One of the first facts which strike the traveller in Palestine is the smallness of a country which has nevertheless occupied so large a space in the history of civilised mankind. It is scarcely larger than an English county, and a considerable portion of it is occupied by rocky mountains and barren defiles where cultivation is impossible. Its population could never have been great, and though cities and villages were crowded together on the plains and in the valleys, and perched at times on almost inaccessible crags, the difficulty of finding sustenance for their inhabitants prevented them from rivalling in size the European or American towns of to-day. Like the country in which they dwelt, the people of Palestine were necessarily but a small population when compared with the nations of our modern age.
And yet it was just this scanty population which has left so deep an impress on the thoughts and religion of mankind, and the narrow strip of territory they inhabited which formed the battle-ground of the ancient empires of the world. Israel was few in numbers, and the Canaan it conquered was limited in extent; but they became as it were the centre round which the forces of civilisation revolved, and towards which they all pointed. Palestine, in fact, was for the eastern world what Athens was for the western world; Athens and Attica were alike insignificant in area and the Athenians were but a handful of men, but we derive from them the principles of our art and philosophic speculation just as we derive from Israel and Canaan the principles of our religion. Palestine has been the mother-land of the religion of civilised man.
The geographical position of Palestine had much to do with this result. It was the outpost of western Asia on the side of the Mediterranean, as England is the outpost of Europe on the side of the Atlantic; and just as the Atlantic is the highroad of commerce and trade for us of to-day, so the Mediterranean was the seat of maritime enterprise and the source of maritime wealth for the generations of the past. Palestine, moreover, was the meeting-place of Asia and Africa. Not only was the way open for its merchants by sea to the harbours and products of Europe, but the desert which formed its southern boundary sloped away to the frontiers of Egypt, while to the north and east it was in touch with the great kingdoms of western Asia, with Babylonia and Assyria, Mesopotamia and the Hittites of the north. In days of which we are just beginning to have a glimpse it had been a province of the Babylonian empire, and when Egypt threw off the yoke of its Asiatic conquerors and prepared to win an empire for itself, Canaan was the earliest of its spoils. In a later age Assyrians, Babylonians, and Egyptians again contended for the mastery on the plains of Palestine; the possession of Jerusalem allowed the Assyrian king to march unopposed into Egypt, and the battle of Megiddo placed all Asia west of the Euphrates at the feet of the Egyptian Pharaoh.
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