16 April 2010

The Climate of Ancient Palestine

The Palestine I present in the Eternal Throne Chronicles is obviously a far lusher, forested, and climatically milder place than we find it to be at present. As with all things Biblical, there is a great deal of ongoing debate as to the ecological and meteorological conditions of Israel three millenia ago.

The ecology of modern-day Israel, though, is remarkably diverse. From the snow-covered slopes of Mount Hermon it is possible to view, in once glance, broad and barren deserts of yellow sand, lush green jungles, fertile valleys of checkered fields, plateaus and steppes of garigue, sandy Mediterranean beaches, majestic forests of oak and cedar and more. During the rainy season streams, lakes, and swamps appear temporarily all over northern Israel, and the fens south of Lake Hula once served as home to crocodiles and hippos. There are few places on earth with such variety of geography and climate within so small an area.

Many researchers believe that the dawn of the Iron Age in the tenth century resulted in a dramatic increase in the harvesting of timber, since the production and forging of iron require enormous quantities of fuel. Archaeology seems to support (or at least allow for) this interpretation. Israel was once a place of great forests, the remnants of which can still be glimpsed in a handful of preserves. (I have included below a few photographs of one of the surviving forests in present-day Lebanon, and a link to some further pictures). At some time the entire Plain of Sharon was a mighty, sprawling forest of oaks; the forests of Hereth, Mahanaim, Ephraim, and Bashan were all celebrated in scripture for their majesty and density. When forests are referred to by Bible writers, they are generally connected to an element of danger or mystery (David's hiding place in 1 Samuel 22:5, the site (and cause) of Absalom's death in 2 Samuel 18).

There is also some evidence that the current aridity of the Levant results in part from the logging of its mountains. When the land was still covered in trees, especially the hills and mountains of the Shephelah and Judah (which would have been taller three thousand years ago), clouds traveling inland from the Mediterranean would have been much more likely to drop their precipitation before evaporating over the Arabian Desert. This increase in rainfall, added to the fertility of a soil that had not been depleted by millenia of farming, erosion, and irrigation, add up to considerably more lush Israel.

The town in which I live in Washington averages only 15 inches of precipitation per year--almost 10 inches less than Jerusalem's current average. But Sequim is surrounded by lush forests of fir, hemlock, and cedar covering the slopes of the snow-capped Olympics. Admittedly, there is more to climate than rainfall, but this fact does allow us to entertain the possibility that the Israel of King David's day was a land with more in common with portions of northwest Washington today than with the barren hills of modern Judea.

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