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Smith's Bible Dictionary
Pal'estine. (land of strangers). These two forms, [Palesti'na and Pal'estine], occur in the Authorized Version, but four times in all, always in poetical passages; the first in Exodus 15:14 and Isaiah 14:29, the second in Joel 3:4. In each case, the Hebrew is Pelesheth, a word found, besides the above, only in Psalms 60:8; Psalms 83:7; Psalms 87:4 and Psalms 108:9. In all of which, our translators have rendered as "Philistia" or "Philistines." Palestine, in the Authorized Version, really means nothing, but Philistia. The original Hebrew word, Pelesheth, to the Hebrews signified merely the long and broad strip of maritime plain inhabited by their encroaching neighbors; nor does it appear that, at first, it signified more to the Greeks.
As lying next the sea, and as being also the high road from Egypt to Phoenicia and the richer regions, take note of it, but the Philistine plain became sooner known to the western world than the country farther inland, and was called by them, Syria Palestina (Philistine Syria). From thence, it was gradually extended to the country farther inland, till in the Roman and later Greek authors, both heathen sad Christian, it became the usual appellation for the whole country of the Jews, both west and east of Jordan. The word is now so commonly employed, in our more familiar language, to destinate the whole country of Israel that, although biblically a misnomer, it has been chosen here as the most convenient heading under which to give a general description of The Holy Land, embracing those points which have not been treated under the separate headings of cities or tribes.
This description will most conveniently divide itself Into three sections: - I. The Names applied to the country of Israel in the Bible and elsewhere. II. The Land; its situation, aspect, climb, physical characteristics in connection with its history, its structure, botany and natural history. III. The History of the country is so fully given, under its various headings throughout the work, that it is unnecessary to recapitulate it here.
I. The Names. - Palestine, then, is designated in the Bible by more than one name. During the patriarchal period, the conquest and the age of the Judges, and also where those early periods are referred to in the later literature (as in) Psalms 105:11, it is spoken of as "Canaan", or more frequently, "the land of Canaan", meaning thereby, the country west of the Jordan, as opposed to "the land of Gilead", on the east.
During the monarchy, the name usually, though not frequently, employed is "the land of Israel". 1 Samuel 13:19.
Between the captivity and the time of our Lord, the name "Judea" had extended itself, from the southern portion, to the whole of the country, and even that beyond the Jordan. Matthew 19:1; Mark 10:1.
The Roman division of the country hardly coincided with the biblical one, and it does not appear that the Romans had any distinct name for that which we understand by Palestine.
Soon after the Christian era, we find the name "Palestina" in possession of the country.
The name most frequently used throughout the middle ages, and down to our own time, is Terra Sancta - The Holy Land.
II. The Land. - The Holy Land is not, in size or physical characteristics, proportioned to its moral and historical position as the theatre of the most momentous events in the world's history. It is but a strip of country about the size of Wales, less than 140 miles in length and barely 40 miles in average breadth, on the very frontier of the East, hemmed in between the Mediterranean Sea, on the one hand, and the enormous trench of the Jordan valley, on the other, by which it is effectually cut off from the mainland of Asia behind it. On the north, it is shut in by the high ranges of Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon, and by the chasm of the Litany. On the south, it is no less enclosed by the arid and inhospitable deserts of the upper pert of the peninsula of Sinai.
Its position. - Its position on the map of the world - as the world was when the Holy Land first made its appearance in history - is a remarkable one.
(a) It was on the very outpost - and the extremist western edge of the East. On the shore of the Mediterranean it stands, as if it had advanced as far as possible toward the west, separated therefrom by that which, when the time arrived, proved to be no barrier, but the readiest medium of communication: the wide waters of the "great sea." Thus, it was open to all the gradual influences of the rising communities of the West, while it was saved from the retrogression and decrepitude, which have ultimately been the doom of all purely eastern states whose connections were limited to the East only.
(b) There was, however, one channel, and but one, by which it could reach and be reached by the great Oriental empires. The rivals road by which the two great rivals of the ancient world could approach one another - by which alone, Egypt could get to Assyria and Assyria to lay along the broad flat strip of coast which formed the maritime portion of the Holy Land, and thence, by the plain of the Lebanon to the Euphrates.
(c) After this, the Holy Land became, (like the Netherlands in Europe), the convenient arena on which, in successive ages, the hostile powers who contended for the empire of the East fought their battles.
Physical features. - Palestine is essentially a mountainous country. Not that if contains independent mountain chains, as in Greece, for example, but that every part of the highland is in greater or less undulation. But it is not only a mountainous country. The mass of hills which occupies the centre of the country is bordered or framed on both sides, east and west, by a broad belt of Shefelah, or lowland, sunk deep below its own level. The slopes or cliffs, which form, as if it were, the retaining walls of this depression, are furrowed and cleft by the torrent beds, which discharge the waters of the hills, and form the means of communication between the upper and lower level.
On the west, this Shefelah, or lowland, interposes between the mountains and the sea, and is the plain of Philistia and of Sharon. On the east, it is the broad bottom of the Jordan valley, deep down in which rushed the one river of Palestine to its grave in, the Dead Sea. Such is the first general impression of the physiognomy of the land. It is a physiognomy compounded of the three main features already named - the plains, the highland hills, and the torrent beds features, which are marked in the words of its earliest describers, Numbers 13:29; Joshua 11:16; Joshua 12:8, and which must be comprehended by every one who wishes to understand the countrym and the intimate connection existing between its structure and its history.
About halfway up the coast, the maritime plain is suddenly interrupted by a long ridge thrown out from the central mass, rising considerably to shove up the general level, and terminating in a bold promontory on the very edge of the Mediterranean. This ridge is Mount Carmel. On its upper side, the plain, as if to compensate for its temporary displacement, invades the centre of the country, and forms an undulating hollow right across it from the Mediterranean to the Jordan valley.
This central Shefelah, or lowland, which divides, with its broad depression, the mountains of Ephraim from the mountains of Galilee, is the plain of Esdraelon or Jezreel: the great battle-field of Palestine. North of Carmel, the Shefelah, or lowland resumes its position by the seaside till it is again interrupted, and finally put an end to, by the northern mountains, which push their way out of the sea, ending in the white promontory of the Ras Nakhura.
Above this is the ancient Phoenicia. The country, thus roughly portrayed, is, to all intents and purposes, the whole land of israel. The northern portion is Galilee; the centre is Samaria; and the south is Judea. This is the land of Canaan, which was bestowed on Abraham, - the covenanted home of his descendants.
The highland district, surrounded and intersected by its broad Shefelah, or lowland plains, preserves, from north to south, a remarkably even and horizontal profile. Its average height may betaken as 1600 to 1800 feet above the Mediterranean. It can hardly be denominated a plateau; yet, so evenly is the general level preserved and so thickly do the hills stand behind and between one another, that, when seen from the coast, or the western part of the maritime plain, it has quite the appearance of a wall. This general monotony of profile is however, relieved at intervals, by certain centers of elevation.
Between these elevated points runs the watershed of the country, sending off on either hand - to the Jordan valley on the east, and the Mediterranean on the west - the long, tortuous arms of ifs many torrent beds. The valleys, on the two sides of the watershed, differ considerably in character. Those on the east are extremely steep and rugged, while the western valleys are more gradual in their slope.
Fertility. - When the highlands of the country are more closely examined, a considerable difference will be found to exist in the natural condition and appearance of their different portions. The south, as being nearer the arid desert and farther removed from the drainage of the mountains, is drier and less productive than the north. The tract below Hebron, which forms the link between the hills of Judah and the desert, was known to the ancient Hebrews by a term originally derived from its dryness - Negeb. This was the south country.
As the traveller advances north of this tract, there is an improvement; but perhaps no country equally cultivated is more monotonous, bare or uninviting in its aspect than a great part of the highlands of Judah and Benjamin, during the larger portion of the year. The spring covers even those bald gray rocks with verdure and color, and fills the ravines with torrents of rushing water; but in summer and autumn, the look of the country from Hebron up to Bethel is very dreary and desolate. At Jerusalem, this reaches its climax.
To the west and northwest of the highlands, where the sea-breezes are felt, there is considerably more vegetation. Hitherto, we have spoken of the central and northern portions of Judea. Its eastern portion - a tract some nine or ten miles in width by about thirty-five miles in length, which intervenes between the centre and the abrupt descent to the Dead Sea - is far more wild and desolate, and that, not for a portion of the year only, but throughout it. This must have been always what it is now - an uninhabited desert, because uninhabitable.
No descriptive sketch of this part of the country can be complete which does not allude to the caverns, characteristic of all limestone districts, but here, existing in astonishing numbers. Every hill and ravine is pierced with them, some very large and of curious formation - perhaps partly natural, partly artificial - others mere grottos. Many of them are connected with most important, and interesting events of the ancient history of the country. Especially is this true of the district now under consideration. Machpelah, Makkedah, Adullam En-gedi, names inseparably connected with the lives, adventures and deaths of Abraham, Joshua, David and other Old Testament worthies, are all within the small circle of the territory of Judea.
The bareness and dryness which prevail more or less in Judea are owing partly to the absence of wood, partly to its proximity to the desert, and partly to a scarcity of water, arising from its distance from the Lebanon. But to this discouraging aspect, there are some important exceptions. The valley of Urtas, south of Bethlehem, contains springs which, in abundance and excellence, rival even those of Nablus. The huge "Pools of Solomon" are enough to supply a district for many miles round them; and the cultivation, now going on in that neighborhood, shows what might be done with a soil which required only irrigation, and a moderate amount of labor, to evoke a boundless produce.
It is obvious that, in the ancient days of the nation, when Judah and Benjamin possessed the teeming population indicated in the Bible, the condition and aspect of the country must have been very different. Of this, there are, not wanting, sure evidences. There is no country in which the ruined towns bear so large a proportion to those still existing. Hardly a hill-top of the many within sight that is not covered with vestiges of some fortress or city. But, besides this, forests appear to have stood in many parts of Judea until the repeated invasions and sieges caused their fall; and all this vegetation must have reacted on the moisture of the climate, and, by preserving the water in many a ravine and natural reservoir where now it is rapidly dried by the fierce sun of the early summer, must have influenced, materially , the look and the resources of the country.
Advancing northward from Judea, the country, (Samaria), becomes gradually more open and pleasant. Plains of good soil occur between the hills, at first, small, but afterward, comparatively large. The hills assume here a more varied aspect than in the southern districts, springs are more abundant and more permanent until at last, when the district of Jebel Nablus is reached - the ancient Mount Ephraim - the traveller encounters an atmosphere and an amount of vegetation and water which are greatly superior to anything he has met with in Judea, and even sufficient to recall much of the scenery of the West.
Perhaps the springs are the only objects which in themselves, and apart from their associations, really strike an English traveller with astonishment and admiration. Such glorious fountains as those of Ain-jalud or the Ras el-Mukatta - where a great body of the dearest water wells silently but swiftly out from deep blue recesses worn in the foot of a low cliff of limestone rock, and at once, forms a considerable stream - are rarely to be met with out of irregular, rocky, mountainous countries, and being such unusual sights can hardly be looked on by the traveler, without surprise and emotion.
The valleys which lead down from the upper level in this district to the valley of the Jordan are less precipitous than in Judea. The eastern district of the Jebel Nablus contains some of the most fertile end valuable spots in the Holy Land. Hardly less rich is the extensive region which lies northwest of the city of Shechem (Nablus), between it and Carmel, in which the mountains gradually break down into the plain of Sharon.
But with all its richness and all its advance on the southern part of the country, there is a strange dearth of natural wood about this central district. It is this which makes the wooded sides of Carmel and the park-like scenery of the adjacent slopes and plains so remarkable. No sooner, however, is the plain of Eadraelon passed than a considerable improvement is perceptible. The low hills which spread down from the mountains of Galilee, and form the barrier between the plains of Akka and Esdraelon, are covered with timber, of moderate size, it is true, but of thick, vigorous growth, and pleasant to the eye. Eastward of these hills, rises the round mass of Tabor dark with its copses of oak, and set on, by contrast, with the bare slopes of Jebel ed-Duhy, (the so called "Little Hermon") and the white hills of Nazareth.
A few words must be said in general description of the Shefelah, or maritime lowland, which intervenes between the sea and the highlands. This region, only slightly elevated above the level of the Mediterranean, extends without interruption from el-Arish, south of Gaza, to Mount Carmel. It naturally divides itself into two portions, each of about half its length; the lower one, the wider, and the upper one, the narrower. The lower half is the plain of the Philistines-Philistia, or, as the Hebrews called it, the Shefelah, or Lowland. The upper half is the Sharon, or Saron, of the Old and New Testaments.
The Philistine plain is on an average 15 or 16 miles in width, from the coast to the beginning of the belt of hills, which forms the gradual approach to the high land of the mountains of Judah. The larger towns, as Gaza and Ashdod, which stand near the shore, are surrounded with huge groves of olive, and sycamore, as in the days King David. 1 Chronicles 27:28.
The whole plain appears to consist of brown, loamy soil, light, but rich, and almost without a stone. It is now, as it was when the Philistines possessed it, one enormous cornfield; an ocean of wheat covers the wide expense between the hills and the sand dunes of the seashore, without interruption of any kind - no break or hedge, hardly even a single olive tree. Its fertility is marvellous; for the prodigious crops which if raises are produced, and probably have been produced. Almost year by year. For the last forty centuries, without any of the appliances which we find necessary for success.
The plain of Sharon is much narrower than the plain of the Philistines-Philistia. It is about 10 miles wide from the sea to the foot of the mountains, which are, here, of a more abrupt character than those of Philistia, and without the intermediate hilly region there occurring.
The one ancient port of the Jews, the "beautiful", city of Joppa, occupied a position central between the Shefelah and Sharon. Roads led from these various cities to each other to Jerusalem, Neapolis and Sebaste in the interior, and to Ptolemais and Gaza on the north and south. The commerce of Damascus, and beyond Damascus, of Persia and India, passed this way to Egypt, Rome and the infant colonies of the West; and that traffic and the constant movement of troops backward and forward must have made this plain, at the time of Christ, one of the busiest and most populous regions of Syria.
The Jordan valley. - The chacteristics already described are hardly peculiar to Palestine, but there is one feature, as yet only alluded to, in which she stands alone. This feature is the Jordan - the one river of the country. The river is elsewhere described; see Jordan, but it and the valley through which it rushes down its extraordinary descent must be here briefly characterized. This valley begins with the river at its remotest springs of Hasbeiya, on the northwest side of Hermon, and accompanies it to the lower end of the Dead Sea, a length of about 150 miles. During the whole of this distance, its course is straight and its direction nearly due north and south.
The springs of Hasbeiya are 1700 feet above the level of the Mediterranean and the northern end of the Dead Sea is 1317 feet below it, so that, between these two points, the valley falls with more or less regularity, through a height of more than 3000 feet. But though the river disappears at this point, the valley still continues its descent below the waters of the Dead Sea till it reaches a further depth of 1308 feet. So that the bottom of this extraordinary crevasse is actually more than 2600 feet below the surface of the ocean.
In width, the valley varies. In its upper and shallower portion, as between Banias and the lake of Merom (Huleh), it is about five miles across. Between the lake of Merom and the Sea or Galilee, it contracts, and becomes more of an ordinary ravine or glen. It is in its third and lower portion that the valley assumes its more definite and regular character. During the greater part of this portion, it is about seven miles wide from the one wall to the other.
The eastern mountains preserve their straight line of direction, and their massive horizontal wall-like aspect, during almost the whole distance. The western mountains are more irregular in height, their slopes less vertical. North of Jericho, they recede in a kind of wide amphitheatre, and the valley becomes twelve miles broad - a breadth which it, thenceforward, retains to the southern extremity of the Dead Sea.
Buried, as it is, between such lofty ranges, and shielded from every breeze, the climate of the Jordan valley is extremely hot and relaxing. Its enervating influence is shown by the inhabitants of Jericho. All the irrigation necessary for the cultivation, which formerly existed, is obtained front the torrents of the western mountains. For all purposes to which a river ordinarily applied the Jordan is useless. The Dead Sea, which is the final receptacle of the Jordan, is described elsewhere. See Sea, The Salt.
Climate. - "Probably there is no country in the world of the same extent which has a greater variety of climate than Palestine. On Mount Hermon, at its northern border, there is perpetual snow. From this, we descend successively by the peaks of Bashan and upper Galilee, where the oak and pine flourish, to the hills of Judah and Samaria, where the vine and fig tree are at home, to the plains of the seaboard, where the palm and banana produce their fruit, down to the sultry shores of the Sea, on which we find tropical heat and tropical vegetation." - McClintock and Strong.
As, in the time of our Saviour, Luke 12:64, the rains come chiefly from the south or southwest. They commence at the end of October or beginning of November, and continue, with greater or less constancy, till the end of February or March. It is not a heavy, continuous rain, so much as a succession of severe showers or storms, with intervening periods of fine, bright weather. Between April and November, there is, with the rarest exceptions, an uninterrupted succession of fine weather and skies without a cloud. Thus, the year divides itself into two, and only two, seasons - as indeed we see it constantly divided in the Bible - "winter and summer;" "cold and heat;" "seed-time and harvest."
Botany. - The botany of Syria and Palestine differs but little from that of Asia Minor, which is one of the most rich and varied on the globe. Among trees, the oak is by far the most prevalent. The trees of the genus Pistacia rank next to the oak in abundance, and of these there are three species in Syria. There is also the carob or locust tree (Ceratonia siliqua), the pine, sycamore, poplar and walnut.
Of planted trees and large shrubs, the first in importance is the vine, which is most abundantly cultivated all over the country, and produces, as in the time of the Canaanites, enormous bunches of grapes. This is especially the case in the southern districts, those of Eshcol being still particularly famous. Next to the vine, or even in some respects, its superior in importance, ranks the olive, which nowhere grows in greater luxuriance and abundance than in Palestine, where the olive orchards form a prominent feature throughout the landscape, and have done so from time immemorial. The fig forms another most important crop in Syria and Palestine.
(Besides these are the almond, pomegranate, orange, pear, banana, quince and mulberry among fruit trees. Of vegetables, there are many varieties, such as the egg plant, pumpkin, asparagus, lettuce, melon and cucumber. Palestine is especially distinguished for its wild flowers, of which there are more than five hundred varieties. The geranium, pink, poppy, narcissus, honeysuckle, oleander, jessamine, tulip and iris are abundant. The various grains are also very largely cultivated. - Editor).
Zoology. - It will be sufficient, in this article, to give a general survey of the fauna of Palestine, as the reader will find more particular information in the several articles, which treat of the various animals, under their respective names. Jackals and foxes are common; the hyena and wolf are also occasionally observed; the lion is no longer a resident in Palestine or Syria. A species of squirrel of which the term orkidaun, "the leaper", has been noticed on the lower and middle parts of Lebanon. Two kinds of hare, rats and mice, which are said to abound, the jerboa, the porcupine, the short-tailed field-mouse, may be considered as the representatives of the Rodentia.
Of the Pachydermata, the wild boar, which is frequently met with on Taber and Little Hermon, appears to be the only living wild example. There does not appear to be at present any wild ox in Palestine. Of domestic animals, we need only mention the Arabian or one-humped camel, the ass, the mule and the horse, all of which are in general use. The buffalo (Bubalus buffalo) is common. The ox of the country is small and unsightly in the neighborhood of Jerusalem, but in the richer pastures, the cattle, though small, are not unsightly. The common sheep of Palestine is the broadtail, with its varieties. Goats are extremely common everywhere.
Palestine abounds in numerous kinds of birds. Vultures, eagles, falcons, kites, owls of different kinds represent the Raptorial order. In the south of Palestine especially, reptiles of various kinds abound. It has been remarked that, in its physical character, Palestine presents on a small scale, an epitome of the natural features of all regions, mountainous and desert, northern and tropical, maritime and inland, pastoral, arable and volcanic.
Antiquities. - In the preceding descriptions, allusion has been made to many of the characteristic features of the Holy Land; but it is impossible to close this account, without mentioning a defect which is even more characteristic - its lack of monuments and personal relics of the nation, which possessed it for so many centuries, and gave it its claim to our veneration and affection. When compared with other nations of equal antiquity - Egypt, Greece, Assyria - the contrast is truly remarkable.
In Egypt and Greece, and also in Assyria, as far as our knowledge at present extends, we find a series of buildings reaching down from the most remote and mysterious antiquity, a chain of which hardly a link is wanting, and which records the progress of the people in civilization, art and religion, as certainly as the buildings of the medieval architects do that of the various nations of modern Europe.
But in Palestine, it is not too much to say that, there does not exist a single edifice, or part of an edifice, of which we can be sure that it is of a date, anterior to the Christian era. And as with the buildings, so with other memorials.
With one exception, the museums of Europe do not possess a single piece of pottery or metal work, a single weapon or household utensil, an ornament or a piece of armor of Israelite make, which can give us the least conception of the manners or outward appliances of the nation before the date of the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus.
The coins form the single exception. M. Renan has named two circumstances, which must have had a great effect in suppressing art or architecture amongst the ancient Israelites, while their very existence proves that the people had no genius in that direction. These are
(1) the prohibition of sculptured representations of living creatures, and
(2) the command not to build a Temple anywhere, but at Jerusalem.
These files are public domain.
Smith, William, Dr. Entry for 'Palestine'. Smith's Bible Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/sbd/p/palestine.html. 1901.