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Climate and the Bible

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 30.01.2008:

By Rizek Michel Petro

Syria is the name given to the tract of fertile land that lies between the Arabian Desert and the eastern coast of the Mediterranean.

The name is either a short form of “Assyria” or derived from the Babylonian “Suri” (the region from Cappadocia to Media). It was first applied by the Greeks to the larger Assyrian Empire that extended from the Caucasus to the Levant but later on shrank to the smaller area defined above.

The Arabs call this country “Esh-Sham” or “The Left,” as it is the northern and north-western end of the great Arabian Peninsula, whereas they call its southern side “El-Yemen” or “the Right.”

Palestina, which is Philistina – also due to the Greeks – followed a reverse process. It was first applied to Philistia, including Judea, to distinguish southern Syria from Phoenicia. The Romans used the name Palestina which, in the second century, became a separate province. This name survives as Filistin in Arabic.

The land is divided mainly into mountain and plain or hilly country and level country. Within this general distinction there are many further subdivisions into smaller “provinces” that exhibit significant differences in soil and climate.

The climate of Palestine is so varied that, between the sub-tropical conditions at one end of the Jordan Valley and the sub-alpine climate at its other end, the entire range between these two extremes can be seen at a glance – lying close to each other – from the Carmel: the sands and palms of the coast; the wheat fields of Esdraelon; the oaks and sycamores of Galilee; the pines, the peaks, and the snows of Ante-Lebanon.

The year is generally divided into a rainy season and a dry season. Towards the end of October, heavy rains fall for a day or several days at a time. This is called the “early” or “former” rain, which opens the agricultural year. The soil – hard and cracked by the long summer – is loosened, and farmers begin ploughing.

Till the end of November, rain is not heavy. It increases from December to January, intensifies in March, and is over towards the middle of April. The “latter” rains are these heavy showers that fall in March and April. They come before the harvest and the summer drought and are more important to the country than the winter rains.

Hail and snow are very common on the hills. On the central range, snow may reach nearly a foot or two. On the plateaus east of Jordan, snow lies for days, and on Mount Hermon it lasts through the summer. In the tropical Ghor, snow has never been seen.

From May, showers are rare and, until October, not only is there no rain, but a cloud seldom passes over the sky.

Morning mists are very common in summer but soon disappear. Dews are excessive and, many mornings, it appears as if there has been heavy rain. Dews and mists are the sole slackening of the long summer drought.

Winds are very regular. They prevail from the west. In winter these west and south-west winds – damp from the sea – cause the winter rain upon touching the cold mountains.

The Bible describes this phenomenon in verse 54 of chapter twelve of the gospel of Luke: “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain’; and so it happens.”

In summer, winds blow chiefly from the drier north-west. Meeting only warmth, they cause no rain but mitigate the daily heat.

From the north, wind blows usually in October and brings a dry cold. From the desert (east, south-east, south, and south-south-east) blows the “sharkiyeh” (“the east”). These are hot winds that are also called “khamsin.” The Bible also has something to say about this in Luke, chapter 12, verse 55: “And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens.”

These winds blow chiefly in spring, for a day at a time. They come with a mist of fine sand that veils the sun, scorches vegetation, and brings fever to human beings. They are painful winds that neither carry rain nor help at harvest: “A dry wind off the bare heights in the wilderness towards the daughter of my people, neither to fan nor to cleanse” (Jeremiah 4:11).

Yet the east-wind sometimes breaks with violence. Many instances have been recorded in the Bible:

Jeremiah likened the scattering of Israel to an east wind (Jeremiah 18:17): “I will scatter them as an east wind before the enemy …”

Ezekiel saw ships of Tyre broken (Ezek. 27:26): “Your rowers have brought you into the high seas. The east wind has wrecked you in the heart of the seas.”

The Psalmist describes the ships of Tarshish: “as when an east wind shatters the ships of Tarshish” (Ps.48:7).

We have seen how broken the surface of Palestine is and how opposite its various aspects – seawards and towards the desert – and how suddenly changing and contrary its winds are. We must not be surprised then that its differences in temperatures are also great. Great between one part of the country and another, between summer and winter, between day and night, and even greater between one part of the day and another.

But despite these extremes, the climate of Palestine is still one of the healthiest in the world. The mean annual temperature varies from 16.6° C (62° F) to 20° C (68° F). Except during the “sharkiyeh,” the warmest days of summer seldom exceed 32° C (90° F). The cold of winter still hardly falls to freezing point. February is the coldest month of the year with a mean temperature of 7.7° C (46° F). In March and April this rises from 12° C (54° F) to 16° C (61° F) and in May and June from 18° C (65° F) to 23° C (74° F). During July and August it further rises to 24° C (76° F). It falls in September and October from 24° C (75° F) to 20° C (68° F). In November, after the rains, there is a fall to about 15.3° C (60° F). Snow, less sunshine, and the cold north-east winds account for a further fall in January to 9° C (49° F).

Rizek Michel Petro is a Jerusalemite travel agent. He graduated from the Freres School and holds a diploma in tourism from Spain. This text was inspired from reading a book titled, The Historical Geography of the Holy Land, by George Adam Smith.

The Historical Geography of the Holy Land, by George Adam Smith.

This Week in Palestine

February 2008

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