The Survey of Western Palestine in Context: Some thoughts from a remote intern

I once read somewhere on the vast internet that the more you learn, the more you realize you actually know very little. Throughout my journey with PEF, this was certainly the case. Though I spent hours upon hours reading different materials, I only discovered more things that I didn’t know. Part of the reason why I love learning is that I can go down different rabbit-holes and sometimes land somewhere totally unexplored. And hopefully I’m more knowledgeable and a little wiser than before as a result. The maps that I studied provided a lot of information about what the Levant region looked like in the 19th century. This week I will discuss some of the things I learned while working on the database project. 

The first thing I learned was that maps carry clues to many things, from people’s way of life, and the pattern of settlement and land use, to the greater historical events that were happening during that time period. While inputting the names of the various towns and cities for the location of each of the map images, several observations occurred to me. One was that many of the towns had different names, sometimes multiple ones. For example, ‘Akka’, ‘Acre’, and ‘Akko’ all referred to the same city. ‘Beit She’an’ is also ‘Beth Shan’, and ‘Beisan’, and also Scythopolis. Another thing I noticed was that many of the towns listed on the PEF map did not exist in the current version on modern maps. Initially, I didn’t think much of it since the maps were created long ago. The United States has also changed drastically from the 1850s to today, so for me seeing a map of an area that was noticeably different from a modern map of the region was not particularly unusual. Elsewhere in the world, like the UK for example, even very minor villages can remain intact, their name unchanged for centuries, reflecting an underlying stability, even as society evolves, populations move and grow, and technology impacts every part of the environment. But both in the US, and in the Levant, alongside the enduring stability of major centers like Jerusalem, Acco, Bethlehem and Jaffa, these changes in the countryside point to drastic geopolitical events. In the Levant, these can be attributed to current conflicts in the region, which I knew existed because of US military involvement. However, beyond that my knowledge of the history of the region was very limited. When I brought these things up with Felicity and Ava, they informed me that there was in fact a lot of history behind the geographical changes. They recommended I look into the modern history of the Levant region to help me better understand the broader context of the Survey of Western Palestine map. Reading into this really helped lay the foundation for my work in PEF.  

The other thing I learned was that to a certain extent the maps paint a picture of what the Levant region looked like during the time which they were created. Rivers, lakes, and oceans were highlighted in blue, sand in yellow, and orchards and groves in green. Roads were commonly depicted with lines, but occasionally other man-made structures were shown as well such as tombs, quarries, and even bridges. A simple note and a symbol marked many of these sites. Swaths of trees were usually depicted in a series of squiggle marks, which told me that this area was covered in forests or at least plenty of trees and shrubs. Animal and agricultural cultivation was noted; some maps had notes of olive, figs, and grape groves. The maps depicted detailed topography and natural land features including caves and craters. They also marked each town that existed during the time period.

The maps of the Survey of Western Palestine show the region of the southern Levant at a particular moment in time, as observed by a group of 19th century British surveyors and cartographers, with their own (and the PEF’s) interests, priorities, and prejudices. They are a snapshot of history, preserving all sorts of historical detail which would otherwise be lost. By comparing the images to those made in the modern era, we can observe the huge changes that have happened in between. Today, there are more roads, buildings, and other man-made structures, but the area is still a place of agricultural cultivation. Because of their relative objectivity and accuracy, maps are a unique a valuable source for all kinds historical and scientific research.

PEF-M-WS-71: Detail of tracing made from Kefr Zebad Camp in May 1873, for Sheet 11 of the Survey of Western Palestine. This image shows a detail such as a goatfold and tombs, with rivers picked out in blue watercolour. 

Now, we have incredible mapping technology, which we are using to detail every area we know, including but not limited to the depths of the Mariana Trench and the wide red expanses of Mars. Digital maps are used increasingly in favor of printed ones, which provide the flexibility of scaling and 3D rendering. Thanks to satellites orbiting our Earth, anyone with an internet access can even pinpoint their own location and use it for real-time navigation over large parts of the world, though there are notable gaps, not least in the Middle East. What we can do today is incredibly jaw-dropping. There are still new technologies in development to further increase the accuracy and ease of access. After all, we will always need the most up-to-date maps because our world is always changing. However, there is still nothing like the carefully hand-drawn maps that I got to work with. They provide a certain kind of information and visual that makes them truly unique.

PEF-M-WS-90: Tracing for Sheet 14 of the Survey of Western Palestine Map drawn in May 1872 from ‘Ain Sinai camp, depicting many towns and villages surrounded by olive and fig groves. 

During my internship I came to appreciate the importance of learning about the past of the Levant region to understand the projects that I worked on, and on a broader scale, I also learned the importance of understanding the historical, political, and religious context of scientific research. This is a lesson that I can apply to my understanding of STEM research as well. Covid-19 for example is not just a public health science issue; it is also a political one in the United States. Essentially, scientific knowledge and research are connected and entwined in so many different ways to other aspects of society.

This is the last of my short blog series here. I really enjoyed my internship with PEF and will cherish the things that I’ve learned during these past few months and the relationship I built with Ava and Felicity. If I ever get the chance one day, I will make sure to go to London and stop by PEF in person. I encourage anyone who is interested in learning about the history of the Levant to do the same as well. Thank you to everyone for reading my work, I hope you enjoyed it!