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Israel? Palestine? Canaan? Syria-Palestine? Levant? Cisjordan?

Posted by NT Wrong on September 20, 2008

Hmmmmmm… what’s the best answer for this ol’ curly question?

What is the name that I should use to refer to the historical culture of the area south of Syria, north of the Sinai, and west of the Jordan, in the general time period 1200 – 600 BC? Sure, this has been endlessly debated before. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve still got to use one term or another in order to refer to it. Although, maybe I’m already assuming some level of cultural discreteness in the area which did not exist? Passing over that disturbing thought for the moment (while keeping it in mind), here’s the options:

‘Canaan’? Either anachronistic or too literary-ideological.

‘Israel’? Too literary-ideological, and way too ambiguous.

‘Palestine’? A bit anachronistic, and confusing given its predominant twenty-first century meaning.

‘Syria-Palestine’? I probably don’t want to get that far north – or is there not such a difference in historical culture and politics (eg Damascus and Samaria were allied against Judah)?

‘The Levant’? That’s a bit big (Egypt to Anatolia), although some of the more recent usage seems to exclude Egypt and Anatolia, thus making it equivalent to Syria-Palestine (still too big), yet oddly making the term ‘Levantine’ less applicable to the area. It’s too Western-orientated, too.

‘South-central Levant’? That probably fixes it geographically, more or less. It’s still loaded with an Occidental viewpoint, however. And lets face it, it’s an ugly term.

‘The Cisjordan’? This is probably the same area, geographically, as the ‘South-central Levant’. And we’ve got rid of the Occidental bias. By defining things solely in geographically terms, the politics is largely excluded (although, never completely eradicated, because the boundaries are still political). This may be a problem if the political entity or cultural ties are closer to the Transjordan (was Judah closer to Moab than Samaria?), or extend northwards or southwards. One problem is that it doesn’t have very much common usage. But that shouldn’t stop academic usage.

I think ‘the Cisjordan’ wins.

But please suggest others for my consideration!

9 Responses to “Israel? Palestine? Canaan? Syria-Palestine? Levant? Cisjordan?”

  1. Duane said

    You may be correct that Cisjordan wins, but it sure would be a showstopper with 99% of the people with whom I interact during the normal, as opposed to the abnormal, affairs of my life. How do we communicate to the uninitiated without all the extra baggage of most of most terms and still preserve accuracy?

  2. ntwrong said

    Yes, I’m being shamelessly academic, and quibbling like only academics quibble. But there’s some important wider implications of some academic quibbling, and certainly quite a few when it comes to discussing ‘Israel’. I guess, for your average Joe Blow, one could use ‘Israel’ and add some lengthy qualifications and explanations of the problems — that might be one way around it.

    Mind you, although ‘Cisjordan’ is initially a bit of a ‘WTF?’-term for your average man on a Clapham Omnibus, I think the idea behind it is quite simple and easy to grasp. All that needs explaining is that we’re using geographical terms, so as to avoid (in fact, mitigate) the political problems, which could be identified and explained. And then there are only two geographical terms to know: West of the Jordan is the ‘Cisjordan’, and East of the Jordan is the ‘Transjordan’.

    (ok, my average person is male and European. I repent. ‘Average woman on a Nigerian omnibus’, too.)

  3. Rob Reid said

    Dear Wrong,
    How can you be so Right? I think Cisjordan is good, since we can never transcend the political markers, however, and in light of the drastic shift in land identification, my question is: When would you want to refer to the religion in antiquity without the baggage of a specific period in the socio-political history of the area in mind? I suppose my question is naive in so far as I’m basically saying “if a tree falls in the woods…”, but I couldn’t help it. 🙂

    Excellent post though, very thought provoking for shameless academics (myself included).

  4. Duane said

    Okay, you have convinced me, at least in part. I will try to remember to use Cisjordon when I am speaking to and as an (amateur) academic and use “west of the Jordon River” (or east of the Jordon) when I am talking to my normal friends. And every so often, I may mention that scholars call “east of the Jordon” Cisjordon.

    Now, what should I call the geography from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, from Anatolia to Egypt from the earliest times to 600 BCE? And specifically what should I call that geography when I’m talking about the Late Bronze Age. That’s really the focus of my abnormal interests. Cisjordon is just a small part of that and in that earlier period, it isn’t clear that it actually defines either geographical or political boundaries in any meaningful way.

  5. ntwrong said

    Ancient Near East and Eastern Mediterranean? 1550-1200BC?

    I’m still trying to work out if ‘Cisjordan’ is an historically significant category before the Persian Empire, or if it’s just an anachronism. This means that ‘Cisjordan’ may be the best term for a nonsensical category, which is just ridiculous. Was there enough unity at the regional level ca pre-600BC at all? Or are we only talking about webs of loosely connected city-states and their immediate surrounds?

  6. ntwrong said

    Is ‘Cisjordan’ little better than the Persian history’s invention of anachronistic and fictional ‘Solomonic districts’?

  7. ntwrong said

    Rob – it depends what you mean by ‘the religion’. If you mean Judaism, I’d have to go for ca. AD 400. If you mean Yahweh-only religion, probably the Persian period. If you mean Yahweh-worshipping, then I’d say that it was happening in Moab and Edom and aroundabouts there from the early first millennium BC and spread from there to Judah. But I’m perhaps being too conservative.

  8. Jan said

    One proclaimed corrupt government in the late 1970s, propagates the notion that Palestine is only West Bank and Gaza and its Arab citizens are the Palestinians (sorry for the over-simplificaton)…And another corrupt government (even though a little less corrupt may be) accepts it as the truth…and the media propagates this concept around the world…

    Thus, the true meaning of the word Palestine, the way it has been used for centuries and may be even millenia, is changed in order to help the bank account of some corrupt politicians and at the expense of exploited, poor and suffering people…(again sorry for the over-simplification). I’m sorry but Palestine is what is described above. Geographically speaking, Palestine is Israel. There is simply no difference. It’s cis-Jordan.

    On the other hand, the word cisJordanie in French (or cisJordania in Spanish) today means the West Bank (politically). West Bank (geographically) is the bank of the river Jordan on its West, etymologically it’s comes to mean the same as cisJordan. However, when (trans)Jordan took / conquered / occupied a part of cisJordan, it renamed it as cisJordan/West Bank. Today, politically that part of the land is called West Bank / cisJordan(ia)…What a nonsense: the entirety of what is politically called Israel + Palestine is the cisJordan or the West Bank. That’s why I find the terms Judaea and Samaria more correct for that small area…

    More and more people should be thought that Israel = Palestine and that Palestine is the geographical term, while Israel was the only political entity until the 1970s…And that only recently some political entity within Palestine appeared, calling a much smaller portion of the land as Palestine.

    Academically I would prefer the term Palestine or cisJordan (West Bank is also possible). Canaan is also very nice as it doesn’t have so much political connotations, however Canaan also includes Lebanon if I’m not wrong. I could also use the term Israel depending on the historical era and my audiance. For me the term Palestine wins and the concept that Palestine is only West Bank and Gazza is wrong and corrupt and should be annihilated. 🙂

  9. I wrestled with the same nomenclature problem some time ago. I happened to be dealing with events inside the same time period as the questioner’s (i.e., 1200-600 BCE), and since my subject was Egyptian-Judahite relations I used the contemporary Egyptian term for the region in question: Khor (a variant is Kurru).

    In my research, I could find no PRECISE geographical definition for the term; this allowed me to define it myself for the purposes of the book (The Rescue of Jerusalem: The Alliance between Hebrews and Africans in 701 BC, 2002). I put it this way: “As used here, Khor will include the western end of the Fertile Crescent, the territory encompassing the ancient kingdoms of Judah and Israel, Phllistine lands, Phoenician lands, Syria and, for good measure, the less strategic area near the Dead Sea occupied by the kingdoms of Ammon, Moab and Edom. This territory corresponds roughly to the modern states of Israel, Palestine, western Jordan, Lebanon and western Syria. It excludes the Sinai.”

    Because the term has never hardened into a set definition, other writers would be able to define it according to their needs.

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