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September 29, 2013

Lessons of the Holy Land: New book explores geographic impact of small, but significant place

TERRE HAUTE — The appeal of a book based on the geography of a small stretch of land 4,000 years ago might seem limited.

The key is location, location, location, as a real-estate agent might say.

The focal point of a new release involving Terre Haute authors and editors is a place 50 miles wide and 145 miles long — about 10,000 square miles total, or the size of Vermont. The story of that state in 2000 B.C. might garner a niche audience.

“Geography of the Holy Land: New Insights” is a different matter.

“There’s no small place of such significance on earth, that has such an impact on humans, than the Holy Land,” Bill Dando said of the book, his 27th. The retired Indiana State University professor co-authored “Geography of the Holy Land” with his wife (and editor), Caroline, and Jonathan Lu, a founder of the Bible Geography Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers. The book serves as a companion to their 2006 release, “Geography of the Holy Land: Perspectives,” delving deeper into specific topics.

The problems and solutions present in that region centuries ago remain relevant today, Dando explained, from urban living, farming, personalities and lifestyles, climate, military strategies, and the unending quest for food and clean water.

“You have the world in miniature in ancient Israel,” he said Monday afternoon, pointing to biblical towns and the topography of the Middle East on a map, hanging on a wall in the lower level of Centenary United Methodist Church in Terre Haute.

Actually, the Middle East and the Holy Land differ, geographically. In its biblical definition, the Holy Land extended from the northern valley of the Nile River in Egypt north to Jerusalem and the Mediterranean Sea and east to Persia. Within that area lies the Fertile Crescent, a rich and moist sector surrounded by arid land. Within the Fertile Crescent is the Promised Land, the “land of milk and honey,” between the cities of Dan and Beersheba, according to the Bible books of Numbers and Ezekiel.

The world’s three major monotheistic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam — trace their origins to the land traveled by Abraham in the first and second centuries of the second millennium B.C. Interest in it endures, uniquely. Other places draw attention through a specific historical event, a crisis or a cultural achievement, Dando said, “but in most places, the significance to human beings fades over time.”

Lifelong curiosity led Dando to research the Holy Land.

“I’ve always had this question in my mind — why Jerusalem? Why are so many people in the world interested in this city?” he said. It possessed no significant minerals or resources, sported a rough terrain, and had limited water. Nonetheless, “it was important 3,000 and 4,000 years ago, and it is important today,” Dando said.

People in the Holy Land, for example, collected dew to irrigate plants in an arid and semi-arid climate where water was scarce. “Dew was so special to the inhabitants of ancient Israel, because they thought it was a gift from God,” Dando said. The lessons and modern parallels are important, he explained. Of the 10 famines recorded in the Bible, the first five occurred in rural regions, and no deaths were cited. The people simply moved on to a place with more precipitation and planted crops there, Dando said; the last five famines happened in urban populations, and people died of starvation.

In the 21st century, cities — especially those in Third World nations — are growing rapidly, increasing the demand on food-producing rural regions.

“What is going to happen if these people who aren’t living in those urban centers can’t produce food?” Dando said.

The new book addresses those questions, and others, through chapters written by 10 expert contributors in addition to its editors. “We looked at what issues occurred in the past that have great significance today,” Dando said.

Terre Haute author and geographer Dorothy Drummond contributed three articles, including a piece answering the question, “Who was Abraham?” Drummond’s own book, “Holy Land, Whose Land? Modern Dilemma, Ancient Roots” (2002) has sold 17,000 copies worldwide and is in its third printing. She first visited Israel with her husband in 1958, has made five return trips since, and has traveled to every other country in the region, except Syria and Iraq.

“I consider myself sort of a Middle East junkie now,” quipped Drummond, who taught geography at ISU and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, and served as president of the National Council for Geographic Education.

The Holy Land’s geography enhances its importance, as well as its southern California-like climate. “The major powers always wanted to hold this,” Drummond said. “If you own this, you own the connection between the Mediterranean and Egypt.”

The struggles over its control and limited resources, thousands of years ago, offer lessons today, said another of the contributors to “Geography of the Holy Land,” Bharath Ganesh Babu, assistant professor of geography at Valparaiso University.

“[The Holy Land] presents an opportunity to see how resource scarcity affects sociopolitical behaviors,” Babu explained by email. “Throughout the history of this region, limited availability of and access to resources have led to human conflicts [and] oppression, as well as profound social reforms.”

Dando studied the Holy Land history and situations as not only a scientist, but also as a teacher of a Sunday Bible class at Centenary church. “As a scientist, you ask questions, and it turned out to be a hobby, a very important hobby,” he said. “But primarily, it was to make me a better Sunday School teacher.”

His pastor, the Rev. Jimmy Moore, appreciates Dando’s expertise and passion.

“He makes the biblical text more real and more approachable,” Moore said. “Bill seems to have a photographic memory; he rarely forgets anything. But he’s also able to make links between the biblical world and our modern world. If he’s able to help people learn, he’s a happy man.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

Finding the book

• Copies of the new book, “Geography of the Holy Land: New Insights,” are available for personal use or as a donation to a school through Centenary United Methodist Church at 301 N. Seventh St. in Terre Haute by calling 812-232-2319. A donation of $25 is suggested.

• Its trio of editors included retired ISU professors Bill and Caroline Dando of Terre Haute. Dorothy Drummond, also of Terre Haute, was a contributing writer on the book.

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