This post by Florence Bullough originally appeared on Four Degrees, part of the EGU blogs network.
The story of Joseph and Mary’s hallowed journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem is an intrinsic part of christmas festivities. But what route did they take and what landscapes would they have seen?
As a distinct geographic area, the description “Holy Land” encompasses modern-day Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan and sometimes Syria. The geology of the Holy Land is characterised by the Judean Hills which run North to South through the centre of the region, exposing Cretaceous age limestones and sandstones. The rocks reach down to the western banks of the Dead Sea and the Jordan Valley Rift valley which marks the modern border between Palestine and Jordan. The Judean Hills mark the highest area in the region (an area Joseph and Mary may have been trying to avoid!) and the topography then lowers to the Mediterranean coast to the west and the Dead Sea to the east.
Joseph and Mary’s journey to Bethlehem began in Nazareth, in modern day Israel, and ended with a manger in Bethlehem, which is in modern day Palestine. The route taken between the two, and indeed the time it took them, is oft disputed. Given the mountainous nature of the central Holy Land which is dominated by the Judean Hills and the reality of transporting a pregnant woman on a donkey, it is possible they would have avoided the mountains and travelled southeast across the Jezreel Valley, connecting with the Jordan Valley to the East, down to Jericho and then across to Bethlehem. This route would have looked something like this.
The area they may have wanted to avoid, the Judean Hills, is formed from monoclinic folds and relates to the Syrian Arc belt of anticlinal folding in the region that began in the Late Cretaceous. These are the same hills that include the famous Mount of Olives, and the location of the story of David and Goliath which occurred in the Ella Valley in the Judean Hills. It is also home to Bethlehem which stands at an elevation of about 775 meters and is situated on the southern portion in the Judean Hills.
By contrast, the Jordan valley encompasses the lowest point in the world, the Dead Sea (sitting at 420 below sea level). The valley was formed in the Miocene (23.8 – 5.3 Myr) when the Arabian tectonic plate moved away from Africa. The plate boundary which extends through the valley (and houses the Dead Sea!) is called the Dead Sea Transform. This boundary separates the Arabian plate from the African plate. For more on the geology of the Dead Sea region see this earlier Four Degrees post.
Geoadvent challenge update
Yesterday’s window depicted the Vale of Eden in Cumbria – find out more about it on the Plate Tectonic Stories website!