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I’ve spent a few days digging through old maps of the Middle East. Not literally digging through paper maps, mind you that sounds like some real fun. I want to find maps that are free and downloadable (this project is without funding). More to the point, I’ve been looking for decent quality, historical maps that cover the areas of the Arab-Israeli wars.

assorted map pieces

Photo by Andrew Neel on Pexels.com

A book like Chaim Herzog’s The Arab-Israeli Wars provides decent maps of the military situation, but a wargamer wants more. We want data. We want topography. We want the exact location of the dirt roads and their intersections. We want it all.

Google Maps/Google Earth provides wargamers with an amazing resource. It is difficult to overstate its impact compared to the olden days of the previous century. We can immediately see where a battle took place, anywhere in the world, with just a few clicks of the mouse. The problem, of course, is that we see what the battlefield looks like now. It may have looked nothing like that when the fighting actually took place. While we shouldn’t be surprised that this is the case for ancient battles, it is sometimes hard to grasp how much has changed even without our own lifetimes. For example, the little town where I went to high school is already, since I’ve been out of school, becoming unrecognizable to me. That for an area unimpacted by any major, culture-changing events. For any locale that has undergone political upheaval and hot flashes of the Cold War, there are bound to be some fundamental changes in terrain, population, and infrastructure.

This is what has me digging up maps with which to enlighten myself about the Six-Day War. The population of Israel has tripled since the end of that war (compare to a little more than 33% growth for the whole of the United States). This means both extensive expansion of preexisting cities as well as settlement and cultivation of previously empty landscapes. Moreover, in barely more than a century, that land has moved from being a backwater of the Ottoman Empire, to a protectorate of Great Britain, to a modern, first-world (in many ways) European nation. Roads have been built, abandoned, and/or replaced major highways. Railways which crossed the land and were destroyed by successive wars. Centuries-old villages were abandoned. Land that was once empty desert may now hold modern subdivision and other towns may now have reverted farmland.

I started my journey down this road when I decided to try my hand at scenario making for the 1956 war. My “time shift” in that case was forward. I was starting with Command Ops 2, which is a World War II game. The challenge, therefore, was bringing things forward but it only was only forward by a decade. Furethermore, even in 1956, the combatants were still using WWII surplus equipment and technology, so the technology shift was a lot less than what might have been expected, say, in Europe.

In terms of terrain, I had similar advantages. I didn’t write about it at the time, but I continued with the development of that Bir Gifgafa scenario beyond what I recorded here. (I probably owe you guys an update.) For reasons that should be pretty obvious, the British government conducted extensive surveys between the World Wars and then, during WWII, distributed detailed topographical maps of the region. The U.S., in turn, had a series of maps portraying the region in the late 1950s, meaning the surveys were roughly up-to-date relative to the Suez Conflict.

The U.S. maps are at a wider scale (1:250,000 versus 1:100,000). This is mitigated by the paucity of features in the deep Sinai as well as pretty good detail on the maps (50 meter contour for the topography). The 1967 war, however, did not limit itself to the Sinai, and so I’m revisiting some of what I learned in my previous go around.

Some of you may recall that when I played the Star and the Crescent scenario for the Bir Gifgafa battle, I took issue with the map. My snarky remarks are hidden in there among my many complaints and so is easy to miss. In The Star and the Crescent’s map, an airfield that shouldn’t exist yet* features as the ground over which the battle is fought.

How this happened is obvious. The real prize when it comes to Cold War maps of Israel are the Soviet military maps of the late 1980s or early 1990s. there is a series at 1:50,000 scale and another at 1:100,000. As long as you have a passing ability to sound out words written in Cyrillic, the maps are easy enough to read. Though written in Russian, the place names are nearly identical to what was used on the British and U.S. maps (and would be used by English speakers today). Given such fined-grained detail, these are the maps you want when trying to visualize, accurately, the topography.

There’s an interesting story being told here. The great power influence over the Middle East is depicted through the desire for military grade maps of the area. The intensity of that interest might well be gauged from the scale of their maps. I’d write more about that, but I’m sure it would sound less and less profound as I babbled on.

Getting back on track, the problem with those Soviet 1:50,000 maps is the very thing that I’ve been talking about. They are anywhere-up-to four decades out-of-date, depending on what war you are exploring. So in 1956 and in the Sinai, you have a airfield where then there was none. That detail aside, the map isn’t actually that bad. The area is mostly empty terrain; in 1948, in 1956, in 1967, and today. Move your focus north to the West Bank, however, and there are going to be significant differences between each and every one of the periods. The land itself transitioned from British protectorate to a part of Jordan and then to Israeli occupation. In particular, the 1948 war resulted in Arab villages being depopulated and abandoned and the 1967 war resulted in the building of modern, western subdivisions, construction of a very different character than the Arab villages or even the pre-WWII Israeli settlements.

Knowing that maps exists for the different periods is only half the battle. Finding them is the other half.

The two major repositories of scanned maps are at the University of Texas (https://legacy.lib.utexas.edu/maps/) and at https://maps.vlasenko.net/. The former has a large collection of paper maps in Austin at the Perry-Castañeda Library. The website explains they have scanned in about 20% of what they have in the physical library. As you can see from the first link, I have stuck to the “legacy” website, which provides a set of pages for finding lists of maps by topic. This is being replaced by a new database portal (https://geodata.lib.utexas.edu/), although it doesn’t seem like I’m the only one who is happier with the old way. The Vlasenko website focuses on maps from the Soviet Union.

The key, of course, with only a fraction of maps scanned in is to know what is out there and what isn’t. For that, I have found the index at the John R. Borchert Map Library at the University of Minnesota (https://www.lib.umn.edu/borchert/topographic-maps-online) to be helpful. Two links from that website that are of tremendous value takes you to a Colorado School of Mines database interface. I’m not sure how to access the ArcGIS program more directly. It asks for a password when I try to navigate from the top down and I don’t see another way to get into what CSM set up. There are, however, two links from Minnesota to Colorado’s ArcGIS, one for 1:50,000 to 1:125,000 and one for 1:200,000 to 1:253,440**. These provide an interactive, map-based access – albeit mostly to the same scanned libraries as indicated previously.

The interfaces are well worth exploring deeper, but I think everything that I’ve found applicable I’ve downloaded from either the U. Texas or the Vlasenko site, and all accessible through the ArcGIS program – with one exception. For the Six-Day War, I really wanted a map of the West Bank from the late 1950s. This seemed to be covered by a 1:250,000 topographical map of the West Bank, although indications were that it was paper only. My search results suggested that it was paper map in the Soviet archive, but I think those were red herrings. After some skrying for the meaning of the various codes in the map name, I learned that it was one of the American surveys from the early 1950s.  U. Texas has an index map that makes it clear what they are missing from that series. Berkley, by contrast, has a scan of what appears to be a government index map to be used for ordering paper copies, although they don’t have scans of the individual map. This suggested that the map does exist and I doubled my efforts to find it. Fortunately, the Australian National University came to my rescue with a high-resolution scan of the missing map.

There. Now you know everything that I know about Middle East maps and then some. I’ll be back with some of what I’ve been doing with all these maps. I’m sure you’ll be on the edge of your virtual seats until then.

If you were reading through my series of posts on the Six Day Way, you might want to either return to the master post or continue on to the next article.

*By the Six-Day War, the airfield had been built. Sharp eyed observers will have picked it out in a screenshot of the 1967 battle at Bir Gifgafa, which I played using Divided Ground.

**Love that precision. I tried to search out what map is actually at the 1:254,440 scale and couldn’t find it. It also makes me wonder what excluded at that upper end.