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Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine

By Rabbi Joseph Schwarz, 1850

The Plain of Jezreel.
The Valley of Megiddon

(Joshua 17:16; Zech. 12:17.)

This valley, called also Esdrelon, and by the Arabs Merdj Abn Amr, extends from east to west 20 English miles, and from north to south from 10 to 12, and is enclosed on all sides by mountains, to wit, on the north by Mount Tabor, on the south by the mountains of Ephraim (or the mountains of Samaria, Jer. 31:5,6), on the northeast by the mountains of Gilboa (1 Sam. 31:1 ), which are 1200 feet high, and now called Galban by the Arabs, and at lust, on the southwest, by Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:19), at the foot of which the brook Kishon flows, which takes its course through this plain to that of Akko. This plain of Jezreel, which extends to the Lake Chinnereth, does not present, as the word would seem to imply, a perfect level throughout, its extent, since it is traversed by several low ridges towards the centre, among which must be particularly noticed the Djebl Duhu, also called the Little Hermon,* which is at the distance of 2½ English miles south of Tabor. Between this and Gilboa there is a narrow valley, about 2 English miles in length, which is called by some the valley of Sharon. It was for the inhabitants of this narrow valley that the high priest prayed on the day of Atonement, "that their houses might not become their graves" (Talmud Yerushalmi Yoma, chap. v.), as they were in constant danger of being overwhelmed in their houses, through the mountain torrents, which, however, could not happen to the inhabitants of that Sharon which is alongside of the Mediterranean, distant from any mountain, and consequently could not suffer from such an overflow as mountainous countries alone are exposed to. This little valley extends to the Lake Chinnereth, and there is in it a village called Shirin, perhaps derived from the original Sharon. The mountains of Gilboa extend eastwardly, and separate the plain of Jordan from that of Jezreel. Beth Shean (Joshua 17:11) is situated in the valley Al Ghor, which is 5 English miles in breadth. 3½ miles north of Megiddo was formerly a fort and the village of Saba, wherefore the plain of Jezreel was called in the times of Josephus the plain of Saba. From this valley to the great desert near Gaza, and the Dead Sea, are a succession of mountain ridges, first the mountain of Ephraim, and then to the south the mountains of Judah. Both these chains gradually descend in the west to the level of the Mediterranean, and on the east to the plain of the Jordan and the shores of the Dead Sea.

* Perhaps reference is made to this mount in Psalm 139:13: "Tabor and Hermon stall rejoice in thy name,"—evidently referring to contiguous positions.

The Mount of Ephraim הר אפרים

(Joshua 17: 15)

Is the same called, according to my opinion, the mountain of Israel (Joshua 11:21), in contradistinction to the more southern mountain of Judah, It is, however, not a single mount, as its name would seem to imply, but a long chain, several days' journey in extent, which branches out in all directions, on which were formerly many towns and villages, of which many remains are yet found at this day. The Talmud calls this range הר המלך* or טור מלכא "Kings' Mount" (see Gittin 57b, and Jonathan ben Uziel to Judges 4:5). The mounts Gerizzim and Ebal (Deut. 11:29), also Gaash (Judges 2:9), Mount Zemaraim (2 Chron. 13:4), and almost all the mountains of Jerusalem, may be reckoned as belonging to the range of this mountain. Ebal lies north of Shechem, and is a naked, barren hill, 800 feet in height; but the Mount Gerizzim,† which is southwest of the valley of Shechem, is higher than Ebal, and is very fruitful, and forms the highest elevation of the whole mountain of Ephraim, which extends southwesterly to the low land near the sea שפלה (which will be more particularly spoken of hereafter), and the district of Ekron, and southeast to Beth-El, and has a breadth from north to south of two days' journey, and a length of one day's journey.

* In Menachoth, fol. 109 b, occurs "he fled to the house of the king" לבית המלך which I suppose to be an error of the transcriber, and should be להר המלך to the king's mount. For proof of this correction being the proper reading, I refer to Talmud Yerushalmi Yoma, chap. vi.

† The Arabs call it Djebl Hisan, which name, I suppose, is derived from the Mount Sion mentioned in the Book of Jashar in connexion with Gen. 34, in the wars of the sons of Jacob.

Mount Carmel הר הכרמל

(1 Kings 18:19)

Is called by the Arabs Djebl Mukata, i.e. the Mount of Slaughter, because Elijah caused the prophets of Baal to be slain here. Just as the mountains of Gilboa extend to the northeast of the valley of Jezreel, so there are to the northwest of the same naked rides, which form parts of Carmel, which gradually declines to the sea. (Jer. 46:18.) It has its name, which signifies The Fruitful, from its fruitfulness and the abundance of its products. At its foot grow many olive trees, also many laurels, and its summit is covered with pines and other forest trees, and many kinds of flowers are also to be met with there. It is 1500 feet high, and has many caves, especially on the west side, and some allege to have counted more than a thousand of them. One of these, 20 paces in length and 10 in breadth, has the name of the cave of Elijah or Elisha. The Carmel affords the traveller a wide prospect: on its northern side Akko can be distinctly seen, as also the termination of the Lebanon, called Sulma Dezur, "the Ladder of Tyre," and the Ras Abiat (the White Promontory which stands in the sea); on the northeast side, Mount Hermon (Djebl Sheich) can be seen, although distant 50 English miles. The Empress Helena built on Carmel also a monastery. In the year 4987 (1227), the Christians who had come from Europe built a fort here, which is, however, now a mere ruin. The Carmel mountains extend southeasterly towards the left side of the valley of Jezreel, till they touch the mountains of Ephraim, in the neighbourhood of the village Kut, which is west of Dshinin, the ancient En­Gannim.

The Mountains of Judah הרי יהודה

(Joshua 21:11.)

From Jaffa there extends itself eastward, on the road to Ramleh, the highly fruitful and productive valley of Sharon, which is 15 English miles in length. Then, however, commence the mountains of Judah, which extend to Jerusalem, and the traveller has before him a constant ascent and descent on the whole road of 15 English miles, which leads to the holy city. Near Jerusalem commence the eastern mountains, which extend a distance of 12 English miles to the plains of Jordan, near Jericho.* To this range of the mountains of Judah belong all the hills of Jerusalem; for instance, the Temple Mount, Mount Zion, Mount of Olives, also the more distant ones, the wilderness of Tekoa (Zeruel, 2 Chron. 20:10); En-Gedi (1 Sam. 22:2); Maon (ibid. 23:24) ; Ziph (ibid. 26:2), and Carmel (Joshua 15:55). These mountains, situated west of the Dead Sea, approach its shore nearer and nearer the farther they extend southward; from Gaza, however, westward, they leave the Mediterranean more and more the farther they extend to the south. Near Hebron, the mountain of Judah is 18 English miles in breadth, to wit, from here to the Mediterranean on the west 13, and east to the Dead Sea 5 miles. In general may this range be called an elevated plain; since from Hebron to Mount Seir (Deut. 2:1), southwest of the Dead Sea, the whole road leads constantly down hill to a deep valley; so also on the south side the mountain declines gradually in a distance of 5 English miles. Near Gaza commences the great desert which extends to the Red Sea, near Mount Sinai.

* The high mountain called by the Christians Quarantania, situated northeast of Geba (Joshua 18:24), belongs to the mountains of Ephraim.

The Plains on the Shore of the Mediterranean.

From Ras al Nakhura, in Talmud called Sulma Dezur סולמא דצור the Rock Ladder of Tyre, to the confines of Gaza, that is, from the north to the south of Palestine, there is a large, rich, and fruitful district of low land, which is bounded on the west by the Mediterranean, and on the east by the mountains of Galilee, Ephraim, and Judah. The Carmel divides the plain of Akko, which forms the northern, from that of Sharon and the low country (שפלה), which form the southern portion of this great level. From Tyre southward, there is a road cut out of the rocks leading over Ras al Albiat to Nakhura, where the plain of Akko is seen lying at the foot of the mount. It is said that this road is the work of Alexander of Macedon.

The Plain of Akko.

Commences at Ras al Nakhura, and extends in breadth from north to south, over Akko to the foot of Carmel. The Kishon and the Shichor-Libnath flow through the same. It is in length 5 English miles, and 15 in breadth.

The Plain of Carmel to Gaza.

From Mount Carmel to Gaza, there extends itself a beautiful plain 100 miles in length and 10 to 15 in breath; and especially near Jaffa is it extremely rich and fertile, and it is this portion which is called the valley of Sharon, and commences near Dardura (the ancient Dor, Joshua 17:11), and in this delightful spot are met with the most beautiful flowers, red and white in colour, in greater variety than in any other part of Palestine. To the south of Jaffa, Ramleh, and Jabneh, the valley of Sharon unites itself to the valley of the Philistines, which latter portion, also exceedingly rich and fruitful, is that called in Holy Writ the low country (השפלה Joshua 11:16; Jer. 32:41; 33:13), and extends southward from Gaza to the river of Egypt, the already described Wady al Arish, where the great and fearful desert commences.

The just-mentioned beautiful plains are watered by the following little streams, most of which I have not yet described above, as they are only water-courses in winter, but dry in summer.

South of Dardura there is the Wady Kuradshe; farther south, is the Wady Zirka; south of Cæsarea is the Kanah (Joshua 17:9), now Wady al Kazab, already described; near Ramleh is the Wady Udshi (or the Spring of Green Waters); south of Jaffa is the Wady Rubin, which flows past the town of Jabneel (Joshua 15:11), and is called, farther to the east, Wady Zarar. Southwest of the village Kefer Ain Karem is the valley of Elah, where David smote the Philistine Goliath: this is the view of Hieronymus; but to me it appears that there can be no doubt of the Wady Sunt, between Suweiche (the Socho of 1 Samuel 17:1) and Ezakaria, being the עמק האלה the valley of Elah, since Sunt is the Arabic for the Hebrew Elah, oak. West of Hebron is the Wady Azarar, which I hold to be the valley of Eshkol (Grape Valley), where the spies sent out by Moses cut a branch of the vine with a bunch of gapes attached to it (Num. 13:23; compare also with Midrash Tanchuma in 1. c.), also the valley of Sorek, where Samson chose himself a wife (Judges 16:4); near Askhelon is the Wady Askelon; near Gaza the Wady Saria, also called Besor in Scripture (1 Sam. 30:10, see above, p. 52) ; and lastly, the Wady al Arish, the river of Egypt, anciently the Rhinocorura, which forms the southern boundary line of the Holy Land. (Num. 34:5.)

The Plain of the Jordan. ככר הירדן

(Gen. 13:10.)

The Arabs call the plain extending from Chinnereth to the Dead Sea, through which the Jordan takes its course, Al Gor,* which signifies a plain enclosed between mountains. This plain, termed in the Hebrew Scriptures the Circle of Jordan, constitutes the lowest portion of the whole land, and the heat of the sun is very great here, because it is enclosed between two ranges of mountains. Near Beth Shean the plain is 5, and near Jericho 8 miles in breadth. Through the whole plain there runs a depression about 1000 paces broad, which is the bed of the Jordan. Properly speaking, does this Al Gor extend to the Red Sea, at Akaba, the ancient Ezion-Gaber† (Num. 33:35); since, before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, through which means the Dead Sea was formed, the Jordan flowed into the Red Sea; and to this day are the old bed and former course of the river visible, and can be easily traced. The Arabs also call the southern portion of this Al Gor, below the Dead to the Red Sea, "Al Arabah."

* The passage in Deut. 3:17, מכנרת ועד ים הערבה ים המלח "From Chinnereth even unto the sea of the plain, which is the salt sea," is rendered by Saadiah "Min Ginsur ali Bachr al Gor ual Bachr al Mit," that is, from Genesereth to the sea Al Gor and the Dead Sea. In one edition I find added "al Gor ual Ordan," i. e. Al Gor and Jordan. But in Deut. 4:49, he renders ועד ים הערבה with Ali Bachrie Tiberie, "to the sea of Tiberias," which proves that the whole plain of the Jordan, from Chinnereth to the Dead Sea, is called Gor or Arabah, since both these seas are called the sea of Gor or Arabah. This will explain an obscure passage in 2 Chron. 24:7, "And God helped him against the Philistines, and against the Arabians that dwelt in Gur-Baal and the Meunim." We often find baal בעל to signify plain, a fruitful land; so that we may assume that Gur-Baal here spoken of is nothing else than the present Al Gor; and indeed there is found at this day, in this plain, a village by name of Maun, possibly the seat of the Me'unim of Chronicles. [Me'unim is legitimately derived from the singular Ma'un, and the Sheva takes, as usual, the place of Kametz, because the word is increased a syllable, and the tone is removed one syllable farther down, whence it is requisite that the first, being a changeable vowel, should be shortened, or, in other words, Ma'un becomes in plural Me-un-im.—TRANSLATOR.]

† Through this view we can explain clearly many obscure passages in Holy Writ. For instance, Gen. 50:10: "And they came to the threshing-floor Atad, which is beyond Jordan." Now the question arises, What use was there for so circuitous a route to the east side of Jordan, when they could as easily move from Egypt to Hebron, without coming at all in that direction?—Likewise in Num. 21:4, it says, "They moved from Mount Hor, by the way of the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom." If, now, they moved northward from Hor, their road lay by no means in the direction of the Red Sea, unless they made a retrogression, wherefore the Talmud Rosh Hashanah actually maintains that they made a retrograde movement. But if our assumption be correct, that formerly the Jordan flowed onward till it met the Red Sea, so that the whole Araba, the entire Al Gor to the Arabian Gulf, formed the bed of the river through which it reached the sea: then can the words דרך ים סוף "the way to the Red Sea," signify simply the Araba or Gor, equivalent to the bed, the course, the direction of the Jordan to the Red Sea. So, also in Deut. 2:1, "By way of the Red Sea;" ibid. 8, "Through the way of the plain" (Arabah). We therefore explain the passage cited from Num. 21:4, thus: They moved from Mount Hor through the Gor, or Arabah, to go round the land of Edom; and not that they returned to the confines of the Gulf of Arabia. We may also assume that, as the Jordan formerly reached the Red Sea, there are two "beyond Jordan" spoken of in the Scriptures, to wit, the northern part, or the course of the river till it reaches the Dead Sea, and the southern part, to wit, the ancient Jordan from the Dead to the Red Sea; so that the whole plain situated between both the bays of the Red Sea, i. e. the eastern Akaba and the western Suez, is called עבר הירדן "beyond Jordan," that is, "the east side" of the southern Jordan. We may therefore assume farther, that the threshing-floor Atad was east of the ancient bed of the river, between Egypt and Hebron, but not in the northern portion of its actual course, in the land afterwards belonging to the tribes of Reuben and Gad and half the tribe of Menasseh. As farther proof, the reader is referred to Deut. 1:1: "These are the words which Moses spoke unto all Israel on this side of Jordan, in the wilderness, in the plain (Arabah) over against the Red Sea," &c. If we examine the punctuation of this verse, we shall find that the pause accent, the Ethnach, is not put under Israel, but under Jordan; from which it appears that, according to the authority of the Massorah, the principal division of the verse is at Jordan, not at Israel; so that all the words following on the latter are to be taken as those used to define what is meant by "this side of Jordan," so that "the wilderness, in the plain" (Arabah), &c., would make it the ancient or southern part of the bed of the river. In verse 5, however, it says, "On this side of Jordan, in the land of Moab." This, therefore, would indicate the northern part, whence the addition "in the land of Moab" is to show that the previous "beyond Jordan," or "this side of Jordan," as given in the English version, does not refer to the land of the two and a half tribes. It is therefore but fair to assert that the assumption of Eusebius that the threshing-floor Atad was on Jordan, opposite Jericho, is entirely erroneous, as its position must be sought for in the south, near the extinct, not the actual, bed of the river.

This Plain of the Jordan, the romantic beauty of which is truly astonishing, is the most agreeable district of all Palestine. It is traversed by the Jordan in its whole length. On both sides of this clear river, the watcr of which is very agreeable for drinking, are found the most varied trees, the green branches of which arc so closely interwoven with each other, that they form the most beautiful natural arbours, under the agreeable and refreshing shadow of which the traveller passes from one to the other, as though he walked in a pleasure-garden, laid out so designedly boy the hand of man. The ear of the wanderer is here delighted by the soft rushing of the Jordan, combined with the harmonious song of birds, which fill the air with natural melodies; and the eye is ravished by a view of the banks of the river, brilliant in their green ornaments, and the beams of the majestic sun, as they penetrate the thick foliage; and even in the autumn, in the month of September, when I travelled through this region, I was so charmed with the whole scene that my heart, full to admiration through the incomparable beauty of this region, lifted itself up to God; and I could have exclaimed, overcome by a painful feeling at the loneliness of the scene: "My God! how is my soul bowed down within me, when I remember thee in this land of Jordan." (Psalm 42:7.) "Is not this whole district of the Jordan abundantly watered, fruitful, and blessed, like a garden of the Lord?" (Gen. 13:10.) "And still it is scarcely trod by the foot of the traveller, it is not inhabited, and the Arab pitches not there his tents, and the shepherds do not cause the flocks to lie down there." (Isa. 13:20.) "Still, thus speaketh the Lord Zebaoth, There shall yet be in this place, which is waste, without man and cattle, again a dwelling for shepherds, causing their flocks to lie down." "In those days shall Judah be redeemed, and Jerusalem shall be inhabited in security, and this is the name which it shall be called, The Lord our righteousness." (Jer. 33:12-16.)

In concluding this chapter, I wish to explain an obscure passage in Talmud and Mishna. It is said in Rosh Hashanah, 22b, that fire-signals were lighted first on the Mount of Olives, then on Sartafa, next on Gerufneh, then on Choran, and next at Beth-Baltin, the latter spot is also called Biram. Signal fires were also lighted on the mountains of Charim, Chear, and Geder. Some learned men believe that the latter three were situated between the other mountains; whilst others entertain the more correct opinion that they were situated in another direction from Palestine to Babylon than the first. In the Tosephta to Rosh Hashanah, there is also added as follows: "On Mount Tabor and the mountain of Machvar (see article Jaaser), likewise, were signal fires lighted."

When one stands, on a clear day, on the Mount of Olives and looks northward, he can discover the Mounts of Gerizzim and Ebal not far from Shechem. Near them, in an eastern direction, appears an indistinct prominent peak. Upon close inquiry, I ascertained that the Arabs call this peak Kurn Sartaf, i.e. the horn of Sartaf. The situation of this mount is about 6 English miles west of Jordan, east-northeast from Seilon (Silo), and distant about 24 English miles from the Mount of Olives. Wherefore I hold this point to be, without doubt, the Sartafa of the Talmud. Eastward from Jordan, at a distance of about 15 English miles in the district of Merad, at the south of Wady Redjeb, which is also called Wady Adshlun, about 3 English miles south of the old castle Kallat al Raba (Ramoth Gilead), there is found a small mountain chain called Arapun, and has near its centre a prominent peak. Without doubt this is the ancient Gerufné, since the Arabs often put Ain for Gain; hence, Arapun for Garaphun, almost identical with Gerufné. In the mountain of Hauran (which see) there is a high peak, called in Arabic, Kelb Hauran, i.e. the heart, the centre of the mountain, which is the above-mentioned Choran. Beth-Baltin is beyond Euphrates (see article Biram). On the eastern shore of Lake Chinnereth, are found the ruins of Geder. East of Kanetra, on the caravan road, over the Jordan bridge to Damascus, is found the village Tel Chara, with a mount of the same name. We may find in this a trace of the Charim of the Talmud. In a northern direction from this village, about 20 English miles south of Damascus, is the mount Djebl Chiara, probaby identical with Chear.

Here, then, we have two lines from Palestine to Babylon; the first northeasterly, over Sartaf and Gerufné, &c., and the other, the northern, over Geder, Charim, and Chear.