The Holy Lands

Geographic map of the Middle East The Holy Land is a small space to hold so much history: its narrow reach has been a corridor for empires. In many ways its geography has been important to its past.

The spine of the land is a central highland rising to 3600 feet [1200m]. Surface water is scarce, though wells and springs exist, and the territory is rough.

To the south the highlands are broken by the broad Plain of Esdraelon. This fertile area reaches from the Mediterranean to the Jordan through the Valley of Jezreel. It is the gateway to the north because the long flat sweep of the sea coast plain which reaches all the way from Egypt is cut off by the rugged angle of Mount Carmel.

Further north lies the land of Lebanon with its ancient harbors and its double range of [cedar-clad] mountains. The highest peak, Mount Hermon, rises over 9,000 feet [3,000m] and its snows are a source of the Jordan River. The Jordan flows into a small lake, the Sea of Galilee, then winds southward for 135 miles [215km]. It empties into the Dead Sea which has no outlet and whose waters are too salty to support life. South of the Dead Sea, a valley continues through a long wadi, or dry valley, called the Arabah. The territory is hot and dry, but copper veins made it valuable.

The land to the east of the Jordan, the Transjordan, is a plateau which tapers off into the Arabian Desert. Its four small rivers have cut deep, virtually impassable wadis which have served as natural boundaries for its kingdoms. Thus the Holy Land between desert and sea is a narrow passage for travelers, traders and marching armies.

The Semitic people s spread from northern Arabia through the whole Syrian area at the end of the Mediterranean. Semitic Akkadian came to dominate the northern Mesopotamian area and under Sargon the Great around 2300 even briefly conquered Sumer itself. At about the same time, the pressure of the Indo-Europeans was being felt in the Bible Lands. A western branch had moved into Greece, and the people known as the Hittites were moving into the older Hattite culture of Anatolia. An eastern branch of the family, the Iranians, was occupying the steppes and circling the Caspian Sea.

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The Fertile Crescent

The Fertile Crescent is the name given to the great arc of mid-eastern territory stretching from the Tigris-Euphrates delta and valley through the Holy Land. It is sometimes considered to include the delta and lower reaches fo the Nile.

The first civilizations arose in cooperative organized effort to irrigate the fertile river lands. Sumer (after 3500 BC) had formed balance-of-power systems among many city states. Egypt (around 3100 BC) had developed a monolithic system ruled by one pharaoh. Other empires would rise as favorable circumstances appeared: a good position from which to regulate and indulge in trade (Assyria, Minoan Crete), a better weapons (the iron of the Hittites), new fighting techniques (the Greek hoplite phalanx).

When the great empires were strong, they rolled over and subjugated their smaller neighbors. This was especially the case in the Holy Land, repeatedly trapped between a seemingly eternal Egypt and whatever empire had arisen to the north. This narrow land was a roadway over which the armies marched.

Yet the great empires withdrew periodically, either under attack or from their own internal weaknesses. When this happened, the way was open for other peoples to pour between and into the older power centers, and for local states to develop free from the control of a distant civilization. Successive waves of such cultures appeared in the Fertile Crescent and Holy Land, forming new settlements and states as the process started anew.

This cycle is a constantly recurring theme in the history of the people of Israel.

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