Descriptive Geography and Brief Historical Sketch of Palestine
By Rabbi Joseph Schwarz, 1850
AN uncommon degree of interest has been excited in modern times towards Palestine, to an extent scarcely ever before attained. It issues forth, as it were, out of its devastation of more than eighteen centuries standing; and people seek to reanimate it through their investigations and discoveries. The learned contend for the prize of contributing the most to its elucidation by discovering and tracing out the vestiges of antiquity which it offers; and it is therefore constantly visited and travelled over by the well-informed of all nations. How much more ardently, then, must the erudite man belonging to the house of Israel feel on the subject! For should not Israel march in the advance, and serve in this matter as an example to other nations? or shall it, to whose ancestor God said (Gen. 13. 15), “For the whole land which thou seest I will give unto thee and thy seed for ever,” receive an account of its possessions—for its property the land remains, long as the time may be that its claim is not acknowledged, and its rights usurped by the hand of power from the mouth of others?
As I now happened to live in contentment in the Holy City, this thought became the more active in me, since I had the opportunity to furnish much, more indeed than any other in this respect; because I was constantly on the spot, and had a knowledge of the languages which are necessary to carry on the discoveries and investigations, and was tolerably familiar with Hebrew literature, the most extensive and reliable source in this field of inquiry; and I was thus in a position which promised me much assistance in my labours.
I call Hebrew literature the most extensive and reliable source; and, in truth, it is this in every respect; and whoever cannot draw his information out of it in his investigations, must remain unacquainted with much, even the most interesting matter, and will therefore fail in his discoveries. It hence results, that, despite the sagacity of so many travellers, much has remained unknown; for instance, no one could hitherto indicate where to look for the Mount Hor, in Northern Palestine; Riblah, Kadesh-Barneä, Azmon, Katath, Nahallal, Shimron, Rakkath, &c.; since all the learned were unacquainted with the circumstance, that all these names were changed at a later period, as we see mentioned in Talmud Yerushalmi, and since the names into which they were changed are existing to this day. In this way, therefore, being able to draw from the source indicated, I have been permitted to discover nearly a hundred names which had hitherto remained unknown. It farther struck me, that we had no manual which could aid us in elucidating the book of Joshua, either in reading or teaching it; so that several chapters are almost left unread, and not explained in instructing. Farthermore, I found that several passages are incorrectly translated; and bow, in good faith, can one expect from the learned of the West a correct explanation of the nature of the Orient? and who should feel more interested in the matter than one belonging to the house of Israel
I therefore applied myself to compose a new geography, and I can freely flatter myself that this work does not resemble the many modern journals of the constantly augmenting visits to Palestine, in which are repeated, again and again, the old and already known facts, which are only dressed up with a somewhat changed fashion; but rarely do you find a new discovery, only some entertaining particulars, which have no value to the scholar; and all the author exhibits to the world is, that he too has travelled through the Holy Land. This work, however, is at the same time instructive, and may be viewed as a commentary on the geographical passages of the Bible, and by no means as a description of a journey of three or four months’ duration,—but as the result of investigations and discoveries continued for many years with the greatest care, with many sacrifices, and not rarely with much personal danger.
I have likewise not lost sight of the labours of all preceding scholars; since I am acquainted with nearly all the works concerning Palestine, from Flavius Josephus to the books of the most modern times; especially the celebrated work of Réland, who cites accurately the description of Palestine by Eusebius and Hieronymus.
I have also derived much information from the Arabic version of the celebrated Saadiah Gaon, edited at Constantinople in 5306 (1546), and the Persian version of Rabbi Jacob bar Joseph Tawas; likewise from another unknown edition of Saadiah of the whole Bible canon, all of which enabled me to elucidate several geographical names. I may say the same of the very rare work, Caphtore Vapherach, of Astori Pharchi, in which he gives a description of Palestine.
Having now undertaken to describe the geography of the Holy Land, it struck me that it might be advisable to give a brief account of the physical nature and history of the country, as also my studies with regard to many names beyond Palestine occurring in the Bible and Talmud, many of which are quite unknown, whilst others are shrouded in a great deal of obscurity; and I trust that I have rendered some little service in this department.
In conclusion, I cannot avoid blaming my fellow-Israelites for their neglect of this beautiful science, since they display so little interest in our country, even in a scientific point of view; and whilst they are so careful to instruct their children so accurately in the situation and nature of strange and distant lands, for instance Siberia, Australia, South Africa, &c., they appear ashamed to impart to them any information concerning Palestine and Jerusalem. But God has said: “I will heal thee again, and cure thy wounds, because they called thee the forsaken, and it is Zion for which no one careth.” (Jeremiah 30. 17.)
I, therefore, hope that my laborious efforts may attain their aim, by exciting interest and love for the Holy Land and its inhabitants, in the hearts of my brothers.
Jerusalem, in the month of Sivan, 5605 .