The Survey of Western Palestine and Scientific Mapping during the late 19th century.

In this day and age, scientific research is a well-respected and booming industry. The importance of this field has only been highlighted by the Covid-pandemic this year. It is often very easy to take for granted how far we’ve come in scientific research, and what steps our predecessors had to take in order to get to where we are today. For example, today, many people don’t have to worry about contracting what were once the most feared diseases in the world such as smallpox and mumps, and we all benefit from satellite gps systems on our smartphones. I took the chance in this internship to take a look into the history of cartography and surveying techniques and its significance in context of the British Victorian Era and the modern era.

When I first examined the maps that Ava and Felicity sent me, I was amazed at the quality of the work that was so carefully and accurately hand-drawn, down to the dips of valleys to the curvature of rivers and other water bodies. It was very clear to me that they were products of long hours of drawing and thousands of measurements. How did they do this? Some of the maps showed a faint network of triangle-shaped pencil marks, evidence of the use of the triangulation method. In this method, locations are determined entirely using angles. By measuring the angle from two known positions to an unknown position, one can calculate the distance using the law of sines and cosines. Of course, this does not take into the curvature of the Earth, but at relatively short distances, this method works really well. Measurements were taken using a theodolite, a clunky instrument that took multiple people to operate. This method produced some of the most accurate maps of its era. Its modern equivalent is the total station, which surveyors on building sites and archaeological digs use today, and which in conjunction with satellites gps systems and computer software are used to create digital maps. Mapping is still a relevant and important skill, but it has become much faster and less hands-on, and the equipment is infinitely more manageable to carry.

 PEF-SE-15: A Theodolite from the PEF collection used by surveyors during the Survey of Western Palestine
PEF-M-WS-242: Map with triangular pencil marks from the use of the triangulation method

Surveying during the 19th century was not an easy task; these early scientists faced many difficult challenges while working in the region. The theodolites they used to take measurements were heavy and difficult to transport and set up. The Survey of Western Palestine team had to work under the threat of harsh weather conditions, including extreme temperatures and earthquakes. They were vulnerable to illnesses and injuries as well; all of them had gotten fever at some point during the journey. In 1874, Tyrwhitt-Drake, a team member on the initial survey of Western Palestine, died in Jerusalem from a fever he contracted months earlier at Jericho in the Jordan Valley. In addition to natural challenges, the group also faced occasional hostility from locals. The worst case was in 1875, where the group faced a stone barrage from the villagers in Safed, resulting in injuries in nine of its members. These incidents were some in many that illustrate the dangers of scientific research during the time. Nowadays, it is easy to take for granted what early scientists had to go through to produce the foundational work for their successors and for people today. Reading back on this history makes me appreciate the work they produced even more, knowing that these scientists faced so many hardships during their time in the region.

PEF-SE-21.1: A compass from the PEF collection used by surveyors during the Survey of Western Palestine

And while the Survey of Western Palestine in was the most innovative survey at the time, it was not the first in the area. Christopher Costigan, also known as the “unfortunate Costigan” for his untimely death, is considered the first surveyor of the Dead Sea. There were numerous other researchers, such as William F. Lynch, Charles-Jean Melchior de Vogue, and Edward Robinson. But what made the Survey of Western Palestine so significant compared to that of these other survey attempts? The key was intention. Palestine/Israel is a significant religious place; in Christianity it is referred to as the “Holy Land”. There was a lot of interest in surveying the area because, to get to know the land and its features was to get closer to the spiritual land. The problem with this was that many previous surveyors focused only on certain aspects of Palestine, specifically of the monuments and of Biblical locations such as Jerusalem and Bethlehem. William F. Lynch had political motivations; he was a United States naval officer that explored the area to get information for potential colonization. Though all these previous surveyors had different intentions that produced an incomplete picture of Palestine, it is also important to note that they did make significant contributions to the field of science to which future scientists built upon.  The difference between the Survey of Western Palestine and these other surveys was its holistic approach. Whilst biblical subjects were central to the project, along with the geopolitical concerns of Victorian Britain, the region’s broader history, archaeology, climate, natural history and earth sciences were all part of the brief.

At the time, Britain was leading the world in technological and scientific developments. This era saw numerous inventions such as the telephone, electricity, rail transport, and anesthesia techniques. Charles Darwin also produced his controversial theory of evolution during this time, and geologists and paleontologists began to push at the boundaries of how we understood the natural history of our planet and the species which have lived on it. These sciences challenged the traditional ‘biblical’ world view, in which the world was around 6,000 years old, and was created in 6 days, complete and unchanging in its configuration by God. Instead, a picture of far greater antiquity and constant change of landscape, climate, and species, was emerging. The culture clash between the religious and scientific communities at this time was profound, but amazingly, the Palestine Exploration Fund was a venue where a truce was declared. Early members included clerics and scientists on pole opposite sides of the debate, and as such the early PEF was a powerful voice for constructive debate. One of its founders, the influential cleric, Dean Arthur Stanley of Westminster represented the modernizing face of the Church of England, which sought to embrace science rather than deny its findings. Stanley was a close friend of the evolutionary scientist and fellow member of the PEF, Thomas Huxley, known as ‘Darwin’s Bulldog” as a prominent advocate of evolutionary theory.  One of the most significant developments was the professionalization of science. Intellectual integrity and respect became important values in scientific research, which laid the groundwork for maintaining strict policies about how research should be conducted. The Survey of Western Palestine was one of many projects which demonstrated an adherence to this set of intellectual values which emerged in the 19th century

The Survey of Western Palestine was revolutionary in both surveying and cartography because unlike its predecessors, its aim was to be as comprehensive as possible. Its surveyors came to Palestine with a scientific intent, albeit with additional religious, political, and other motivations. They took detailed notes about the land, the people, their surroundings, natural landscapes, and everything else around them. They took many measurements over the huge expanse of land. All this work culminated into one map consisting of 26 sheets that was known as the most accurate and reliable map of Palestine in the 19th century, with accompanying texts which ran eventually into 13 volumes. It was an incredible and valuable accomplishment at the time. Today, we can appreciate these maps and all other documentation that were produced during the era, carefully preserved in glass cases and other forms of storage.

Composite map of the 26 sheets of the Survey of Western Palestine, compiled by Dr. Salman Abu Sitta, February 2020. Copyright Salman Abu Sitta (

Though we now have even more accurate maps, I think it is always good to look back on history and appreciate the work that these scientists have produced. There is a certain appeal in the handwritten notes and watercolor markings that we don’t get to see any more in our digitally-produced images. One day, when I have the chance to visit London, I would love to observe these maps in person. Unfortunately, for now, the digital files I have will have to suffice.  (1,374)

PEF-PI-136: Surveyors at work on the Survey of Western Palestine. Watercolour by the leader of the survey team, Claude R. Conder R.E., in 1872.