Ancient Near East


People look down on stuff like geography and meteorology, and not only because they are standing on one and being soaked by the other.  They don't look quite like real science.*
*  That is to say, the sort you can use to give something three extra legs and then blow it up.                                                   
(Terry Pratchett City Watch Trilogy, 519.) 

Actually "stuff like geography and meteorology" is really important for reading the Bible, because it provides the unspoken background to much that is said and written.  So in this section we shall look at some of the geographical features and climate that shaped the life and thought patterns of the people of the Old Testament. 

This will be followed by some pictures and words which begin to situate the peoples of the Ancient Near East (ANE). This term refers to the part of Western Asia that is close to Europe and Africa, and all of the Old Testament is situated there. (However it is in some ways an unfortunate term since it is neither near nor east from New Zealand, ).  

The maps on this page were drawn using Logos Bible Atlas 1.0a

Situation and routes

The Old Testament is set within a particular segment of the globe. The area covered stretches from Mesopotamia (before Adam-Abraham and the stories set in the exile in Babylon) through Palestine (Canaan) to Egypt (from the Patriarchs to Moses).
Most of the action takes place in a very small area of the hill country of Palestine. Most of the books were written there too (though some were written during the exile).

Though less than 300kms by 150kms this territory had strategic and commercial importance because it straddles the major trade routes between Asia (Mesopotamia) and Africa (Egypt). Control of these routes meant wealth - through taxes on goods passing through for example - and power.

The band marked in green on the map is known as the "fertile crescent". Egypt is fertile thanks to the annual flooding of the Nile river, either side of this fertile area is desert. Mesopotamia also has the two rivers Tigris and Euphrates. While the bridge between the two (Canaan) catches rain and dew as moist air from the Mediterranean rises over the hills. The whole region is dry, yet water is essential for life.

This is why the earliest civilizations, and the greatest empires of the region were in Mesopotamia (Sumer, Babylon, Assyria and Persia) and Egypt.

Both the major and minor routes from Asia (and Europe) to Africa pass through Canaan. The Via Maris ("Way of the Sea") followed the coastal plain up from Egypt, turning inland when the way was blocked by the hills of Carmel and Lebanon. The "Kings' Highway" ran inland up the spine of relatively fertile hills of Moab and Amon before also turning East to Damascus round the mountains of Lebanon. Lack of water made the desert further east unsuitable for trade caravans.

The fertile soil found in river valleys, together with the coordinated efforts of large numbers of slaves constructing systems of dikes and canals, made Southern Mesopotamia and later Egypt the earliest densely populated areas in the world. It was here that the earliest civilizations developed. From c.3000BC these two regions dominated the Near East.

Regions of Palestine

The coastal plain looking from Tel Gezer towards the city of Tel Aviv (dry season)

Palestine can be divided into 5 sorts of land.

The plains, flat land in a strip along the sea coast, thinner to the north and broader to the south, together with the "Great Plain"  which cuts through the hills north of the Carmel ridge and joins the Jordan valley via the Jezreel valley. The plains (in this dry climate) with good run-off from the hills were prime land.

Shephelah, note crops on valley floor, trees on slopes (dry season)

The Shephelah, low hills and valleys between the plain and the hill country. Orchards grow well on their gentler slopes, and crops in the valley floors, flocks (of sheep and goats) could be kept on the steeper land.

This view of Jerusalem from the South (Leander Keck slide collection, 1956) shows the difficult nature of the hill country

The high country, running down the spine of the land, broken only by the Great Plain, the western slopes received reasonable rainfall (and in the dry season dew) and offered some possibilities for farming, while the eastern slopes being steeper (falling to the Rift Valley) and drier were only suitable for flocks which were moved up or down the hill according to the season.

River Jordan (from McMath)

The Rift Valley, with the Jordan river running from Dan in the North through the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea, is part of a great cleft in the earth which continues by the Red Sea down into Africa. In Palestine this valley is the lowest point on the land surface of the Earth (down to over 300m below sea level). The Jordan winds some 300Kms to pass 100kms between Galilee and Jericho. The Dead Sea is so-called because no river flows out of it and all the water entering is lost by evaporation and thus it is exceedingly salty.

Transjordan, as the plateau East of the Jordan is known, has reasonable rainfall and was particularly known for its cattle (cf. Am 4:2).