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Oxford Bible Atlas Contextualizes the stories and lands of the Bible through user-friendly maps and illustrations.

Ancient Mapping

Ancient Mapping

The Madaba Map: detail of the 6th century CE mosaic map in the Church of St George at Madaba in Jordan, showing a plan of the city of Jerusalem. The piece of text (no longer completely preserved) above the city plan, reads ‘The Holy City of Jerusalem’.

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Sonia Halliday Photographs (Jane Taylor)

Ancient writers did not usually supply maps with the stories they told. But one possible exception is to be seen in a small tablet housed in the British Museum, which dates from about 600 BCE and depicts the known world, with the city of Babylon on the River Euphrates at its centre. The Persian Gulf is depicted as a river encircling the land, and beyond it are mysterious distant lands. The ‘map’ was drawn to illustrate an account of the campaigns of King Sargon of Akkad in the latter half of the 3rd millennium BCE. A relatively early attempt to map the lands of the Bible can be seen in the remarkable mosaic floor, discovered towards the end of the 19th century, in a Byzantine church at Madaba in Transjordan, probably dating from the 6th century CE. The map includes a representation of Jerusalem, and shows several details of the city of Jerusalem as it was at the time, including the church of the Holy Sepulchre and other churches, streets lined with columns, the city walls and gates. It incorporates a number of biblical quotations, and the map has made a significant contribution to knowledge of the topography of the region.

Maps: From Ancient to Modern

Many ancient stories are associated with places, and often these came to be marked in some way. An example of the associating of particular traditions with specific locations is seen in the Christian tradition of erecting churches to mark the sites of key events in the life of Jesus. These were visited by pilgrims, some of whom have left accounts of their travels which are also a valuable source. Another important ancient source is the Onomasticon, compiled by the historian Eusebius early in the 4th century CE. It was translated, with some revisions, by Jerome (Liber de situ et nominibus locorum hebraicorum) c.390 CE. The Crusades revived interest in the locations of holy places in Palestine, and in pilgrimages to such sites. Some such visitors have left accounts of their travels.

A real expansion of interest came about in the 19th century, and a particularly important contribution was made by the publication of Edward Robinson's accounts of his travels in Palestine and neighbouring regions in 1838–9 and in 1852. A new impetus was given to the study of the topography of the southern Levant by the establishment of the Palestine Exploration Fund in 1865. Under its auspices, Captain (later Field‐Marshal) Kitchener and Captain Conder of the Royal Engineers were sent in 1871 to make a survey of the land with the intention of gathering geographical, archaeological, and natural‐historical data relevant to the Bible. They mapped the whole of the region to the west of the Jordan, recorded the names of numerous ancient sites and described such remains as were visible, and succeeded in identifying many of them with places known from the biblical narrative.

The survey carried out by Kitchener and Conder was a surface exploration. An important step forward came in 1890 when Sir William Flinders Petrie applied his method (developed in Egypt) of excavation in order to understand the stratified formation of an ancient mound to a Palestinian site—Tel el‐Ḥesi. Ever since those pioneering days, excavations have been carried out on numerous sites, providing new information relevant to the mapping of the land in which much of the biblical narrative is set.

Two particular factors relating to mapping should be mentioned. One relates to the actual lie of the land and, particularly important, to the availability of water. It is inherently likely that there would be a degree of continuity in the siting of settlements close to water sources or in areas where water storage and irrigation were possible. The location of the main roads and other routes was governed by the contours of the land and the presence of valleys. Towns would grow up sometimes at places where there was good access to roads and sometimes precisely to guard strategic points such as crossroads or passes. Again, there is likely to be an element of continuity in this.

Another issue of continuity relates to the extent to which modern place names, particularly those of Arabic origin, have preserved ancient names. Sometimes it is possible to relate the modern form of a name to the biblical form, for example, Beitin to Bethel, Seilun to Shiloh, Beisan to Beth‐shan. Sometimes a modern name will preserve the sense of an ancient name, such as et‐Tell and Ai (‘ruin’). Sometimes modern names have ‘moved’ to another location in the vicinity of an ancient site. New Testament Jericho was not on the same site as the Jericho of the Hebrew Bible, and neither is in precisely the same place as the modern Eriḥa. The biblical Anathoth was thought not to be located at modern Anata, because of the lack of pre‐Roman remains there. But recent excavations have revealed evidence of occupation in the Iron Age, making the identification possible. So caution is needed!

But some sites remain unidentified. Tel el‐Ḥesi was thought by Flinders Petrie to be biblical Lachish, and subsequently it has been suggested that it was Eglon. Both suggestions were made on the basis of evidence from Eusebius’ Onomasticon. The former suggestion is now discounted, and the latter remains uncertain. And it is perhaps not inappropriate that this introductory section should close on a note of uncertainty, since certainty about many of the details of what follows is impossible.

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