- Borders Fixed & Flexible – Several discrete boundaries of the Land of Israel are given in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), and disparities existed at any given time between the scriptural and the historical limits. Scripturally, complications arise due to three territorial extents—maximal, medial, and minimal—derived from eight key textual descriptions; these sets of borders range from the most expansive, “from the river of Egypt until the great river, the Euphrates River”, to the most circumscribed, “from Dan to Be’ersheva”. Historically, the boundaries of each of the Israelite or Jewish polities—the United Monarchy of Israel, the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, the Hasmonean kingdom, the Herodian kingdom, the Judean states during the Great Revolt and the Bar Kokhba Revolt, and the State of Israel—varied one from another and from one or another scriptural demarcation.
- Which Way to Dan? – The original tribal territory of Dan abutted Philistia in the southwest, wedged between Ephraim and Judah and opposite Benjamin, but as a result of being deprived of a foothold in the northern Shephelah foothills by the Amorite cities, part of the tribe migrated, early in the era of the Judges (c. 1228–1020 BCE), northeastward toward the sources of the Jordan River in the Beit Rehov Valley in Upper Galilee. The part of the tribe remaining in its original tribal territory later came into conflict with its aggressive Philistine neighbors.
- Capitals Galore – Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people and of the State of Israel, though it is hardly the only capital the Jews have known. Numerous capitals were established both before and after the selection of Jerusalem at the close of the 11th century BCE. Some lasted for only a matter of years or decades; others endured centuries. These include Shiloh, amphictyonic center of tribal Israel, which served as the de facto capital for more than two centuries; Givah (Givat Binyamin/Givat Sha’ul), which served as King Saul’s capital, thus as the first capital of the United Monarchy of Israel (1030–931 BCE); Mahanayim, the Transjordanian counter-capital for Hebrew monarchs; Hebron, King David’s initial capital, where he reigned for seven and a half years; Shekhem, Penu’el (Peni’el), and Tirtzah, the three capitals of the northern Kingdom of Israel under King Jeroboam I; and Samaria (Shomron/Sebaste), the fourth and final capital of the northern Kingdom of Israel. In addition, Mitzpah (in Benjamin) served briefly as the Neo-Babylonian Empire’s administrative center in Judah, and Caesarea (Caesarea Maritima) likewise became the Roman Empire’s administrative center in Judea and later a provincial capital in the Byzantine Empire.
- Mount of Many Names – Shared by modern Israel, Syria, and Lebanon, snow-capped Hermon abuts the basalt tableland of Bashan, sending streams and snowmelt year-round down to the headwaters of the Jordan River and into the Hula Valley. Hermon is the southernmost part of the Anti-Lebanon Mountains and its highest peak reaches 9,232 feet above sea level. Known in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) for its dews, lions, and cypresses, Hermon was perhaps once the location of a Ba’al shrine, hence its onetime appellation Ba’al-Hermon. Tzidonians of neighboring Phoenicia called it Siryon, while Amorites knew it as Snir. Druze Arabs refer to Hermon as Jebel al-Sheikh (“The Chieftain’s Mount”) because it has traditionally been where their religious leaders dwell.
- (Fraternal) Twin Peaks – In a solemn ceremony, half of the Israelites (the six tribes of Reuven, Gad, Asher, Zevulun, Dan, Naphtali) stood atop Mount Eival to pronounce the curses against those who disobeyed the Torah, whereas the other half atop Mount Gerizim pronounced the blessings upon those who obeyed the Torah, while the priests and the Levites surrounded the Ark of the Testimony (Ark of the Covenant) in the well-watered valley between the mountains. The direction and steepness of slopes affect the vegetative composition and density thereon, and Eival’s southern slope is sere compared to Gerizim’s lush northern slope, which may have determined the mountains’ respective roles in such momentous proceedings.
- Cheesy Outsiders – Jerusalem’s Tyropoeon Valley (“Valley of the Cheesemakers”), an erstwhile depression running from Jaffa Gate to the Pool of Shiloah (Siloam), formerly divided the Holy City’s upper city and (the erroneously named) Mount Zion to the west from Temple Mount and the lower city to the east. Over the centuries the valley was filled in with aggregated detritus. One of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Copper Scroll, refers to it as the Outer Valley, and Tyropoeon might have been a Greek mistranslation of the Hebrew word for “outer”.
View from Mount Tavor, Lower Galilee, Israel. © Brandon Marlon
- The Copper Valley – In the center of the Timna Valley rises Mount Timna, whose tabular summit affords panoramic views of the surrounding plain and the Edomite Mountains to the east. The valley features natural arches formed by erosion, mushroom-shaped rock outcrops fashioned by desert wind and humidity, hieroglyphic inscriptions and drawings, mine shafts, galleries, and workshops, and the distinctive red sandstone cliff ridges known as Solomon’s Pillars. Copper mining and smelting activities took place in the western and central sections of the valley beginning in prehistoric times. Ancient Egyptian expeditions to the valley later developed the area’s metallurgic industry, in partnership with local Kenites, Midianites, and Amalekites. Roman legionaries of the Legio III Cyrenaica also engaged in copper mining between the second and fourth centuries CE, hauling ore southward to the sizable Be’er Orah furnace.
- The Green-Red River – The Yarkon, a perennial river winding for 17 miles westward till it spills into the Mediterranean Sea in northern Tel Aviv, derives its name from its greenish hue (in Hebrew, yarok denotes “green”). The river’s source is by the narrow Aphek Passage, through which the ancient Derekh HaYam (The Way of the Sea/Coastal Highway) international trade route connecting Egypt and Syria passed so as to circumvent the quondam marshes. The river’s water sometimes runs red due to its sandy loam soil (hamra), and according to the Mishnah, where it is referred to as mei pugah, its water was deemed unfit for ritual service in the Temple because it was marshy.
- Zered Stream’s Elusive Whereabouts – A verdant stream in northeastern Moab whose name denotes “lush”, the Zered was a camping site of the Israelites in their roundabout approach to the Promised Land. Although the stream was long identified with Wadi al-Hasa—which served as the Moab-Edom border—due to a misreading of Greek letters on the famous Madaba map (6th century CE), it is more likely either Wadi es-Sawaqa (the Arnon’s eastern tributary), Wadi Nukheile/an-Nukhayla (which discharges into the Arnon), or Wadi Tarfawiyye/e-Tarfawiya (which discharges into Wadi Nukheile).
- Venus of Volcano Lake – A natural reservoir situated in the crater of an extinct volcano in the northeastern Golan, Breikhat Ram (Lake Phiale) rises almost 3,100 feet above sea level, and formerly measured approximately 3,280 feet long, 2,000 feet wide, and 33 feet deep, though in recent years its size has diminished due to evaporation and pumping for irrigation purposes. Breikhat Ram (“Ram Pool”) is a maar whose sources are an underground spring, precipitation, and snowmelt. The famed amora Yohanan bar Nappaha is quoted in the Babylonian Talmud as stating that the Ram (“Beiram”), Hammat Gader (Gadara), and Hammat Tiveryah (Tiberias’ hot springs) were the three underground springs breached during the primordial Flood that continued to spout boiling water. In 1981, a volcanic pebble that apparently portrays a female figure was discovered between layers of ash and named the “Venus of Berekhat Ram”; it dates to 233,000 years ago during the Lower Palaeolithic, indicating it was incised either by Homo erectus or by Neanderthals and rendering it the oldest work of art ever found.
- Avian Autobahn – Lake Hula (Lake Semechonitis), a marsh-like lake lying in the Hula Valley of Upper Galilee, serves as a major stopover for birds migrating via the Great Rift Valley/Syrian-African Rift between Europe, Africa, and Asia. As many as 500 million birds and 400 bird species, including cranes, storks, coots, pelicans, herons, raptors, cormorants, and egrets, pass through the valley annually during the migration seasons (spring and autumn). Grazing water buffaloes and preying wildcats also form part of the local wildlife. Historically, Lake Hula and its surrounding marshes occupied a third of the Hula Valley. From 1951–1958, the Keren Kayemet L’Yisrael-Jewish National Fund (KKL-JNF) drained malarial swamps surrounding the lake. In 1953, the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI), a nonprofit environmental conservation organization, was founded in response to concerns about the Hula’s drainage. In 1963, a small area of recreated papyrus marshland was preserved and designated Israel’s original nature reserve, which was officially inaugurated in 1964. The Hula Valley was also reflooded by heavy rainfall in the 1990s, and the deluged area was left intact and developed into a second wetland habitat, Agamon HaHula (“Lakelet Hula”); the lakelet is much smaller and shallower than the historical Lake Hula was prior to its drainage. Today Lakelet Hula is a distinct park managed by the KKL-JNF while just to the south the Israel National Parks Authority operates the official Hula Nature Reserve; both wetland paradises are highly popular with flocks of birds and birdwatchers alike.
- Strumming Lacustrine Strings – A pear-shaped lake in eastern Galilee, Lake Kinneret (Lake Gennesaret/Sea of Galilee/Lake Tiberias) is the lowest freshwater lake on Earth, and the second-lowest lake after the Salt Sea (Dead Sea). The Jordan River flows in and out of the Kinneret from north to south and is the main source of the lake, which is also plenished by underground springs. The biblical name “Kinneret” is believed to be an inflection of the Hebrew word for harp or lyre (kinor), a reference to the lake’s salient shape; the later appellation “Gennesaret”, applied to both the lakeside town of Kinneret and to the eponymous lake, is perhaps a Grecized form of “Ginnosar”, itself a derivation of Kinneret (alternatively, a midrashic etymology in Genesis Rabbah explicates the name as a derivation of the Hebrew Gannei Sarim, “Gardens of Princes”). In 1986, during a drought when water levels receded, an ancient fishing boat made of cedar was discovered on the lake’s northwestern shore. Today the Kinneret separates the provinces of Galilee in the west and the Golan in the east, and is a major tourist area for Jews and Christians alike.
Hula Nature Reserve, Hula Valley, Upper Galilee, Israel. © Brandon Marlon
- Salty Tongue – The Salt Sea (Dead Sea) was also known biblically as the “Sea of the Aravah” or the “Eastern Sea” (as opposed to the Mediterranean), and was later known in Latin as “Lacus Asphaltites” (an appellation used by classical writers Pliny the Elder and Flavius Josephus) and in the Talmud as the “Sea of Sodom”. Its extremely saline water, which contains hydrogen sulfide, magnesium, potassium, chlorine, bromine, and sodium chloride, has a high density that buoys bathers. Bacteria are the only life forms in the lake, which possesses an oily consistency and on which blocks of asphalt float due to sulfur on its shores. Parts of the dark blue saltwater have occasionally turned red due to blooms of the alga Dunaliella salina, a microbial organism that possesses reddish halobacteria. A peninsula—“HaLashon” in Hebrew, “Al-Lisan” in Arabic (i.e., “the tongue”)—near the middle of the lake’s eastern side juts out to divide it into two basins, the larger northern basin achieving a depth of 1,300 feet and the much shallower southern basin plunging less than 10 feet deep. Since 1977, the marl peninsula has extended completely to the western shore, forming a ribbon of dry land, and the southern basin has been reconfigured into dozens of sizable evaporation pools. Both Israel and Jordan extract potash (a key component of agricultural fertilizer) from the lake’s brine. Thousands of sinkholes have since formed in the vicinity.
- Cirques du Erosion – An extension of the Sinai Desert and part of the broader Saharo-Arabian desert belt, the Negev Desert is bounded by the Sinai Peninsula in the west and by the Great Rift Valley/Syrian-African Rift in the east. Three erosion cirques or erosional craters (makhteshim) environed by high cliffs dot its landscape: Makhtesh Ramon (23 miles long, 5 miles wide); HaMakhtesh HaGadol/Makhtesh Hatirah (9 miles long, 4 miles wide), and HaMakhtesh HaKattan/Makhtesh Hatzeirah (3 miles long, 4.5 miles wide). Such discrete and rare craters—found primarily along the Syrian Arc System in southern Israel, northeastern Sinai, and northwestern Jordan—are formed through geological processes distinct from those of volcanic craters and meteor-impact craters. Mount Ramon, in the southwest of the largest makhtesh (lit. “mortar”, to whose shape the natural feature is likened), is the loftiest summit in the Negev at over 3,400 feet.
- The Famished Forest – The Transjordanian forest of Ephraim, in the tribal territory of Gad (the Gilad region) opposite the Cisjordanian tribal territory of Ephraim, was where Ephraimites used to pasture their flocks and where a major battle occurred during a civil war in the Davidic era (1010–970 BCE). Some 20,000 Israelite men were slain, and it was said, perhaps in relation to the wild beasts inhabiting the forest, that “the forest devoured more of the people than the sword devoured on that day”. Among the slain was King David’s rebellious son Avshalom, whose head got caught in the thick boughs of a great terebinth while he was riding his mule, suspending him “between the heaven and the earth”.
- Woods with Deep Pockets – Situated in the northern Golan, the natural woodland Odem (Mas’ade) Forest features a trio of oaks, as well as pistacias, snowdrop trees, spiny hawthorns, and single-seeded hawthorns. In the vicinity rises lofty Mount Odem, whose summit affords scenic views of verdure. Odem, whose name derives from the Hebrew word for red (adom), an allusion to its rust-colored soil, is a relict of the expansive forest that formerly blanketed the northern Golan. Within the forest lie sundry ruins, comprising a dozen sites such as Horvat Ra’abna, ascribed to the classical Itureans; there are also remnants of a French fortress built in 1920 before the formalized French Mandate (1923–1946). The area also features an apple and cherry plantation, a deep quarry where the multicolored volcanic rock, scoria, was extracted, and some 23 circular volcanic craters known as “jubas”, from the Arabic word for pockets (juyub).
- Levantine Legend of Leviathan – The southeastern Levantine Basin of the Mediterranean Sea (Great Sea) abuts the Land of Israel and extends from southeastern Turkey to northeastern Sinai; thus the Mediterranean formed the western border of the Land of Israel, and the Hebrew word for seaward (yammah) became synonymous with westward. In the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), the Mediterranean is most commonly known as the “Great Sea”; it is also referred to as the “Western Sea”, the “Sea of Jaffa”, the “Sea of the Philistines”, and simply as “the sea”. The legendary sea monster Leviathan was believed to dwell in the depths of the Mediterranean, a myth perhaps based in part on the rare appearance of sperm whales or of blue whales off the coast of Israel. In total, some 400 fish species inhabit the sea.
- Windy Waters – The Red (Erythraean) Sea takes its name via direct translation of its Greek counterpart Erythra Thalassa, and may have originally derived from the seasonal blooms of the reddish algae Trichodesmium erythraeum, which, upon expiring, tinge the normally blue-green water rubicund. The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) employs the appellation Yam Suph (perhaps best translated as “Stormy Sea”, from the Hebrew word supha) to refer to both northern branches of the Red Sea (the Gulf of Suez to the northwest and the Gulf of Eilat to the northeast). The Red Sea figures in one set of borders of the Land of Israel and in the seafaring ventures of King Solomon, who had an argosy constructed at Etzion-Gever (near Eilat) on the seashore and whose servants sailed with Phoenician navigators to procure gold from Ophir. Hydrologically, the Red Sea is the hottest and most saline of the world’s open seas, and its waters are believed to be completely renewed every 20 years.
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.