Determined? – Solving geographical difficulties in the Land of Israel can frequently be challenging. Some of the most problematic uncertainties include: Yiftah-el Valley (Nahal Tzippori/Wadi al-Malik, near Tzippori, or Nahal Evlayim/Wadi Abellin, near Yodefat?); should Eshkol Valley be identified with Wadi Taffuh, which connects to the upper course of the Guvrin Valley/Nahal Guvrin?; the Zered/Zared Brook is probably not Wadi al-Hasa: according to the Tanakh, the Zered is apparently in northeastern Moab, and scholars misread letters of the Greek label “A-R-E-A” as “A-R-E-D”—viz., a delta instead of a terminal alpha, w/a supposed missing initial Greek letter zeta—on the Madaba map, which dates to the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527–565 CE) and forms part of a floor mosaic in the Greek Orthodox Basilica of Saint George; is the city of Tzo’ar by the southeastern corner of the southern basin or of the northern basin of the Salt Sea?; is the Tzin Desert west of the Aravah Valley in the northeastern Negev, or east of the Aravah Valley in Edom?; is Kadesh distinct from Kadesh-Barnea, and east of the Aravah Valley, and identical to Meribat-Kadesh/Rekem/Petra?; is what is today called Tel Be’ersheva really ancient Tel Sheva, so that the biblical city of Be’ersheva still remains undiscovered somewhere in modern Be’ersheva? Stay tuned…
- Neighboring Nomads – Immediately east of the Land of Israel lies the eastern desert, also known as the Aramean Desert (and in modern times as the Syrian-Arabian Desert/Syro-Arabian Desert). During the era of the Judges (c. 1228–1020 BCE), the Israelite Judge Gidon pursued the Midianite kings Zevah and Tzalmuna along Derekh HaShikhunei BaOhalim (The Way of the Tent Dwellers), the main way used by desert nomads, an interregional road running east-west that connected Rabbah (Rabbat Ammon) and Azraq, thereby linking Ammon and the eastern desert. The road extended from the Ammonite capital of Rabbah eastward across vast wasteland to the spring-fed oasis of Azraq—the only permanent source of fresh water for thousands of miles—in the heart of the eastern desert, whence it descended southeastward (and beyond even the maximal borders of the Land of Israel) through the wide basin of Wadi al-Azraq (modern Wadi Sirhan) into northwestern Arabia and toward the oasis city of Dumah (Adummatu/Dumat al-Jandal/Al-Jawf), which by the mid-ninth century BCE became the capital of the Kingdom of Keidar (a mostly nomadic Arab tribal confederation). From about the ninth to the fourth centuries BCE, the Kingdom of Keidar flourished and dominated most of the Aramean Desert and the northern Arabian sandscape.
- Polity as Priority – In the late 18th century BCE, when the Hebrew patriarch Abraham arrived in the Land of Israel, then known as Canaan, the country was not organized as a single, united nation but instead comprised a series of small and independent city-states, with Amorites inhabiting the hill country and Phoenicians the Mediterranean coast. Many polities were to follow, all of them Israelite/Jewish but one, namely: the United Monarchy of Israel (the kingdoms of Saul, David, and Solomon); the divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah; the Maccabean realm; the Hasmonean kingdom; the Herodian kingdom; the Jewish statelets during the Great Revolt and the Bar Kokhba Revolt; the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (a Christian crusader state, soon reduced to the Kingdom of Acre); and the modern State of Israel. Notably, no independent, sovereign state was ever established in the Land of Israel by the Rashiduns, Umayyads, Abbasids, Tulunids, Fatimids, Seljuks, Ayyubids, Mamluks, or Ottomans despite more than 1,220 years of rule by Muslim caliphates, governorates, & sultanates.
* For the prior article on this topic, please visit 18 Remarkable Facts of the Land of Israel.
Brandon Marlon is the Canadian-Israeli author of the historical reference Essentials of the Land of Israel: A Geographical History, companion volume to his Essentials of Jewish History: Jewish Leadership Across 4,000 Years.