This is the 6-sheet ‘Natural Drainage’ map from the Survey of Western Palestine (SWP), published in 1881. The map is essentially a topographical and hydrographical map combined, rendering the contours of the natural landscape to demonstrate the natural flow of surface water.
Harnessing potable water is fundamental to life in semi-arid zones such as the Middle East, and so understanding the natural presence and flow of water constituted a critical aim of the much larger SWP project. The scope of the map is, as indicated in the title, the full extent of Western Palestine, meaning from the Mediterranean coast to the River Jordan. To the south, the map includes Gaza and Beersheba, and in the north, the Kadimiyeh River in modern Lebanon forms a dividing line between mapped and unmapped regions.
In addition to the detailed topography, the map is flanked by section profiles of specific mountain ranges. On the left, we see the Mountains of Judea, the Hills of Samaria, and the Lower and Upper Galilee highlands. Along the bottom, the coastal plain is shown rising gradually from sea level to the Mountains of Judea, after which it drops into the Judean Desert beyond. And along the top, we again have the summits of Lower and Upper Galilee, only as seen from the south and including Mount Carmel.
PEF and the Survey of Western Palestine
The Victorian Era saw the emergence of an early modern mindset. Part of this entailed a passionate re-envisioning of the past. It was thought that by rediscovering its civilizational roots, Christendom might begin to align the old tenets of faith with the new advances of science. No place on Earth was more the target of such romantic ambitions than the Biblical land of Palestine. Ruled for centuries by the Ottomans, the Victorian travel craze made this region more accessible to Europeans than it had even been before, and it was within this elated context of exploration and adventure that our seminal map was created.
From 1872 to 1881, the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF) conducted a comprehensive Survey of Palestine for almost a decade. The Royal Engineers carried out most of the work, and the task was divided into distinct parts from the outset. The Western Palestine survey (1872-1877) was led by Captain Richard Warren Stewart, Lieutenant Claude Conder, and Lieutenant Herbert Kitchener and covered a total area of 6,040 square miles. In contrast, the smaller Eastern Palestine survey (1880) was led by Conder alone and covered 510 square miles of sparsely populated land in what today is Jordan (incl. Amman and Madaba). This extensive fieldwork culminated in the first scientific mapping of the region.
The PEF survey went far beyond the scope of geography. Among their many efforts, the team collated thousands of place names to identify sites associated with Biblical, Talmudic, early Christian, or Crusader history. The primary cartographic outcome for the Survey of Western Palestine was an enormous 26-sheet map executed at a scale of 1:63,360 (also known as the ‘one-inch map’). This was the region’s most detailed and accurate map ever produced and still represents a pinnacle of Victorian mapping.
In addition to a series of highly accurate maps, the PEF published extensive fieldwork in three critical volumes known as The Survey of Western Palestine (1881). This report carefully describes the landscape and cross-references the descriptions to historical sources. It was a work of genuine scholarship, and to this day, archaeologists use the Survey as a standard reference for understanding the diachronic development of the landscape and its toponyms.
Even though the foundation and management of the PEF were strongly influenced by the faith of its members and the religious significance of Palestine, the involvement of British Army Royal Engineers in the survey was no coincidence. Britain had entertained strategic interests in the region for some time and had, at least since the Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem in 1864-65, used the Victorian affinity for travel and pilgrimage to gain access to Ottoman Palestine. The War Office played an important role in shaping and executing the survey. Colonel Charles Wilson, who had commanded the initial Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem and was intimately familiar with Britain’s strategic interests in the region, was appointed liaison between the government and PEF’s Executive Committee. The survey was a grand success, and the publication that came from it was sought by governments, institutions, and individuals across the globe. The acclaim also stimulated other interests in Palestine at the time, such as the growth of Zionism.
When the PEF expanded its sphere of interest to cover all Biblical lands, including the Sinai Peninsula, this was at least partly driven by Britain’s strategic interest in the Suez Canal. Another critical factor was the recent Russo-Turkish War (1877-78), making the paucity of accurate mapping in this region clear. Such strategic interests were intertwined with a heartfelt desire among PEF members to explore the past. The two aims were not perceived as contradictory but as a corollary. The PEF Survey of Palestine remained the region’s most influential and reliable map until the British Mandate’s Survey of Palestine, which commenced half a century later.