Passageway of Civilizations

By Yahav Zohar, Senior Tour Guide - Green Olive Tours

Visitors to Israel/Palestine are often struck by the variety and proximity of its landscapes, alongside the incredible richness of its archeology and history. One hour's drive will take you from sandy  beaches through  fertile planes up into the forested hills and down the other side into the dramatic desert landscape of the rift valley. This narrow strip of green between the  Mediterranean and the Arabian desert,  has served throughout history as a passage way, the corridor connecting Eurasia to Africa, and countless human civilizations and cultures have left their mark here,.

homo-sapiens migration: from Africa to the rest of the world through the Levant. 
For the sake of this discussion, modern borders are largely ignored. Israel/Palestine makes up the southern part of  a geographic area known as the Levant, which includes also today's Lebanon and much of Syria.  The modern borders which divide this country (once known as Bilad Ash-Sham) have little to do with its ancient history.

The first Homo-Sapiens, our ancient ancestors, made their way through here, out of Africa to the rest of the world. This is probably where they first met their Neanderthal relatives, a branch of humanity that they would soon drive into extinction, but not before some mating took place, so that all our DNAs contain a little bit of Neanderthal, the product of an encounter that  happened in this country.

Much later, it is here that we find the first signs of human settlements – the transitional phase between hunter-gathering and farming  know as Natufian civilization, named for the first documented finding of such remains in Wadi Natuf, which runs from the hills of Ramallah down to Lyd in the coastal plane.

Ain Sakhri Lovers
11 thousand year old couple in embrace
The Natufians, started settling down around 14000 years ago, and remains of their settlements have been found in various locations throughout the Levant.  Settling down allowed significant advances in material culture, not least in art, The little figurine of an entwined couple known as the Ain Sakhri lovers, found in a cave South-East of Bethlehem, is a beautiful example of 11 thousand year old erotic art.

A monumental stone
with carved Lion, Gobkeli.
The first temple?
What is sometimes know as the agricultural revolution was initiated in the Levant about 11500 years ago, and spread from here to the rest of the Middle East and eventually Europe. The oasis of Jericho, in the southern Jordan valley, is the site of one of the world's very first agricultural settlements. At the north end of the Levant, at Göbekli , we find the first major human monument, a collection of standing rock tablets, each about half a ton in weight, with animal images carved onto them.

This mysterious site of (perhaps) worship was built just around the time of the agricultural revolution, far more ancient then anything similar we know of.  It marks, perhaps, the beginning of organized religion. Between agriculture and monuments, the ancient Levant was the site of many advances in ancient civilization that radiated from here to the rest of the world.

Empires and cultures around the Levant, Circa 1500 BC. A corridor for civilizations.
The arch, for example, was once thought to have been invented by the Romans until archaeologists found arched gates in the fortified mounds of ancient Dan and Ashkelon, predating the Romans  by  a millennium and a half . For millenia the rounded arch was central to building technology, before someone discovered that a slightly pointed arch would bear much more weight.

This development, know as the Gothic Arch, allowed a transformation in European architecture, and the construction of taller, lighter cathedrals. The Gothic arch was thought (by Europeans) to be a European invention, But visitors to Ramle can find examples of it in the city's 8th century water reservoir, predating any European counterpart by a century.

It is here too, on the route between Egypt and Mesopotamia, that the alphabet was invented by people who wanted to write without the years of schooling needed for basic literacy in hieroglyphics or cuneiform. The Proto-Sinaic alphabet became Canaanite witch gave birth to the Phoenician alphabet, from which developed the ancient Hebrew alphabet, as well as the Greek and then Latin alphabets. It was in this country too that the idea of monotheism developed, combining Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Arab and many other cultural elements to create the religion of the bible. From this religion there later emerged Christianity, which would spread from here to the very ends of the earth.

What makes this narrow strip of land the source of so much innovation. How is is it that agriculture, organized religion, architecture and language owe so much to one place, never particularly rich, never the seat of any great empire, always just a passageway?

It was precisely its function as corridor and conduit between continents, civilizations and cultures which made this part of the world a fertile breeding ground for new ideas and technologies. The constant meeting of languages, cultures and ideas has made this country what it is, or rather – what it was.

The modern introduction of nationality and the nation state, and the current obsession with 'security' walls and borders, have made us an island, largely cut off from our surroundings. An Israeli is far more likely to get to London or New York than to Cairo or Beirut, and Palestinians have a hard time traveling beyond the tiny West Bank or even tinier Gaza Strip. Contained in our islands, separated, we take much pride in our ancient history, showing tourists and our children the great monuments and achievements of the past. Often, we try to claim these achievements to our own national group- our forefathers, we say, made this.

We will leave behind us, it seems, most impressively these giant concrete walls and fences, and the memory of our conflict which has fascinated the world. But through separation and fence building we are denying ourselves the great power and potential of this country, as a corridor, a mixing place, a melting pot which bubbles up knowledge, art, civilization.


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1 comment:

  1. Rev. Linda WescottJuly 6, 2012 at 10:39 PM

    Interesting -- especially your perspective, as in the last paragraph.


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