By Stefan Szepesi
Second best to walking across the regions of Nablus, Jericho or Hebron must be walking across the hundreds of pages of the Survey of Western Palestine, published in 1881 by the Palestine Exploration Fund. Charles Warren and his companions, including T.E. Lawrence, were rambling across the Middle East for a decade, making meticulous notes on flora and fauna, archeology and the villages and places of worship that dot the land. They did so well before the British Empire started to change the course of the Holy Land, and whilst these gentlemen were keen intelligence gatherers as much as zealous explorers, theirs are the notes of visitors rather than conquerors of the land.
The typography, the handmade drawings and the endless detail of the survey are astonishing; the volumes have this beautiful smell that old books carry with them for all time. I open the 130 year old volumes at Leiden University, one of the few places in the world where it accessible for viewing without much hassle. I zoom in on volume II, section 15, the area south of Nablus, and find curious little notes on tiny villages and springs that are on the path today: Aqraba (Akrabah), Duma (Doumah), Kafr Malek (Kufr Malek) and the Auja Spring (Ain Aujah). I learn that Akrabah means ‘curved’, that there are rock cut tombs and cisterns in Dumah and that Warren took a picture of a man called Sheikh Ibrahim (!) in the village of Auja, where he visited a chapel that had been turned into a mosque.
The survey is probably one of the most underused pieces of literature for present-day exploration on the region, apart from the odd student of biblical archeology or history buffs. I’ve not come across any travel guide or magazine making a reference. Truth be told, with five volumes it is a bit heavy in the backpack, and perhaps a bit expensive too as the full set costs some US $7,500. But these are old-fashioned excuses no doubt: since a couple of years, the survey is accessible for free online and walkers can simply print what they need. The only parts missing are the beautiful hand drawn detailed maps with the names of tiny villages, ancient wadis and fresh water springs; for that, and for the smell of timeless exploration, I shall return to Leiden University.