Monday, December 11, 2017

British military maps for conquering Palestine

British General Edmund Allenby entered Jerusalem exactly a century ago today, on December 11th 1917, after his forces conquered the town two days earlier.
Before going through the Jaffa Gate he dismounted from his horse and entered on foot, as a sign of respect for the ancient city he was taking control of.

If city is the right word. All of Jerusalem could have fitted into one of London's larger parks in those days. This is brought home when you take a look at the military maps which Allenby and his troops used as they conquered the area they called Palestine from the Ottomans (who didn't call it that) from the Negev in the south moving ever further northwards. If you haven't seen those maps, here they are.

(Technical note: the best way to see the maps is by starting from that link, then choosing the specific area you're interested in from the list in the lower left corner of the screen. Once you've chosen a map, the way to see it in high-quality is to use the "full screen" button, the one with the two little arrows, in the upper right corner. Note that when you zoom in and out the thumbnail map in the lower left corner shows what part of the map you're seeing).

Take the map of Jerusalem (obviously), and you'll see why Allenby enteerd the town at Jaffa gate and not, say, at the Calavatra bridge near the present day entrance to the city, some miles to the west: Because the site of the future Calavatra bridge was an empty field far to the west of town. According to the map, Jerusalem was the walled Old City, and that's almost it.

Should we visit Tel Aviv? The name of the British map is Jaffa, and about the only part of modern Tel Aviv you'll find is Sarona, and miles to the north the tiny Arab village of Sheikh Muannis, where Tel Aviv University is today. Also, the map helpfully notes the sand dunes at the center of today's Tel Aviv.

But wait. That's actually a bit odd. Tel Aviv was founded in 1909; at least a small version of it ought to have been on the British military maps printed in May 1917? Well, I recommend looking at the bottom right corner of the map, where it says that it's a reprint made in May 1917, from... The Palestine Exploration Fund maps, surveyed in 1878!

This makes these maps even more interesting, because they tell us two very interesting things. The first is that when the British military map-makers needed to prepare maps with which to conquer Palestine, the most recent ones they had at hand were 39 years old, but they weren't troubled because they knew that not much had changed between 1787 and 1917. Moreover, they were able to use the maps because their assumption about the limited change was basically correct. Here and there some changes had been made on the ground, such as the founding of the Jaffa suburb of Tel Aviv; but these changes weren't significant enough to bother the military planners.

The second thing is that this series of maps, put online just last week at the website of the Israel State Archives, shows what the country looked like immediately before the beginning of Zionism. The earliest prot-Zionist attempt at settlement, in Petach Tikva, was in 1878; the first successful wave of modern Jewish settlements began in 1882. (The Zionist movement was founded as a movement in 1897).

Was it an empty land? Of course not. Quite sparsely populated, however. And the Jews aren't visible on the map at all. Even in Jerusalem, where there was already a Jewsih majority in 1878, the names on the map are Arabic. The British archeologist surveyors in the 1870s didn't see the Jews at all, or if they saw them they didn't notice. Which is the opposite of what we're told these days, abut how the colonial Brits did't see any Arabs, and neither did the Jews.

I think it's a valuable set of maps. Go yee and navigate.

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