That land situated at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, which was once occupied by the ancient nation of Israel. The name is derived from the Latin Palaestina and the Greek Pa·lai·stiʹne. This latter word, in turn, is drawn from the Hebrew Peleʹsheth. In the Hebrew Scriptures Peleʹsheth (translated in English as “Philistia”) occurs only in reference to the limited coastal territory occupied by the Philistines. (Ex. 15:14; Ps. 60:8; 83:7; 87:4; 108:9; Isa. 14:29, 31; Joel 3:4) Herodotus, however, in the fifth century B.C.E., and later other secular writers (Philo, Ovid, Pliny, Josephus, Jerome) used the Greek and Latin terms to designate all that territory formerly known as the “land of Canaan” or the “land of Israel.” (Num. 34:2; 1 Sam. 13:19) Emperor Vespasian also described this territory as “Palestine” on the coins he struck in commemoration of Jerusalem’s fall in 70 C.E. Because Jehovah had promised this land to Abraham and his descendants (Gen. 15:18; Deut. 9:27, 28), it was also appropriately called the Promised Land or the Land of Promise. (Heb. 11:9) From the Middle Ages on, it has often been called the Holy Land.
LOCATION AND BOUNDARIES
In a sense Palestine is the connecting link between the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa. This placed it in the center of a circle around the circumference of which were located the ancient world powers of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. (Ezek. 5:5) Hemmed in by great deserts on the E and S and by the Great Sea or Mediterranean on the W, Palestine served as a land bridge between the Nile and Euphrates Rivers, over which bridge the caravans on the world trade routes passed. Situated in what has been called the Fertile Crescent, Palestine itself was of particular interest, being a delightful place gifted with its own natural resources and special characteristics.—See FERTILE CRESCENT.
The boundaries for the Promised Land were set by Jehovah himself. In its broadest sense it embraced a territory extending “from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” (Gen. 15:18; Ex. 23:31; Num. 34:1-12; Josh. 1:3, 4; 15:4), dimensions that were reached only during the reigns of David and Solomon. For most of Israel’s history a much smaller area of control was involved.
On the S an imaginary line could be drawn from the southern end of the Dead Sea to the SE corner of the Mediterranean, and on the N another line running from the southern slopes of Mount Hermon to a point near the city of Tyre. Within these limits from N to S, “from Dan to Beer-sheba” (1 Sam. 3:20; 2 Sam. 3:10), the country was about 150 miles (241 kilometers) in length. The latitude of its capital Jerusalem was a little below 32° N, approximately the same latitude as Savannah, Georgia; Waco, Texas; Shanghai, China; and Lahore, Pakistan. Longitudinally, and as regards the world time zones, Jerusalem was 2,072 miles (3,334 kilometers), or two hours and twenty-one minutes E of the Greenwich, England, meridian.
The width of Palestine, less than a third of its length, was rather indefinite since there was no fixed frontier on the E; the districts of Gilead and Bashan gradually merged into desolate steppes, over which nomadic Arab tribes roamed more or less at will. This territory E of the Jordan has been estimated at about 4,000 square miles (10,360 square kilometers). West of the central Jordanian valley the distance in the N from Dan to the Mediterranean was about twenty-six miles (42 kilometers) and in the S, from the southern tip of the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean, some eighty miles (129 kilometers). This amounted to another 6,000 square miles (15,540 square kilometers), a total of 10,000 square miles (25,900 square kilometers) for the country as a whole, less than the size of Belgium, but a little larger than the state of New Hampshire.
For a comprehensive view of its geography the territory of Palestine may be conveniently divided into four rather parallel regions.
First, there was a strip of fertile plain along the coast, a coast that, for the most part, had very little to offer in the way of natural harbors. Dividing this coastal plain in two was the promontory of the imposing Mount Carmel range, which jutted out almost to the sea. The northern section was known as the Plain of Asher or Phoenicia. The southern portion skirted around sand dunes nestled close to the sea, and consisted of the Plain of Sharon and the Plain of Philistia, the latter widening out in the S.
The second geographical region, next to the maritime plains, contained the principal mountain ranges, which ran N and S like a backbone of the country. In the N were the mountains of Naphtali, also called the Hills of Galilee. They were an extension of the Lebanon ranges, which were noted for their cedar forests and their prominent Mount Hermon, which towered skyward more than 9,000 feet (2,743 meters). The northern mountains of Palestine ranged in altitude from over 3,000 feet (914 meters) in Upper Galilee to less than 2,000 feet (610 meters) for Mount Tabor, made famous in the days of Barak. (Judg. 4:12) Below Mount Tabor was a comparatively broad central plain that cut transversely across the country from W to E, separating the northern mountains from those to the S. This valley, where many decisive battles were fought, consisted of two parts, the eastern “low plain of Jezreel,” and the western section, the “valley plain of Megiddo.”—Josh. 17:16; 2 Chron. 35:22.
To the W and N of the Megiddo valley, which was drained by the Kishon River, was the Carmel range running southeasterly from the coast and joining the mountains of Ephraim or Samaria in which the historic peaks of Gerizim and Ebal were located, the latter being over 3,000 feet (914 meters) high. (Deut. 11:29) Continuing S, this range was known as “the mountainous region of Judah,” for though elevations varied from 2,000 feet (610 meters) to over 3,300 feet (c. 1,000 meters), the area consisted largely of plateaus, rounded hills and gentle slopes. (2 Chron 27:4; Luke 1:39) Here in this region were such cities as Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron.
Gradually the Judean mountains on the S merged into the Negeb, a name thought to be from a root meaning “to be parched” or “dry”, a region that extended to the Torrent valley of Egypt and constituted the southern portion of Palestine. On the northern edge of the Negeb was the oasislike city of Beer-sheba; at the southern extremity, Kadesh-barnea.—Gen. 12:9; 20:1; 22:19.
When approaching the mountains of Judah from the W one comes to the hill section known as the Shephelah, with its several small W-E valleys leading from the coastal plains to the highlands. (Josh. 9:1) For the most part these hills were suitable for the grazing of flocks and cattle, the springs in the valleys furnishing the necessary water. The geological structure of the earth’s crust in this part of the country allowed the winter rain on the mountains to seep down through the porous sandstone rock to a waterproof layer or stratum, along which it flowed to feed the valley springs below.
The third feature of Palestine’s geography was the great Rift Valley, sometimes called the Arabah (Deut. 11:30), which divides the country longitudinally from top to bottom. This deep cleft began in Syria to the N and extended southward all the way to the Red Sea’s Gulf of Aqabah. What made this central depression of the land all the more spectacular were the parallel mountain ranges and cliffs on either side of it.
When tracing this trenchlike depression from N to S, one quickly drops from the foothills of Mount Hermon to the Huleh basin, where the headwaters of the Jordan once formed a small lake. From there the Jordan, in some ten miles (16 kilometers), rapidly drops over 900 feet (274 meters) to the Sea of Galilee, which is nearly 700 feet (213 meters) below sea level. From Galilee to the Dead Sea this great rift in the earth’s crust is the Jordan valley proper, and by the Arabs is called the Ghor, meaning “depression.” It is a “gorge” as much as twelve miles (19 kilometers) wide in places. The Jordan itself is about 150 feet (46 meters) below the floor of this valley, and as it slowly snakes its way down to the Dead Sea it continues to drop about 600 more feet (183 meters). This makes the surface of the Dead Sea nearly 1,300 feet (396 meters) below the level of the Mediterranean—the lowest point on the earth’s surface.
The extension of the Rift Valley S of the Dead Sea for another hundred miles (161 kilometers) to the Gulf of Aqabah was more commonly known as the Arabah proper. (Deut. 2:8) Midway it reached its highest point, about 650 feet (198 meters) above sea level.
The fourth geographical region of Palestine consisted of hills and tablelands E of the great Jordanian rift. (Deut. 2:36, 37; 3:8-10) In the N this arable land extended E of the Sea of Galilee perhaps sixty miles (97 kilometers), while in the S the width was only about twenty-five miles (40 kilometers) before it became a wilderness, and steppes that eventually lost themselves in the Arabian Desert. The wider northern section of this rolling eastern region, above Ramoth-gilead, was called the land of Bashan, about 2,000 feet (610 meters) in average altitude; S of Bashan the domelike region of Gilead attained an elevation of 3,300 feet (1,006 meters). On its S, Gilead bordered the tableland N of the torrent valley of Arnon, in which area was situated Mount Nebo, over 2,700 feet (823 meters) high. This territory, at one time the possession of the Ammonites, was, in turn, bounded S of the torrent valley of Arnon by the land of Moab.—Josh. 13:24, 25; Judg. 11:12-28.
The ancient Hebrew names of many cities, mountains and valleys have been lost, partly due to the occupation of Palestine by the Arabs for much of the time since 638 C.E. But, since Arabic is the living language most closely related to Hebrew, it is possible in some instances to identify with considerable accuracy certain ancient places and sites of major events.
Some common Arabic geographical terms that are helpful in relating places to Biblical sites are given in the following list.
ARABIC GEOGRAPHICAL TERMS AND THEIR MEANING
ʽAin spring, natural fountain
Biqaʽ valley (in hill country)
Debbet sandy height
Majdel castle or tower
Neqb mountain path
Ras cape, top of hill or mountain
Shatt shore or bank; river
Tell mound (often containing ruins)
Wadi torrent valley
Palestine’s climate is as diversified as its topography. In the matter of a hundred miles (161 kilometers), from the Dead Sea to Mount Hermon, the contrasting extremes in altitude produce climatic conditions equivalent to those that are elsewhere spread over thousands of miles in latitude between the Tropic and the Arctic. Mount Hermon is usually covered with snow all year round, while down along the Dead Sea the thermometer sometimes reaches 120° F. (49° C.). Sea breezes up from the Mediterranean moderate the temperature along the central mountain range. As a result it is seldom hotter than 90° or 92° F. (32.2° or 33° C.) in Jerusalem, and rarely does it freeze there. Its average January temperature is around 49° F. (9.4° C.). Snowfall in that part of the country is not a common thing.—Compare 2 Samuel 23:20.
Rainfall in this country of contrasts also varies a great deal. Along the coast the annual precipitation is about fifteen inches (38 centimeters) but in the higher altitudes of Mount Carmel, the central range and the highlands E of the Jordan there is up to twice this amount. On the other hand, desert conditions prevail in the Negeb, the lower Jordan valley and the Dead Sea area, with two to four inches (5 to 10 centimeters) of rain annually. Most of the rain falls in the winter months of December, January and February; only 6 or 7 percent in the summer months from June to October. The light “early” or autumn rain in October and November permits the plowing of soil (baked hard by the summer heat) in preparation for the sowing of winter grains. The “late” or spring rain comes in March and April.—Deut. 11:14; Joel 2:23; Zech. 10:1; Jas. 5:7.
One of Palestine’s great assets is the abundance of dew, especially through the rainless summer months, for without the heavy dews many of the vineyards and grazing lands would suffer greatly. (Hag. 1:10; Zech. 8:12) The moisture-laden breezes blowing up from the Mediterranean and down from Mount Hermon account for much of the dew in Palestine. (Ps. 133:3) In certain areas the dew at night is so heavy that enough moisture is recovered by the vegetation to compensate for the losses during the heat of the day. (Compare Job 29:19.) Of particular importance is the dew in the Negeb and uplands of Gilead where rainfall is minimal.—See DEW.
PLANTS AND ANIMALS
The tremendous variety of trees, shrubs and plants found in this small area of the earth has been a source of amazement among botanists, one of whom has listed more than 3,000 species of ferns and flowering plants growing here. The diversity in altitude, climate and soil helps to account for this variety in flora, some plants being at home in the cold alpine, others in the torrid desert, and still others in the alluvial plain or rocky plateau, each blooming and bearing seed in its season. Within comparatively short distances from one another are found hot-weather palms and cold-weather oaks and pines; willows along the streams and tamarisks in the wilderness. This land is also famous for its cultivated vineyards, olive groves, fig orchards and fields of wheat, barley and millet. Other crops included peas, beans, lentils, eggplants, onions and cucumbers, as well as cotton and flax. Modern visitors to this land are often disappointed unless it is springtime, when the countryside is in full bloom with its flower spectacle. For most of the year the stony hillsides are barren and bleak. At one time, however, parts of the land were more heavily wooded than at present, lush like “the garden of Jehovah,” a veritable botanical garden “flowing with milk and honey,” hospitable and inviting.—Gen. 13:10; Ex. 3:8; Num. 13:23, 24; Deut. 8:7-9.
Animal, bird and fish life was abundant in park-like Palestine in the past more so than today. The lion, bear, wild bull and hippopotamus are no longer present, but other wildlife that may be found include wolves, wild boars and wildcats, jackals, hares and foxes. Zoologists list 113 different kinds of mammals. Domesticated animals are common—sheep, goats, cows, horses, asses and camels. There are many kinds of birds too: 348 species are known to exist, including large ones like the vultures, hawks, owls and eagles. Over 90 reptiles and amphibians and more than 40 freshwater fish have also been listed.
RESOURCES FROM THE GROUND
Besides proving to be a well-watered land capable of producing an abundance of foodstuffs, Palestine’s mountains contained useful iron and copper ores. (Deut. 8:9) Gold, silver, tin and lead had to be imported, but there were large deposits of salt, and in the Jordan valley there were beds of clay for the brick, pottery and foundry industries. (1 Ki. 7:46) Excellent limestones for the building trade were quarried, and there were outcroppings of dark basalt valued for its hardness and fine-grained texture.
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Geographical Features of PALESTINE
The Great Sea
Sea of Galilee
T.V. of Arnon
PLAIN OF ASHER
PLAIN OF SHARON
PLAIN OF PHILISTIA
PLAIN OF JEZREEL