Kima: towards an open digital historical Hebrew gazetteer
I received the wonderful news about the Pelagios Commons Resource Development grant just before leaving my home in the city of 70 (Hebrew) names, to go to the wondrous DH2016 conference in beautiful Krakow. Krakow may only have one Hebrew name, written קראקוב, but, if you would check the imprints of books printed there in the Hebrew script for the last four centuries, you would find that it was also spelled קראקו, קראקוי, קראקוי, קראקע, קרקא, קרקו , קרקוי and קרקוב. And this is a relatively simple case: look at what happens to the Hebrew Amsterdam!
Spreadsheet functions like filter and sort may help in looking for variations of place names, and the wonderful Open Refine can do wonders with cleaning large collections, and yet, we need to know more in order to also connect, for example, קושטא (Kosta), קונשטנדינה (Konstandina), סטמבולי(Stamboli), קונסטנטינופול (Constantinopole) and איסטנבול (Istanbul) – some of its more common historical names in Hebrew and in other Jewish languages, each occurs in various phonetic transmutations and spellings. This knowledge is out there – or perhaps it is more appropriate to say: IN there, in printed books, paper maps, or silo databases. Our goal is to assemble it, link it and open it to human and machine readers alike.
Hebrew place names are a complex, problematic and fascinating phenomenon which stretches far beyond the spaces in which Hebrew speakers dwell. Their history spans over three Millennia, starting with the biblical place names that constitute a common world heritage. Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion not only exist in near eastern topography, but also in the imagination of anyone who has ever read the psalms; The Golgotha in Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee (A.K.A the Kinneret or Lake Genesaret) are depicted on the walls of thousands of Churches throughout the world. The ancient Hebrew memory of space spreads further – from the origin lands of Mesopotamia to the Egyptian and Babylonian captivities, which gave these two areas parallel existence as places as well as global metaphors for striving for freedom and for yearning to come home.
Since late antiquity and medieval times, centuries of Jewish diasporic existence projected its own coordinate system on the map of the world. Though muted as spoken language, Hebrew was very much alive as a poetic and especially as Halachic (Religious-legal) language, which interacted with local contemporaneous place names whenever and wherever Jewish people dwelled: the local rabbinate authoritative spaces, the network of responsa correspondence, diverging cultural, Halachic and liturgical traditions created the cultural continents of Sepharad and Ashkenaz, categories at once anchored in geography and mutable by temporal and cultural dimensions. The importance of space in the Jewish religious practice and meticulous attention to language engendered rich Toponym literature such as the “Shemot Gitin” lists of place names, required by Jewish divorce law. In Modern History, the pale of settlement, with its unique Jewish life of the Stetl (small provincial towns), its social welfare systems, Hasidic Rabbinic courts and the Yeshiva education centers, were parts of a European geography now extinct. To the south and east spread the history of Jewish life in the Arab world, which was also obliterated in the 20th century. Efforts to record, map and virtually reconstruct these spaces are abound, and yet, the resources collected are not yet available as open and linked Geographical data, to which the surviving cornucopia of historical Hebrew script texts, periodica and literature, could be connected.
A note on the languages:
The Hebrew Script was used not only for pre-modern and modern Hebrew, but also Aramaic and Yiddish, as well as several families of Jewish Languages, such as the Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Spanish (Ladino) and others – a variety engendered by diglossia and multiple contacts with local population. Thus the Hebrew script names (which will also be made available transcribed) may contain historical evidence pertinent to toponymies of other languages as well.
We elaborate on our preliminary work plan for the Hebrew Historical Gazetteer in the proposal, which you may find here. At present, we are engaged in surveying print and digital sources and resources, figuring out which and how to digitize (without impinging on copyrights) and building a data model.
We will be grateful for any comments and suggestions!