A Mapping Marvel at Tel Hai College

Alon Margalit - Photo by Clifford Sobin
Alon Margalit in the Map Room - Photo by Clifford Sobin

Sometimes making sense of history requires a map. Frequently, an old one. But learning of their existence and accessing them is quite something else. I discovered that while writing my book about Israel’s Northern borders, Living in Heaven, Coping with Hell. But what if you could do it from the comfort of your home?

In January 2020, I stopped by Gideon Giladi’s office at Kfar Giladi to say hello.  We had been friends since I had interviewed him about his grandfather’s role in the Hashomer and his own interesting life. He suggested I meet Alon Margalit.


Because Gideon knew Margalit was doing something special with maps and computers at Tel Hai. Even though I have never thought of myself as a cartophile (a person with an interest in maps), Gideon’s comments intrigued me because old maps are windows into the past. Windows that can launch wars, but also settle disputes. For a historian they can be crucial. For a lawyer they are evidence. For tax collectors and landowners, they can both start and end controversies. Since the people of Northern Israel never fail to amaze me, I thought it worth spending an hour meeting Margalit.

Gideon called and arranged the appointment.

The Library at Tel Hai College

Tel Hai January 2020 – By Clifford Sobin

Route 90 divides Tel Hai’s campus. On the Western side is the campus I was familiar with. There sits the old Tel Hai where Joseph Trumpeldor lost his life defending the settlement. However, the library sits on the eastern side of the Highway. After passing through the gate I skirted a building on my right before arriving at the library, a structure three stories high. Around and behind it there is a magnificent view of the Upper Galilee. Inside are several floors of books, elevators and a set of winding steps wrapped around a column dating back to the Roman era.

I met Dr. Alon Margalit on an upper floor of the library. His specialty is biotechnology, but his intellectual curiosity is broader. In 2018, Alon’s desire to prove that “basic scientific principles apply to all scientific disciplines” led him to publish an article arguing that Nimrod castle in the Golan had sustained damage from two prior earthquakes, one in A.D. 1202 commonly thought to be the case and another earlier one in A.D. 749 that Margalit identified. Based on his findings, Margalit argued that the origin of Nimrod castle was much earlier than prevailing thought. However, I was not there to discuss archeology with this gentle soul of average height and build. I was there to learn more about something far more than average, something quite extraordinary.

Alon led me along a pathway surrounded by shelves of books until we reached the map room. The room was long and rectangular, with a few maps on the wall, a central table, and a computer and screen at the far end.

Making Maps Accessible

Alon told me that when he took the position of chief librarian in 2008, the College had less than 100 maps. But he thought it important to think ahead. Therefore, Alon insured that the library building would have a map room. In 2012 his foresight began paying off. A donator gave a large map collection to the library. This got Alon thinking. He decided to treat each map like a book; each with an identifier in the library’s catalogue.

But organizing maps by name in a catalogue was only a start, and a difficult one because properly cataloging a map is not easy. Nor is ensuring they are stored in the correct file, protecting them from damage, and finding a simple way to retrieve them.

And that is only half the battle.

It is one thing to pick up a book with a cover and slide it into the proper place on a shelf, guided by an easy-to-read classification. Shoving ancient, unwieldy, and crumbling maps into files or on shelves, piled against each other, is quite another. As a result, Alon explained, “If you are a historian, or if you are dealing with historical geography, and you need a map, it is a very difficult task.” Because maps are dispersed in many locations, and some are not properly recorded, it may take days or even weeks to locate a specific map, and often researchers require more than one map. With all the handling, the maps can easily be damaged. Then, there is the matter of returning the map to where it should be rather than misfiling it. If misfiled, it is in a sense, lost forever. As a result, few use historical maps, despite the truths they reveal.

Alon searched for a solution. In 2013, enabled by a donation, he purchased a scanner suitable for scanning maps. He then engaged two computer experts to write software that would facilitate creation of a searchable database containing all the maps in the Tel Hai collection.

The Map Database

Quickly, I realized the map room’s importance was not only the physical maps in its drawers, but rather the ongoing digital process contained within for making maps accessible. There, maps are scanned, categorized, and placed into the database. Even more, Alon’s team integrated the Geographic Information System (GIS) platform into the process. As a result, the maps can be anchored on geographical grids such as google maps and then combined with a host of other data tied to specific locations. This opens the door to far more functionality and analysis than traditional maps alone.

Presently, the library system has 20,000 maps of which about 4,000 have been introduced into the library’s database. It is a laborious process constrained by the resources available to Margalit.

But the potential payoff is huge.

For the first time, anybody, anywhere, can search for relevant maps based on multiple criteria. You can type in a location name or even just use a tool that creates a rectangle on a map to designate an area as large as you want. The software then finds all maps related to the area designated or the location named. You may fine tune your selection by using keywords, designate whether you want an aerial photo or map, scale, language, and even publication year. Click “search” and a list of maps pop-up with an explanation for each one.

Having trouble seeing the detail on the map? No problem, you can expand the map.  Want to overlay the map with an aerial photo to make it easier to understand? You can do that too! “Then you can see details that you couldn’t [otherwise] see.”

Most of the maps in Tel Hai’s possession center on the Galilee, but plenty cover the rest of Israel and a few of the Sinai, Jordan, and Syria. Alon showed me a Syrian military map delineating Syria’s pre-Six-Day War plan for occupying the Upper Galilee. Another was a 1938 map of Haifa. On it, I saw every building present in 1938 and could compare that to present times. Others he mentioned mark progress decades ago settling the Jezreel Valley and draining the Huleh swamp.

But which map is Alon’s favorite?

He found that hard to answer because there are so many unique ones that cover “major chapters in the history of the nation.” But if pushed, Alon admits that he favors a 1938 map of Jerusalem with pencil markings showing “barbwire fences, minefields, and other obstacles around the San Simon monastery.” Ten years later, the monastery was the site of a fierce battle in the 1948 war. Alon said, “The pencil marks presented intelligence information that was critical for the fighters. It was probably done by an unprofessional local volunteer, might be even a teen or a child, and affected the fate of the fight.”

When I asked Alon if anything he learned from viewing a particular map had surprised him, he answered that, although not surprised, he learned much from looking at a map of the former settlement of Mishmar HaYarden, occupied by the Syrians during the 1948 war. The Syrians took the people defending that settlement prisoner. After the war, Israel’s government gave their land to Kibbutz Gadot and Moshav Bnei Zfat. The map corroborated those facts.

Near the end of our conversation, Alon told me, “I really want people in the States and others to know about us,” because, “we believe that people now forget history. And when you are dealing with history, you are looking for the original document.”

Alon hopes that at some point “Tel Hai will be the mecca of the digital map.” He wants Tel Hai to be everybody’s first stop when looking for a map. Even though funding remains a problem, especially because like wet sand, the more maps he scans the more maps are made available to him, Alon is confident that although his dream is “like a journey, you can go by car or by foot,” he will get there.

You can check out this map marvel at https://maps.telhai.ac.il/en and you can find contact information for Alon at https://maps.telhai.ac.il/en/about. Let me know what you think.

About the Author
Cliff Sobin is the author of Living in Heaven, Coping with Hell: Israel’s Northern Borders—Where Zionism Triumphed, the Kibbutz is Evolving, and the Pioneering Spirit Prevails. He also wrote The Pivotal Years: Israel and the Arab World 1966-1977. Previously, he wrote a treatise on Maryland Workers' Compensation law and spoke publicly on multiple subjects. He now focuses on speaking to student groups regarding his mother's experience in the Holocaust.
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