Exercising Geographical Imagination

The first reading from the lectionary this past Sunday was taken from Genesis, and included this promise by God to Abraham. “Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates.” Many Jews and at least some Christians take this as a promise that the Jews will someday possess the entire Middle East. I believe this is a mistake, and that it results from a failure of geographical imagination.

I say this as an historical geographer, not as a biblical scholar or apologist for any side in present day territorial disputes. If we take the words to be a faithful relation of an oral tradition predating the writing of Genesis, we should place them in the context of the geography that was known to men who first set the wording of the tradition, because the words must mean what they meant for those men. Placing them in this context is what I mean by proper use of the geographical imagination. This is, in fact, an axiom in my field of historical geography. The beliefs and behaviors of historical actors can only be understood in the context of the knowledge—and this includes the geographical knowledge—of those actors.

For instance, we cannot understand Columbus if we don’t understand that he believed the globe was about nineteen thousand miles in circumference.

For a man living two to three thousand years ago, in what we today call the Middle East, the land between the Nile and the Euphrates was not a part of the world—it was the world. To the north and east lay the wild highlands of the Iranian and Anatolian Plateaus. To the south and the southwest lay the wild deserts of Arabia and Libya. To the northwest lay a dark and fearsome sea. Between the Nile and the Euphrates lay all the civilization this man had ever heard of; beyond these rivers was darkness and barbarians.

If we zoom in and examine the geography of that day in greater detail, we again see that the two rivers—more specifically the two alluvial plains at their mouths—marked the ends of the earth as it was then known. In 1916 the archaeologist James Breasted described the internal geography of the region as the “fertile crescent.” In fact the shape more closely resembles a sickle with the convex back of its blade pointed to the north. At the tip of the blade lay Chaldea, in the far south of Mesopotamia, near where the Euphrates empties into the Persian Gulf. At the butt of the handle lay the delta of the Nile. Beyond Chaldea and the delta of the Nile lay terra incognita.

The blade of the sickle curved north and then west from Chaldea, following the course of the Euphrates. Within the concave curve of the blade lay the waste of what Breasted called the “Desert Bay,” today’s Syrian Desert. Against the concave back of the blade rose the high and wild plateaus of Iran and Anatolia, which caused the orographic precipitation that gave rise to the Euphrates and its sister river, the Tigris. Of the two rivers the Euphrates was more important in the mental geography of the ancient world because along side of it ran what the geographer James Fairgrieve called “the Way.”

“It was comparatively easy to pass from Babylon up the Euphrates valley, then across the valley of the Orontes between Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon. Down the valley of the Leontes and Upper Jordan, across the Plain of Esdraelon, past Megiddo, or Armageddon, the meeting place of the armies of this little world, through the land of the Philistines by the shores of the Mediterranean, across the narrow strip of desert to Egypt.” (James Fairgrieve, Geography and World Power [1917])

As Fairgrieve states, near the point where the western tributaries of the Euphrates spill out from the Anatolian Plateau, the Way turned south and followed the rift valley that contains the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea and the Gulf of Aqaba. The mountains of Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon, and even the lower highlands of Samaria and Judea, wrung orographic precipitation from the breezes that blow east from the Mediterranean, and the streams and rivers fed by this precipitation supported caravans and a string of oasis along the Way.

In Galilee the Way passed over to the coastal plain, through a low spot between the mountains of Lebanon and the highlands farther south. As this plain of Esdraelon was the natural the battle ground for armies who approached each other along the Way, from Mesopotamia and Egypt, it has given its name to the cosmic battle that we are told will determine the fate of the world. For Armageddon was the great battleground of that world.

From the plain of Esdraelon, the Way continued south along the coast, through Gaza, where Samson pulled down the temple, and then across the Sinai Desert to the delta of the Nile. And that was the end of the line. Beyond it swirled the sands of Libyan—terra incognita.

So when God speaks to Abraham in Genesis 15:18, he is not parceling out what we know to be one region in a larger world. He is describing the entire world, as Abraham knew it. He is saying, in effect, “from one end of the Way to the other.” This is certainly the case if we place the words in the context of what we may suppose to be Abraham’s geographic knowledge, somewhere between 2000 and 1000 B.C. And not a great deal would have changed in what we might call the relevant geographic knowledge of the scribes who are now believed to have put the story into writing some centuries later.

We should also bear in mind that the Bible is, on the whole, largely indifferent to geography outside of a narrow theater of action, or as a symbol with transcendent meaning. Compared with other sacred books, such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Bible takes unusual care to place events in specific localities, but it has very little to say about the configuration of the wider world—the terra incognita—beyond those localities. This is one reason attempts to write a purely scriptural geography, such as the Christian Topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes, are so unsatisfactory. Where the geography related in scripture is not simply local and factual, it is symbolical. This is the case with the Wilderness of Sinai, for instance, or the plains of Esdraelon, or the four streams that are said to flow from the Terrestrial Paradise (which overly literal medieval geographers identified as the Nile, the Euphrates, the Tigris and the Ganges).

As I said at the outset, I haven’t written this to make a theological or geopolitical point. It was simply that one of this week’s lectionary readings suggested the need to make a historical geographical point. And that point is, again, that the words and actions of historical figures must be understood, not only in terms of their actual geographical situation, but also in terms of what they understood their geographical situation to be.  To understand these words and actions, we must use or geographical imagination to take up temporary residence in that world.


12 thoughts on “Exercising Geographical Imagination

  1. Pingback: Exercising Geographical Imagination | Neoreactive

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  3. Most commentary on Homer’s Odyssey locates Ithaca on the far western frontier of the Greek world. This is true neither to Mycenaean geography nor to Archaic Greek geography. The Mycenaeans knew of the Italian peninsula, engaged in commerce there, and probably had settlements there, as they did in Western Anatolia. So, too, in Archaic Times, the Greeks knew of Italy and were already settling there. Given these two geographies, Ithaca is not on any frontier of any Greek world; it sits almost at the center of the Greek world. Odysseus has been conscripted to the periphery and wants to return to the center, for which another word is “home.”

  4. I ws under the impression that, for a significant period of the Roman empire, Libya was a prolific source of grain. This implies that land clearing took place to make way for the grain fields. Was I misinformed?

    • That was later than Abraham, closer to the time of Christ. By that time civilization and knowledge had expanded, and a well informed man would have thought of Britain and India as the ends of the earth.

      • My query, though, is about the type of wilderness that lay West of the Nile Delta in the time of Abraham; desert or forested wilderness? Do we know?

      • There was a narrow strip of grassland along the coast, widening as the elevation increased west of Tunis. The Sahara has expanded to the north, so that the coast of Libya in Roman times looked more like southern Italy or Greece today. At the time of Abraham the region was probably home to pastoralists like Abraham, but he would not have known of them. I’m not sure when the Phoenician cities first appeared. One of them sent a ship to the coast of Nigeria in about 500 B.C.

  5. The legendary foundation of Carthage is 800 BC, but archaeology suggests a Phoenician presence in North Africa and Spain (Tartessos) in the Bronze Age.

    JM, did you ever read Ulysses Found by Ernle Bradford? A Royal Navy officer in WWII, Bradford was also a classicist, who, following the navigational clues in the Odyssey, sailed his sloop around the Eastern Mediterranean in the 1950s thereby proving (to his own satisfaction anyway) that Homer’s geography was quite real.

  6. That was, of course, the opinion of Strabo, who in his Geographica (A.D. 24) wrote, “we and our predecessors do justly regard Homer as the founder of geographical science.” If we place Homer at the earliest possible date, and Abraham at the latest, they are roughly contemporary, but even so would have inhabited different “worlds.” To a man of what we call the Middle East, the world was Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the Way by which they were connected. In the mental geography of such a man, the Greeks were at most a minor satellite.

    Avoidance of anachronistic centers of the world is an important part of what I mean by geographical imagination. For instance, we work with an anachronistic center if we think of Constantinople as being at the edge of the world in the Middle Ages. It was, of course, at or very near the center. The Crusaders were not really going “out” to Constantinople so much as “up” or “in” to Constantinople. We are blinded to this by the subsequent shift of the center to the northwest. Another example of an anachronistic center is to think of Shakespeare’s England as at or near the “center” of the world, The center of the world was moving towards England at that time, but the British Isles were still what they had been for millennia, the last lands at the end of the earth. Land’s End isn’t just a local toponym. It originally marked a point on the outer rim of Homer’s disk of land, on the edge of Oceanus.

    As it happens, I’m at this moment putting together an annotated text of Richard Burton’s account of his ascent of Mount Cameroon, in 1862. It’s for students in my class on the History of Geography, some of whom may actually read it. Burton mentions that Mount Cameroon is recorded in the Periplus of Hano, the Phoenician explorer, who sailed to the Bight of Biafra about 550 B.C. Hano named the volcano the Chariot of the Gods, a name that has come down to us through Pliny as Theon Ochima.

  7. While your are absolutely right about how can the believes and behaviors of historical actors be properly understood, that one has to try to think, act and see the world as those actors did, and not as one wishes today, from his contemporary point of view, there are still many difficulties left.
    In light of the sayings that “History is written by the victors” and the one attributed to Napoleon about history being “а set of lies agreed upon”, my humble opinion is that history is much, much more in the realm of “I believe“then “I know“. History, as I see it, is largely one layer after another of subjective opinions, assumptions and half-truths, covered in a multi layer coating of hypocrisy, lies and deceptions and in the end beautifully garnished with the finest selection of a wide specter of interests. Depending on who’s talking, something can be a well established and universally excepted, irrefutable historical fact, or a fabricated, outrages, despicable and monstrous lie.
    Concerning your example, while your reasoning is perfectly plausible about what Abraham and his contemporaries thought of as the World, I have read and heard theories, that the Biblical stories of the Old Testament are located in present day Yemen, and the regions of Asir, Jizan and Najran in modern day Saudi Arabia. And that is of course if one claims that Abraham actually existed and was, at least to some extent, truthfully described in the Bible.

    In the end one is left with Socrates, in whose existence one can only believe, and the saying attributed to him – I know that I know nothing.

    • It is important to understand that history is not exactly the same as “what actually happened in the past.” It is an interpretation of the records, and so shaped by the character of those records and the ideas we use to interpret them. At the same time, this skepticism can be taken too far. Many things we know about the past with a relatively high degree of certainty; others are more doubtful.


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