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Notes on the Geography of The West Bank: British Palestine

The British empire, like its sister institutions, has been pretty thoroughly hammered in recent decades, and the British mandate in Palestine is no exception. Only a few physical bits of it remain, but looking at them one might almost wonder what all the fuss was about.

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The West Bank: British Palestine picture 1

One of the first things the British did upon taking Palestine in 1917 was to increase the water supply of Jerusalem. They did it by going back to springs and storage tanks developed in Roman times, cleaning them, and replacing the ancient stone conduits with pipelines. Here, at Solomon's Pools, just south of Bethlehem, an abandoned British pumphouse stands between the second and third pools. Water had once run by gravity from here through Bethlehem to Jerusalem. The British pumped the water uphill and sent it by pipeline to the city.

The West Bank: British Palestine picture 2

Another shot of the same pumphouse, here with a steam cylinder in the center and a flywheel on the left. A nice bit of industrial archaeology, but not one to get much respect in a part of the world where the Crusades are considered a part of recent history.

The West Bank: British Palestine picture 3

This is one of the very few spots where the name Palestine survives in Israeli-controlled space. It's the Rockefeller Museum in East Jerusalem. The British mandatory government was always strapped, but it was also deeply sympathetic to the idea that England should help preserve the Holy Land. Despite the distaste of having to take money from these uncouth cousins, the Rockefeller donation was accepted and put to good use.

The West Bank: British Palestine picture 4

Tourism has deep roots on the West Bank, but it's doubtful if any regime prior to the British ever put up road signs. This one is on the east side of Bethlehem and after 70 years is about ready for a museum itself. British maps of Jerusalem and the Holy Land go back further still to the superb surveys of Charles Wilson and the surveyors of the Palestine Exploration Fund, including a young lieutenant, quite sure of himself, by the name of Kitchener.

The West Bank: British Palestine picture 5

Late in the mandate period, the British took to designing model houses for villages. They chose as their laboratory a large village known as Salfit, now an unhappy neighbor to the large Israeli settlement of Ariel. (See the pictures called Deir Istiya and Salfit.) On the eastern side of Salfit they erected three model houses which still stand--though in this case with an added wing. The buildings are still of the traditional stone, but they lack the traditional lower floor for animals. The British added unusually large windows on hygienic grounds, and they supplied water by pipe to rooftop tanks so villagers didn't have to rely on the traditional, in-ground cistern. For an inexpensive adaptation of traditional housing to modern standards of hygiene, the house wasn't bad, but it came too late for the British to do much with it. The Jordanians picked up the same style and carried it forward after 1949. Since then, few houses have been built with the traditional elements of lower level, tiny windows, and rock-cut cistern, so perhaps the British experiment deserves more credit than it usually gets.

The West Bank: British Palestine picture 6

Plenty of Palestinians worked for the mandatory government, but most of them have passed on. Here's an exception, a gentleman now living in retirement on the northern edge of Hebron. He was once a tax collector who counted sheep and goats for the British.

Cucumbers, by the way, are by value the most important vegetable grown on the West Bank. The peaceful shade seems incongruous with the foreign image of Hebron, but there are many such quiet backyards in the city. The old man's grandson treated him with a respect that an American grandfather would envy.


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