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Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature


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Pal´estine. This name, usually applied to the country formerly inhabited by the Israelites, does not occur in the Hebrew Bible. It is, however, derived from Philistia, or the country of the Philistines, which comprised the southern part of the coast plain of Canaan along the Mediterranean. The word Philistia occurs in;;;;;; . From this arose the name Palestine, which was applied by most ancient writers, and even by Josephus, to the whole land of the Israelites.

Names of Palestine

The other names of the country may be given in the order of their occurrence in Scripture.

Canaan, from Canaan, the fourth son of Ham, from whom the first inhabitants were descended. It is the most ancient name of the country, and is first found as such in . This denomination was confined to the country between the Mediterranean and the Jordan; but in later times it was understood to include Phoenicia (; ), and also the land of the Philistines.

Land of Israel. This name was given to the whole country as distributed among and occupied by the tribes of Israel.

Land of Promise. So called as the land which God promised to the patriarchal fathers to bestow on their descendants.

Land of Jehovah. So called as being in a special and peculiar sense the property of Jehovah, who, as the sovereign proprietor of the soil, granted it to the Hebrews (;; ).

The Holy Land. This name only occurs in . The land is here called 'Holy,' as being the Lord's property, and sanctified by his temple and worship.

Judah, Judea. This name belonged at first to the territory of the tribe of Judah alone. After the separation of the two kingdoms, one of them took the name of Judah, which contained the territories both of that tribe and of Benjamin. After the Captivity, down to and after the time of Christ, Judea was used in a loose way as a general name for the whole country of Palestine; but in more precise language, and with reference to internal distribution, it denoted nearly the territories of the ancient kingdom, as distinguished from Samaria and Galilee on the west of the Jordan, and Peræa on the east.

Divisions of Palestine

The divisions of Palestine were different in different ages.

In the time of the Patriarchs, the country was divided among the tribes or nations descended from the sons of Canaan. The precise locality of each nation is not, in every case, distinctly known; but our map exhibits the most probable arrangement.

After the Conquest the land was distributed by lot among the tribes. The particulars of this distribution will be best seen by reference to the map.

After the Captivity we hear very little of the territories of the tribes, for ten of them never returned to occupy their ancient domains.

In the time of Christ the country on the west of the Jordan was divided into the provinces of Galilee, Samaria, and Judea. Galilee is a name which was applied to that part of Palestine north of the Plain of Esdraelon or Jezreel. This province was divided into Lower or Southern, and Upper or Northern Galilee. Samaria occupied nearly the middle of Palestine; but, although it extended across the country, it did not come down to the sea-shore. Judea, as a province, corresponded to the northern and western parts of the ancient kingdom of that name; but the south-eastern portion formed the territory of Idumæa. On the other side of the Jordan the divisions were, at this time, more numerous and less distinct. The whole country generally was called Peræa, and was divided into eight districts or cantons, namely:—

Peræa, in the more limited sense, which was the southernmost canton, extending from the river Arnon to the river Jabbok.

Gilead, north of the Jabbok, and highly populous.

Decapolis, or the district of ten cities, which were Scythopolis or Bethshan (on the west side of the Jordan), Hippos, Gadara, Pella, Philadelphia (formerly Rabbath), Dium, Canatha, Gerasa, Raphana, and perhaps Damascus.

Gaulonitis, extending to the north-east of the Upper Jordan and of the lake of Gennesareth.

Batanæa, the ancient Bashan, but less extensive, east of the lake of Gennesareth.

Auranitis, also called Ituræa, and known to this day by the old name of Hauran (; ), to the north of Batanæa and the east of Gaulonitis.

Trachonitis, extending to the north of Gaulonitis, and east from Paneas (Cæsarea Philippi) and the sources of the Jordan, where it was separated from Galilee ().

Abilene, in the extreme north, among the mountains of Anti-Libanus, between Baalbec and Damascus. The more important of these names have been noticed under their several heads.

Situation and Boundaries of Palestine

Palestine is the south-western part of Syria, extending from the mountains of Lebanon to the borders of Egypt. It lies about midway between the equator and the polar circle, to which happy position it owes the fine medium climate which it possesses. Its length is embraced between 30° 40′ and 33° 32′ of N. latitude, and between 33° 45′ of E. longitude in the south-west, and 35° 48′ in the north-east. The breadth may be taken at an average of sixty-five miles, the extreme breadth being about 100 miles. The length, from Mount Hermon in the north, to which the territory of Manasseh beyond the Jordan extended (), to Kadesh-barnea in the south, to which the territory of Judah reached, was 180 miles.

Palestine may be regarded as embracing an area of almost 11,000 square miles. But the real surface is much greater than this estimate would imply; for Palestine being essentially a hilly country, the sides of the mountains and the slopes of the hills enlarge the available surface to an extent which does not admit of calculation.

With regard to the lines of boundary, the clearest description of them is that contained in Numbers 34. From the statements there made it appears that the writer, after prolonging the eastern boundary-line from the end of the Dead Sea down the edge of the Arabah, to a point somewhere south of Kadesh-barnea, then turns off westward to form the southern line, which he extends to the Mediterranean, at a point where 'the River of Egypt' falls into the Sea. This River of Egypt is usually, and on very adequate grounds, supposed to be the stream which falls into the Sea near El-Arish.

The western border is stated as defined by the Mediterranean coast. But the Hebrews never possessed the whole of this territory. The northern part of the coast, from Sidon to Akko (Acre), was in the hands of the Phoenicians, and the southern part, from Azotus to Gaza, was retained by the Philistines, except at intervals; and a central portion, about one-third of the whole, from Mount Carmel to Jabneh (Jamnia) was alone permanently open to the Israelites.

The northern boundary-line commenced at the sea somewhere not far to the south of Sidon, whence it was extended to Lebanon, and crossing the narrow valley which leads into the great plain enclosed between Libanus and Anti-Libanus, terminated at Mount Hermon, in the latter range.

The eastern boundary, as respects Canaan Proper, was defined by the Jordan and its lakes; but as respects the whole country, including the portion beyond the Jordan, it extended to Salchah, a town on the eastern limits of Bashan. From this point it must have inclined somewhat sharply to the south-west, to the point where the Wady ed-Deir enters the Zerka, and thence it probably extended almost due south to the Arnon, which was the southern limit of the eastern territory.

Mineralogy of Palestine

The mountains on the west of the Jordan consist chiefly of chalk, on which basalt begins to occur beyond Cana (northward). The so-called white limestone, which is met with around Jerusalem and thence to Jericho, which covers the summit and forms the declivities of the Mount of Olives, and which is also found at Mount Tabor and around Nazareth, is a kind of chalk considerably indurated, and approaching to whitish compact limestone. 'Layers and detached masses of flint are very commonly seen in it. Besides this indurated chalk, a stone is found in the immediate vicinity of Jerusalem, chiefly towards the north, as well as towards Safet, and in other parts of the country, which, together with the dolomite formation occasionally met with, appears to be of what in Germany is called the Jura formation. Palestine may be most emphatically called the country of salt, which is produced in vast abundance, chiefly in the neighborhood of the Dead Sea, which deserves to be regarded as one of the great natural salt-works of the world.'

Under this head it may be noted that the fine impalpable desert-sand, which proves so menacing to travelers, and even to inhabitants, is scarcely found in Palestine Proper; but it occurs beyond Lebanon, near Beirut, and in the neighborhood of Damascus.

Palestine is eminently a country of caverns, to which there is frequent allusion in Scripture [CAVES], and which are hardly so numerous in any country of the same extent. Many of them were enlarged by the inhabitants, and even artificial grottoes were formed by manual labor. In these the inhabitants still like to reside; as in summer they afford protection from the heat, and in winter from cold and rain. Even now, in many places, houses are observed built so near to rocks, that their cavities may be used for rooms or sheds suited to the condition of the seasons. Though the country is not infrequently visited by earthquakes, they leave behind no such frightful traces as those of Asia Minor; as the vaults of limestone offer more effectual resistance than the sandstone of the latter country.

We are glad to see so competent a witness as Schubert bear his testimony to the natural resources of the soil, which superficial observers, judging only from present appearance, have so often questioned. He says, 'no soil could be naturally more fruitful and fit for cultivation than that of Palestine, if man had not destroyed the source of fertility by annihilating the former green covering of the hills and slopes, and thereby destroying the regular circulation of sweet water, which ascends as vapor from the sea to be cooled in the higher regions, and then descends to form the springs and rivers, for it is well known that the vegetable kingdom performs in this circulation the function of capillary tubes. But although the natives, from exasperation against their foreign conquerors and rulers, and the invaders who have so often overruled this scene of ancient blessings, have greatly reduced its prosperity, still I cannot comprehend how not only scoffers like Voltaire, but early travelers, who doubtless intended to declare the truth, represent Palestine as a natural desert, whose soil never could have been fit for profitable cultivation. Whoever saw the exhaustless abundance of plants on Carmel and the border of the desert, the grassy carpet of Esdraelon, the lawns adjoining the Jordan, and the rich foliage of the forests of Mount Tabor; whoever saw the borders of the lakes of Merom and Gennesareth, wanting only the cultivator to entrust to the soil his seed and plants, may state what other country on earth, devastated by two thousand years of warfare and spoliation, could be more fit for being again taken into cultivation. The bountiful hand of the Most High, which formerly showered abundance upon this renowned land, continues to be still open to those desirous of his blessings.'

The following table of levels in Palestine is copied from a recently published supplement to Raumer's Palästina. The measurements are in Paris feet, above and below the level of the Mediterranean Sea.


Great Hermon


Mount St. Catherine (in Sinai)


Jebel Mousa (in Sinai)


Jebel et Tyh (in Sinai)


Jebel er-Ramah






Mount of Olives






Mount Gerizim






Kidron (brook)




Mount Tabor


Pass of Zephath


Desert of et-Tyh






Plain of Esdraelon



Lake of Tiberias




Dead Sea


Some of these results are most extraordinary. First, here is the remarkable fact, that the Mount of Olives and the Kidron, and consequently Jerusalem, stand 700 feet higher than the top of Mount Tabor, and about 2500 feet above the level of the Mediterranean. More to the south, Hebron stands on still higher ground; and while it is 2700 feet above the sea on the one hand, the Asphaltic Lake lies 4000 feet below it on the other. This fact has no known parallel in any other region, and within so short a distance of the sea; and the extraordinary depression of the lake (1337feet below the sea level) adequately accounts for the very peculiar climate which its remarkable basin exhibits. The points at Tiberias to the north, and Kadesh to the south of the Dead Sea, are both, and nearly equally, below the Mediterranean level, and taken, together, they show the great slope both from the north and from the south towards the Dead Sea. confirming the discovery of Dr. Robinson, that the water-shed to the south of the Asphaltic Lake is towards its basin, and that, therefore, the Jordan could not at any time, as the country is at present constituted, have flowed on southward to the Elanitic Gulf, as was formerly supposed.

Mountains of Palestine

As all the principal mountains of Palestine are noticed in this work under their respective names, it is unnecessary to offer any observations under this head.

The most important or the most distinguished of the plains and valleys of Palestine are those of Lebanon, of the Jordan, of Jericho, of Esdraelon, and of the Coast.

The Plain of Lebanon may be described as the valley which is enclosed between the parallel mountain ranges of Libanus and Anti-Libanus. This enclosed plain is the Cœle-Syria of the ancients, and now bears the name of el-Bekka (the Valley). It is about ninety miles in length, from north to south, by eleven miles in breadth, nearly equal throughout, except that it widens at the northern end and narrows at the southern. This plain is, perhaps, the most rich and beautiful part of Syria.

The Plain of the Jordan. By this name we understand the margin of the lakes, as well as the valley watered by the river. Here the heat is still greater than in the valley of Lebanon, and as water is usually wanting, the whole plain is barren and desolate.

The Plain of Jericho is but an opening or expansion in the plain of the Jordan, towards the Dead Sea. It is partly desert, but, from the abundance of water and the heat of the climate, it might be rendered highly productive; indeed, the fertility of this plain has been celebrated in every age. But of all the productions which once distinguished it, and the greater part of which it enjoyed in common with Egypt, very few now remain.

The Plain of Esdraelon is often mentioned in sacred history (;;;;; ), as the great battle-field of the Jewish and other nations, under the names of the Valley of Megiddo and the Valley of Jezreel; and by Josephus as the Great Plain. This extensive plain, exclusive of three great arms which stretch eastward towards the valley of the Jordan, may be said to be in the form of an acute triangle, having the measure of thirteen or fourteen miles on the north, about eighteen on the east, and above twenty on the south-west. In the western portion it seems perfectly level, with a general declivity towards the Mediterranean; but in the east it is somewhat undulated by slight spurs and swells from the roots of the mountains: from the eastern side three great valleys go off to the valley of the Jordan. These valleys are separated by the ridges of Gilboa and Little Hermon, and the space which lies between these two ridges is the proper valley of Jezreel, which name seems to be sometimes given to the whole Plain of Esdraelon. The valley of Jezreel is a deep plain, and about three miles across. Before the verdure of spring and early summer has been parched up by the heat and drought of the late summer and autumn, the view of the Great Plain is, from its fertility and beauty, very delightful. The plain itself is almost without villages, but there are several on the slopes of the enclosing hills, especially on the side of Mount Carmel.

The Plain of the Coast is that tract of land which extends along the coast, between the sea and the mountains. In some places, where the mountains approach the sea, this tract is interrupted by promontories and rising grounds; but, taken generally, the whole coast of Palestine may be described as an extensive plain of various breadth. Sometimes it expands into broad plains, at others it is contracted into narrow valleys. With the exception of some sandy tracts the soil is throughout rich, and exceedingly productive. The climate is everywhere very warm, and is considered rather insalubrious as compared with the upland country. It is not mentioned by any one collective name in Scripture. The part fronting Samaria, and between Mount Carmel and Jaffa, near a rich pasture-ground, was called the Valley of Sharon; and the continuation southward, between Jaffa and Gaza, was called The Plain, as distinguished from the hill-country of Judah.

Rivers of Palestine

The Jordan is the only river of any note in Palestine, and besides it there are only two or three perennial streams. The greater number of the streams which figure in the history, and find a place in the maps, are merely torrents or watercourses.

The Jordan. We should like to consider this river simply as the stream issuing from the reservoir of the Lake Huleh, but custom requires its source to be traced to some one or more of the streams which form that reservoir. The two largest streams, which enter the lake on the north, are each formed by the junction of two others. It is usual to refer the origin of a river to its remotest sources; but in this case the largest and longest, being the most easterly of the two streams, does not appear to have been at any time identified with the Jordan—that honor having for ages been ascribed to the western stream; this river has distinct sources, at Banias and at Tel-el-Kâdi. It is the former of these where a stream issues from a spacious cavern under a wall of rock which Josephus describes as the main source of the Jordan.

The true Jordan—the stream that quits the lake Huleh—passes rapidly along the narrow valley, and between well-shaded banks, to the lake of Gennesareth: the distance is about nine miles. Nearly two miles below the lake is a bridge, called Jacob's bridge; and here the river is about eighty feet wide, and four feet deep.

On leaving the Lake of Gennesareth the river enters a very broad valley, or Ghor, which varies in width from five to ten miles between the mountains on each side. Within this valley there is a lower one, and within that, in some parts, another still lower, through which the river flows; the inner valley is about half a mile wide, and is generally green and beautiful, covered with trees and bushes, whereas the upper or large valley is for the most part, sandy or barren. The distance between the Lake of Gennesareth and the Dead Sea, in a direct line, is about sixty miles. In the first part of its course the stream is clear, but it becomes turbid as it advances to the Dead Sea, probably from passing over beds of sandy clay. The water is very wholesome, always cool and nearly tasteless. The breadth and depth of the river vary much in different places and at different times of the year. Dr. Shaw calculates the average breadth at thirty yards, and the depth at nine feet. In the season of flood, in April and early in May, the river is full, and sometimes overflows its lower banks, to which fact there are several allusions in Scripture.

The Kishon, that 'ancient river,' by whose wide and rapid stream the hosts of Sisera were swept away (; ), has been noticed under the proper head [KISHON].

The Belus, now called Nahr Kardanus, enters the bay of Acre higher up than the Kishon. It is a small stream, fordable even at its mouth in summer. It is not mentioned in the Bible, and is chiefly celebrated for the tradition, that the accidental vitrefaction of its sands taught man the art of making glass.

The other streams of note enter the Jordan from the east; these are the Jarmuth (or Yarmuk), the Jabbok, and the Arnon, of which the last two have been noticed under their proper heads. The Jarmuth, called also Sheriatel-Mandhour, anciently Hieromax, joins the Jordan five miles below the lake of Gennesareth. Its source is ascribed to a small lake, almost a mile in circumference, at Mezareib, which is thirty miles east of the Jordan. It is a beautiful stream, and yields a considerable body of water to the Jordan [ARNON; JABBOK].

Lakes of Palestine

The river Jordan in its course forms three remarkable lakes, in the last of which, called the Dead Sea, it is lost—

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Bibliography Information
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Palestine'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblial Literature".

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