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Archive for the ‘Geo’ Category

Digital Resources for Bible Mapping

Sunday, December 16th, 2007

Mark at Biblical Studies and Technological Tools has been preparing for his BibleTech08 talk on Biblical mapping by asking his readers for their thoughts on Bible maps. Here are my responses to some of his questions.

First, I can see Bible software moving in two directions as it relates to mapping:

Outsource It: Mapping in Bible Software, Approach #1

Mapping has never been a strength of Bible software (with the possible exception of Accordance). But that’s not necessarily a problem.

Why should Bible software try to reproduce Google Earth’s features, with 3D terrain, zooming, rotating, layers, etc.? It’ll inevitably pale in comparison to Google Earth. In other words, no Bible software company is going to out-feature Google.

Rather, Bible software companies should build on existing software and innovate where they can.

Here’s what a Bible software company that wants to take this approach should do:

  1. License or commission attractive maps that allow minimal interactivity. I imagine that a lot of people simply want a map to print or to use in a class. Google Earth doesn’t support this task well.
  2. Identify place names in Bibles and reference works in their software and link these places to geocoded data. People will be able to see quickly where a location is without disrupting their immediate tasks. This kind of deep integration among resources is invaluable.
  3. Allow the export of this data into KML or other open formats so people who want a particular view can use Google Earth (or a similar program) to create it. They can then share these views with others.
  4. Release geocoding data under a Creative Commons license to allow people to reuse it. A lot of biblical regions don’t have any boundary data available on the web at the moment, for example, and it’s better to have people who know what they’re doing draw these boundaries instead of random people with lots of free time. (This last step may not be appropriate for every company.)

Integrate It: Mapping in Bible Software, Approach #2

Maybe a Bible software company really wants to add a Google Earth-style application to their program (perhaps to make sure their data stays proprietary, which I can understand). How should they do it?

They should integrate World Wind, an open-source earth viewer developed by NASA. It comes in both .NET and Java flavors. The i-cubed layer has 15-meter full-color resolution for most of the earth, which is sufficient for most purposes. It can also use Microsoft’s Virtual Earth imagery.

I think you could create a lot of interesting maps and geographic applications if you were willing to customize the World Wind interface for Bible mapping and integrate this data deeply into your software.

The following image, for example, from a post about Herod the Great’s tomb, uses the i-cubed imagery in World Wind:

View of Herodium showing the Dead Sea, Jericho, the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, Mount Hermon, and Jerusalem.

What Makes Maps Useful?

I’m only answering for myself here, but I tend to judge a map on its aesthetics—in other words, I prefer a nice-looking map even when it’s otherwise inferior to an ugly map. A lot of Bible maps on the web just aren’t very attractive.

If two maps are equally attractive, I’ll use the one that gives me more flexibility to accomplish what I want or to increase my understanding—enabling layers or places, for example.

Finally, I don’t find static 3D cutaways (like the above image of Herod the Great’s tomb) very useful—they’re cool to look at, but the distortion in perspective makes it hard to measure distances or see how places relate to each other. However, I do find it useful to pan down in Google Earth. So I like standard overhead views for static maps but prefer dynamic maps to give me maximum flexibility.

How People Use the Maps Here

Judging from their search keywords on Google, people are looking for three main things when they come to Of course I don’t know what their ultimate aim is, but here are their immediate goals:

  1. An overview of Bible geography.
  2. The location of a specific place that they probably encountered in their Bible reading.
  3. Integration of Bible places and Google Earth or Google Maps.

Map Features

Here are some things I’d like to see in Bible maps in the future:

  • Social integration. I don’t really know what it would involve, but a lot of mapping sites are moving to allow collaboration and sharing of maps created by users. I can imagine a lot of potential here to eliminate duplication of effort—how many people have had to create new maps just because the particular one they wanted didn’t exist? By sharing maps, the likelihood increases that someone has already created the map you want.
  • Reference material about each place. If I taught a graduate or undergraduate class on Bible geography, I’d have each student write a brief summary of several places in the Bible and then release these summaries under a Creative Commons license. Then I’d integrate them into the KML files available on this site, perhaps with some links to Wikipedia or other resources for more information. In other words, I’d like to see the KML files on OpenBible contain some up-to-date scholarship on each place, so people learn more than just a place’s coordinates when they come here. It’s similar to what does by including articles from the ISBE (a public-domain Bible encyclopedia). Unfortunately, all the public-domain resources show their age in terms of language and scholarship. At the very least, I’d like to link Bible places that have Wikipedia entries to their corresponding articles.
  • City maps. I’d like to see city plans from various time periods. I find such maps helpful because satellite imagery can’t help you reconstruct the plans. Even better would be to geolocate the maps, so you can browse them in Google Earth and see their relation to modern cities. has about twenty biblical city maps available to buy. I’d like to see city maps implemented purely in KML as polygons, paths, and points. I’ve created a simple version of Nineveh in KML as a proof-of-concept.
  • Photos. I’ve worked on aggregating some photos of Bible places, but the potential exists for a lot more. has a nice, free virtual tour of selected sites (Beersheba, for example). I’d like to see this kind of approach on a larger scale—or even integrated right into Google Earth.
  • Using the new terrain layer on Google maps. Satellite maps are great, but sometimes a terrain map shows things more clearly. For example:
    See a shaded-relief version of Israel’s topography at Google Maps
  • More Creative Commons-licensed data. Political boundary and road data are conspicuously absent from the OpenBible data set. I’ve said before that making a lot of Bible data available under open licensing will allow people to develop new views and understandings of the Bible, which in turn will let Bible software developers integrate refined versions of these advances into their products. But, again, no one should feel compelled to release work only under Creative Commons; people deserve compensation.
  • International resources. This site gets a lot of visitors from people outside the U.S. They simply may not have access to the biblical resources we have here—or the ability to spend a lot of money on Bible reference materials. In any case, international interest in Bible maps is probably extensive. Maps have some internationalization issues (with place names), but not nearly to the extent that, say, Bible commentaries do.


Thanks to Mark for his recent roundup of the latest goings-on at and for his explanation of how to find all the mentions of a place in the Bible.

I hope Mark will make the slides from his BibleTech talk available online. I look forward to seeing what he has to say.

New Feature: Photos of Bible Places

Monday, December 3rd, 2007

Browse 9,500 photos taken near 580 biblical locations. For example: Beersheba, Capernaum, and Ur.

More examples:

See this aqueduct on Flickr
Aqueduct at Caesarea by hoyasmeg

See these gates on Flickr
Gates at Dan by callmetim

See these rooftops on Flickr
Rooftops at Babylon by labanex


Photo-sharing site Flickr has an API that lets you find photographs by latitude and longitude. The Bible Geocoding section of this site has lots of data arranged by latitude and longitude. Why not use the Flickr API to find photos that people have taken near places in the Bible?

The resulting photos are of varying quality for getting an idea of what a place looks like. Remember, people didn’t necessarily take these photos with the intent of giving you an overview of the landscape. The photos reflect personal interests—maybe someone saw an interesting flower that just happens to be near a biblical landmark. So don’t expect every photo to be relevant or every place to have lots of photos.

Technical Notes

Every night, a program on this server queries the Flickr API to find any new photos taken near the biblical locations. Then it saves these photos to a database, indexed by location for easy retrieval.

The program treats copyrighted and Creative-Commons-licensed photos the same way— thumbnails are OK for copyrighted photos. In the future, I may feature CC-licensed photos more prominently. Only about 2,000 of the 9,500 photos are CC-licensed.

Future Directions

Right now, you can only get to the photos by browsing them by place. I hope to integrate the photos into the Bible atlas somehow.

I’d also like to let people vote on helpful or unhelpful photos to better prioritize the photos.

It may be possible to use Flickr tags to find non-geocoded photos of Bible places, but I’m not sure how to perform such a task automatically. I’m certainly open to suggestions.

What You Can Do with the Photos

I don’t own the photos; the photographers do. If you want to use a photo for something, click on it to go to its Flickr page. Then check its licensing terms. If it’s copyrighted, you need to secure permission from the photographer before you use it. If it has a Creative Commons license, you have more freedom to use the photos, depending on the terms of the license.

I recommend Todd Bolen’s for professional-quality, affordable photos of places in the Holy Land, especially Israel. His photos give you lots of perspectives and work especially well for presentations. Compare Todd’s photos of Engedi to OpenBible’s photos of Engedi, for example, to see how his photos help connect you to the biblical narrative.

Indexing English Place Names to the Original Languages

Sunday, August 19th, 2007

Jason asks whether it’s possible to index the English geocoded place names to their original Greek and Hebrew equivalents via Strong’s numbers:

I’m the developer for and i’ve been planning to integrate geocoded places into the app for a while. I ran across your kml, and though its really useful the way it is now, i was wondering if you had considered adding strongs number to the entries.

The reason i suggest it is, having that number would provide an easy way to distingish between identically named places and would also provide a very fast way to index and cross reference those coords with other xml bible documents. I’m having to run a script that matches the entries by word, but differences in spelling, spacing, and special symbols makes that kind of match a little inaccurate, or at least incomplete.

Answer: I can’t think of a good way to do something like this automatically. To do it accurately, you’d have to have programmatic access to an ESV-Strong’s alignment (since the ESV was the starting point for the geocoding work). The ESV Reverse Interlinear New Testament from Logos has Strong’s numbers, but the Old Testament equivalent doesn’t. And even if it did, I’m not sure how to extract the Strong’s numbers programmatically—or even whether it would be legal to do so. (Probably not.)

Straight string-matching with the KJV text gets you 717 of the 1176 distinct ESV names, or 61%. You might be able to statistically interpolate some of the rest by looking at Greek and Hebrew words that appear in every verse where the name occurs. Unless Crossway releases a Strong’s alignment through their API, however, you’re probably stuck with doing manual work to create an ESV-Strong’s place-name alignment.

If you want to produce one, of course, go for it. Any readers with suggestions about how to create this kind of alignment should feel free to speak up in the comments. (Hey, it never hurts to appeal to the lazyweb, no matter how obscure the request.)

The Tomb of Herod: Coordinates

Tuesday, May 8th, 2007

As you may have heard, an archaeologist has announced the possible discovery of King Herod’s tomb at Herodium, Israel.

When people announce archaeological discoveries, wouldn’t it be helpful if newspapers printed the coordinates of the discovery so you can look at the site in Google Earth? I think it would, so here they are: 31.666334N, 35.242072E

Someone created a KMZ for Google Earth (also see the forum post).

Here’s a detailed Google Earth image of the site:

Satellite image of Herodium showing the possible location of King Herod’s tomb on the northeast slope. Image copyright Google.

Here’s Herodium in a wider context (looking northeast). Jerusalem is about eight miles (13 km) north of Herodium.

View of Herodium showing the Dead Sea, Jericho, the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, Mount Hermon, and Jerusalem.

Three New Jerusalem Overlays

Tuesday, April 24th, 2007

As previously hinted, the Jerusalem maps KML file (preview) now has three more overlays:

Conder (1876) Tenz (1894) Wilde (1889)

Thanks to The Jewish National & University Library, Shapell Family Digitization Project, Eran Laor Cartographic Collection and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Dept. of Geography, Historic Cities Project, for permission to use these images. Their website is full of historical maps of Jerusalem if you want to explore more of Jerusalem or create your own overlays.

Biblical Bodies of Water KML Update

Wednesday, April 18th, 2007

The KML of water bodies in the Bible now includes outlines of nearly all the rivers, lakes, and seas the Bible mentions. Surprisingly, there aren’t that many.

Only a few water bodies remain: most notably, the Mediterranean, Adriatic, and Red Seas. The KML is too big to preview in Google Maps, so here’s an image for you:

Satellite image showing most of the rivers and other water bodies mentioned in the Bible.

Here are the places in the KML:

Bible Atlas: Now Less Annoying

Friday, April 13th, 2007

The entries in the Bible atlas now appear on individual alphabetical pages instead of all on one page. (Though the full version is still available.) The many images on the page made it slow to download even on broadband connections.

Go take a look.

OpenBible on BibleWorks (Unofficially)

Monday, April 9th, 2007

Pasquale on the BibleWorks forum has created a module that lets you browse the maps here directly from BibleWorks (though it helps if you have Google Earth installed). Download the file (35 MB .zip). The forum post has more instructions.

BibleWorks accepts regular HTML Help (.chm) files with some supporting metadata, so it looks like Pasquale created a local version of parts of this website. Nifty! You don’t even need BibleWorks to browse the file itself; any recent Windows computer should work fine. The only disadvantage to a local file, of course, is that it can’t include any new corrections that I make on the site.

I’m linking to a file hosted here here because the file linked on the forum is split into five pieces, which you have to download separately and reassemble. The above link is a simple .zip file.

Passion Week in Google Earth

Saturday, April 7th, 2007

Download a KML of the locations from the Passion Week in Google Earth (or preview it).

Passion Week on Google Maps

Passion Week runs from Palm Sunday (Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem) through Easter Sunday (Jesus’ resurrection). Check out a chronology of Passion Week for more details.

Thanks to Catholic Gauze for the idea.

New KML: Biblical Water Bodies

Monday, April 2nd, 2007

Download a KML with shapes for the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan River, and the Salt (Dead) Sea.

Preview it in Google Maps:

Satellite image from Google Maps with the Sea of Galilee, Jordan River, and Dead Sea highlighted


The problem with water data is that water levels and paths fluctuate over time. The path in the KML for the Jordan River matches the current satellite data in Google Earth precisely, for example. But the river will change locations the next time Google updates its satellite imagery. And then I’ll either have to update the path to match the new imagery or live with the discrepancy. Of course, the current path of the Jordan only approximates the path it took in biblical times. So even if I update the file whenever Google gets new data, it still won’t accurately represent the historical context (which is impossible to reconstruct).

Even worse is the Dead Sea, which has dramatically shrunk over the past century as more fresh water gets diverted for human consumption. I tried to reconstruct the boundaries of the Dead Sea as it existed during the Bible, but the result is a disconnect between the satellite imagery and the shape file.

How I Made It

I made these outlines by tracing the satellite imagery in Google Earth using the Path and Polygon tools. It’s time-consuming, but you end up with a nice, accurate result. I’m surprised that no one’s done it before for some of these water bodies—at least, not that I could find.

Future Directions

I haven’t yet integrated the data with the rest of the KMLs because I’m not sure the best way to go about it. The main problem is that Google Earth doesn’t let you directly label a polygon or a path on the map. So while you can see the outline for the Sea of Galilee, you can’t know that that’s what it is. People often get around this limitation by creating a placemark inside a shape; I may end up doing that.

I hope to trace more bodies of water over time; I’ll be sure to blog about it when I do. This file represents my first attempts at creating polygons and paths in Google Earth. I wanted to try out some of the features I haven’t used yet. Reducing places to points on a map doesn’t always isn’t always the best way to represent them—some places cover large geographical areas, and shapes are useful in such situations.