“… a land flowing with milk and honey …” (Exodus 3:8)
Israel is a small, narrow and semi-arid country lying at the junction of Europe, Asia and Africa on the southeastern coastline of the Mediterranean Sea. It is bordered by Lebanon in the north, Syria in the northeast, Jordan in the east, Egypt to the southwest and the Mediterranean Sea in the west.
Israel is only about 290 miles (470 kms) in length and 85 miles (135 kms) across at its widest point. Its total area is 10,840 square miles (27,800 sq. km), including all the areas under Palestinian self-government and the area within the boundaries and ceasefire lines. Australia, in contrast, has an area 370 times larger than that of Israel; the Australian state of New South Wales has an area nearly 39 times larger than that of Israel.
Israel can be crossed in about 90 minutes by car, from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to the Dead Sea in the east; and in about six hours from Metulla in the north to Eilat in the south.
Long and narrow, Israel has a huge variety of topographical features ranging from forested highlands and fertile green valleys to mountainous deserts, and from the coastal plain to the semitropical Jordan Valley and Dead Sea (the lowest point on earth).
In Israel mountains and plains, fertile land and desert are often only minutes apart. Although approximately half of the land is semi-arid, the variety of features encompassed in Israel is that of an entire continent.
Coastal plains, mountain ranges, hills, valleys, and desert, plus the Kinneret and the Jordan River, combine to form the geographical features of the country. Four geographical regions are created by three parallel strips running from north to south and the large, mostly arid zone in the southern half of the country.
The coastal plain running parallel to the Mediterranean Sea is home to more than half of Israel’s population of 6.5 million people. It includes major urban centres, deepwater harbours, most of the country’s industry and a large part of its agriculture and tourist facilities. The coastal plain consists of a sandy shoreline bordered by stretches of fertile farmland extending up to 25 miles (40 kms) inland, and in the north, expanses of sandy beach are occasionally punctuated by jagged chalk and sandstone cliffs.
The Golan Heights and the hills of Galilee are in the northeast of Israel. Several mountain ranges run the length of the country. The Golan Heights were formed by volcanic eruptions in the distant past, rising as steep basalt cliffs overlooking the Hula Valley. The limestone and dolomite hills of Galilee ascend to heights ranging from 1600 to 4000 feet (500-1200m) above sea level. Relatively ample rainfall and small perennial streams keep the area green all year round. Agriculture, tourism-related enterprises and light industry are activities engaged in by the residents of these areas.
Separating the hills of Galilee from those of Samaria, the Jezreel Valley is cultivated by many cooperative communities (kibbutzim and moshavim). It is Israel’s richest agricultural area. A mosaic of rocky hilltops and fertile valleys, dotted with groves of age-old, silver-green olive trees are created in the rolling hills of Samaria and Judea. First developed by farmers in ancient times, the terraced hillsides blend into the natural landscape. Small urban centres and large villages house the main population of the area.
About half of Israel’s land area is represented by the Negev. The Negev is sparsely inhabited, its population supported by an agricultural and industrial economy. The Negev becomes an arid zone further south, characterised by low sandstone hills and plains, abounding with canyons and wadis in which winter rains often produce flash floods. The region gives way to an area of bare craggy peaks, craters and rock-strewn plateaus, continuing southward, where the climate is drier and the mountains are higher. Three erosive craters cut deeply into the earth’s crust here. The largest is about 5 miles (8 km) across and 21 miles (35 km) long, displaying a broad range of colours and rock types. At the tip of the Negev near Eilat on the Red Sea, sharp pinnacles of grey and red granite are broken by dry gorges and sheer cliffs, with colourful layers of sandstone glowing in the sunlight.
Nestling between the hills of Galilee and the Golan Heights at 695 feet (212 m.) below sea level is Israel’s largest lake. Lake Kinneret (better known in English as the Sea of Galilee) is 5 miles (8 km) wide and 13 miles (21 km) long, and serves as the country’s main water reservoir. Some important historical and religious sites, as well as agricultural communities, fisheries and tourist facilities, lie along the shores of the lake.
In the east of the country lie the Jordan Valley and the Arava. These areas form part of the Syrian-African Rift which split the earth’s crust millions of years ago. The southern portion is semi-arid while the northern stretches are extremely fertile. This area’s main sources of income are agriculture, fishing, light industry and tourism.
Flowing from north to south through the Rift is the Jordan River. Descending over 2,300 feet (700 m) in the course of its 186-mile (300-km) route, the Jordan is fed by streams from Mount Hermon as it runs through the fertile Hula Valley into Lake Kinneret. It continues winding through the Jordan Valley before emptying into the Dead Sea. Normally quite narrow and shallow, the river swells during the winter rainy season.
The Dead Sea (known in Hebrew as the Yam haMelach, the salt sea) lies at the southern end of the Jordan Valley. It is the lowest point on earth at about 1,300 feet (400 m) below sea level. Possessing the highest level of salinity and density in the world, its waters are rich in potash, magnesium and bromine, as well as in table and industrial salts. A very high rate of evaporation (5 feet – 1.6 m annually) and large-scale diversion projects undertaken by Israel and Jordan for their water needs has accelerated the Dead Sea’s natural pace of recession in recent years. The result is a 75 percent reduction in the incoming flow of water, causing the surface level of the Dead Sea to drop some 35 feet (10.6 m) since 1960. Presently under consideration is a project to try to restore the Dead Sea to its natural dimensions and level. This would involve linking the Dead Sea with the Mediterranean Sea by means of a canal and pipe system.
Beginning south of the Dead Sea is the Arava, Israel’s savannah region. The Arava extends to the Gulf of Eilat, Israel’s outlet to the Red Sea. It has become possible here to grow out-of-season fruit and vegetables, mainly for export, by adapting sophisticated farming techniques to climatic conditions. The average annual rainfall is less than one inch (25 mm) and summer temperatures soar to 104ºF (40º C). Lying at the southern tip of the Arava is the sub-tropical Gulf of Eilat, noted for its deep blue waters, coral reefs and exotic marine life.
The Arava at sunset (left) and the port of Eilat (right) (photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Video: Aerial Tour of Israel