Multidisciplinary in nature, historical geography is a comprehensive examination of a region's ecosystems, cultures, and artifactual remains. It depends on teams of scholars and bodies of data compiled and analyzed to determine the factors in settlement patterns, the environmental impact of human activity, and the cultural developments that grow out of natural resources, trade routes, and diffusion patterns.

For example, the manner in which the ancient cultures of Mesopotamia and Egypt developed was based in large part on the activities, both beneficial and devastating, of their river systems and on the presence or absence of natural barriers to invaders. Thus, cyclic invasions by new peoples characterize Mesopotamia throughout its history because it lacked the desert and sea barriers that effectively protected Egypt. The divergence in the cultures of these two cradles of civilization can also be traced to the regularity of the Nile River's flow and flooding and to the intermittent, catastrophic flooding of the Tigris-Euphrates river valley.

More specifically, historical geography has been an important approach in the analysis of the cities of the Mesopotamian alluvial plain. Examination of that region's basic topography suggests that the growth, and often the physical survival, of cities was based on their ability to channel watercourses into irrigation systems, to keep those canals free of the heavy load of river sediment, and to respond to the increasing salinization of farm land. [See Irrigation.] Trade and warfare also followed river systems, contributing to shifts in political control. For instance, cuneiform texts from the Old Babylonian period (1800–1700 BCE) describe revenues derived from river tolls and cities captured by troops traveling down the river.

History of the Field.

The historical geography of the ancient Near East has been a topic of interest since Christian pilgrims visited the region and noted its sites, rivers, and major landmarks in their diaries. The Byzantine (sixth century CE) Madaba map provides clues to the routes these pilgrims followed and the sites of major religious centers. [See Madaba.] With the advent of the nineteenth century, perhaps heralded by Napoleon's scientific expedition to Egypt (1798–1799), travel and the need for accurate maps and site reports once again became of great importance. Among the most helpful of the travel accounts produced during this period are those of the American explorer Edward Robinson (1838, 1853). [See the biography of Robinson.] His maps and compilation of geographic data laid the foundation for modern historical and scientific geography, the practical aspects of map making and information gathering, and later, more systematic surveys, such as that produced for the Palestine Exploration Fund/Society (1870–1876), the efforts of Nelson Glueck (Explorations in Eastern Palestine) from 1935 to 1949, and a recent survey of Jordanian sites (J. M. Miller et al., Archaeological Survey of the Kerak Plateau, 1991.) [See Palestine Exploration Fund; and the biography of Glueck.]

The enterprises of historical geography in the Near East from the nineteenth century to the present have included the identification of biblical sites through survey, excavation, and the examination of modern Arab place names. Among the pioneers in this effort was George Adam Smith, whose Historical Geography of the Holy Land (1894) is still a valuable primary source for modern scholars. [See the biography of Smith.] W. F. Albright and G. Ernest Wright also contributed to the discipline through their philological studies of Arab place-name traditions, their development of modern field-school techniques for analyzing artifactual remains, and their regional approach to ceramic chronology. [See the biographies of Albright and Wright.]

Among the first truly scientific treatments of the geography of the regions of the Near East was that of Denis Baly (Geography of the Bible, 1957), which served as a model of data collection for climate, topography, and geology. Also of importance were the efforts of Yohanan Aharoni (The Land of the Bible, 1979) and Michael Avi-Yonah (The Holy Land, 1966). They not only gathered a wealth of data, but also trained a generation of scholars in the tools of historical geography and created a model for scientific atlases of the Near East: The Macmillan Bible Atlas (3d ed., 1992).

The legacy of these and many other scholars has been the expansion of what is understood of the geographic features of the lands of the Near East. This, in turn, has markedly increased interest in the relationship between the environment and human activity that shaped the cultural development of the peoples in the region.

Approaches to Historical Geography.

It is tempting to take a deterministic attitude regarding historical geography. Environmental conditions can too easily be cited as the primary or even sole factor in cultural development. Certainly the basic character of any geographic location will affect the nature of culture and the directions it takes. However, it is short-sighted to assume that humans will not place their own peculiar mark on an area. Factors other than environment influence cultural forms.

The study of historical geography in the Near East is complex because of the region's numerous ecosystems: deserts, savannahs, steppes, wetlands, marshes, and swamps. The topography includes floodplains, plateau regions, hill country, and mountainous areas. The availability of water and arable farmland have been the prime elements in the establishment of permanent human settlements. This does not discount the pastoral nomadic groups that have ranged over it, but their cultural mark is less visible than that made by village and urban dwellers. [See Pastoral Nomadism.]

Because of the wide range of topographic features, it seems best to take, as the ancients did, a regional approach to the problems of Near Eastern historical geography. They understood that the interaction between an area and its adjacent regions was responsible for the initiation of all types of economic activity (agriculture, pastoralism, industry). [See Agriculture.] The ancients thought beyond their immediate, local concerns, establishing communication and economic links. [See Roads; Seafaring; Transportation.]

Just as pastoralists had to know the physical characteristics of the areas in which they grazed their herds, the leaders of ancient city states needed to obtain information that would allow them to target effectively particular locales to be exploited through trade and military conquest. In this way, and at the speed allowed by the terrain and the determination of the exploiters, cultural diffusion occurred and new ways of dealing with environmental conditions were introduced. The many Mesopotamian royal annals that describe a king's “march to the sea” and the Gilgamesh epic, in which the hero conquers the monster Humbaba and captures the resources of the cedar forest, demonstrate how widespread this determination was. A multidisciplinary approach involving many subdisciplines is necessary to study this process and these phenomena.

Topographic analysis.

Fieldwork, mapping, and aerial photography are necessary in analyzing the natural resources of any geographic area. [See Photography.] A topographic analysis can point to the origin of settlements, the opportunities for economic exploitation, and the likelihood of contact with other regions. Analysis also utilizes records of important natural resources—minerals, timber, arable land, and water. The availability of water, in terms of average annual rainfall, water-table levels and accessibility, as well as streams, lakes, and rivers, must be traced. Fossil sources, such as the dry riverbeds in the Sinai and Negev deserts and on the southern Arabian Peninsula, enable researchers to speculate on the possible demographics in prehistory and in antiquity in regions often no longer inhabited.

Contiguous regional analysis.

No locale in the Near East is so isolated that it has been without outside influences. Thus, the historical geographer must treat each area both specifically and as part of a region. In so doing, ancient routes of travel (on land and sea) must be traced with an eye to locating commercial centers and areas of intense agricultural and industrial activity. Additionally, the movements of empires as they absorb wide areas must be taken into account, especially in regard to cultural diffusion—such as the introduction of new architectural styles and technologies (e.g., the use of iron).

Disparate regional analysis.

Comparative studies can be made between settlement patterns in the Near East and in other parts of the world. For instance, it is informative to compare Near Eastern architectural styles, strategies for dealing with dry farming, and the harnessing of water for power and irrigation purposes with those in Greece or Italy. These noncontiguous regions had an impact on the material culture of the Near East in the Hellenistic period, but studies comparing settlement strategies can be useful even when areas have not directly or historically, influenced one another. One example is the comparison that can be made between the transhumant pastorals of Spain (as described by F. Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, New York, 1972) and those of the ancient Near East.

Cartographic analysis.

With the introduction of satellite imagery, Geographic Information System (GIS) databases, and computer programming and modeling, a truly regional approach to historical geography is possible. These tools allow for a finer analysis of the interrelationship of natural resources and human settlement patterns than was previously possible. Using mathematical models and infrared photography, the extent of topographic change that has occurred over time can be determined, thereby facilitating the identification of ancient sites. [See Computer Mapping; Computer Recording, Analysis, and Interpretation.]

Settlement and demographic analysis.

Once a settlement area has been identified, the researcher can use the region's basic geographic features (terrain, natural defenses, water sources) to estimate the size of the population and the extent of the land used for cultivation, mining, or grazing in antiquity. [See Paleoenvironmental Reconstruction.] The remains of architectural forms can also be examined, keeping in mind that building styles might have been influenced by aesthetic or functional concerns. For instance, specific forms of Roman architecture (baths and theaters) are identifiable in vastly different geographic settings (from Damascus to sites in England and France) but generally exhibit regional variation. [See Baths; Theaters.] Climatic or topographic factors are often the basis for design and construction, but the use of structures for religious or political purposes may also dictate size and the inclusion of forms with a symbolic rather than practical origin.

Sociocultural analysis.

Ingenuity and resourcefulness were often the key to the success of a settlement, especially in an environmentally marginal area. Irrigation techniques and the terracing of hillsides to provide additional farmland are reflections of local inventions based on geographic features. In addition, the degree of borrowed cultural ideas (clothing styles, religious practices, architectural styles) and the appearance and variety of trade goods may also testify to the economic ties with other regions and/or the political control extended over wide areas by ancient empires. The creation of social mechanisms to help shape behavior and cultural expression (hospitality customs, taboos, marriage customs) can often be found in written or artifactual evidence.

Diachronic and synchronic analysis.

Effective geographic research is not possible unless it is a dual approach that attempts to determine the interaction of human activities within defined periods of time and between periods. Multigenerational projects, such as the temple complexes at Karnak in Egypt, as well as the revival of cultural ideas in later eras make for useful comparisons.

Onomastic analysis.

Beginning with the early fourth-century Christian historian and theologian Eusebius, onomostics, as a subdiscipline of historical geography, has involved the attempt to establish a link between site names and the archaeological evidence uncovered in excavations. In Israel, for example, many ancient Hebrew names, such as Beth-Shemesh, were preserved in their Arabic and/or modern names—in this case, as ῾Ain Shems. Sometimes a text excavated at a site helps with identification, as has been the case at Gezer, Lachish, and Dan. [See Gezer; Lachish; Dan.] However, because many city names, such as Migdal (Heb., “tower”) or Hazor (Heb., “enclosure”), can apply to several sites, the name cannot always be utilized as a sole identifying factor. The danger of a site identification becoming prematurely “canonized” through scholarly consensus can distort subsequent research.

Archival research.

In addition to relics and artifacts, ancient economic and administrative (government) records may contain crop-yield figures, tax rolls, census data, military conscriptment figures, construction projects, and climactic and geological information (see the mention of the earthquake in Am. 1:1), which are invaluable in helping to date or describe particular cultural periods.

Archaeological fieldwork.

No geographic analysis is complete without the excavation and analysis of material culture: architecture (domestic and monumental), sacred sites (e.g., temples, sacred groves, high places), agricultural and pastoral installations (e.g., sheepfolds and camp sites), and industrial sites (mines, factories, refineries). These remains of former activity can be used to provide a broad picture of regional and local cultural expression. While specialization is necessary, given the huge amount of information in any one field, it is necessary for the geographer either to work with archaeologists or conduct his or her own surveys and excavations. [See Survey, Archaeological.]

Using a variety of disciplines to examine and analyze the historical geography of any area or time period, the researcher must then become familiar with the region to be studied and establish a plan of action. The broad perspective of a multidisciplinary, regional approach helps avoid distortions that can arise if an area is regarded as unique. It also makes tracing cultural and economic development through time much more reliable. Spatial as well as physical approaches to the diverse aspects of settlement locales and types will also give a fuller picture of ecological and cultural interrelationships.


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Victor H. Matthews