Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav

Is Israel a desert?

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Years ago, a British comedy skit—possibly Monty Python—showed a valiant knight crossing over from “Europe” (Greece) into “Asia” (Turkey), on his way to the Holy Land. As soon as he crossed the Bosphorus Straits, he found himself knee-deep in desert sand dunes. This is a typical, and highly amusing, illustration of the common European (and generally Western) perception of the Middle East.

Remember that the Children of Israel spent forty years in the Sinai desert waiting for the chance to enter the Promised Land—which was “a land of milk and honey”. They wouldn’t have struggled so much to make the journey if it meant simply arriving at another desert…

Israel is the southwestern tip of an arc-like region known today as the “Fertile Crescent”, which extends via Lebanon and northern Syria, to northern Iraq down the Tigris and Euphrates rivers to the Persian Gulf. It is an area that, thanks to its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea or those two great rivers and an often mountainous terrain, enjoys between 500–1000 mm of rain a year, and so is fairly green, has a variable climate (dry, warm summers, chilly or cold wet winters), and amenable to agriculture. Within Israel itself, there are micro-climates, ranging from desert in the south to Mediterranean along the coast and western Judean hills, temperate in the Galilee, sub-tropical around the Sea of Galilee and Jordan River. In winter, at the higher elevations, it snows.

Flavius Josephus, writing around 100 CE, noted that virtually all of the Holy Land, from the north down to Beer-Sheva, was forested (in native pine and oak). Alas, most of that native forest was cut down over the centuries, but in recent decades, thanks to reforestation efforts, parts of it is being restored. Here, for example, is the landscape near my family’s property, in the southern Galilee:

Films about the Bible tend to be filmed in places such as Morocco, or southern Italy, but in fact, the region that I’ve seen that most resembles the Israeli landscape is the Okanagan region of southern British Columbia, and its surroundings. Lake Okanagan, for example, looks uncannily like the Sea of Galilee—only about ten times bigger:

So in short, the answer to your question is: “Yes—and more besides.”



Author: יונתן אור-סתיו | Jonathan Orr-Stav

Hebrew-English translator, editor, author. מתרגם עברית–אנגלית, עורך באנגלית, וסופר.

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