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Old maps have become in our visually bombarded present an icon for a naive yet adventurous past. With engraved ship-devouring sea monsters, gently faded water coloring, and obscure Latin inscriptions, the old map is an icon favored by travel agencies and in-flight shopping catalogues. Rare maps fetch huge sums as collectible items, hung on walls with expensive works of art. Maps of the Holy Land share this fate as highly sought after objects—the most likely to be slashed by book vandals. While these processes are perhaps inevitable, like the broader commercialization of historical notions (e.g. the "Renaissance"), as students of the past we should be looking behind the icon and its market value, finding the individual object, and posing intelligent questions to it.

Following similar developments in the histories of art and science, and the general "visual turn" in historiography, maps are studied today as objects that operate within specific intellectual and political environments. Old maps have long been recognized as important sources for historical geography—documenting past settlements and land use. It is now acknowledged that they are essential also for navigating the often-troubled cultural landscapes into which they were born, and which, in turn, they helped to mold. Maps—enigmatically bridging art and science, image and text—tell us a great deal about the concerns and assumptions of their authors and readers. Maps help us understand how past societies conceptualized and enacted space and territoriality, two notions to which more and more scholars are attracted as useful analytical categories. Hence, maps can be used as primary documents for cultural and intellectual history, just as art was studied by Aby Warburg. This is amply evident when we turn our attention to the history of biblical mapping.

The study of old biblical maps may teach us not only about the advancement and sophistication of biblical scholarship in each period, but also, and more significantly perhaps, about the complex relations of geography and theology, of the Bible and natural history, and about notions of pilgrimage and sacred space. Many disciplines, such as anthropology, archaeology, and comparative religion, turn nowadays to historical self-reflection about the scholarly traditions out of which they were formed. Similarly, biblical maps, which form an important segment of the history of biblical scholarship, can allow today's students an opening onto the concerns and assumptions of past scholars, and thereby a deeper understanding of their own.

Yet how should we define "biblical maps"? Arguably, the majority of maps from antiquity to the late seventeenth century were in some way or another religiously informed. This, however, does not qualify them as biblical. The main factor throughout history conditioning the production of biblical maps proper is their immanent relation to a canonical text. Whereas a map, generally speaking, aims to visualize physical and human geographical reality, based on a variety of sources —land surveys, travel accounts, aerial and satellite images—biblical maps, have relied, and still rely, on a foundational text, glossing it, illustrating it, and using it as the primary source of information. This essential bond with the biblical text accounts for the remarkable continuity in the biblical mapping tradition, despite improving cartographic techniques and clearer representational conventions.

However, even within this stricter definition, whereby biblical maps are closely tied to Scripture, the cartography of the Bible comprises a multitude of often overlapping forms and themes, which may be broken down in various ways. They could be sorted, for example, according to scale and geographical scope-from world, through regional maps, to city views and architectural plans. Biblical maps could also be grouped thematically, by particular stories or historical layers that they intend to visualize or explain, such as the post-deluvian distribution of peoples, Abraham's journeys (, the route of the Exodus, the division of the Promised Land, or St Paul's journeys. These are, obviously, biblical texts which in themselves form verbal cartographies, and in which the spatial organization of the narrative is significant. Joshua's words to his men, "walk through the land, and describe it" (18:8), may even attest to an actual drafting of a map, though we are quite unable to know how it may have looked like. Indeed, as Thomas O'Loughlin observed, reconstructing biblical geography as mentally formulated by Joshua or the Apostles needs to take into account their own mental formulation of space, to which we have very limited access, and only through the biblical text itself.

Finally, it is crucial to consider the context in which biblical maps appeared, and the different uses to which they were put. Biblical maps are historically, inherently exegetic. In spite of their deceptively transparent and objective appearance—as if they were simple translations of verbal descriptions into visual form—biblical maps, by the very act of imaging, are interpretative. It is very important to remember that in the medieval and early modern periods such maps usually accompanied biblical commentaries rather than the bible itself, and were not intended as mere illustrations—e.g. the diagrammatic maps in Rashi's commentaries (eleventh century), which influenced those of Nicholas of Lyra (14th century), Andreas Masius' map of the land of Ephraim in his commentary on Joshua (1574), or Mercator's map of Eden in his book on chronology (1577).

The early modern period is uniquely rich for the exploration of the different, and at times surprising, uses of biblical maps. It is a period in which maps—orthographic, measured, standardized—begin to resemble our own. It is a period in which, with the revival of ancient geography, the new discoveries, and the emergence of print culture, there occurred a veritable revolution in map dissemination and use. All over Europe, scholars and antiquaries began to use maps not only to describe remote regions, but also as a powerful tool to describe the past, including the biblical past. The detailed, to-scale regional map replaced the medieval mappaemundi; historical periods were more carefully distinguished (e.g., pre- as opposed to post-conquest Canaan); and mapmakers could draw on a larger number of sources, such as classical geography, and travel accounts. It was part of the general process that has been recently termed "the antiquarianization of biblical scholarship," which included closer philological attention to the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible, the exploration of rabbinical legal literature, and the search for material evidence pertaining to the lives of ancient Hebrews.

Yet, though growing more accurate and historically specific over time (thus seemingly approaching modernity), as long as the Bible served as the ultimate source for universal history and knowledge, biblical maps were imbued with universal meanings. Accordingly, we find them in contexts that today seem, anachronistically, inappropriate. On one level, they helped the reader form a basic image of the land, and thus overcome the difficulties of grasping the "literal sense" of Scripture. We have evidence of school children memorizing maps and place names in the Holy Land and Jerusalem, apparently preparing their knowledge of geographia sacra for later, more advanced spiritual exercises. As recent studies have shown, the phenomenon of printing maps in bibles in the sixteenth century was predominantly Protestant, and this may have something to do with the growing emphasis on the historical, literal sense of Scripture. However, on another level, Catholics and Protestants alike sought in biblical maps not only the earthly and concrete, but also the providential and arcane. Establishing the literal sense was only the initial step, for the biblical map carried messages pertaining both to human history and to the salvation of the individual, and was an object to admire and meditate upon. It is not at all surprising, therefore, to find maps in religious emblem books, or in lavish illustrated bible editions, such as those printed by Christophe Plantin in Antwerp. Some maps, as Walter Melion has demonstrated in the case of Ortelius (, evoked the notion of pilgrimage, both the physical journey to the Holy Land, and the metaphorical one throughout one's life; Other maps were designed to allow the readers to view, as it were, the land God promised to his chosen people (a highly relevant question during the conquest of the New World, ), and ponder the personal meaning of promise and righteous life; finally, maps of the land of milk and honey opened a window onto God's work in nature, and helped unveil Scripture as an encyclopedia of natural philosophy.

In today's Israeli reality maps play less exalted roles. Yet, like their former, charming forebears, they are deeply embedded in a culture—the political culture of Zionism, which, following upon mostly Protestant missionary practices, consciously attempted to re-inscribe biblical reality onto the modern land. Biblical maps, then, till today, adorn not only calendars and library gift-shop posters, but also intelligence headquarters and cabinet meeting rooms, and thus still work in shaping perceptions and lives.

Zur Shalev is an advanced PhD Candidate at Princeton University's Department of History, currently researching in Oxford. His thesis explores the notion of geographia sacra in sixteenth- and seventeenth -century European scholarship. He has published with the photographer I. Grinberg a book, Rituals in Jerusalem (1999, Hebrew), and his study of Benito Arias Montano's biblical maps will be published in Imago Mundi 55 (2003).

Image 1 :Abraham Ortelius, "Abrahami patriarchae peregrinatio, et vita," Parergon Antwerpen, 1590

Courtesy of University Library Amsterdam

Image 2: Benito Arias Montano, "Sacra Geographia." A world map according to Genesis 10. in 'Phaleg,' Biblia sacra, (Antwerp, 1571), vol. 8.

Courtesy of the Rare Books Division. Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Princeton University Library.

Citation: Zur Shalev, " Mapping the Holy Land, Mapping Sacred Scholarship," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Oct 2005]. Online:


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