Tag Archives: Palestine

Syria at the Apex

The peaceful Burj eslam coast belies Syria's current crisis between Ba'ath loyalists and the populist reform movement. © 2012 Wikimedia Commons.

Benjamin Sacks

In civilisation’s development, geographical location dealt Syria a bad hand. The ancient (and historically contested) region of Aleppo is hemmed in by a powerful Turkey to the north. To the west, an unstable Iraq straddles the Syrian Al-Hasakah and Deir ez-Zor governorates. Damascus, Syria’s capital, lies at an apex between Palestine, a hostile Israel, the eastern Mediterranean, Anatolia, and Jordan. Its centrality, claimed J L Porter FRGS in 1856, had been consistently underestimated by contemporary Western geographers (p. 43). A century and a half later, Syria’s violent upheaval would have not then likely surprised Porter. This is a landscape scarred by time and space, culture and religion. It was – and remains – one of the ‘geographical pivot[s] of history’.

It comes as little surprise that the Royal Geographical Society was involved in the surveying and analysis of Syria and its environs. Some research, as that undertaken by Dale R Lightfoot, takes on a decidedly geological twist, exploring the ancient (but still occasionally used) underground aqueducts (known as “qanat Romani” in Syria) that typify the region’s long-standing quest for water. His archaeological work provides a fascinating backdrop to Hussein A Amery’s more contemporary review of the Fertile Crescent’s ever-rising need for irrigation and drinking water.

Yet Syria’s strategic location has also piqued interest in the Royal Geographical Society’s historical role as an arm of imperial power. Under the efforts of Major Thomas Best Jervis, the Royal Geographical Society gained valuable experience in 1830s India, providing information to military and civil authorities (Heffernan 1996: pp. 505-506). ‘War’, as Michael Heffernan reminded us, ‘has been one of the greatest geographers’ (p. 504). During the First World War, the Royal Geographical Society ‘remained on an emergency, wartime footing’, benefiting in particular from T E Lawrence’s new surveys of Damascus and the Syrian plains (p. 515). The so-called ‘road to Damascus’ took on important overtones in the inter-war shuffling of European colonial designs in the Middle East, with Syria at its’ centre (see Farmer 1983: p. 73).

Echoes of Syria’s current chaos can be found in W W Harris’s classic ‘War and Settlement Change: The Golan Heights and the Jordan Rift, 1967-77′. Written when Israel’s seizure of the Golan Heights from Syria was still fresh in international minds, Harris investigated both sides’ respective claims on the region, as well as hinting at Syria’s domestic instability, supposedly quashed by the then-nascent Ba’ath Party movement. What remains constant through these accounts is the sense of Syria’s often dangerous position at the intersection of local and international desires.


J L Porter, ‘Memoir on the Map of Damascus, Hauran, and the Lebanon Mountains‘, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 26 (1856): 43-55.

H J Mackinder, ‘The Geographical Pivot of History (1904)‘, The Geographical Journal 170.4 Halford Mackinder and the ‘Geographical Pivot of History’ (Dec., 2004): 298-321.

Dale R Lightfoot, ‘The Origin and Diffusion of Qanats in Arabia: New Evidence from the Northern and Southern Peninsula‘, The Geographical Journal 166.3 (Sep., 2000): 215-26.

Hussein A Amery, ‘Water Wars in the Middle East: A Looming Threat‘, The Geographical Journal 168.4 Water Wars? Geographical Perspectives (Dec., 2002): 313-23.

Michael Heffernan, ‘Geography, Cartography and Military Intelligence: The Royal Geographical Society and the First World War‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 21.3 (1996): 504-33.

B H Farmer, British Geographers Overseas, 1933-1983‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 8.1 The Institute of British Geographers 1933-1983: A Special Issue of Transactions to Mark the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Institute (1983): 70-79.

W W Harris, ‘War and Settlement Change: The Golan Heights and the Jordan Rift, 1967-77‘, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers New Series 3.3 Settlement and Conflict in the Mediterranean World (1978): 309-30.

Our Fascination with Arab Geography

The endless sands of Rub' al Khali ('Empty Quarter') in southern Arabia. (c) Wikimedia Commons.

by Benjamin Sacks

THE ENDLESS, sparsely inhabited sands of the the Rub’ al Khali and Al-Nefud deserts bely a fascination with Arab geography that stretches back centuries. In the fourteenth century, Ibn Battuta and Ibn Khaldun chronicled their travels across the length and breadth of the Arab world; their works inspired European and Asian explorers to seek the Fertile Crescent’s riches, the elusive Badawī (‘Bedouin’) migratory tribes and the exotic ports of the Arabian Sea, the Gulf of Oman, and the Persian Gulf – Aden, Al Mukallā, Dawwah, Muscat and Al Khaşab. Later they were joined by the micro states that presently form the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar and Kuwait.

Long before T E Lawrence’s exploits popularised Arabia, the Royal Geographical Society maintained a significant and active interest in the region’s history, geography and unique characteristics. As early as 1836, Lieutenant R Wellsted communicated in volume six of the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London of the topographical extremes and socioeconomic possibilities of Arabia and Sinai. Wellsted observed the behaviours and traditions of the same Arab peoples that Lawrence noted in his Seven Pillars of Wisdom some seventy-five years later:

The Howeïtát Bedouins occupy the coast from Maghwah to Jebel’ Antar, comprising the mountainous tract which rises about ten miles from the beach, extending as far as the Syrian Hájj station of ‘Akabah [Aqaba]. They were frequently engaged formerly in expeditions against distant tribes in Nejd, from whom, protected by the unapproachable nature of their fastnesses, they entertained no fear of retaliation, and, as bold and expert warriors, they were, before Mohammed ‘Alí obtained so great an ascendancy in Hejáz, much feared by the caravans… (pp. 55-56).

Both the shift away from Antarctic endeavours and the Arab theatre of the First World War served to expand the Geographical Society’s fascination with the region, leading to a series of expeditions and important lectures in the 1920s and ’30s. In March 1924, for instance, J B Mackie spoke to the Society on the ‘great oasis’ of Hasa near the Persian Gulf. Bertram Thomas returned to exploration of the Rub’ al Khali in an important series of 1931 articles. In his capacity as financial adviser to the Sultan of Muscat and Oman (itself an outpost of Britain’s informal empire), he travelled by camel into a region that had changed little in the last thousand years. ‘Zuftair was its name, where there was an Al Kathir settlement’, he recalled, ‘The houses are very primitive… usually placed against the side of a cliff where they conceal the entrance to cave dwellings’ (p. 2).

The Royal Geographical Society’s longstanding fascination with the Arab world was indicative of Britain’s increasingly complex relationship with the Arab kingdoms. London’s intimate involvement with Oman, the Jordanian, Persian and Iraqi monarchies, Palestine and the formation of the state of Israel resulted in a region beset by contradictions. From a strictly exploratory standpoint, the Arabian Peninsula provided the Society with a new opportunities to uncover, analyse and diffuse ancient civilisations. But its findings also arguably spurred imperial appetites.

Recent Middle Eastern strife has reinvigorated geographical interest in the Arab World; in particular, why some states have collapsed while others remain largely peaceful. Recent analyses in The Geography Compass, The Geographical Journal and Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers have delved into the fundamental questions that lie at the heart of the region’s fast-changing affairs. What role does transnational, migratory behaviour play in Middle Eastern society? What role will Islam play in the contemporary Arab world? How will the implementation of more democratic, ‘Western-style’ regimes affect the future of traditional Arab laws?

Benjamin Sacks, ‘Oman: the Curiosity of Informal Empire,’ Geography Directions, accessed 27 March 2011.

R Wellsted, ‘Observations on the Coast of Arabia between Ras Mohammed and Jiddah,’ Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London 6 (1836): pp. 51-96.

J B Mackie, ‘Hasa: An Arabian Oasis,’ The Geographical Journal 63 no. 3 (Mar., 1924): pp. 189-207.

Bertram Thomas, ‘A Journey into Rub’ al Khali: the Southern Arabian Desert,’ The Geographical Journal 77 no. 1 (Jan., 1931): pp. 1-31.

Bertram Thomas and B K N Wyllie, ‘A Camel Journey Across the Rub’ al Khali,’ The Geographical Journal 78 no. 3 (Sep., 1931): pp. 209-238.

H St John Philby, ‘Rub’ al Khali: An Account of Exploration in the Great South Desert of Arabia under the Auspices and Patronage of His Majesty ‘Abdul ‘Aziz ibn Sa’ud, King of the Hejaz and Nejd and Its Dependencies,’ The Geographical Journal 81 no. 1 (Jan., 1933): pp. 1-21.

In Geography Compass, see:

Richard Gale, ‘The Place of Islam in the Geography of Religion: Trends and Intersections,’ 1 no. 5 pp. (Sep., 2007): pp. 1015-1036.

Francis Leo Collins, ‘Transnationalism Unbound: Detailing New Subjects, Registers and Spatialities of Cross-Border Lives,’ 3 no. 1 (Jan., 2009): pp. 434-458.


Women and the informal economy – Palestine

Palestinian women knitting skull-caps in Lobban al-Gharbia

by Michelle Brooks

In a recent article for BBC News MiddleEast, Jon Donnison reports on the Palestinian women who hand-sew Jewish kippot to be sold in the markets of Jerusalem. Kippot are the small white skull-caps worn by Jewish men to remind them of God’s presence above. The irony that these highly religious items, symbolic of Judaism are made by Palestinian women across the heavily fortified borders of Israel is not lost in this article. However, the news story does illustrate the prioritising of livelihoods over religiosity and the political lens through which the outside world views all things middle-eastern. This example of activity in the informal economy (Roberts 2009;10) is a strategy of survival of livelihoods through some of the most intolerable and harsh economic and social conditions on the face of the earth. The women in the photo above are representative of the highly gendered nature of the informal sector where women and children constitute by far the largest proportion of workers. There are many reasons for this such as withdrawal of education from an early age, lack of access to skills training especially where mechanisation takes place in for example agriculture, and domestic responsibilities. There has been much work in geography to date on the informal sector especially in the developing world (Lloyd-Evans 2008:1893, Potter et al 2004: 405). However, what is interesting here is the cross-border collaboration that occurs in the face of such a polarised and politically charged region; the women’s hands working and trading through difference and yet unravelling seemingly insurmountable division with every stitch.


read the BBC news story (2010) BBC News Middle-east




Imagining peace

By Rosa Mas Giralt

In the last few days, news reports have been covering the aftermath of the Israeli navy attack on a pro-Palestinian flotilla of ships which was on its way to Gaza to deliver aid. What was supposed to be a peaceful attempt to break through the blockade that has affected the Gaza strip since 2007 left nine activists dead and more than thirty people injured. This disturbing episode has reignited bitter interchanges between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian parties and, once more, has showed the power of geopolitics in action.

In the face of events such as this, I feel drawn towards Nick Megoran’s recent call for the development of a “pacific geopolitics”, which he defines as “the study of how ways of thinking geographically about international relations can promote peaceful and mutually enriching human coexistence” (2010: 385). He argues that critical geographers should not only expose the dynamics of militarist or imperialist geopolitics but should also provide accounts of successful peaceful alternatives. In his article for Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, he uses research on “The Reconciliation Walk” (which brought American and European Christians together to re-enact the routes of the First Crusade and apologise to Jews, Eastern Christians and Muslims for such episodes of history) to exemplify how “pacific geopolitics” can be developed. In this way, geographers can imagine and work for peace.

Read news reports in The Guardian website about the Israeli raid on the flotilla and its aftermath

Read Nick Megoran (2010) “Towards a geography of peace: pacific geopolitics and evangelical Christian Crusade apologies”. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers. 35 (3): 383-398.

Managing water resources, with geography

Sonoran Desert, MexicoI-Hsien Porter

Despite the UK’s reputation for wet weather, a recent report by the Engineering the Future Alliance claims that the UK imports two-thirds of the water we use. This is because the report includes water used in producing food and goods outside the UK. For example, we may only see the last 250 ml of water required to make a cup of coffee. However, a further 140 litres is embedded in growing, processing and transporting the coffee beans.

As a result, some water-stressed countries use significant proportions of their water resources to produce goods for export to foreign markets. Although this brings in foreign exchange, which is often much needed by developing countries, it adds to growing pressures on water supplies.

Hassan and others (2010) recently published two papers in Geography Compass that examine water use in the Palestinian Territories. In the second paper, they argue that future climate change will reduce available water resources, while growing populations will increase abstraction and reduce water quality.

In the first paper, Hassan et al. examine some of the difficulties in allocating resources fairly. The physical geography of the area means that some areas have different physical accessibility to freshwater than others. However, distributing water resources is complicated by a lack of domestic control over aquifers and rivers, located in neighbouring territories. At the interface of the physical and human, geographers are well placed to explore the complexities of managing water.

View the Read about how the incident affected the local communities so far at BBC News Engineering the Future Alliance report on Global Water Security

Hassan et al. (2010 a) Palestinian Water I: Resources, Allocation and Perception, Geography Compass 4 (2): 118-138

Hassan et al. (2010 b) Palestinian Water II: Climate Change and Land Use, Geography Compass 4 (2): 139-157