Mapping and “Truth”: Communicating the Erasure of Palestine

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Article published in The Funambulist 18 (July-August 2018) Cartography & Power. Click here to access the rest of the issue.

“[…] Salmon emphasised the human aspect of carto-topography. No matter how accurate the map, Salmon wrote, people would never trust it if it were not pleasant and attractive to the eye, for it was impossible not to be affected by its external appearance.” (Dov Gavish, in A Survey of Palestine Under the British Mandate, 1920-1948, describing the writings of F. J. Salmon, Director of the British “Palestine Survey” from 1933-38)

“I couldn’t have done anything without the marvelous detailed maps (scale 1:20,000) compiled by the Mandatory authorities and updated just before the 1948 War. I would spread the relevant map on the ground, and suddenly the old landscape arose like an apparition: village houses, mosques, school buildings, paths, stone hedges marking plot boundaries, limekilns, threshing floors, holy tombs, sacred oak trees, springs and cisterns, caves, fruit trees, patches of cultivation. And each plot and every prominent feature had its Arabic name marked on the map, so poetic and so apt […] that my heart ached.” (Meron Benvenisti, in Sacred Landscape: The Buried History of the Holy Land since 1948, 2000. He describes his efforts to uncover the Palestinian landscape “wiped off the map” by Israeli cartographers.)

This article offers some thoughts on the relationship between mapping, power and “truth” — a term which I use slightly flippantly here, but will expand upon. It focuses in particular on a set of historical maps of Palestine which I was recently involved in making accessible and searchable online through a project named Palestine Open Maps (palopenmaps.org).