Étiquette : Karel Vereycken

 

LOUVRE AUDIO GUIDE: Van Eyck, Rolin and the Peace of Arras

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Back of Van Eyck’s painting showing imitation of gorgeous marble!
La Vierge du Chancelier Rolin

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Other audios of the Louvre Audio Guide collection:

  1. Short note about the building;
  2. The Greek tradition behind the Fayum Mummy Portraits;
  3. Cimabue, Giotto, Fra Angelico, the Wonders of the Italian Trecento;
  4. Who was whispering in the Ear of Joan of Arc;
  5. Van der Weyden and Cusanus;
  6. Antonello de Messina and Man in the image of Christ;
  7. Ghirlandaio’s immortality;
  8. The Rigor of Mantegna’s crucifixion;
  9. Leonardo and Verrocchio’s workshop;
  10. Why Leonardo didn’t like painting;
  11. Mona Lisa made in China?;
  12. How Bosch’s Ship of Fools drove the Jester out of business;
  13. Why Erasmus had no time to pause for portraits;
  14. Rembrandt, sculptor of Light;
  15. Why Vermeer was hiding his convictions;
  16. Van Eyck, Nicolas Rolin and the Peace of Arras.

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Le Bac (d’après Pierre Billet)

Le Bac, huile sur toile, copie/invention réalisée par Karel Vereycken à partir d’une gravure reproduisant le tableau originel éponyme de Pierre Billet (1836-1922).
Le Bac, gravure d’après le tableau à l’huile de Pierre Billet.
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LOUVRE AUDIO GUIDE: Antonello de Messina in the Image of Christ

Karel Vereycken analyzing Antonnello de Messina’s « Christ at the Column », Louvre, Paris.

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LOUVRE AUDIO GUIDE: Mona Lisa made in China?

Karel Vereycken analyzing Leonardo da Vinci’s « Mona Lisa », Louvre, Paris.

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LOUVRE AUDIO GUIDE: short note before starting your visit

Karel Vereycken, short note before starting your visit.

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  • Index of articles dealing with art history and Renaissance studies on this website.

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LOUVRE AUDIO GUIDE: The rigor of Mantegna’s crucifixion

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LOUVRE AUDIO GUIDE: Rembrandt, sculptor of light

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LOUVRE AUDIO GUIDE: Cimabue, Giotto, Fra Angelico; Wonders of the Italian Trecento

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LOUVRE AUDIO GUIDE: Why Vermeer was hiding his convictions

Karel Vereycken, analyzing Johannes Vermeer masterwork, « The Astronomer », Louvre, Paris.

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LOUVRE AUDIO GUIDE: Ghirlandaio’s immortality

Karel Vereycken commenting on Ghirlandaio’s painting titled « The Old Man and the Boy », Louvre, Paris.

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LOUVRE AUDIO GUIDE: Why Leonardo didn’t like painting

Karel Vereycken, analyzing four major works of Leonardo da Vinci in the Louvre: « Saint-John the Baptist », « The Virgin on the Rocks », the « Belle Ferronière » and « Saint Anna and the Virgin ».

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LOUVRE AUDIO GUIDE: How Bosch’s Ship of Fools drove the Jester out of business

Bosh was no fool at all.

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LOUVRE AUDIO GUIDE: Why Erasmus had no time to pause for portraits

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LOUVRE AUDIO GUIDE : Van der Weyden and Cusanus

Cusanus and Van der Weyden.

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LOUVRE AUDIO GUIDE: The Greek tradition behind the Fayum Mummy Portraits

Karel Vereycken comments the Louvre’s Fayum Mummy Portraits.

Fayum Mommy Paintings

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LOUVRE AUDIO GUIDE: Who whispered in the Ear of Joan of Arc?

Joan of Arc hearing voices, sculpture by François Rude, 1852, Louvre.

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LOUVRE AUDIO GUIDE: Leonardo and Verrochio’s workshop

Louvre Audio Verrocchio
Terracotta of « flying angels » (1475), attributed to Verrocchio’s workshop.

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Israël-Palestine: faisons de l’eau une arme pour la Paix !

L'eau pour la paix

Sommaire:

1. Géographie

La mer Morte se trouve à moins 415 mètres en dessous du niveau de la mer.

Quatre pays se partagent le bassin du Jourdain, le Liban, la Syrie, la Jordanie et Israël, auxquels il faut ajouter les territoires palestiniens de Cisjordanie et de Gaza.

Logée dans le creux d’une dépression tectonique se situant sur la grande faille qui court depuis Aqaba jusqu’à la Turquie, la vallée du Jourdain est l’un des bassins de vie les plus bas au monde, puisqu’il se jette dans la mer Morte, à 421 mètres sous le niveau des océans.

Voir carte topographique interactive

De plus, il s’agit d’un bassin endoréique, c’est-à-dire d’un cours d’eau n’aboutissant ni à la mer ni à l’océan. Comme pour le bassin de la mer d’Aral en Asie centrale, ceci implique que toute eau puisée ou détournée en amont réduit le niveau de son réceptacle ultime, la mer Morte (voir plus bas) et pourrait même, éventuellement, la faire disparaître.

Vallée du Jourdain.

Tout en restant une artère fondamentale pour toute la région, le Jourdain est un fleuve présentant plusieurs inconvénients : son cours n’est pas navigable, son débit reste peu élevé et ses eaux, fortement salées, sont polluées.

Comme un des facteurs clés de l’équation (le nexus) « eau, énergie, nourriture », trois facteurs dont l’interdépendance est telle qu’on ne peut les traiter isolément, l’aménagement de la ressource en eau reste un enjeu capital et occupe une place primordiale pour tout avenir partagé entre Israël et ses voisins arabes.

2. Pluviométrie et ressources hydriques

Le Moyen-Orient forme une longue bande aride qui n’est interrompue qu’accidentellement par des zones où les précipitations sont abondantes (autour de 500-700 mm/an), par exemple les montagnes du Liban, de la Palestine, du Yémen.

Géographiquement, une bonne partie du Moyen-Orient est située au Sud de l’isohyète (ligne imaginaire reliant des points d’égales précipitations) indiquant les 300 mm/an. Cependant, les précipitations n’ont qu’un effet limité du fait de leur saisonnalité (octobre-février).

Par conséquent, le débit et les crues des cours d’eaux sont irréguliers au fil de l’année, en plus d’être irréguliers entre les années. Idem pour l’alimentation des nappes phréatiques.

Maintenant, en termes de ressources totales en eau par personne et par Etat, elles sont très inégalement réparties.

État par État, les ressources totales en eau sont très inégalement réparties dans la région :
La Turquie et l’Irak disposent de plus de 4 000 mètres cubes par personne et par an, et le Liban d’environ 3 000 m³/personne/an, ce qui est supérieur à la moyenne régionale (1 800 m³/personne/an).
La Syrie et l’Égypte ont environ 1 200 m³/personne/an, soit un tiers de moins.

D’autre part, certains pays se situent en dessous de la fourchette critique de 500 m³/an/habitant :
Israël et la Jordanie disposent de 300 m³/an/habitant, et les Territoires palestiniens (Cisjordanie-Gaza) de moins de 200 m³/an/habitant. Ils se trouvent dans ce que l’Organisation mondiale de la santé (OMS) appelle une situation de « stress hydrique ».

Le Moyen-Orient jouit d’une abondance d’eau à l’échelle régionale, mais compte de nombreuses zones en pénurie chronique, à l’échelle locale.

3. Hydrographie du bassin du Jourdain

A. Source

Long de 360 km de long, le fleuve Jourdain naît de l’eau qui descend des pentes du Jabal el-Cheikh (mont Hermon) au sud du Liban, sur la frontière avec la Syrie.

B. Affluents

Une fois passée la frontière israélienne, trois affluents rejoignent le Jourdain à environ 6 km en amont de l’ancien lac Houleh (aujourd’hui assaini) :

1. Le Hasbani, avec un débit de 140 millions de mètres cubes par an, prend sa source au Liban, qu’il parcourt sur 21 km. Son cours supérieur varie fortement en fonction des saisons, alors que son cours inférieur est plus régulier.

2. Long de 30 km, le Banias, actuellement placé sous le contrôle d’Israël, a un débit annuel proche de celui de l’Hasbani (140 MMC/an). Il prend sa source en Syrie sur les hauteurs du Golan, et s’étire en Israël sur environ 12 km avant de se jeter dans le Haut Jourdain.

3. Le Nahr Leddan (ou le Dan) se forme en Israël lorsque se rejoignent les eaux provenant en majorité des hauteurs du Golan. Bien que restreint, son cours reste stable et son débit annuel est supérieur à ceux des deux autres affluents du haut Jourdain, puisqu’il dépasse les 250 MMC/an.

C. Lac de Tibériade (Mer de Galilée, lac de Kinneret)

Le Jourdain parcourt ensuite 17 km de gorges étroites pour arriver au lac de Tibériade, où la salinité est forte, d’autant plus qu’on a détourné des cours d’eau douce qui s’y jetaient. Le lac de Tibériade reçoit cependant les eaux des multiples petits cours d’eau traversant les hauteurs du Golan.

D. La rivière Yarmouk

Le Jourdain rencontre alors la rivière Yarmouk (arrivant de Syrie), puis décrit des méandres sur 320 km (109 km à vol d’oiseau) avant d’atteindre la mer Morte. Ces 320 km sont occupés par une plaine humide (le zor humide), à la végétation subtropicale, dominée des deux côtés (cisjordanien et jordanien) par des terrasses sèches et ravinées.

4. Sources d’eau pour Israël

L’État hébreu dispose de quatre principales sources d’approvisionnement en eau.

A. Eaux de surface

Israël bénéficie des réserves en eau douce du lac de Tibériade en Galilée, au nord du pays. Traversée par le Jourdain, cette petite mer intérieure représente 25 % des besoins en eau d’Israël. Cette source d’eau a été sanctuarisée par son annexion dans les hauteurs du Golan et son occupation au Sud Liban.

B. Eaux souterraines

En plus des eaux de surface (rivières), le pays peut compter sur ses aquifères côtiers, de Haïfa à Ashkelon. Située entre Israël et la Cisjordanie occupée, la principale nappe phréatique, l’aquifère de montagne Yarkon-Taninim, a une capacité de 350 MMC/an. Dans le nord-est et l’est de la Cisjordanie se trouvent deux autres nappes, d’une capacité respective de 140 et 120 MMC/an.

C. Dessalement de l’eau de mer

Cinq usines de dessalement construites le long du littoral israélien – à Soreq, Hadera, Ashkelon, Ashdod et Palmachim – fonctionnent actuellement et deux autres sont en cours de construction. Ensemble, ces usines devraient représenter 85 à 90 % de la consommation annuelle d’eau d’Israël, ce qui constitue un changement de cap remarquable.

L’usine de dessalement de Sorek, située à environ 15 km au sud de Tel Aviv, est devenue opérationnelle en octobre 2013 avec une capacité de traitement de l’eau de mer de 624 000 m³/jour, ce qui en fait la plus grande usine de dessalement d’eau de mer au monde. L’installation de dessalement utilise le processus d’osmose inverse de l’eau de mer (SWRO) pour fournir de l’eau au système national de transport d’eau d’Israël (NWC, voir ci-dessous). La construction d’une douzaine d’autres unités de ce type est envisagée.

Israël, qui est confronté à de graves sécheresses depuis 2013, a même commencé à pomper de l’eau de mer dessalée de la Méditerranée dans le lac de Tibériade, une performance unique au monde. Alors qu’Israël était confronté à une pénurie d’eau il y a deux décennies, il exporte désormais de l’eau vers ses voisins (mais pas trop vers la Palestine). Israël fournit actuellement 100 millions de m3 à la Jordanie et répond à 20 % de ses besoins en eau.

A partir de 100 litres d’eau de mer, on peut obtenir 52 litres d’eau potable et 48 litres d’eau saumâtre. Bien que très performant et très utile, ce type de technologie reste à perfectionner car pour l’instant, il rejette en mer des saumures qui perturbent l’écosystème marin. Pour réduire cette polution et la transformer en déchets solides, il faut augmenter les traitements et donc la consommation énergétique.

D. Recyclage des eaux usées

Le pays se vante de recycler entre 80 % et 90 % de ses eaux usées pour alimenter les cultures agricoles. Ces eaux traitées, utilisées pour l’irrigation, sont appelées effluents. Leur taux d’utilisation en Israël est l’un des plus élevés au monde.

Le traitement est effectué par 87 grandes stations d’épuration des eaux usées qui fournissent plus de 660 millions de m3 par an. Cela représente environ 50 % de la demande totale en eau pour l’agriculture et environ 25 % de la demande totale en eau du pays. Israël a pour objectif de doubler la production d’effluents pour le secteur agricole d’ici 2050.

5. Projets d’aménagement

David Ben Gourion.

Pour Israël, se doter de ressources en eau dans une région désertique, par la technique, la force militaire et/ou la diplomatie, a été dès le début un impératif régalien pour répondre aux besoins d’une population en forte croissance et, aux yeux du reste du monde, une démonstration de sa supériorité.

Cette symbolique se manifeste notamment à travers la figure du père de l’État hébreu, David Ben Gourion (1886-1973), qui avait pour objectif de faire « fleurir » le désert du Néguev, au sud du pays.

Dans son ouvrage Southwards (1956), Ben Gourion décrit ainsi son ambition :

A. Aqueduc national

De 1959 à 1964, les Israéliens ont construit le National Water Carrier of Israël (NWC ou aqueduc national), à ce jour le plus grand projet hydraulique du pays.

Les premières idées sont apparues dans le livre Altneuland (1902) de Theodor Herzl, dans lequel il parle d’utiliser les sources du Jourdain à des fins d’irrigation et de canaliser l’eau de mer pour produire de l’électricité depuis la Méditerranée, près de Haïfa, jusqu’à un canal parallèle au Jourdain et à la mer Morte, en passant par les vallées de Beit She’an et du Jourdain.

« Tout l’avenir économique de la Palestine dépend de son approvisionnement en eau », déclarait en 1919 Chaïm Waizmann, le dirigeant de l’Organisation sioniste mondiale. Seulement, il préconisait d’intégrer la vallée du Litani (sud du Liban actuel) à l’Etat palestinien.

Le projet d’aqueduc national (NWC) été conçu dès 1937, bien que sa planification détaillée ait commencé après la reconnaissance d’Israël, en 1948.

Avec le NWC, l’écoulement naturel du Jourdain est empêché par la construction d’un barrage, construit au sud du lac de Tibériade. A partir de là, l’eau est déviée vers l’aqueduc national, un système long de 130 km combinant tuyaux géants, canaux ouverts, tunnels, réservoirs et stations de pompage à grande échelle. L’objectif est de transférer l’eau du lac de Tibériade vers le centre très peuplé et le sud aride, y compris le désert du Néguev.

Lors de son inauguration en 1964, 80 % de son eau était allouée à l’agriculture et 20 % à l’eau potable. En 1990, l’aqueduc national fournissait la moitié de l’eau potable en Israël. En y intégrant l’eau provenant des usines de dessalement d’eau de mer, il approvisionne aujourd’hui Tel Aviv, une ville de 3,5 millions d’habitants, Jérusalem (1 million d’habitants) et (hors période de guerre) Gaza et les territoires occupés de Cisjordanie. Depuis 1948, la superficie des terres agricoles irriguées est passée de 30 000 à 186 000 hectares. Grâce à la micro-irrigation (goutte à goutte, y compris sous la surface), la production agricole israélienne a augmenté de 26 % entre 1999 et 2009, bien que le nombre d’agriculteurs ait chuté de 23 500 à 17 000.

Cependant, depuis sa construction, le projet de détournement de l’eau du Jourdain a été une source de tension, en particulier avec la Jordanie et la Syrie, sans parler des Palestiniens, largement exclus des bénéfices économiques du projet.

La guerre de l’eau

En lançant son aqueduc national, Israël a fait cavalier seul, alors que pour le reste du monde, il était clair que ce détournement des eaux du Jourdain allait susciter de vives tensions avec ses voisins.

Dès 1953, Israël, pour préparer le travail, procède sans consulter quiconque à l’assèchement du lac Houleh, au nord du lac Tibériade, entraînant des escarmouches avec la Syrie.

En 1959, démarre le chantier de l’aqueduc national, interrompu dans un premier temps par l’arrêt des financements par les Etats-Unis, qui ne veulent pas voir monter la violence dans le contexte de la Guerre froide.

Rappelons que, suite à la crise de Suez de 1956, l’Union soviétique s’installe durablement en Syrie comme puissance protectrice des pays arabes contre la « menace israélienne ». Elle obtient, dans le cadre du déploiement de sa présence navale en Méditerranée, des facilités pour sa flotte à Lattaquié en Syrie et un traité d’assistance militaire mutuel est signé.

Cependant, Israël parvient à reprendre le chantier qu’elle poursuit discrètement. La prise d’eau dans le lac de Tibériade commence en juin 1964 dans le plus grand secret. Lorsque les pays arabes l’apprennent, la colère est grande. En novembre 1964, l’armée syrienne tire sur des patrouilles israéliennes autour de l’usine de traitement de l’aqueduc national, provoquant des contre-attaques israéliennes. En janvier 1965, l’aqueduc est la cible du premier attentat du Fatah (organisation luttant pour la libération de la Palestine) dirigé par Yasser Arafat.

Les États arabes finissent par se rendre à l’évidence qu’ils ne pourront jamais arrêter le projet par une action militaire directe. Ils changent de tactique et adoptent le Plan de diversion des sources du Jourdain, immédiatement mis en œuvre en 1965, visant à détourner les eaux en amont du Jourdain vers le fleuve Yarmouk (en Syrie). Le projet était techniquement difficile et coûteux, mais s’il avait réussi, il aurait détourné 35 % de l’eau qu’Israël comptait retirer du cours supérieur du Jourdain.

Israël considère ce détournement comme une atteinte à ses droits souverains. Les relations dégénèrent et des affrontements frontaliers s’ensuivent, les forces syriennes tirant sur les agriculteurs et les patrouilles de l’armée israélienne, et les chars et l’artillerie israéliens détruisant les chars syriens ainsi que le matériel de terrassement utilisé pour le chantier de détournement.

En juillet 1966, l’armée de l’air israélienne bombarde un parc de matériel de terrassement et abat un MiG-21 syrien. Les États arabes abandonnent leur effort de détournement, mais le conflit se poursuit à la frontière israélo-syrienne, avec notamment une attaque aérienne israélienne sur le territoire syrien en avril 1967.

Guerre de l’eau : chars israéliens sur le plateau du Golan.

Pour bien des analystes, il s’agissait là d’un prélude à la guerre des Six-Jours, en 1967, amenant Israël à occuper le plateau du Golan pour protéger son eau. La guerre des Six jours modifie profondément la donne géopolitique du bassin, puisque Israël occupe à présent, en plus de la Bande de Gaza et du Sinaï, la Cisjordanie et le Golan.

Comme le précise Hervé Amiot dans « Eau et conflits dans le bassin du Jourdain« :

En réalité, dès 1955, entre un quart et un tiers de l’eau provenait de la nappe du sud-ouest de la Cisjordanie. Aujourd’hui, les nappes de Cisjordanie fournissent 475 millions de m³ d’eau à Israël, soit 25 à 30 % de l’eau consommée dans le pays (et 50 % de son eau potable).

Deux mois après la prise des territoires occupés, Israël publie le décret militaire 92, transférant à l’armée israélienne l’autorité sur toutes les ressources en eau des territoires occupés et conférant « le pouvoir absolu de contrôler toutes les questions liées à l’eau au responsable des ressources en eau, nommé par les tribunaux israéliens ». Ce décret révoque toutes les licences de forage délivrées par le gouvernement jordanien et désigne la région du Jourdain comme zone militaire, privant ainsi les Palestiniens de tout accès à l’eau, tout en accordant à Israël un contrôle total sur les ressources en eau, utilisées pour soutenir ses projets de colonisation.

Rendre le Golan à la Syrie et reconnaître la souveraineté de l’Autorité palestinienne sur la Cisjordanie semble impossible pour Israël, au vu de la dépendance accrue de l’Etat hébreu envers les ressources hydriques de ces territoires occupés. L’exploitation de ces ressources continuera donc, malgré l’article 55 du règlement de la IVe Convention de la Haye, stipulant qu’une puissance occupante ne devient pas propriétaire des ressources en eau et ne peut les exploiter pour le besoin de ses civils.

B. Le plan Johnston

Eric Allen Johnston.

On peut penser que les Etats-Unis essayèrent très tôt d’éviter que cela ne dégénère d’une façon aussi prévisible. On tente alors de prendre en compte l’intérêt légitime pour Israël de sécuriser son accès à l’eau, clé absolue de sa survie et de son développement, tout en offrant aux pays voisins des ressources suffisantes permettant d’accueillir les millions de Palestiniens exilés chez eux suite à la Nakba.

Face au risque de conflits, le gouvernement américain propose, dès 1953, donc des années avant qu’Israël lance son plan, une médiation pour résoudre les contentieux sur le bassin du Jourdain. Cela aboutit au « Plan unifié pour la vallée du Jourdain », dit « plan Johnston », du nom d’Eric Allen Johnston, l’envoyé pour l’eau du président américain Dwight Eisenhower. Ce plan établit le caractère transfrontalier du bassin et propose un partage équitable de la ressource en accordant 52 % de l’eau à la Jordanie, 31 % à Israël, 10 % à la Syrie et 3 % au Liban.

Le plan Johnston, tout comme la Tennessee Valley Authority pendant le New Deal de FDR, était essentiellement basé sur la construction de barrages pour l’irrigation et l’hydroélectricité. L’eau était présente et correctement gérée, suffisante pour les besoins de la population de l’époque. Ses principales caractéristiques du plan étaient les suivantes:

  • un barrage sur la rivière Hasbani pour fournir de l’énergie et irriguer la région de Galilée ;
  • des barrages sur les rivières Dan et Banias pour irriguer la Galilée ;
  • le drainage des marais de Huleh ;
  • un barrage à Maqarin sur la rivière Yarmouk pour le stockage de l’eau (capacité de 175 mmc) et la production d’électricité ;
  • un petit barrage à Addassiyah sur le Yarmouk pour détourner ses eaux vers le lac de Tibériade et vers le sud le long du Ghor oriental ;
  • un petit barrage à la sortie du lac de Tibériade pour augmenter sa capacité de stockage ;
  • des canaux à écoulement par gravité le long des côtés est et ouest de la vallée du Jourdain pour irriguer la zone située entre le confluent du Yarmouk avec le Jourdain et la mer Morte ;
  • des ouvrages de contrôle et des canaux pour utiliser les débits pérennes des oueds que les canaux traversent.

Voir les détails du plan Johnston dans cet article très complet :

Validé par les comités techniques d’Israël et de la Ligue arabe, ce projet n’exige pas qu’Israël renonce à son ambition de verdir le désert du Néguev. Pourtant, sa présentation à la Knesset, en juillet 1955, n’aboutit malheureusement pas à un vote. Le comité arabe approuve le plan en septembre 1955 et le transmet au conseil de la Ligue arabe pour approbation finale. Tragiquement, cette institution refuse, elle aussi, de le ratifier le 11 octobre, à cause de son opposition à un acte impliquant une sorte de reconnaissance d’Israël… L’erreur ici fut d’isoler la question de l’eau d’un accord plus général de paix et de justice résultant d’un développement mutuel.

Après la crise du canal de Suez en 1956, les pays arabes, à l’exception de la Jordanie, durcissent considérablement leur position à l’égard d’Israël et s’opposent désormais frontalement au plan Johnston, alléguant qu’il accroît la menace représentée par ce pays en lui permettant de renforcer son économie. Ils assurent aussi que l’accroissement de ses ressources hydriques ne peut qu’augmenter le mouvement de migration des Juifs vers l’État hébreu, réduisant ainsi les possibilités de retour des réfugiés palestiniens de la guerre de 1948…

On ne refait pas l’histoire, mais on peut penser que l’adoption du plan Johnston aurait pu éviter des conflits, notamment celui de 1967 qui coûta la vie à 15 000 Égyptiens, 6000 Jordaniens, 2500 Syriens et un bon millier d’Israéliens.

C. La réponse jordanienne: le canal du Ghor

Presque au même moment où Israël achève son aqueduc national, entre 1955 et 1964, la Jordanie creuse de son côté le canal du Ghor oriental, qui débute à la confluence entre le Yarmouk et le Jourdain, dont il suit un cours parallèle jusqu’à la mer Morte, en territoire jordanien.

A l’origine, il s’agissait d’un projet plus vaste, le « Grand Yarmouk », qui prévoyait deux barrages de stockage sur cette rivière et un canal du Ghor occidental sur la rive occidentale du Jourdain. Cet autre canal ne fut jamais construit, Israël ayant pris entre-temps la Cisjordanie à la Jordanie, lors de la guerre des Six-Jours de 1967.

En fait, en déviant les eaux du Yarmouk pour alimenter son propre canal, la Jordanie se procure de l’eau pour sa capitale Amman et son agriculture, tout en asséchant, elle aussi, le fleuve Jourdain.

La région du bassin versant du Jourdain, en Jordanie, est une région d’une importance primordiale pour le pays. En effet, elle accueille 83 % de la population, les principales industries, ainsi que 80 % de l’agriculture irriguée. On y trouve également 80 % de la ressource hydrique du pays.

Or, le royaume hachémite, dont 92 % du territoire est désertique, se place parmi les pays les plus pauvres en eau. Alors qu’Israël dispose de 276 m³ d’eau douce naturelle disponible par an et par habitant, la Jordanie n’en compte que 179 m³, dont plus de la moitié provient des nappes phréatiques.

L’ONU considère d’ailleurs qu’un pays doté de moins de 500 m³ d’eau douce par an et par habitant souffre de « stress hydrique absolu ». Sans compter que depuis le début de la guerre civile syrienne, la Jordanie a accueilli près de 1,4 million de réfugiés sur son sol, en plus de ses 10 millions d’habitants.

Conçu en 1957, le canal du Ghor oriental fut réalisé entre 1959 et 1961. En 1966, la partie en amont jusqu’à Wadi Zarqa était achevée. Le canal, qui faisait alors 70 km de long, fut prolongé à trois reprises entre 1969 et 1987.

Les États-Unis, par l’intermédiaire de l’Agence américaine pour le développement international (USAID), ont financé la phase initiale du projet, après avoir obtenu du gouvernement jordanien l’assurance explicite que la Jordanie ne prélèverait pas plus d’eau du Yarmouk que ce qui lui avait été alloué dans le cadre du plan Johnston. Ils ont également participé aux phases ultérieures.

Les ouvrages hydrauliques de la région ont souvent pour éponymes de grandes figures politiques. C’est ainsi que le canal du Ghor oriental fut baptisé « King Abdallah Canal (KAC) » par Abdallah II, en l’honneur de son arrière-grand-père, le fondateur de la Jordanie. À l’occasion du traité de paix avec Israël en 1994, les deux pays se répartissent le débit du Jourdain et son voisin accepte de lui vendre de l’eau du lac de Tibériade.

D. Canal mer Morte – Méditerranée

Itinéraires possibles pour l’acheminement de l’eau :
A : Traversée du seul territoire israélien ;
B et C : traversant Israël et la Cisjordanie (le plus court, 70 km) ;
D. Traversée de Gaza et Israël ;
E. Traversée de la Jordanie uniquement (la plus longue, 200 km).

L’idée d’un canal mer Morte-Méditerranée fut initialement proposée par William Allen en 1855, dans un ouvrage appelé The Dead Sea – A new route to India (La mer Morte, une nouvelle route vers l’Inde). À l’époque, on ignorait que le niveau de la mer Morte était très en dessous de celui de la Méditerranée et Allen a proposé ce canal comme alternative au canal de Suez.

Plus tard, plusieurs ingénieurs et hommes politiques ont repris l’idée, dont Theodor Herzl dans sa nouvelle de 1902, Altneuland. Si la plupart des premiers projets partent de la rive gauche du Jourdain (Jordanie), une version prévoit également un tracé sur la rive droite (Cisjordanie), scénario abandonné après 1967 lorsque la Cisjordanie tombe aux mains d’Israël.

Après des recherches approfondies, les ingénieurs allemands Herbert Wendt et Wieland Kelm ont proposé non pas un canal navigable, mais un aqueduc composé d’une galerie en charge orientée ouest-est, reliant la Méditerranée à la mer Morte.

Tirant profit de la différence de niveau entre la mer Méditerranée et la mer Morte le système vise essentiellement à alimenter la mer Morte en eau de mer tout en produisant de l’énergie hydro-électrique. Trois tracés sont envisagés, le plus court étant celui reliant la Méditerranée à la Mer Morte (70 km) en partant d’Ashdod en Israël et traversant la Cisjordanie.

En 1975, une étude détaillée de leur projet a fait l’objet d’une première publication dans la revue spécialisée allemande Wasserwirtschaft.

Le schéma s’explique comme ceci:

  1. La prise d’eau de mer se situe à Ashdod.
  2. Un canal ouvert fait écouler l’eau par gravité sur 7 km.
  3. De là, l’eau sous pression part dans un une galerie hydraulique en charge long de 65 km;
  4. L’eau arrive dans un lac de retenue de 3 km de long créé grâce un barrage situé au bord de la descente abrupte vers la mer Morte. A cet endroit, l’eau peut éventuellement servir au refroidissement d’une centrale thermique ou nucléaire dont la chaleur peut rendre des services dans le domaine industriel ou agricole.
  5. Par un puits qui part du fond du réservoir, l’eau descend abruptement de 400 mètres.
  6. Là, il actionne trois turbines d’une puissance de 100 MWe chacune.
  7. Enfin, par une galerie d’évacuation, l’eau de mer rejoint la mer Morte.

L’ONU votre contre !

Cependant, comme le projet est élaboré exclusivement par Israël et sans aucune consultation avec ses voisins jordaniens, palestiniens et égyptiens, il se fracasse sur un mur d’opposition politique.

Bien entendu, comme pour tout projet d’infrastructure à grande échelle, de nombreux éléments doivent être adaptés, notamment les équipements touristiques, les routes, les hôtels, l’exploitation de la potasse jordanienne, les terres agricoles palestiniennes, etc.

On s’interroge également sur les tremblements de terre potentiels (très peu fréquents) et la différence de salinité de l’eau de la Méditerranée et de la mer Morte.

Le 16 décembre 1981, l’Assemblée générale des Nations unies, estimant que le projet de canal « violera le principe du droit international », adopte la résolution 36-150.

Cette résolution « prie le Conseil de sécurité d’envisager de prendre l’initiative de mesures visant à arrêter l’exécution de ce projet », et « demande à tous les Etats de ne fournir aucune assistance directe ou indirecte à la préparation ou à l’exécution de ce projet ».

E. Aqueduc mer Morte – mer Rouge

Le 17 octobre 1994, Yitzhak Rabin, alors Premier ministre israélien, et le roi Hussein de Jordanie paraphent le projet de traité de paix entre leurs deux pays à Amman, après être parvenus à un accord sur les deux derniers points en litige – la question de l’eau et la démarcation des frontières.

Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton et le Roi Hussein de Jordanie.

Le 26 novembre, le traité de paix séparée israélo-jordanien est signé en grande pompe dans la vallée de l’Arava, entre la mer Rouge et la mer Morte, par les Premiers ministres des deux pays, en présence du président américain Bill Clinton, dont le pays avait contribué à faire aboutir les négociations entre Jérusalem et Amman.

Apparaissent alors, fait rare, les conditions pour que la vieille idée de relier la mer Rouge à la mer Morte, un projet rebaptisé et soutenu par Shimon Peres sous le nom de « Canal de la paix », puisse revenir sur la table.

L’ancien commissaire israélien de l’eau, le professeur Dan Zaslavsky, qui s’opposait au projet pour des raisons de coût, relatait en 2006 dans le Jerusalem Post l’obstination de Peres. Pour écouter les scientifiques, ce dernier en avait convoqué cinq. Chacun devait présenter en quelques minutes ses objections. A la fin, Peres s’est levé et a dit : « Excusez-moi. Vous ne vous souvenez pas que j’ai construit le réacteur nucléaire de Dimona ? Vous souvenez-vous que tout le monde était contre ? Et bien j’ai eu raison à la fin. Et il en sera de même avec ce projet« . Et sur ce, rapporte Zaslavsky, Peres est parti !

La mer Morte

Pendant des millénaires, la mer Morte a été remplie d’eau douce provenant du Jourdain, via le lac de Tibériade. Or, au cours des cinquante dernières années, elle a perdu 28 % de sa profondeur et un tiers de sa surface. Son niveau d’eau baisse inexorablement, à un rythme moyen de 1,45 mètre par an. Sa forte salinité (plus de 27 %, alors que la moyenne des océans et des mers est de 2 à 4 %) et son niveau de 430 mètres en dessous du niveau de la mer, ont toujours fasciné les visiteurs et procuré des bienfaits thérapeutiques. D’une longueur de 51 km sur 18 km de large, elle est partagée entre Israël, la Jordanie et la Cisjordanie.

La surexploitation des ressources en eau en amont (aqueduc national en Israël, canal du Ghor en Jordanie), ainsi que l’exploitation des mines de potasse, sont à l’origine du désert de sable qui, si rien n’est fait, continuera à remplacer la mer Morte. Si la mer Morte a besoin du Jourdain, en amont, le Jourdain a besoin du lac de Tibériade, d’où son cours inférieur prend sa source. Ces dernières années, le lac a lui aussi subi des baisses drastiques de son niveau d’eau, ce qui a déclenché un cercle vicieux entre les trois systèmes (lac de Tibériade, fleuve Jourdain et mer Morte).

L’Aqueduc

En réponse, fin 2006, la Banque mondiale et l’Agence française de développement (AFD) ont aidé Israël et la Jordanie à concevoir un projet colossal visant à relier la mer Morte à la mer Rouge via un pipeline souterrain de 180 kilomètres, entièrement construit sur le territoire jordanien. Un accord tripartite entre Israéliens, Jordaniens et Palestiniens avait été signé en décembre 2013.

Le projet mer Rouge – Mer morte combine plusieurs éléments:

  1. Prise d’eau de mer et station de pompage
    L’eau de mer est pompée à +125 m au-dessus du niveau de la mer dans la mer Rouge.
  2. Conduite sous pression
    La première partie du système d’adduction transmet l’eau de mer à l’altitude prévue. La longueur est de 5 km à partir d’Aqaba (3% de l’ensemble du tracé).
  3. Canal et tunnel – le principal système d’adduction
    L’eau de mer est acheminée vers des réservoirs de régulation et de prétraitement avec un débit nominal de 60 m3 /s. Un tunnel de 121 km avec un diamètre de 7 m et un canal de 39 km ont été conçus.
  4. Réservoirs de régulation et de prétraitement
    Plusieurs réservoirs ont été conçus à +107 m à Wadi G’mal à la marge sud-est de la mer Morte.
  5. Usine de dessalement
    Les usines de dessalement sont conçues pour être exploitées en utilisant le processus d’osmose inverse à support hydrostatique pour séparer l’eau douce de la saumure. L’usine sera située à Zafi, à 365 m au-dessous du niveau de la mer, avec une colonne d’eau de 475 m.
  6. L’eau douce
    L’ensemble produira chaque année environ 850 mmc d’eau douce à partager entre la Jordanie, Israël et la Palestine, les trois pays gérant la mer Morte. Pour le transport de l’eau vers Amman, un double pipeline de 200 km avec un diamètre de 2,75 m a été conçu avec neuf stations de pompage pour une élévation de 1500 m. Pour le transport vers Hébron, un double pipeline de 125 km avec une différence d’élévation de 1415 m a également été conçu.
  7. La saumure
    L’eau de rejet de la saumure sera acheminée de l’usine de dessalement vers la mer Morte via un canal de 7 km. 1 100 mmc par an d’eau de rejet de saumure rejoindront la mer Morte.
  8. Production d’électricité
    Lors de son écoulement, les turbines d’une ou de plusieurs centrales hydroélectriques permettent de générer environ 800 mégawatts d’électricité capables de compenser en partie l’électricité consommée par le pompage.
  9. Trois nouvelles villes seront construites : North Aqaba city dans le nord d’Aqaba, South Dead Sea City, proche de l’usine de dessalement au sud de la mer Morte et South Amman City.

Compte tenu de l’importance stratégique de l’eau pour son économie, la Jordanie envisage d’y ajouter une centrale nucléaire permettant d’alimenter en électricité à la fois l’usine de dessalement et le système de pompage.

En termes d’impact environnemental, les scientifiques craignent que le mélange de la saumure (riche en sulfate) des usines de dessalement avec l’eau de la mer Morte (riche en calcium) ne fasse blanchir cette dernière. Il serait donc nécessaire de procéder à un transfert d’eau progressif pour observer les effets du transfert d’eau dans cet écosystème particulier.

Pas de quoi stabiliser le niveau de la mer Morte, mais un début de solution pour ralentir son assèchement, comme le soulignait en 2018 Frédéric Maurel, en charge de ce projet pour l’AFD, et pour qui « il faut aussi utiliser l’eau de manière plus économe, tant dans l’agriculture que dans l’industrie de la potasse ».

Volonté politique en panne

Début du projet coté mer Rouge.

Du côté israélien, la sauvegarde de la mer Morte est une nécessité pour maintenir le tourisme balnéaire et le thermalisme. C’est aussi un levier pour garantir son contrôle hydraulique sur la Cisjordanie, Israël ne faisant pas confiance à l’Autorité palestinienne pour la gestion de l’eau. Conscientes du potentiel pacificateur de ce projet, des factions pro-paix en Israël ont besoin d’un partenaire stable dans la région. La Jordanie, pour sa part, était de loin la plus intéressée par ce projet, compte tenu de sa situation critique.

En 2021, la Jordanie a décidé de mettre un terme au projet de pipeline commun, estimant qu’il n’y avait « pas de réelle volonté de la part des Israéliens » de faire avancer ce projet qui stagnait depuis plusieurs années.

Pour faire face à ses besoins croissants, la Jordanie a décidé de construire sa propre usine de dessalement sur la mer Rouge. Le projet de dessalement Aqaba-Amman prélèvera l’eau de la mer Rouge, la dessalera et l’acheminera à 450 kilomètres au nord vers la capitale Amman et ses environs, fournissant ainsi 300 mmc d’eau par an, dont le pays a désespérément besoin. Les études sont terminées et la construction commencera en juillet 2024. La Jordanie compte faire tourner son usine de dessalement grâce à de l’énergie solaire.

La mer Morte pourrait lentement réapparaître

Disposant désormais d’énormes capacités de désalinisation, Israël a adopté le Projet national d’inversion du flux pour rendre l’eau à ses ressources naturelles, en particulier au lac de Tibériade, un trésor national, une pièce maîtresse du tourisme, de l’agriculture et, comme nous l’avons vu, de la géopolitique.

Chaque année, Israël prélève 100 mmc d’eau dans le lac de Tibériade pour les envoyer en Jordanie, et ce même pendant les années de sécheresse de 2013 à 2018.

Selon Dodi Belser, directeur de l’innovation chez le géant de l’eau Mekorot, si Israël veut augmenter la quantité d’eau qu’il envoie à ses voisins jordaniens et protéger ses réserves, il est vital de conserver le niveau d’eau du lac. C’est ainsi qu’est née l’idée de pomper de l’eau dessalée dans le lac de Tibériade, à hauteur de 120 mmc par an jusqu’en 2026.

Mécaniquement cette eau ira également alimenter le Jourdain et, par conséquent… la mer Morte.

F. Projets turcs

Depuis longtemps, la Turquie, véritable « château d’eau » dans la région, rêve d’exporter, à prix d’or, son eau vers Israël, la Palestine, Chypre et d’autres pays du Moyen-Orient.

Le plus ambitieux de ces projets était le « Peace Water Pipeline » du président Turgut Özal en 1986, un projet de 21 milliards de dollars visant à acheminer l’eau des rivières Seyhan et Ceyhan par des pipelines vers des villes de Syrie, de Jordanie et des États arabes du Golfe.

En 2000, Israël envisageait fortement d’acheter 50 millions de m3 par an pendant 20 ans à partir du fleuve Manavgat près d’Antalya, mais depuis novembre 2006, l’accord a été mis en suspens.

Projets d’aquaducs turcs.

Le projet Manavgat, finalisé techniquement à la mi-mars, fait figure de projet pilote. Le complexe sur la rivière Manavgat, qui prend sa source dans le Taurus pour se jeter en Méditerranée entre Antalya et Alanya, comprend une station de pompage, un centre de raffinage et un canal de conduite d’une dizaine de kilomètres. L’objectif est ensuite d’acheminer ces eaux douces grâce à des tankers de 250 000 tonnes vers le port israélien d’Ashkelon pour injection dans l’aqueduc national israélien.

A terme, la Jordanie pourrait également être intéressée par la manne aquatique turque. Un deuxième client en aval de son réseau permettrait à Israël de partager les coûts. Une autre solution serait d’amener l’eau par un pipeline reliant la Turquie à la Syrie et à la Jordanie, et à Israël et la Palestine si elle arrive à s’entendre avec ses partenaires. Les Palestiniens de leur côté ont cherché un pays donateur pour subventionner des importations d’eau douce par tanker.

Le projet Manavgat n’est pas le seul par lequel Ankara espère vendre son eau. En 1992, Süleyman Demirel, alors Premier ministre, affirmait un principe qui fit d’ailleurs l’effet d’une bombe :

Les pays situés en aval des deux fleuves, l’Irak et surtout la Syrie, avaient immédiatement protesté. Pour eux, les multiples barrages qu’Ankara compte construire sur les principales sources d’eau douce de la région, à des fins d’irrigation ou de production d’électricité, ne sont qu’une manière pour l’héritier de l’Empire ottoman d’asseoir son autorité sur la région.

Quelle que soit l’ambition réelle d’Ankara, le pays dispose en tout cas d’un véritable trésor, surtout au regard des ressources déclinantes des pays voisins.

Cependant, depuis novembre 2006, les partisans israéliens du dessalement s’élèvent contre le prix de l’eau turque et s’interrogent sur la sagesse de s’appuyer sur Ankara, dont le gouvernement critique les politiques israéliennes. Dessalement ou importation ? Le choix est cornélien pour Israël. Et éminemment politique, puisqu’il s’agit de savoir si l’on entend camper sur des positions basées sur l’autosuffisance ou si l’on préfère jouer la carte de la coopération régionale, ce qui revient à faire le pari de la confiance…

G. Vices cachés des accords d’Oslo

Bien que stipulant qu’« Israël reconnaît les droits sur l’eau de la Palestine », les accords d’Oslo, signés par Israël et l’Organisation de libération de la Palestine (OLP) en 1993, ont permis en réalité à Israël de continuer de contrôler les sources d’eau de la région… en attendant la résolution du conflit. Oslo II prévoyait le report des négociations sur les droits relatifs à l’eau jusqu’aux pourparlers sur le « statut permanent », le statut de Jérusalem, le droit au retour des réfugiés, les colonies illégales, les dispositions en matière de sécurité et d’autres questions. Les discussions sur le statut définitif, qui devaient se tenir cinq ans après la mise en œuvre des accords d’Oslo (en 1999, comme cela avait été prévu), n’ont toujours pas eu lieu à ce jour.

Les accords d’Oslo prévoyaient également la création d’une autorité de gestion de l’eau et leur « Déclaration de principes » soulignait la nécessité d’assurer « l’utilisation équitable des ressources en eau communes, pour application au cours de la période intérimaire [des accords d’Oslo] et après ».

Depuis des décennies, Israël perpétue le principe de distribution de l’eau qui existait avant la signature des accords d’Oslo et qui autorise les Israéliens à consommer de l’eau à volonté, tout en limitant les Palestiniens à une part prédéterminée de 15 %.

Lorsqu’il a fallu organiser la répartition de l’eau entre Israël et les Palestiniens, les accords n’ont pas tenu compte de la division de la Cisjordanie en zones A, B et C.

Israël s’est finalement vu accorder le droit de contrôler les sources d’eau, même dans les zones A et B contrôlées par l’AP. La plupart de ces sources sont déjà situées en zone C, entièrement contrôlée par Israël et qui constitue près de 61 % de la Cisjordanie. Dans les faits, Israël a donc raccordé toutes les colonies construites en Cisjordanie, à l’exception de la vallée du Jourdain, au réseau d’eau israélien. L’approvisionnement en eau des communautés israéliennes de part et d’autre de la ligne verte est géré comme un système unique dont la compagnie nationale israélienne Mekorot a la charge.

Si les accords d’Oslo autorisent Israël à pomper l’eau des zones qu’il contrôle pour alimenter les colonies de Cisjordanie occupée, ils empêchent en revanche l’AP de transférer de l’eau d’une zone à l’autre dans celles qu’elle administre en Cisjordanie. Israël a désavoué la plupart des dispositions des accords d’Oslo, mais reste attachée à celles relatives à l’eau.

Un membre de la délégation palestinienne qui a signé les accords d’Oslo, souhaitant conserver l’anonymat, affirme à la revue Middle East Eye que le manque d’expertise de la délégation à l’époque a donné lieu à la signature d’un accord qui,

Les frontières entre Gaza, les territoires occupés et Israël n’ont pas besoin d’être tracées au moyen d’une ligne, car elles sont marquées par le changement brutal de l’éclat de la couleur verte (terres irriguées).

En pratique, cela signifie que les Palestiniens de Cisjordanie occupée sont à la merci de l’occupation israélienne en ce qui concerne leur approvisionnement en eau.

Les inégalités en termes d’accès à l’eau en Cisjordanie sont criantes, comme l’a montré l’ONG israélienne B’Tselem dans un rapport intitulé Parched, publié en mai 2023.

En 2020, chaque Palestinien de Cisjordanie consommait en moyenne 82,4 litres d’eau par jour, contre 247 litres par personne en Israël et dans les colonies. Ce chiffre tombe à 26 litres par jour pour les communautés palestiniennes de Cisjordanie qui ne sont pas reliées au réseau de distribution d’eau. Seuls 36 % des Palestiniens de Cisjordanie bénéficient d’un accès à l’eau courante toute l’année, contre 100 % des Israéliens, colons inclus.

L’Autorité palestinienne souligne que l’agriculture palestinienne compte pour une grande part dans l’économie des territoires occupés (15% du PIB, 14% de la population active en 2000). En comparaison, l’agriculture israélienne, certes beaucoup plus productive, emploie 2,5% de la population active et produit 3% du PIB.

Or, les terres cultivables dont l’autonomie palestinienne, totale ou partielle, est reconnue par Israël au titre des accords d’Oslo, sont situées sur les hauteurs calcaires où l’accès à l’eau est difficile, puisqu’il est nécessaire de creuser profond pour atteindre la nappe. Ajoutons à cela qu’en Israël et dans les colonies, 47% des terres sont irriguées, contre 6 % seulement des terres palestiniennes. L’Autorité palestinienne demande actuellement des droits sur 80 % de l’aquifère des montagnes, ce qu’Israël ne peut pas concevoir.

« Mythe » du Palestinien assoiffé

Des porte-parole israéliens, comme Akiva Bigman dans son article intitulé « Le mythe du Palestinien assoiffé » (2014), ont trois réponses prêtes à sortir lorsqu’ils sont confrontés aux pénuries d’eau dans les villes palestiniennes de Cisjordanie :

Réponse : les pertes varient de 20 à 50 % aux États-Unis, ce qui est bien supérieur au taux de la Palestine pauvre.

On peut se demander où est passé l’argent. Et oui, le constat est juste, au bout du compte, pour diverses raisons techniques et des échecs de forage inattendus dans le bassin oriental de l’aquifère (le seul endroit où l’accord autorise les Palestiniens à forer), les Palestiniens ont fini par produire moins d’eau que ce que prévoyaient les accords.

Dans les chiffres, c’est vrai. Cependant, Oslo n’a pas fixé de limite à la quantité d’eau qu’Israël peut prélever, mais a limité les Palestiniens à 118 mmc provenant des puits qui existaient avant les accords, et à 70-80 mmc supplémentaires provenant de nouveaux forages. Selon l’ONG israélienne B’Tselem, en 2014, les Palestiniens ne tiraient que 14 % de l’eau de l’aquifère. C’est pourquoi l’entreprise publique israélienne Mekorot (obéissant aux directives du gouvernement) vend aux Palestiniens le double de l’eau stipulée dans l’accord d’Oslo : 64 MCM, contre 31 MCM prévus. Cela fait 64 + 31 = 95 MCM au total, un chiffre à examiner à la lumière de la consommation actuelle des Palestiniens de Cisjordanie : 239 mcm en 2020, dont… 77,1 achetés à Israël.

Un dernier détail qui en dit long : alors que les Palestiniens sont facturés au prix de l’eau potable pour leur eau agricole, les colons Juifs bénéficient de tarifs agricoles et de subventions. La justification étant que les colons juifs ont investi dans de coûteuses techniques d’irrigation…

H. Canal de navigation Ben Gourion

Fin 2023, l’idée du canal Ben Gourion fut relancée dans les médias. Ce canal relierait le golfe d’Aqaba (Eilat), dans la mer Rouge, à la mer Méditerranée et passerait par Israël pour se terminer dans ou près de la bande de Gaza (Ashkelon).

Il s’agit d’une alternative israélienne au canal de Suez, devenue d’actualité dans les années 1960 après la nationalisation de Suez par Nasser.

Les premières idées de connexion entre la mer Rouge et la Méditerranée sont apparues au milieu du XIXe siècle, à l’initiative des Britanniques qui souhaitaient relier les trois mers : Rouge, Morte et Méditerranée. La mer Morte se trouvant à 430 mètres en dessous du niveau de la mer, cette idée n’était pas réalisable, mais on pourrait l’adapter dans une autre direction. Effrayés par la nationalisation de Suez par Nasser, les Américains envisagent l’option du canal israélien, leur fidèle allié au Moyen-Orient.

En juillet 1963, H. D. Maccabee, du Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (sous contrat avec le ministère américain de l’Energie), rédige un mémorandum explorant la possibilité de recourir à 520 explosions nucléaires souterraines pour creuser environ 250 kilomètres de canaux à travers le désert du Néguev. Classé secret jusqu’en 1993, ce document aujourd’hui déclassifié indique :

L’idée du canal Ben Gourion est réapparue au moment où ont été signés les accords dits « d’Abraham » entre Israël et les Émirats arabes unis, le Bahreïn, le Maroc et le Soudan. Le 20 octobre 2020, l’impensable s’est produit : l’entreprise publique israélienne Europe Asia Pipeline Company (EAPC) et la société émiratie MED-RED Land Bridge ont signé un accord sur l’utilisation de l’oléoduc Eilat-Ashkelon pour transporter du pétrole de la mer Rouge à la Méditerranée, donc sans passer par le canal de Suez.

Le 2 avril 2021, Israël annonça que les travaux sur le canal Ben Gourion devaient commencer en juin de la même année, mais ce ne fut pas le cas.

Les promoteurs du projet avancent que leur canal serait plus efficace que le canal de Suez car, en plus de pouvoir accueillir un plus grand nombre de navires, il permettrait la navigation simultanée dans les deux sens de grands navires grâce à la conception en deux bras. Contrairement au canal de Suez, qui s’écoule entre des rives sablonneuses, le canal israélien aurait des parois en dur ne nécessitant presque pas d’entretien. Israël prévoit de construire de petites villes, des hôtels, des restaurants et des cafés tout le long du canal.

De nombreux analystes interprètent la réoccupation israélienne actuelle de la bande de Gaza comme un événement que de nombreux politiciens israéliens attendaient pour relancer un vieux projet.

Chaque branche proposée du canal aurait une profondeur de 50 mètres et une largeur d’environ 200 mètres. Il serait 10 mètres plus profond que le canal de Suez. Des navires de 300 mètres de long et 110 mètres de large pourraient l’emprunter, ce qui correspond à la taille des plus grands navires du monde.

Un des tracés envisagés pour le futur canal Ben Gourion.

Si l’on examine plus en détail le tracé prévu, on constate que le canal commence à la limite sud du golfe d’Aqaba, à partir de la ville portuaire d’Eilat, près de la frontière israélo-palestinienne, et se prolonge à travers la vallée de l’Arabah sur environ 100 km, entre les montagnes du Néguev et les hauts plateaux jordaniens.

Il bifurque ensuite vers l’ouest avant la mer Morte, continue dans une vallée de la chaîne montagneuse du Néguev, puis tourne à nouveau vers le nord pour contourner la bande de Gaza et rejoindre la mer Méditerranée dans la région d’Ashkelon.

S’il est réalisé, avec ses 292,9 km de long, le canal Ben Gourion sera presque un tiers plus long que le canal de Suez (193,3 km). Sa construction prendrait 5 ans et impliquerait 300 000 ingénieurs et techniciens du monde entier. Le coût de la construction est estimé entre 16 et 55 milliards de dollars. Israël devrait gagner 6 milliards de dollars par an.

Celui qui contrôlera le canal, et apparemment ce ne peut être qu’Israël et ses alliés (principalement les États-Unis et la Grande-Bretagne), aura une influence énorme sur les chaînes d’approvisionnement internationales de pétrole, gaz, céréales, mais aussi sur tout le commerce mondial en général.

Israël avance qu’un tel projet mettrait en échec le pouvoir de l’Egypte, un pays fortement allié à la Russie, à la Chine et aux BRICS, et donc « une menace » pour les Occidentaux ! Avec la dépopulation de Gaza et la perspective d’un total contrôle israélien sur ce minuscule territoire, certains politiciens israéliens, y compris Netanyahou, salivent de nouveau à la perspective d’un tel projet.

Comme le précise en novembre 2023 l’analyste croate Matia Seric dans Asia Review :

I. Plan Oasis

C’est à la lumière de tous ces échecs qu’apparaît l’apport fondamental du « Plan Oasis » proposé par l’économiste américain Lyndon LaRouche (1922-2019).

En 1975, à la suite d’entretiens avec les dirigeants du parti Baas irakien et du parti travailliste israélien, Lyndon LaRouche voyait son plan Oasis comme le socle d’un développement mutuel bénéficiant à toute la région.

Au lieu d’attendre « la stabilité » et « une paix durable » qui arriveraient par magie, il s’agit alors pour LaRouche de proposer et même de lancer des projets dans l’intérêt de tous, en recrutant tous les partenaires à y participer pleinement, avant tout dans leur propre intérêt, mais en réalité dans l’intérêt de tous.

Le plan Oasis de LaRouche, défendu par l’Institut Schiller, comprend aujourd’hui :

  1. l’abandon par Israël du contrôle exclusif sur les ressources en eau, au profit d’un accord de partage équitable entre l’ensemble des pays de la région ;
  2. la reconstruction et le développement économique de la bande de Gaza, y compris la reconstruction de son aéroport international et la construction d’un grand port maritime et un arrière-pays équipé en infrastructures industrielles et agricoles ;
  3. la construction d’un réseau ferré rapide reliant l’ensemble des pays voisins;
  4. La construction de l’aqueduc mer Rouge-mer Morte ;
  5. En fonction de l’accroissement de la population et des besoins en énergie et et en eau, la construction de l’aqueduc Méditerranée-mer Morte, dans une version revue et corrigée par l’expérience de l’aqueduc mer Rouge-mer Morte ;
  6. Des unités de dessalement sous-marines et off-shore peuvent être construites en mer Rouge et en Méditerranée. Elles consomment 40 % d’énergie en moins et réduisent considérablement l’impact négatif des eaux de rejet et des saumures sur l’environnement.
  7. A terme, l’installation de petits réacteurs nucléaires (SMR) pour le dessalement de l’eau de mer et des procédés agro-industriels.

LaRouche proposait de combiner les infrastructures hydrologiques, énergétiques, agricoles et industrielles. Il donna aux complexes agro-industriels construits autour de petits réacteurs nucléaires à haute température le nom de « nuplexes », un concept avancé dans l’après-guerre par le scientifique américain Alvin Weinberg, grand patron des laboratoires d’Oak Ridge au Tennessee (ORNL) et co-inventeur de plusieurs types de réacteurs nucléaires, notamment la filière aux sels fondus utilisant le thorium comme combustible (donc sans production de plutonium militaire).

Au chapitre 8 de son autobiographie, Weinberg raconte comment l’ORNL « s’est lancé dans une grande entreprise : dessaler la mer avec de l’énergie nucléaire bon marché », avec des centrales « à usage multiple, produisant à la fois de l’eau, de l’électricité et de la chaleur industrielle ». L’affirmation que cela était possible, rapporte Weinberg, « a suscité des remous au sein de la Commission de l’énergie atomique ».

Le sénateur John F. Kennedy écoute le Dr Alvin Weinberg, directeur du laboratoire national d’Oak Ridge, dans le Tennessee. Avec l’aimable autorisation du ministère de l’énergie. (février 1959)

Finalement, c’est le président Kennedy qui s’est montré le plus enthousiaste, en s’exprimant le 25 septembre 1963 :

L’idée parvint ensuite à l’oreille du patron de la Commission de l’énergie atomique (AEC), Lewis Strauss.

Lewis transmet cette idée à Eisenhower, qui esquisse dans le magazine Life les grandes lignes de ce qui sera connu sous le nom de plan Eisenhower, basé « sur ce dont Lewis et moi avions discuté », écrit Weinberg.

Celui-ci envoie alors une équipe en Égypte, en Israël et au Liban, où elle fut chaleureusement accueillie. Cette visite permit à Tennessee d’inviter des ingénieurs israéliens et égyptiens à s’intégrer dans le projet d’étude du Moyen-Orient « qui étudiait ce que nous appelions les ‘complexes agro-industriels à propulsion nucléaire+’ ».

Le « projet Moyen-Orient » a adapté ces résultats antérieurs à la situation israélo-égyptienne. Un rapport en fut publié en plusieurs volumes, « dans lequel nous avons examiné la faisabilité de complexes nucléaires agro-industriels à construire en tant que projets nationaux dans la région d’El-Hamman, près d’Alexandrie en Égypte, et dans la région occidentale du Néguev en Israël, et en tant que projet international près de la bande de Gaza. L’implication était que les complexes seraient subventionnés par les États-Unis.

« Le plan Eisenhower-Baker n’a jamais été mis en œuvre : la volonté politique nécessaire pour soutenir la construction de grands réacteurs dans un Moyen-Orient en proie aux conflits faisait défaut… », regretta Weinberg, qui ignorait les opérations des frères Dulles…

Le plan LaRouche, comme tant d’autres propositions allant dans le même sens, a été bloqué jusqu’ici du côté israélien, américain et britannique, et nous ne savons que trop bien ce qui est arrivé à Yitzhak Rabin, assassiné après avoir signé les accords d’Oslo, à Shimon Peres évincé, et à un Yasser Arafat diabolisé. A cela il faut ajouter que LaRouche fut couvert de calomnies et traité d’antisémite.

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Israel-Palestine: Time to Make Water a Weapon for Peace

Water for Peace

Contents:

Introduction

This article provides readers with the keys. To understand the history of the water wars that continue to ravage the Middle East, it is essential to understand the geological, hydrographical, geographical and political issues at stake. In the second part, we examine the various options for developing water resources as part of a strategy to overcome the crisis. We will deal with the gas issue, another subject of potential conflict or cooperation, in a later article.

1. Geography

The Dead Sea lays at minus 415 meters below sea level (in black), while the mountains rise up till 1486 meters (red).

The Jordan River basin is shared by four countries: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel, plus the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza.

Situated in the hollow of a tectonic depression on the great fault that runs from Aqaba to Turkey, the Jordan Valley is one of the lowest-lying basins in the world, flowing into the Dead Sea at an altitude of 421 meters below sea level.

See interactive topographic map.

Added to this is the fact that this is an endorheic basin, i.e. a river that flows neither into the sea nor the ocean. As in the Aral Sea basin in Central Asia, this means that any water drawn or diverted upstream reduces the level of its ultimate receptacle, the Dead Sea (see below), and can even potentially make it disappear.

Jordan river.

While remaining a fundamental artery for the entire region, the Jordan River has a number of drawbacks: its course is not navigable, its flow remains low and its waters, which are highly saline, are polluted.

As one of the key factors in the « Water, Energy, Food nexus » – three factors whose interdependence is such that we can’t deal with one without dealing with the other two – water resource management remains a key issue, and holds a primordial place for any future shared between Israel and its Arab neighbors. To grow food, one needs water. But to desalinate sea water, Israel spends 10 % of its electricity generated by consuming gas and oil.

2. Rainfall and water resources

A gauche, moyenne des précipitations annuelle, à droite le relief géographique.

The Middle East forms a long, arid strip, only accidentally interrupted by areas of abundant rainfall (around 500-700 mm/year), such as the mountains of Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen.

Geographically, much of the Middle East lies south of the isohyet (imaginary line connecting points of equal rainfall) indicating 300 mm/year.

However, precipitation has only a limited effect due to its seasonality (October-February).

As a result, river flow and flooding are irregular throughout the year, as well as between years. The same applies to groundwater recharge.

On a state-by-state basis, total water resources are very unevenly distributed in the region:
Turkey and Iraq have over 4,000 cubic meters per person per year, and Lebanon around 3000 m³/person/year, which is above the regional average (1,800 m³/person/year).
Syria and Egypt have around 1200 m³/person/year, one third lower.

On the other hand, some countries are below the critical 500 m³/year/capita bracket:
Israel and Jordan have 300 m³/year/capita, and the Palestinian Territories (West Bank-Gaza) less than 200 m³/year/capita. They are in what the World Health Organization (WHO) calls a situation of « water stress ».

The Middle East enjoys plenty of water on a regional scale, but has many areas in chronic shortage, on a local scale.

3. Hydrography of the Jordan basin

A. Source

360 km long, the Jordan River rises from water flowing down the slopes of Jabal el-Sheikh (Mount Hermon) in southern Lebanon on the border with Syria.

B. Tributaries

Once over the Israeli border, three tributaries join the Jordan about 6 kilometers upstream from the former Lake Hula (now reclaimed):

1. The Hasbani, with a flow of 140 million cubic meters (MCM) per year, rises in Lebanon, a country it crosses over 21 kilometers. The upper reaches of the Hasbani vary greatly with the seasons, while the lower reaches are more regular.

2. The Banias, currently under Israeli control and 30 kilometers long, has an annual flow close to that of the Hasbani (140 MCM). It rises in Syria in the Golan Heights, and flows into Israel for around 12 kilometers before emptying into the Upper Jordan.

3. The Nahr Leddan (or Dan) forms in Israel when the waters of the Golan Heights come together. Although restricted, its course remains stable and its annual flow is greater than that of the other two tributaries of the Upper Jordan, exceeding 250 MCM per year.

C. Lake Tiberias or Kinneret (aka Sea of Galilee)

The Jordan then flows through 17 km of narrow gorges to reach Lake Tiberias, where the salinity is high, especially as the freshwater streams flowing into it have been diverted. Lake Tiberias, however, receives water from the many small streams running through the Golan Heights.

D. Yarmouk River

Next, the Jordan meets the Yarmouk River (bringing in water from Syria), then meanders for 320 km (109 km as the crow flies) to reach the Dead Sea. These 320 km are occupied by a humid plain (the humid zor), with subtropical vegetation, dominated on both sides (West Bank and Jordanian) by dry, gullied terraces.

4. Water sources for Israel

The Hebrew state has four main sources of water supply:

A. Surface Water

Israel benefits first and foremost from the freshwater reserves of Lake Tiberias in Galilee, in the north of the country. Crossed by the Jordan River, this small inland sea accounts for 25% of Israel’s water needs. The annexation of the Golan Heights and the occupation of southern Lebanon have made this source of water a sanctuary.

B. Groundwater

In addition to surface water (lakes and rivers), the country can rely on its coastal aquifers, from Haifa to Ashkelon.

Located between Israel and the occupied West Bank, the main aquifer, the Yarkon-Taninim mountain aquifer, has a capacity of 350 MCM per year. In the northeast and east of the West Bank are two other aquifers with capacities of 140 and 120 MCM per year respectively.

C. Seawater desalination

Water desalination in Israel.

Five desalination plants built along the country’s coastline — in Ashkelon (2005), Palmachin (2007), Hadera (2010), Sorek (2013) and Ashdod (2015) — currently operate and two more are under construction. Collectively, these plants are projected to account for 85-90 per cent of Israel’s annual water consumption, marking a remarkable turnaround.

The Sorek desalination plant, located about 15 km south of Tel Aviv, became operational in October 2013 with a seawater treatment capacity of 624,000m³/day, which makes it world’s biggest seawater desalination plant. The desalination facility uses seawater reverse osmosis (SWRO) process providing water to Israel’s National Water Carrier system (NWC, see below). A dozen more units of this type are considered for construction.

Israel, which has been facing severe droughts since 2013, even began pumping desalinated seawater from the Mediterranean into Lake Tiberias, a unique performance worldwide. While Israel faced water scarcity two decades ago, it now exports water to its neighbors (not too much to Palestine). Israel currently supplies Jordan with 100 MCM and fulfills 20 % of Jordan’s water needs.

From 100 liters of seawater, 52 liters of drinking water and 48 liters of brine (brackish water) can be obtained. Although highly efficient and useful, desalination technology has still to be perfected, as it currently discharges brine into the sea, disrupting the marine ecosystem. To reduce this pollution and transform it into solid waste, we need to increase treatment and therefore energy consumption.

D. Wastewater

The country prides itself on reusing between 80% and 90% of its wastewater for agriculture. Treated wastewater used for irrigation is known as effluent. Israel’s effluent utilization rate is one of the highest in the world. Reclamation is carried out by 87 large wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) that supply over 660 MCM per year. This represents around 50% of total water demand for agriculture and around 25% of the country’s total water demand. Israel aims to more than double the amount of effluent produced for the agricultural sector by 2050.

5. Water infrastructure projects

David Ben-Gurion.

For Israel, acquiring water resources in a desert region, through technology, military conquest and/or diplomacy, was from the outset an imperative to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population and, in the eyes of the rest of the world, a demonstration of its sovereign power and its superiority.

This symbolism is particularly evident in the figure of the father of the Hebrew state, David Ben-Gurion (1886-1973), whose aim was to make the Negev desert in the south of the country « blossom ».

In his book Southwards (1956), Ben Gourion described his ambition:

A. National Water Carrier of Israel (NWC)

From 1959 to 1964, the Israelis built the National Water Carrier of Israel (NWC), the largest water project in Israel to date.

The first ideas appeared in Theodor Herzl‘s book Altneuland (1902), in which he spoke of using the springs of the Jordan for irrigation purposes and channeling seawater to generate electricity from the Mediterranean Sea near Haifa through the Beit She’an and Jordan valleys to a canal running parallel to the Jordan and Dead Sea.

In 1919, Chaïm Waizmann, leader of the World Zionist Organization, declared: « The whole economic future of Palestine depends on its water supply ».

However, he advocated incorporating the Litani Valley (in today’s southern Lebanon) into the Palestinian state.

The NWC project was conceived as early as 1937, although detailed planning began after the recognition of Israel in 1948. In practice, the natural flow of the Jordan River is prevented by the construction of a dam, built south of Lake Tiberias. From there, water is diverted to the NWC, a 130 km-long system combining giant pipes, open channels, tunnels, reservoirs and large-scale pumping stations. The aim is to transfer water from Lake Tiberias to the densely populated center and the arid south, including the Negev desert.

When it was inaugurated in 1964, 80% of its water was allocated to agriculture and 20% to drinking water. By 1990, the NWC supplied half of Israel’s drinking water. With the addition of water from seawater desalination plants, it now supplies Tel Aviv, a city of 3.5 million inhabitants, Jerusalem (1 million inhabitants) and (outside wartime) Gaza and the occupied territories of the West Bank.

Since 1948, the area of irrigated farmland has increased from 30,000 to 186,000 hectares. Thanks to micro-irrigation (drip irrigation, including subsurface irrigation), Israeli agricultural production increased by 26% between 1999 and 2009, although the number of farmers fell from 23,500 to 17,000.

The Water War

In launching its NWC, Israel went it alone, while for the rest of the world, it was clear that diverting the waters of the Jordan River would give rise to sharp tensions with neighboring countries, particularly with Jordan and Syria, not to mention the Palestinians who have been largely excluded from the project’s economic benefits.



As early as 1953, Israel began the unilateral draining of Lake Hula (or Huleh), north of Lake Tiberias, leading to skirmishes with Syria.

In 1959, Israel kickstarted the NWC. The project was initially interrupted by a halt in American funding, as the Americans did not want to see violence escalate in the context of the Cold War.

It should be noted that, following the Suez crisis of 1956, the Soviet Union established itself in Syria as the protecting power of Arab countries against the « Israeli threat ». As part of the deployment of its naval presence in the Mediterranean, it obtained facilities for its fleet at Latakia in Syria.

However, Israel managed to quietly resume and continue the work on the NWC. Filling the system by pumping of Lake Tiberias began in June 1964 in utmost secrecy. When the Arab countries learned of this, their anger was great. In November 1964, the Syrian army fired on Israeli patrols around the NWC pumping station, provoking Israeli counter-attacks. In January 1965, the NWC was the target of the first attack by the Fatah (organization fighting for the liberation of Palestine) led by Yasser Arafat.

The Arab states finally recognized that they would never be able to stop the project through direct military action.

They therefore adopted a plan, the Headwater Diversion Plan immediately implemented in 1965, to divert water upstream from the tributaries of the Jordan River into the Yarmouk River (in Syria). The project was technically complicated and costly, but if successful would have diverted 35% of the water Israel intended to withdraw from the upper Jordan…

Israel declared that it considered this deviation of the water as an infringement of its sovereign rights. Relations degenerated completely and border clashes followed, with Syrian forces firing on Israeli army farmers and patrols. In July 1966, the Israeli air force bombed a concentration of earth-moving equipment and shot down a Syrian MiG-21. The Arab states abandoned their counter plan, but the conflict continued along the Israel-Syria border, including an Israeli air attack on Syrian territory in April 1967.

1967. Israeli tanks on the Golan heights to control water.

For many analysts, this was a prelude to the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel occupied the Golan Heights to protect its water supply. The Six-Day War profoundly altered the geopolitical situation in the basin, with Israel now occupying not only the Gaza Strip and Sinai, but also the West Bank and the Golan Heights.

As French researcher Hervé Amiot explains:

In fact, as early as 1955, between a quarter and a third of the water came from the groundwater in the south-western part of the West Bank. Today, the West Bank aquifers supply Israel with 475 million m³ of water, i.e. 25-30% of the country’s water consumption (and 50% of its drinking water).

Two months after the seizure of the occupied territories, Israel issued “Military Decree 92”, transferring authority over all water resources in the occupied territories to the Israeli army and conferring « absolute power to control all water-related matters to the Water Resources Officer, appointed by the Israeli courts ». This decree revoked all drilling licenses issued by the Jordanian government and designated the Jordan region a military zone, thus depriving Palestinians of all access to water while granting Israel total control over water resources, including those used to support its settlement projects.

Today, returning the Golan to Syria and recognizing the sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority over the West Bank seems impossible for Israel, given the Hebrew state’s increasing dependence on the water resources of these occupied territories. The exploitation of these resources will therefore continue, despite Article 55 of the Regulations of the IVth Hague Convention, which stipulates that an occupying power does not become the owner of water resources and cannot exploit them for the needs of its civilians…

B. Johnston Plan

Eric Allen Johnston

One might think that the United States tried very early on to prevent the situation from degenerating in such a predictable way. They tried to take into account Israel’s legitimate interest in securing access to water, the absolute key to its survival and development, while at the same time offering neighboring countries (Jordan, Syria and Lebanon) sufficient resources to accommodate the millions of Palestinians exiled from their homes following the Nakba.

Faced with the risk of conflict, as early as 1953 – years before Israel launched its NWC plan – the American government proposed its mediation to resolve disputes over the Jordan basin. The result was the « Jordan Valley Unified Water Plan » (known as the « Johnston Plan »), named after Eric Allen Johnston, president of the United States Chamber of Commerce and US President Dwight Eisenhower‘s water envoy.

This plan established the transboundary nature of the Jordan basin and proposed an equitable sharing of the resource, giving 52% of the water to Jordan, 31% to Israel, 10% to Syria and 3% to Lebanon.

The plan, just as the Tennessee Valley Authority during FDR’s New Deal, was essentially based on building dams for irrigation and hydropower. The water was there and correctly managed, sufficient for the needs of the population at that time. Its main features were:

  • a dam on the Hasbani River to provide power and irrigate the Galilee area;
  • dams on the Dan and Banias Rivers to irrigate Galilee;
  • drainage of the Huleh swamps;
  • a dam at Maqarin on the Yarmouk River for water storage (capacity of 175 million m³) and power generation;
  • a small dam at Addassiyah on the Yarmouk to divert its water toward both the Lake Tiberias and south along the eastern Ghor;
  • a small dam at the outlet of Lake Tiberias to increase its storage capacity;
  • gravity-flow canals along the east and west sides of the Jordan valley to irrigate the area between the Yarmouk’s confluence with the Jordan and the Dead Sea;
  • control works and canals to utilize perennial flows from the wadis that the canals cross.

See details of the Johnston plan in this comprehensive article.

The project was validated by the technical committees of Israel and the Arab League, and did not require Israel to abandon its ambition to green the Negev desert. Unfortunately, however, the presentation of the plan to the Knesset in July 1955 did not result in a vote.

The Arab Committee approved the plan in September 1955 and forwarded it to the Council of the Arab League for final approval. Tragically, this institution also chose not to ratify it on October 11, because of its opposition to an act implying an implicit act of recognition of Israel that would prevent the return of the Palestinian refugees to their home… The mistake here was to isolate the water issue from a broader agreement on peace and justice as the foundation of mutual development.

Then, after the Suez Canal crisis in 1956, the Arab countries, with the exception of Jordan, hardened their stance towards Israel considerably, and henceforth opposed the Johnston plan head-on, arguing that it would amplify the threat posed by that country by enabling it to strengthen its economy. They also claim that increasing Israel’s water resources could only increase Jewish migration to the Hebrew state, thereby reducing the possibility of the return of Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war…

History cannot be rewritten, but the adoption of the Johnston Plan could well have prevented conflicts, such as that of 1967, which cost the lives of 15,000 Egyptians, 6,000 Jordanians, 2,500 Syrians and at least 1,000 Israelis.

C. Jordan’s response: the Ghor irrigation Canal

East Ghor or King Abadallah Canal (KAC).

At almost the same time as Israel was completing its NWC, Jordan was digging the East Ghor irrigation canal between 1955 and 1964, starting at the confluence of the Yarmouk and Jordan rivers and running parallel to the latter all the way to the Dead Sea on Jordanian territory.

Originally, this was part of a larger project – the « Greater Yarmouk » project – which included two storage dams on the Yarmouk and a future “Western Ghor Canal” on the west bank of the Jordan. The latter was never built, as Israel took the West Bank from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War.

In effect, by diverting the waters of the Yarmouk to fill up its own canal, Jordan secured water for its capital Amman and its agriculture, but of course, contributed reducing the waters of the Jordan River.

In Jordan, the Jordan’s river watershed is a region of vital importance to the country. It is home to 83% of the population, the main industries and 80% of irrigated agriculture. It is also home to 80% of the country’s total water resources.

Overall, the Hashemite kingdom is one of the world’s most water-poor countries, with 92% of its territory desert. While Israel has 276 m³ of natural freshwater available per capita per year, Jordan has just 179 m³, more than half of which comes from groundwater.

The UN considers that a country with less than 500 m³ of freshwater per capita per year suffers from « absolute water stress ». Added to this is the fact that since the start of the Syrian civil war, Jordan has welcomed nearly 1.4 million refugees onto its soil, in addition to its 10 million inhabitants.

The East Ghor Canal was designed in 1957 and built between 1959 and 1961 competing with Israel’s NWC. In 1966, the upstream section as far as Wadi Zarqa was completed. The canal was then 70 km long and was extended three times between 1969 and 1987.

The United States, through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), financed the initial phase of the project, after obtaining explicit assurances from the Jordanian government that Jordan would not withdraw more water from the Yarmouk than had been allocated to it under the Johnston Plan. They were also involved in the subsequent phases.

Waterworks in the region are often named after great political figures. The East Ghor Canal was named « King Abdallah Canal (KAC) » by Abdalla II after his great-grandfather, the founder of Jordan. At the time of the peace treaty with Israel in 1994, the two countries shared the flow of the Jordan, and Jordan agreed to sell its water from Lake Tiberias.

D. Mediterranean – Dead Sea Aqueduct

Possible routes for water conveyance:
A: Crossing solely Israelian territory;
B and C: Crossing Israel and West Bank (shortest, 70 km);
D. Crossing Gaza and Israel;
E. Crossing only Jordan (longest, 200 km).

The idea of a Dead Sea-Mediterranean Canal was first proposed by William Allen in 1855 in a book entitled The Dead Sea – A new route to India. At the time, it was not known that the level of the Dead Sea was far below that of the Mediterranean, and Allen proposed the canal as an alternative to the Suez navigation Canal.

Later, several engineers and politicians took up the idea, including Theodor Herzl in his 1902 short story Altneuland. Most early projects were based on the left bank of the Jordan, but a modified form, using the right bank (West bank), was proposed after 1967.

After extensive research, German engineers Herbert Wendt and Wieland Kelm proposed not a navigable canal, but an aqueduct consisting essentially of an overhead gallery running West-East, linking the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea.

Their 1975 detailed project study Depressionskraftwerk am Toten Meer – Eine Projektstudie, on how to use the difference of water levels between the Mediterranean sea (level 0) and the Dead Sea (- 400 m) for power generation was the subject of a first publication in the German journal Wasserwirtschaft (1975,3).

The diagram indicates the system operates as follows:

  1. The seawater intake is at Ashdod.
  2. An open channel allows the water to flow by gravity for 7 km.
  3. From there, the pressurized water travels through a 65 km-long hydraulic gallery;
  4. The water arrives in a 3km-long reservoir created by a dam on the edge of the steep descent to the Dead Sea. At that point, the water can be used to cool a thermal or nuclear power plant, the heat from which can be used for industrial or agricultural purposes.
  5. Through a shaft running from the bottom of the reservoir, the water descends a steep 400 metres.
  6. There, it powers three turbines, each producing 100 MWe.
  7. Finally, via an evacuation gallery, the seawater reaches the Dead Sea.

However, since the project was elaborated exclusively by Israel and without any consultation with its Jordanian, Egyptian and Palestinian neighbors, the project ran against a wall of political opposition.

Of course, as with any large scale infrastructure projects, many things needed to be adapted, including tourist equipment, roads, hotels, Jordanian potash exploitation, Palestinian farmland, etc.

Questions were also raised about (very infrequent) potential earthquakes and the difference of salinity of water from the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea.

On Dec. 16, 1981, the UN General Assembly, arguing the canal project « will violate the principle of international law » adopted Resolution 36-150.

That resolution requested the UN Security Council « to consider initiating measures to halt the execution of this project » and calling « upon all States not to assist, either directly or indirectly, in the preparation for and the execution of this project. »

The request, in article 3, to submit a study was fulfilled. The report, not really convincing, details various objections but doesn’t call into question the technical feasability of the project.

E. Red Sea – Dead Sea Water Conveyance

In the framework of the peace treaty between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of
Jordan the integrated development Master Plan for the Jordan Rift Valley (JRV) was
studied in the mid 1990’s.

The Red Sea – Dead Sea Canal (RSDSC) was considered to be one of the most important potential elements for implementing this Master Plan. The principal development objective of the RSDSC was to provide desalinated drinking water for the people of the area.

On October 17, 1994, then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and King Hussein of Jordan validated the draft peace treaty between their two countries in Amman, after reaching agreement on the last two points in dispute – the water issue and border demarcation.

Yitzhak Rabin, Bill Clinton and King Hussein.

On November 26, the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty was signed with great fanfare in the Arava Valley, between the Red Sea and the Dead Sea, by the prime ministers of the two countries, in the presence of US President Bill Clinton, whose country had helped bring the negotiations between Jerusalem and Amman to a successful conclusion.

This created the condition where the old idea of linking the Red Sea with the Dead Sea, a project renamed and supported by Shimon Peres as the « Peace Canal », could come back on the table.

Former Israeli water commissioner Professor Dan Zaslavsky, who opposed the project on cost grounds, wrote in the Jerusalem Post in 2006 about Peres’ obstinacy. To listen to the scientists, Peres summoned five of them. Each had to present his objections in a few minutes.

« At one point, Peres got up and said, ‘Excuse me. Don’t you remember that I built the nuclear reactor in Dimona? Do you remember that everyone was against it? Well I was right in the end. And this will prove to be the same thing! » And with that, Zaslavsky said with a flourish, « he left! »

The Dead Sea

For millennia, the Dead Sea was filled with fresh water from the Jordan River, via Lake Tiberias. Over the last fifty years, however, it has lost 28% of its depth and a third of its surface area. Its water level is falling inexorably, at an average rate of 1.45 meters per year. Its high salinity – over 27%, compared with the average for oceans and seas of 2-4% – and a level 430 meters below sea level, has always fascinated visitors and provided therapeutic benefits. Stretching 51 kilometers long and 18 kilometers wide, it is shared by Israel, Jordan and the West Bank.

The over-exploitation of upstream water resources (the National Aqueduct in Israel, the Ghor Canal in Jordan), together with potassium mining, is the cause of the sand desert which, if nothing is done, will continue to replace the Dead Sea.

If the Dead Sea needs the Jordan River, the Jordan River needs Lake Tiberias, from which it takes its source. However, the lake too has been affected by drastic drops in its water level in recent years, triggering a vicious circle between the three systems (Lake Tiberias, Jordan River and Dead Sea).

Aqueduct

In response, at the end of 2006, the World Bank and Agence Française de Développement (AFD) assisted Israel and Jordan in the design of a colossal project to link the Dead Sea to the Red Sea via a 180-kilometer mainly underground pipeline.

In the end, the project for an aqueduct starting from the Red Sea and built entirely on Jordanian territory was chosen, with the signing of a tripartite agreement between Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians in December 2013.

  1. Sea intake and pumping station
    The seawater is pumped to +125 m above sea level at the Red Sea.
  2. Pressure pipeline
    The first part of the conveyance system transmits the seawater to the planned elevation. The length is 5 km from Aqaba (3% of the whole alignment).
  3. A tunnel and canal conveyance system
    Seawater is transmitted to the regulating and pretreatment reservoirs with a design flow of 60 m3 /s. A 121 km tunnel with 7 m diameter and 39 km canal were designed.
  4. Regulating and pre-treatment reservoirs
    Several reservoirs were designed at +107 m at Wadi G’mal at the southeastern margin of the Dead Sea.
  5. Desalination plants
    The 2 desalination plants are designed to operate by using the process of hydrostatically supported reverse osmosis to provide desalinated seawater. The main plant will be located at Safi at 365 m below the sea level with a water column of 475 m.
  6. Fresh water
    The project will produce around 850 MMC of fresh water per year, to be shared between Jordan, Israel and Palestine, the three countries that manage the Dead Sea. For the transmission of the water to Amman a double pipeline of 200 km with 2.75 m diameter was designed with nine pumping stations for the uplift of 1,500 m. For the transmission to Hebron a double pipeline of 125 km with an elevation difference of 1,415 m was designed.
  7. The brine
    The brine reject water will be conveyed from the desalination plant via a 7 km canal to the Dead Sea. 1,100 MMC per year of brine reject water will enter the Dead Sea.
  8. Electricity generation
    As the brine runs through the tunnel and canal, the turbines of one or more hydroelectric power plants will generate around 800 megawatts of electricity to partially offset the electricity consumed by pumping;
  9. Three new cities will be built: North Aqaba city in northern Aqaba, South Dead Sea City, close to the desalination plant south of the Dead Sea, and South Amman City (see map at the beginning of this section).

In terms of environmental impact, scientists have expressed concern that mixing the brine (rich in sulfate) from the desalination plants with the Dead Sea water (rich in calcium) could cause the latter to turn white. It would therefore be necessary to proceed with a gradual water transfer to observe the effects of water transfer in this particular ecosystem.

Not enough to stabilize the level of the Dead Sea, but a first step to start slowing down its drying up, emphasized Frédéric Maurel, in charge of this project for AFD, in 2018. « We also need to use water more sparingly, both in agriculture and in the potash industry, » he stressed.

Political will?

Projected water intake at Red Sea.

In 2015, as a supplement to the program, agreements had been reached on reciprocal water sales: Jordan would supply drinking water to Israel in the south, which in return would increase its sales of water from Lake Tiberias to supply northern Jordan. And the Palestinians would also receive additional water supplies from Israel. By the end of 2016, five consortia of companies had been shortlisted.

In 2017, the European Investment Bank produced a 264 page detailed study to support the plan.

On the Israeli side, saving the Dead Sea is a necessity to maintain seaside tourism and thermalism. It is also a lever to guarantee its hydraulic control over the West Bank, as Israel does not trust the Palestinian Authority to manage water. Honest elements of the Hebrew state are aware of the peacemaking potential of this project, and need a stable partner in the region. Jordan, for its part, was by far the most interested in this project, given its critical situation.

In 2021, Jordan decided to put an end to the joint water pipeline project, believing that there was « no real desire on the part of the Israelis » for the plan, which had stagnated for several years, to go ahead.

To face its growing needs, Jordan has decided to build its own desalination plant directly on the Red Sea. The Aqaba-Amman Water Desalination and Conveyance Project will take water from the Red Sea at the Gulf of Aqaba in the south, desalinate it, and channel it 450 kilometres north to the capital Amman and its surrounding area, supplying a desperately needed 300 million cubic metres of water a year. Studies are complete and construction will start on July 2024. The plant will be powered with solar energy.

In 2022, Jordan, the UAE and Israel signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to continue feasibility studies for two interconnected projects: establishing the water desalination station at the Red Sea (Prosperity Blue) and establishing a solar power plant in Jordan (Prosperity Green). However, due to the ongoing war against Gaza and the rejection of the Jordanian public regarding the agreement’s signing, the Jordan government announced the suspension of the agreement.

The Dead Sea might slowly reappear

With huge desalinization capacities in hand, Israel adopted in 2023 the National Carrier Flow Reversal Project to return water to its natural resources, in particular to Lake Tiberias, a national treasure, a centerpiece of tourism, agriculture and, as we have seen, geopolitics.

Every year, Israel taps 100 million cubic meters of water from Lake Tiberias to send to Jordan, and did so even during the drought years of 2013 to 2018.

According to Dodi Belser, Director of Innovation at water state giant Mekorot, if Israel wants to increase the water it sends to its Jordanian neighbors and to protect its reservoir, it’s vital to retain the lake’s water level. This was the birth of the idea to pump desalinated water into the Lake Tiberias, up to 120 million cubic meters a year until 2026. But that would also increase the level of the Jordan river and subsequently the water arriving into the Dead Sea.

F. Turkish water sales

Projected possible water export from Turkye.

Turkye, a veritable « water tower » in the region, has long dreamed of exporting its water to Israel, Palestine, Cyprus and other Middle Eastern countries at a premium.

The most ambitious of these projects was President Turgut Ozal‘s « Peace Water Pipeline » in 1986, a $21 billion project to pipe water from the Seyhan and Ceyhan rivers to cities in Syria, Jordan and the Arab states of the Gulf.

In 2000, Israel was strongly considering purchasing 50 million m3 per year for 20 years from the Manavgat river near Antalya, but since November 2006, the deal has been put on hold.

The Manavgat project, technically completed in mid-March 2000, was a pilot project.

The complex on the Manavgat river – which rises in the Taurus mountains and flows into the Mediterranean between Antalya and Alanya – includes a pumping station, a refining center and a ten-kilometer-long canal. The aim was then to transport this fresh water by 250,000-ton tankers to the Israeli port of Ashkelon for injection into the Israeli NWC.

Eventually, Jordan was also interested in Turkey’s aquatic manna. A second customer downstream of its network would enable Israel to share costs. Another possibility would be to transport the water via a water pipeline linking Turkey to Syria and Jordan, and ultimately to Israel and Palestine if the latter could reach an agreement with its partners. The Palestinians, for their part, have been looking for a donor country to subsidize freshwater imports by tanker to Gaza.

The Manavgat project is not the only one through which Ankara hopes to sell its water. In 1992, Suleyman Demirel, then Prime Minister, expressed a credo that went viral: « Turkey can use the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers as it sees fit: Turkey’s water resources belong to Turkey, just as oil belongs to Arab countries.”

The countries downstream of the two rivers – Iraq and above all Syria – immediately protested. For them, the multiple dams that Ankara plans to build on the region’s main freshwater sources for irrigation or power generation are simply a way for the heir to the Ottoman Empire to assert its authority over the region.

Whatever Ankara’s real ambitions, the country has a real treasure trove at its disposal, especially given the dwindling resources of neighboring countries.

In the end, since November 2006, Israeli supporters of desalination have objected to the price of Turkish water and questioned the wisdom of relying on Ankara, whose government is critical of Israeli policies. Desalination or importation? The choice is a Cornelian one for Israel. And an eminently political one, since it comes down to knowing whether to stick to positions based on self-sufficiency or whether to play the regional cooperation card, which amounts to betting on trust…

G. Hidden defects and non-implementation of Oslo

The Oslo Accords, signed by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993, although stipulating that « Israel recognizes the water rights of Palestine », in reality allowed Israel to continue controlling the region’s water sources… while awaiting a resolution to the conflict. Oslo II provided for the postponement of negotiations on water rights until those on permanent status, as well as on the status of Jerusalem, refugees’ right of return, illegal settlements, security arrangements and other issues.

But final status talks, scheduled to take place five years after the implementation of the Oslo Accords (in 1999, as planned), have not yet taken place.

The Oslo Accords also provided for the creation of a water management authority, and their « Declaration of Principles » stressed the need to ensure « the equitable use of common water resources, for application during the interim period [of the Oslo Accords] and thereafter ».

Hence, for decades, Israel has perpetuated a principle of water distribution that existed before the Oslo Accords were signed, allowing Israelis to consume water at will while limiting Palestinians to a predetermined 15% share.

Zones A, B and C.

The Oslo agreements did not take into account the division of the West Bank into zones A, B and C when it came to organizing water distribution between Israel and the Palestinians.

Israel was finally granted the right to control water sources, even in PA-controlled areas A and B.

Most water sources were already located in Area C, which is entirely controlled by Israel and comprises almost 61% of the West Bank.

On the ground, Israel has connected all the settlements built in the West Bank, with the exception of the Jordan Valley, to the Israeli water network. The water supply to Israeli communities on both sides of the Green Line is managed as a single system, under the responsibility of Israel’s national water company, Mekorot.

While the Oslo Accords allowed Israel to pump water from areas under its control to supply settlements in the occupied West Bank, they also prevent the PA from transferring water from one area to another in those it administers in the West Bank. Israel has disavowed most of the provisions of the Oslo Accords, but remains committed to those relating to water.

A member of the Palestinian delegation that signed the Oslo Accords, wishing to remain anonymous, tells Middle East Eye magazine that the delegation’s lack of expertise at the time resulted in the signing of an agreement that

The borders between on the one side Gaza and the occupied territories and Israel don’t need to be drawn with a line, since the sharp shift of brilliance of the green color (irrigated land) marks them.

In practice, this means that Palestinians in the occupied West Bank are at the mercy of the Israeli occupation when it comes to their water supply.

Inequalities in terms of access to water in the West Bank are glaring, as shown by the Israeli NGO B’Tselem in a report entitled Parched, published in May 2023.

In 2020, each Palestinian in the West Bank consumed an average of 82.4 liters of water per day, compared with 247 liters per person in Israel and the settlements.

This figure drops to 26 liters per day for Palestinian communities in the West Bank that are not connected to the water distribution network. 36% of West Bank Palestinians have year-round access to running water, compared with 100% of Israelis, including settlers.

The Palestinian Authority, which claims more water, points out that Palestinian agriculture plays a major role in the economy of the Occupied Territories (15% of GDP, 14% of the working population in 2000). In comparison, Israeli agriculture, while far more productive, employs 2.5% of the working population and produces 3% of GDP.

Added to this the fact that the arable land recognized by Israel under the Oslo Accords as totally or partially autonomous to the Palestinians is located in the limestone uplands, where access to water is difficult, since it is necessary to dig deep to reach the water table.

What’s more, in Israel and the settlements, 47% of land is irrigated, compared with only 6% of Palestinian land. The Palestinian Authority is currently demanding rights to 80% of the mountain aquifer, which Israel cannot conceive of.

Myth of Thirsty Palestinian

Israeli spokespeople, such as Akiva Bigman in his article titled « The Myth of the Thirsty Palestinian » have three answers ready to pull out when they are confronted with the water shortages in West Bank Palestinian towns:

Answer: leakage varies from 20 to 50% in the USA, far above the rate of poor Palestine.

One can ask where the money went. And yes, in reality, at the end of the day, for various technical reasons and unexpected drilling failures in the eastern basin of the aquifer (the only place the agreement allows the Palestinians to drill), the Palestinians ended up producing less water than the agreements set.

True. However, Oslo didn’t set a limit to the amount of water Israel can take, but limited the Palestinians to 118 MCM from the wells that existed prior to the accords, and another 70-80 MCM from new drilling. According to the Israeli NGO B’Tselem, as of 2014 the Palestinians are only getting 14 percent of the aquifer’s water. That is why the Israeli state company Mekorot (obeying to government directives) is selling the Palestinians the double of water stipulated in the Oslo Agreement – 64 MCM, as opposed to 31 MCM. 64 + 31 = 95 MCM in total, to be compated with current consumption by Palestinians in the West Bank: 239 MCM of water in 2020 of which 77.1 of them purchased from Israel.

A final detail that speaks volumes: Palestinians are charged the price of drinking water for their agricultural water while Jewish settlers benefit from agricultural tariffs and subsidies. The justification being that the Jewish settlers have invested in expensive irrigation techniques such as desalination

H. Ben Gurion Navigation Canal


At the end of 2023, the idea of the Ben-Gurion navigation Canal project was revived in the media. The canal would link the Gulf of Aqaba (Eilat) in the Red Sea to the Mediterranean Sea, passing through Israel to terminate in or near the Gaza Strip (Ashkelon). This is an Israeli alternative to the Suez Canal, which became topical in the 1960s following Nasser’s nationalization of Suez.

The first ideas for a connection between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean appeared in the mid-19th century, on the initiative of the British, who wanted to link the three seas: the Red, the Dead and the Mediterranean. As the Dead Sea lies 430.5 meters below sea level, such an idea was not feasible, but it could be realized in another direction. Frightened by Nasser’s nationalization of Suez, the Americans considered the option of the Israeli canal, their loyal ally in the Middle East.

In July 1963, H. D. Maccabee of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, under contract to the U.S. Department of Energy, wrote a memorandum exploring the possibility of using 520 underground nuclear explosions to help dig some 250 kilometers of canals across the Negev desert. The document was classified until 1993. « Such a canal would constitute a strategically valuable alternative to the present Suez Canal and would probably contribute greatly to the economic development of the surrounding region, » says the declassified document.

The idea of the Ben Gurion Canal resurfaced at the same time as the signing of the so-called « Abraham Agreements » between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

On October 20, 2020, the unthinkable happened: Israel’s state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company (EAPC) and the UAE’s MED-RED Land Bridge signed an agreement to use the Eilat-Ashkelon pipeline to transport oil from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, avoiding de facto the Suez Canal.

On April 2, 2021, Israel announced that work on the Ben Gurion Canal was due to start in June of the same year. But this has not been the case. Some analysts interpret the current Israeli reoccupation of the Gaza Strip as an event that many Israeli politicians were waiting for to revive an old project.

Proposed route for Ben Gurion navigation canal.

A closer look at the planned route shows that the canal starts at the southern edge of the Gulf of Aqaba, from the port city of Eilat, close to the Israeli-Palestinian border, and continues through the Arabah valley for around 100 km, between the Negev mountains and the Jordanian highlands. It then turns west before the Dead Sea, continues through a valley in the Negev mountain range, then turns north again to bypass the Gaza Strip and reach the Mediterranean Sea in the Ashkelon region.

The project’s promoters argue that their canal would be more efficient than the Suez Canal because, in addition to being able to accommodate a greater number of ships, it would allow the simultaneous two-way navigation of large vessels thanks to the design of two canal arms.

Unlike the Suez Canal, which runs along sandy banks, the Israeli canal would have hard walls that require almost no maintenance. Israel plans to build small towns, hotels, restaurants and cafés along the canal.

Each proposed branch of the canal would be 50 meters deep and around 200 meters wide. It would be 10 meters deeper than the Suez Canal. Ships 300 meters long and 110 meters wide could pass through the canal, corresponding to the size of the world’s largest ships.

If completed, the Ben-Gurion Canal would be almost a third longer than the Suez Canal, which measures 193.3 km, or 292.9 km. Construction of the canal would take 5 years and involve 300,000 engineers and technicians from all over the world. Construction costs are estimated at between $16 and $55 billion. Israel stands to gain $6 billion a year.

Whoever controls the canal, and apparently it can only be Israel and its allies (mainly the USA and Great Britain), will have enormous influence over international supply chains for oil, gas and grain, as well as world trade in general.

Israel argues that such a project would undermine the power of Egypt, a country strongly allied with Russia, China and the BRICS and therefore « a threat » to the West! With the depopulation of Gaza and the prospect of total Israeli control over this tiny territory, some Israeli politicians, including Netanyahu, are once again salivating over the prospect of such a project.

As Croatian analyst Matia Seric pointed out in Asia Review in November 2023:

I. Oasis Plan

It is in the light of all these failures that the fundamental contribution of the « Oasis Plan » proposed by the American economist Lyndon LaRouche (1922-2019) becomes apparent.

In 1975, following talks with the leaders of the Iraqi Baath Party and sane elements of the Israeli Labor Party, the American economist LaRouche saw his Oasis Plan as the basis for mutual development to the benefit of the entire region.

Instead of waiting for « stability » and « lasting peace » to arrive magically, LaRouche proposed and even launched projects in the interests of all, and « recruited » all partners to participate fully, first and foremost in their own interests, but in reality in the interests of all.

LaRouche’s Oasis plan today includes:

  1. Israel’s relinquishment of exclusive control over water resources in favor of a fair resource-sharing agreement between all the countries in the region;
  2. the reconstruction and economic development of the Gaza Strip, including the Yasser Arafat International Airport (inaugurated in 1998 and bulldozered by Israeli in 2002), a major seaport backed up by a hinterland equipped with industrial and agricultural infrastructure.
  3. the construction of a fast rail network reconnecting Palestine (including Gaza) and Israel to its neighbors;
  4. construction of the Red-Dead Sea aqueduct;
  5. In line with population growth and energy and water requirements, construction of the Mediterranean-Dead Sea aqueduct, in a version revised and corrected by the experience of the Red Sea-Dead Sea aqueduct;
  6. Sub-Sea, underwater and off-shore « water farms » (desalination stations) can be constructed in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. They consume 40% less energy and drastically reduce the negative impact of reject water and brine on the environment.
  7. The installation, in the mean term, of small (civilian) nuclear reactors (SMR) for seawater desalination and agro-industrial processes.

LaRouche proposed coupling hydrological, energy, agricultural and industrial infrastructures. These agro-industrial complexes, built around small high-temperature nuclear reactors, were called « nuplexes », a concept put forward in the post-war period by the American scientist Alvin Weinberg, head of the Oak Ridge Laboratories in Tennessee (ORNL) and co-inventor of several types of nuclear reactor, notably the molten-salt line using thorium as fuel (and therefore without the production of weapons-grade plutonium).

In chapter 8 of his autobiography, Weinberg recounts how ORNL, « embarked on a great enterprise: desalinating the sea with cheap nuclear power », with « multi-purpose » plants, « producing water, electricity and process heat at the same time ». The assertion that this was possible, Weinberg reports, « caused a stir within the Atomic Energy Commission ».

Senator John F. Kennedy listens to his science advisor Dr. Alvin Weinberg, Director of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee. Courtesy of Department of Energy. (February 1959)

In the end, it was President John F. Kennedy who reacted most enthusiastically, speaking on September 25, 1963:

The idea reached later the ear of AEC’s patron Lewis Strauss.

Lewis conveyed this idea to Eisenhower and Ike published in Life magazine an outline of what became known as the Eisenhower plan, based “on what Lewis and I had discussed”, writes Weinberg.

ORNL then sent a team to visit Egypt, Israel and Lebanon where they were warmly received. The visit brought to Tennessee Israeli and Egyptian engineers who were integrated in the Middle East Study Project,

Weinberg, clearly unaware of the Dulles brothers‘ operations sabotaging anything good Ike wanted to accomplish regretted: “The Eisenhower-Baker plan was never implemented: the political will needed to support building large reactors in the strife-riven Middle East was lacking…”

The LaRouche Oasis plan, like any other proposal along the same lines, has so far been blocked by the Israeli, American and British sides, and we know only too well what happened to Yitzhak Rabin, assassinated after signing the Oslo Accords, to Shimon Peres, ousted, and to a demonized Yasser Arafat. In addition, LaRouche has been slandered and called an anti-Semite.

Merci de partager !

The « Miracle of Gandhara » : When Buddha turned himself into man

SUMMARY

Introduction

The 5th and 4th centuries BC were a period of global intellectual ferment. It was a time of great thinkers, such as Socrates, Plato, and Confucius, but also Panini and Buddha.

In northern India, it was the age of Buddha, after whose death a « non-theistic » faith (Buddha was only a man…) emerged and spread far beyond its region of origin.

With between 500 million and 1 billion believers today, Buddhism has established itself as one of the world’s leading religious and philosophical beliefs.

The life of the Buddha

Lumbini.

The Buddha » (the enlightened one) is the name given to a man called Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni (the wise man of the Shakya clan). He reached the age of eighty.

Traditions differ on the exact dates of his life, which modern research tends to place increasingly later: around 623-543 BC according to Theravada tradition, around 563-483 BC according to most specialists of the early 20th century, while others today place him between 420 and 380 BC (his life would not have exceeded 40 years).

According to tradition, Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumbini (in present-day Nepal) as a Prince of the royal family of Kapilavastu, a small kingdom in the foothills of the Himalayas in present-day Nepal. 

An astrologer is said to have warned the boy’s father, King Suddhodana, that when growing up, the child would either become a brilliant ruler or an influential monk, depending on how he viewed the world.

Fiercely determined to make him his successor, Siddhartha’s father never let him see anything outside the palace walls.

While offering him every distraction and pleasure, he made him a virtual prisoner until the age of 29.

When the young man finally escapes his gilded cage, he discovers the existence of people affected by old age, illness, and death.

Moved by the suffering of the ordinary people he met, Siddhartha abandoned the ephemeral pleasures of the palace to seek a higher purpose.

He first tried ultra-severe asceticism, which he abandoned six years later, realizing it was an exercise in futility.

He then sat down to meditate under a large bodhi (fig tree), where he experienced nirvana (« liberation » or, in Sanskrit, « extinction » of the ego). He became known as « The Buddha » (“the enlightened one”).

The « Four Truths » and the « Eight-fold Path »

Buddha taught his young disciples the « Middle Path », between the two extremes of mortification and lavishness. He enunciates the « Four Noble Truths »:

  1. The noble truth of suffering;
  2. The noble truth of the origin of suffering;
  3. The noble truth of the cessation of suffering;
  4. The noble truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering, that of the “Noble Eightfold Path”.

Somewhat similar to what Augustine and even more so the Brothers of the Common Life argued in the Christian world, Buddhism insists on the fact that our attachment to earthly existence (both the good and the evil) inflicts suffering. Among Christians, it is said that attachment to “Earthly Paradise” leads us inexorably to “sin”, a concept non-existent in Buddhism for which all errors come from ignorance of the right path.

For Buddha, it is necessary to combat, even extinguish, any sense of the excessive “I” (Today we could say “ego”). It is possible to end our suffering by transcending this strong sense of “I” to enter into greater harmony with things in general. 

The means to achieve this are summarized in the « Noble Eightfold Path », sometimes represented by the eight spokes of a « Wheel of the Law » that Buddha will set in motion, the Dharma, a word one cannot translate with one word of western languages, but akin to “the law, or rather a set of moral and philosophical precepts to work on. 

These eight points of the “Noble Eightfold Path” are:

  1. Right view.
  2. Right thought.
  3. Right speech.
  4. Right action.
  5. Right livelihood.
  6. Right effort.
  7. Mindfulness.
  8. Right concentration.
  • Right view is important right from the start because if we can’t see the truth of the four noble truths, we can’t begin.
  • Right thinking follows naturally from this. The term « right » here means « in accordance with the facts », i.e. with the way things are – which may be different from the way I would like them to be.
  • Right thinking, right speech, right action, and right livelihood imply moral restraint – refraining from lying, stealing, committing violent acts, and earning a living in a way that is not detrimental to others. Moral restraint not only contributes to general social harmony but also helps us to control and diminish the inordinate sense of « self ». Like a spoiled child, the « I » grows wide and unruly the longer we let it have its way.
  • Finally, right effort is important, because the « I » thrives on idleness and wrong effort; some of the greatest criminals are the most energetic people, so effort must be appropriate to the diminution of the « I » (today we’d say ego), and in any case, if we’re not prepared to make an effort, we can’t hope to achieve anything, either in the spiritual sense, or in life. The last two stages of the path, mindfulness and concentration or enthralment , represent the first step towards liberation from suffering.

The ascetics who had listened to the Buddha’s first discourse became the nucleus of a « sangha » (a community, a movement) of men (women were to join later) who followed the path described by the Buddha in his Fourth Noble Truth, the one specifying the “Noble Eightfold Path”.

To make Buddhist nirvana completely accessible to ordinary people during their individual lifetime, the Buddhist imagination invented the intriguing concept of « Bodhisattva », a word whose meaning varies according to context. It can refer to the state Buddha himself was in before his « awakening », or to an ordinary person who has resolved to become a Buddha in the future and has received confirmation or prediction from a living Buddha that this will be so.

In Theravada (“old school”) Buddhism, only a select few can become Bodhisattva, such as Maitreya, presented as the « Buddha of the future ». But in Mahayana Buddhism (“Great Vehicle”), a Bodhisattva refers to anyone who has generated “bodhicitta”, a spontaneous wish and compassionate spirit aimed at attaining Buddhahood for the benefit of “all sentient beings”, including humans and animals. Given that a person may, in a future life, be reincarnated as a mere animal, respect for animals is essential.

Reincarnation

If Siddhartha would build his own vision on certain foundations of Hinduism, one of the world’s oldest religions, he would introduce revolutionary changes with large political implications. 

In most beliefs involving reincarnation (Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism), the soul of a human being is immortal and does not disperse after the physical body disappears. After death, the soul simply transmigrates (metempsychosis) into a newborn baby or animal to continue its immortality. The belief in the rebirth of the soul was expressed by ancient Greek thinkers, beginning with Pythagoras, Socrates, and Plato.

Buddhism aims to bring lasting, unconditional happiness. Hinduism aims to free oneself from the cycle of births and rebirths and, ultimately, to attain moksha or liberation from births and rebirths.

Buddhism and Hinduism agree on karma, dharma, moksha, and samsara (reincarnation). But they strongly differ politically in that Buddhism sees personal commitment as more important than formal rituals and refuses the caste system. Buddhism therefore advocates a more egalitarian society.

Whereas Hinduism holds that the attainment of nirvana is only possible in future lives, the more voluntarist and optimistic Buddhism holds that once you’ve realized that life is suffering, you can put an end to that suffering in your present life.

Buddhists describe their rebirth as a flickering candle lighting another candle, rather than an « immortal » soul or « self » passing from one body to another, as Hindus do. For Buddhists, it’s a rebirth without a « self », and they regard the realization of non-self or emptiness as nirvana (extinction), whereas for Hindus, the soul, once freed from the cycle of rebirths, doesn’t become extinct, but unites with the Supreme Being and enters an eternal state of divine bliss.

Aryans and Vedism

The nomadic Aryans arrived from the steppes and the North and entered India.

One of the great traditions that shaped Hinduism was the Vedic religion (« Vedism »), which flourished among the Indo-Aryan peoples of the north-western Indian subcontinent (Punjab and the western Gangetic plain) during the Vedic period (1500-500 BC).

During this period, nomadic peoples from the Caucasus, calling themselves « Aryans » (« noble », « civilized » and « honorable »), entered India via the northwest frontier. 

The term “Aryan” has a very bad historical connotation, especially in the 19th Century, once several virulent anti-Semites, such as Arthur de Gobineau, Richard Wagner, and Houston Chamberlain started promoting the obsolete historical “Aryan race” concept supporting the white supremacist ideology of Aryanism that portrayed the Aryan race as a “master race”, with non-Aryans regarded as racially inferior (Untermensch) and an existential threat to be exterminated.

Bal Gangadhar Tilak.

From a purely scientific standpoint, in his book The Arctic Home (1903), the Indian teacher Bal Gangadhar Tilak (1856-1920), based on his analysis of astronomical observations contained in the Vedic hymns, formulates the hypothesis that the North Pole was the original home of the Aryans during the pre-glacial period. They supposedly left this region due to climatic changes around 8000 BC, migrating to the northern parts of Europe and Asia. Mahatma Gandhi called Tilak, who led the country’s early independence movement,« the architect of modern India ».

The Aryans arriving from the North were probably less barbaric than has been so far suggested. Thanks to their military superiority and cultural sophistication, they took over the entire Gangetic plain, eventually extending to the Deccan plateau in the South. This conquest has left its mark to the present day, as the regions occupied by these invaders speak Indo-Aryan languages derived from Sanskrit. (*1)

Panini.

The Sanskrit philologist, grammarian, and scholar Panini, believed to be a contemporary of Buddha, is best known for his treatise on Sanskrit grammar, which has attracted much comment from scholars of other Indian religions, notably Buddhism. 

In fact, according to the best archaeological research available today, Vedic culture has deep roots in the Eurasian culture of the Sintashta steppes (2200-1800 BC) south of the Urals, in the Andronovo culture of Central Asia (2000-900 BC) stretching from the southern Urals to the headwaters of the Yenisei in Central Siberia, and ultimately in the Indus Valley (Harappan) civilization (7000-1900 BC).

At the heart of this Vedic culture are the famous “Vedas” (knowledge), four religious texts recording the liturgy of rituals and sacrifices, and the oldest scriptures in Hinduism. The oldest part of the Rigveda was composed orally in north-western India (Punjab) between around 1500 and 1200 BC,  i.e. 700 years before Plato but shortly after the collapse of the Indus Valley Civilization.

Scholars trace the origin of “Brahmanism” to Vedic times. The concept of “Brahman” was that of a pure essence that not only diffused itself everywhere but constituted everything. Men, gods, and the visible world were merely its manifestations. Such was the fundamental doctrine of Brahmanism, another name for Hinduism.

Brahmins and the caste system

To teach that to all of humanity, an all-powerful cast of high priests was created, the Brahmins whose social rank would rise to the top of a caste system. This makes it all a little bit complicated because while “Brahmâ” designates a God in Indian religions, “Brahman” designates Ultimate Reality and “Brahmin” the priest.  

However, with the emergence of this Aryan culture came what is known as « Brahmanism », i.e. the birth of an all-powerful caste of high priests.

According to Gajendran Ayyathurai, an Indian anthropologist at the University of Göttingen in Germany:

Although the term « Brahmin », literally a « superior » member of the highest priestly caste, does appear in the Vedas, modern scholars temper this fact and point out that « there is no evidence in the Rigveda of an elaborate, highly subdivided and very important caste system ».

But with the emergence of a ruling class of Brahmins, who became bankers and landowners, particularly during the, initially very promising, Gupta period (319 to 515 A.D.), a dehumanizing caste system was established. The feudal ruling class, as well as the priests, emphasized local gods, which they gradually integrated with Brahmanism to appeal to the masses. Even among the rulers, the choice of deities indicated divergent positions: part of the Gupta dynasty traditionally supported the god Vishnu, while its rivals supported the god Shiva.

The destructive caste system was then amplified and used to the full by the British East India Company, a private enterprise steering the British Empire, to impose its aristocratic and colonial power over India –  a policy that still persists, especially in people’s minds.

The Hindu caste system revolves around two key concepts that categorize members of society: varna and jati. The varna (colors) divide first the Hindus and then the entire Indian society into a hierarchy of four major social classes:

  • Brahmins (priestly class);
  • Kshatriyas (warriors and rulers);
  • Vaishyas (merchants);
  • Shudras (manual workers).

In addition, jati refers to at least 3,000 hierarchical classifications, within the four varnas, between social groups according to profession, social status, common ancestry, and locality.

The justification for this “social stratification” is intimately linked to the Hindu vision of karma. Each person’s birth is directly linked to karma, the balance sheet of his or her previous life. Thus, mechanically, birth into the Brahmin varna is the result of good karma.

According to this theory, karma determines birth into a class, which in turn defines a person’s social and religious status, which in turn describes a person’s duties and obligations towards that specific status. 

In 2021, a survey revealed that three out of ten Indians (30%) identify themselves as members of the four varnas. Only 4.3% of today’s 60.5 million Indians identify themselves as Brahmins. Only some members are priests, while others exercise professions such as educators, legislators, scholars, doctors, writers, poets, landowners, and politicians. As the caste system evolved, Brahmins became an influential varna in India, discriminating against other lower castes.

The vast remainder of Indians (70 percent), including Hindus, declare themselves as being « Dalits« , also known as « Untouchables », who are individuals considered, from the point of view of the caste system, to be out of the castes and assigned to functions or occupations deemed ‘impure’.

The Buddhist philosopher Asvaghosa.

Present in India, but also throughout South Asia, the Dalits are victims of numerous forms of discrimination. In India, the overwhelming majority of Buddhists declare themselves as being Dalits.

As early as the 1st century, the Indian Buddhist philosopher, playwright, poet, musician, and orator Asvaghosa (c. 80 – c. 150 a. DC), vocally condemned this caste system with two kinds of argument. Some are borrowed from the most revered texts of the Brahmins themselves; others are based on the principle of the natural equality of all men.

The author underscores that

A Buddhist allegory clearly rejects and mocks the very idea of the caste system:

India before Buddhism

The time of the Buddha was that of India’s second urbanization and great social protest. The rise of the sramanas, wandering philosophers who had rejected the authority of the Vedas and Brahmins, was new. Buddha was not alone in exploring ways of achieving liberation (moksha) from the eternal cycle of rebirths (punarjanman).

The realization that Vedic rituals did not lead to eternal liberation led to the search for other means. Primitive Buddhism and yoga but also Jainism, Ajivika, Ajnana, and Carvaka were the most important sramanas. Despite their success in disseminating ideas and concepts that were soon to be accepted by all the religions of India, the orthodox schools of Hindu philosophy (astika) opposed the sramanic schools of thought and refuted their doctrines as « heterodox » (nastika), because they refused to accept the epistemic authority of the Vedas.

For over forty years, the Buddha crisscrossed India on foot to spread his Dharma, a set of precepts and laws governing the behavior of his disciples.

When he died, his body was cremated, as was the custom in India. The Buddha’s ashes were divided, and several reliquaries were buried in large hemispherical mounds known as stupas (dome-shaped funeral temples). By the time of his death, his religion was already widespread throughout central India and in major Indian cities such as Vaishali, Shravasti, and Rajagriha.

The Great Buddhist Councils

Four great Buddhist councils were organized, at the instigation of various kings seeking to escape the clutches of the Brahmin caste.

In 483 BC, just after the Buddha’s death, the first council was held under the patronage of King Ajatasatru (492-460 BC) of the Haryanka dynasty to preserve the Buddha’s teachings and reach a consensus on how his teachings could be disseminated.

The second Buddhist Council took place in 383 BC, one hundred years after the Buddha’s death, under the reign of King Kalasoka of the Sisunaga dynasty. Differences of interpretation arose on points of discipline as followers drifted further apart. A schism threatened to divide those who wished to preserve the original spirit and those who defended a broader interpretation.

The first group, called Thera (meaning « ancient » in Pâli), is at the origin of Theravada Buddhism. They aimed to preserve the Buddha’s teachings in their original spirit.

The other group was called Mahasanghika (Great Community). They interpreted the Buddha’s teachings more liberally and gave us Mahayana Buddhism.

The participants in the council tried to iron out their differences, with little unity but no animosity either. One of the main difficulties stemmed from the fact that the Buddha’s teachings, before being recorded in texts, had been transmitted only orally for three to four centuries. (*2)

The Arrival of the Greeks

Darius the Great.

The Greeks began to settle in the north-western part of the Indian subcontinent during the time of the Achaemenid Persian Empire.

Darius the Great (550 – 486 BC) conquered the region, but he and his successors also conquered much of the Greek world, which at the time included the entire peninsula of western Anatolia.

When Greek villages rebelled under the Persian yoke, they were sometimes ethnically cleansed. Their populations were forcibly deported to the other side of the empire.

As a result, numerous Greek communities sprang up in the remotest Indian regions of the Persian Empire.

Persian Empire.

In the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great defeated and conquered the Persian Empire.

By 326 BC, this empire encompassed the north-western part of the Indian subcontinent as far as the River Beas (which the Greeks called the Hyphasis). Alexander established satrapies and established several colonies. He turned south when his troops, aware of the immensity of India, refused to advance further east. 

From 180 BC to around 10 AD, more than thirty Hellenistic kings succeeded one another, often in conflict with one another. This period is known in history as the « Indo-Greek Kingdoms ». One of these kingdoms was founded when the Greco-Bactrian king Demetrius invaded India in 180 BC, creating an entity that seceded from the powerful Greco-Bactrian kingdom, Bactria (including northern Afghanistan, part of Uzbekistan, etc.).

During the two centuries of their reign, these Indo-Greek kings integrated Greek and Indian languages and symbols into a single culture, as evidenced by their coins, and blended ancient Greek, Hindu, and Buddhist religious practices, as evidenced by the archaeological remains of their cities and signs of their support for Buddhism.

The Maurya Empire and Ashoka the Great

Around 322 BC, Greeks called Yona (Ionians) or Yavana in Indian sources, took part, along with other populations, in the uprising of Chandragupta Maurya, the founder of the Maurya Empire.

Chandragupta’s reign ushered in an era of economic prosperity, reform, infrastructure expansion, and tolerance. Many religions flourished in his kingdom and the empire of his descendants. Buddhism, Jainism, and Ajivika grew in importance alongside the Vedic and Brahmanic traditions, and minority religions such as Zoroastrianism and the Greek pantheon were respected.

Ashoka the Great

Ashoka the Great.

The Maurya Empire reached its apogee under the reign of Chandragupta’s grandson, Ashoka the Great, from 268 to 231 BC. Eight years after taking power, Ashoka led a military campaign to conquer Kalinga, a vast coastal kingdom in east-central India. His victory enabled him to conquer a larger territory than any of his predecessors.

Thanks to Ashoka‘s conquests, the Maurya Empire became a centralized power covering a large part of the Indian subcontinent, stretching from present-day Afghanistan in the west to present-day Bangladesh in the east, with its capital at Pataliputra (present-day Patna in India). 

Before this, the Maurya Empire had existed in some disarray until 185 BC. It was Ashoka who transformed the kingdom with the extreme violence that characterized the early part of his reign. Between 100,000 and 300,000 people were killed in the Kalinga conquest alone!

But the weight of such destruction plunged the king into a serious personal crisis. Ashoka was deeply shocked by the number of people slaughtered by his armies.

Ashoka‘s Edict No. 13 reflects the great remorse felt by the king after observing the destruction of Kalinga:

Ashoka subsequently renounced military displays of force and other forms of violence, including cruelty to animals. Deeply convinced by Buddhism, he devoted himself to spreading his vision of dharma, just and moral conduct. He encouraged the spread of Buddhism throughout India.

According to French archaeologist and scholar François Foucher, even if cases of animal abuse did not disappear overnight, belief in the brotherhood of all living beings still flourished in India more than anywhere else.

In 250 BC, Ashoka convened the third Buddhist council. Theravada sources mention that, in addition to settling internal disputes, the council’s main function was to plan the dispatch of Buddhist missionaries to various countries to spread Buddhism.

These reached as far as the Hellenistic kingdoms to the west, starting with neighboring Bactria. Missionaries were also sent to South India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia (possibly Burma). The fact that these missions were deeply involved in the flourishing of Buddhism in Asia during Ashoka‘s time is well supported by archaeological evidence. Buddhism was not spread by pure chance but as part of a creative, stimulating, and well-planned political operation along the Silk Roads. 

According to the « Mahavamsa » (“Great Chronicle” XII, 1st paragraph), relating the history of the Sinhalese and Tamil kings of Ceylon (today Sri Lanka), the Council and Ashoka sent the following Buddhist missionaries:

  • Elder Majjhantika led the mission to Kashmir and Gandhara (today’s northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan);
  • Elder Mahadeva led the mission in southwest India (Mysore, Karnataka);
    Rakkhita led the mission in southeast India (Tamil Nadu);
  • Elder Yona (Ionian, Greek) Dharmaraksita led the mission in Aparantaka (« the western frontier ») comprising northern Gujarat, Kathiawar, Kutch, and Sindh, which were all parts of India at the time);
  • The elder Mahadharmaraksita led the mission to Maharattha (the western peninsular region of India);
  • Maharakkhita (Maharaksita Thera) led the mission to the land of the Yona (Ionians), which probably refers to Bactria and possibly to the Seleucid kingdom;
  • Majjhima Thera conducted the mission to the Himavat region (northern Nepal, Himalayan foothills);
  • Sona Thera and Uttara Thera led missions to Suvarnabhumi (somewhere in Southeast Asia, perhaps Myanmar or Thailand); and
  • Mahinda, Ashoka‘s eldest son and therefore Prince of his kingdom, accompanied by his disciples, went to Lankadeepa (Sri Lanka).

Some of these missions were successful, such as those that established Buddhism in Afghanistan, Gandhara, and Sri Lanka.

Gandharan Buddhism, Greco-Buddhism, and Sinhalese Buddhism have for generations been a powerful inspiration for the development of Buddhism in the rest of Asia, particularly China. 

While missions to the Hellenistic Mediterranean kingdoms seem to have been less successful, it is possible that Buddhist communities were established for a limited period in Egyptian Alexandria, which may have been the origin of the so-called Therapeutae sect mentioned in some ancient sources such as Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BC – 50 AD). 

The Jewish Essenes and the Therapeutae of Alexandria are said to be communities founded on the model of Buddhist monasticism. 

According to French historian André Dupont-Sommer (1900-1983), « India is believed to have been the source of this vast monastic movement, which shone brightly within Judaism itself for around three centuries ». According to him, this influence contributed to the emergence of Christianity.

Ashoka’s Edicts

King Ashoka presented his messages through edicts engraved on pillars and rocks in various parts of the kingdom, close to stupas on pilgrimage sites and along busy trade routes.

Some thirty of them have been preserved. They were not written in Sanskrit, but:

  • in Greek (the language of the neighboring Greco-Bactrian kingdom and the Greek communities of Ashoka‘s kingdom), 
  • in Aramaic (the official language of the ancient Achaemenid Empire); and

in various dialects of Prâkrit (*3), including ancient Gândhârî, the language spoken in Gandhara. The edicts were engraved in the language relevant to the region. For example, in Bactria, where the Greeks dominated, an edict near present-day Kandahar was written solely in Greek and Aramaic.

Content of Edicts

Ashoka pillar.

Some edicts reflect Ashoka‘s deep adherence to the precepts of Buddhism and his close relationship with the sangha, the Buddhist monastic order. He also uses the specifically Buddhist term dharma to designate the qualities of the heart that underpin moral action. 

In the Minor Rock Edict N° 1, the King declares himself « a lay follower of the Buddha’s teaching for more than two and a half years », but admits that so far, he has « not made much progress ». He adds that « for a little over a year now, I’ve been getting closer to the Order ».

In the Minor Rock Edict N° 3 from Calcutta-Bairat, Ashoka emphasized that « what has been said by the Buddha has been said well » and described the Buddha’s teachings as the true dharma.

Ashoka recognized the close links between the individual, society, the king, and the state. His dharma can be understood as morality, goodness, or virtue, and the imperative to pursue it gave him a sense of duty. The inscriptions explain that dharma includes self-control, purity of thought, liberality, gratitude, firm devotion, truthfulness, protection of speech, and moderation in spending and possessions. Dharma also has a social aspect. It includes obedience to parents, respect for elders, courtesy and liberality towards Brahma worshipers, courtesy towards slaves and servants, and liberality towards friends, acquaintances, and relatives.

Non-violence, which means refraining from harming or killing any living being, was an important aspect of Ashoka‘s dharma. Not killing living beings is described as part of the good (Minor Rock Edict N° 11), as is gentleness towards them (Minor Rock Edict N° 9). The emphasis on non-violence is accompanied by the promotion of a positive attitude of care, gentleness, and compassion.

Ashoka adopts and advocates a policy based on respect and tolerance of other religions. One of his edicts reads as follows:

Far from being sectarian, Ashoka, based on the conviction that all religions share a common, positive essence, encourages tolerance and understanding of other religions:

And he adds:

Ashoka had the idea of a political empire and a moral empire, the latter encompassing the former. His conception of his constituency extended beyond his political subjects to include all living beings, human and animal, living within and outside his political domain. 

His inscriptions express his fatherlike conception of kingship and describe his welfare measures, including the provision of medical treatment, the planting of herbs, trees, and roots for people and animals, and the digging of wells along roads (Major Rock Edict N° 2). 

The emperor had become a sage. He ran a centralized government from the capital of the Maurya empire: Pataliputra.

Guided by the Arthashastra, the Mauryan state became the central land clearing agency with the objective of extending settled agriculture and breaking up the disintegrating remnants of the frontier hill tribes. Members of such tribes cultivated on these newly cleared forest lands. Agriculture developed thanks to irrigation, and good roads were built to link strategic points and political centers. Centuries before our great Duke de Sully in France, Ashoka demanded that these roads be lined with shade trees, wells, and inns. His administration collected taxes. He made his inspectors accountable to him. The king’s dhamma-propagating activities were not limited to his own political domain but extended to the kingdoms of other rulers.

Hence, Ashoka‘s very existence as a historical figure was close to being forgotten! But since the deciphering of sources in Brahmi script in the 19th century, Ashoka has come to be regarded as one of India’s greatest emperors. Today, Ashoka‘s Buddhist wheel is featured on the Indian flag.

As already mentioned, Ashoka and his descendants used their power to build monasteries and spread Buddhist influence in Afghanistan, large parts of Central Asia, Sri Lanka, and beyond to Thailand, Burma, Indonesia, China, Korea, and Japan.

Bronze statues from his time have been unearthed in the jungles of Annam, Borneo, and Sulawesi. Buddhist culture was superimposed on the whole of Southeast Asia, although each region, happily enough, kept some of its own personality, touch and character.

The Kushan Empire


The Maurya Empire, which ruled Bactria and other ancient Greek satrapies, collapsed in 185 BC, hardly five decades after the death of Ashoka, accused of spending too much on infrastructure and Buddhist missions and not enough on national defense. Some academics argue that Pushyamitra Sunga, who assassinated the last Mauryan monarch, Brihadratha, signalled a strong Brahmanical response against Ashoka’s pro-Buddhist policies and Dhamma. Others argue that Ashoka’s ahimsa (non-violence) philosophy was a contributing factor to the decline of the Mauryan Empire. The king’s non-violence also meant that he stopped exercising control over officials, particularly those in the provinces, who had become tyrannical and required control.

These were turbulent times. In the first century AD, the Kushans, one of the five branches of the Chinese Yuezhi confederation, emigrated from northwest China (Xinjiang and Gansu) and, following in the footsteps of the Iranian Saka nomads, seized control of ancient Bactria. They formed the Kushan empire in the Bactrian territories at the beginning of the 1st century. This empire soon extended to include much of what is now Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and northern India, at least as far as Saketa and Sarnath, near Varanasi (Benares).

Benares.

The founder of the Kushan dynasty, Kujula Kadphises, followed Greek cultural ideas and iconography after the Greco-Bactrian tradition and was a follower of the Shivaite sect of Hinduism. Two later Kushan kings, Vima Kadphises and Vasudeva II, were also patrons of Hinduism and Buddhism. 

The homeland of their empire was in Bactria, where Greek was initially the administrative language before being replaced by « Bactrian » a language written in Greek characters until the 8th century, when Islam replaced it with Arabic.

Emperor Kanishka.

The Kushans also became great patrons of Buddhism, particularly Emperor Kanishka the Great, who played an important role in its spread via the Silk Roads to Central Asia and China, ushering in a 200-year period of relative peace, rightly described as the « Pax Kushana ».

It also seems that, from the very beginning, Buddhism flourished among the merchant class, whose birth barred access to the religious orders of India and the Himalayas.

Buddhist thought and art developed along trade routes between India, the Himalayas, Central Asia, China, Persia, Southeast Asia, and the West. Travelers sought the protection of Buddhist images and made offerings to shrines along the way, collecting portable objects and shrines for personal use.
The term 4th Buddhist Council refers to two different events, one in the Theravada and the other in the Mahayana schools.

  1. According to Theravada tradition: to prevent the Buddha’s teachings, which had hitherto been transmitted orally, from being lost, five hundred monks led by the Venerable Maharakkhita gathered at Tambapanni, Sri Lanka in 72 AD, under the patronage of King Vattagamani (r. 103 — 77 BC) to write down the “Pâli Canon” on palm leaves. (*4) The work, which is said to have lasted three years, took place in the Aloka Lena cave near present-day Matale;
  1. However, according to Mahayana tradition, it was 400 years after the Buddha’s extinction that five hundred Sarvastivadin monks gathered in Kashmir in 72 AD to compile and clarify their doctrines under the direction of Vasumitra and the patronage of Emperor Kanishka. They produced the Mahavibhasa (Great Exegesis) in Sanskrit. 

According to several sources, the Indian Buddhist monk Asvaghosa considered the first classical Sanskrit playwright whose attacks on the caste system we have presented, served as King Kanishka‘s spiritual adviser during the last years of his life.

Birch-bark scrolls acquired by the British Library in 1994.

Note that the oldest Buddhist manuscripts discovered to date, such as the 27 birch-bark scrolls acquired by the British Library in 1994 and dating from the 1st century, were found not in « India », but buried in the ancient monasteries of Gandhara, the central region of the Maurya and Kushan empire, which includes the Peshawar and Swat valleys (Pakistan), and extends westwards to the Kabul valley in Afghanistan and northwards to the Karakorum range. 

Thus, after a first great impetus given by King Ashoka the Great, Gandhara culture was given a second wind under the reign of the Kushan king Kanishka. The cities of Begram, Taxila, Purushapura (now Peshawar), and Surkh Kotal reached new heights of development and prosperity.

The Miracle of Gandhara

It cannot be overemphasized that Gandhara, especially in the Kushan period, was at the heart of a veritable renaissance of civilization, with an enormous concentration of artistic production and unparalleled inventiveness. While Buddhist art was mainly focused on temples and monasteries, objects for personal devotion were very common. 

Thanks to Gandhara’s art, Buddhism became an immense force for beauty, harmony, and peace, and has conquered the world.

Buddhism favored the creation of numerous artistic works that elevate thought and morality by using metaphorical paradoxes. The prevailing mediums and supports were silk paintings, frescoes, illustrated books and engravings, embroidery and other textile arts, sculpture (wood, metal, ivory, stone, jade), and architecture.

Here are a few examples:

A. Poetry

For most Westerners, Buddhism is a « typical » emanation of Asian culture, generally associated with India, Tibet, and Nepal, but also with China and Indonesia. Few of them know that the oldest Buddhist manuscripts known to date (1st century AD) were discovered, not in Asia, but rather in Central Asia, in ancient Buddhist monasteries of Gandhara.

Originally, before their transcription into Sanskrit (for long years the language of the elite), they were written in Gândhârî, an Indo-Aryan language of the Prâkrit group, transcribed with the “kharosthi alphabet” (an ancient Indo-Iranian script). 

Gandhârî was the lingua franca of early Buddhist thought. Proof of this is the Buddhist manuscripts written in Gândhârî that traveled as far away as eastern China, where they can be found in the Luoyang and An-yang inscriptions.

To preserve their writings, the Buddhists were at the forefront of adopting Chinese book-making technologies, notably paper and xylography (single-sheet woodcut). This printing technique consists of reproducing the text to be printed on a transparent sheet of paper, which is turned over and engraved on a soft wooden board. The inking of the protruding parts then allows multiple print runs. This explains why the first fully printed book is the Buddhist Diamond Sutra (circa 868), produced using this process.

The Khaggavisana Suttra, literally « The Horn of the Rhinoceros », is a wonderful example of authentic Buddhist religious poetry. Known as the « Rhinoceros Sutra », this poetic work is part of the Pali collection of short texts known as the Kuddhhaka Nikava, the fifth part of the Pitaka Sutta, written in the 1st century CE.

Since tradition grants the Asian rhinoceros a solitary life in the forest –  the animal dislikes herds –  this sutra (teaching) bears the apt title « On the value of the solitary and wandering life ». The allegory of the rhinoceros helps communicate to devotees the keen sense of individual sovereignty required by the moral commitments prescribed by the Buddha to end suffering by disconnecting from earthly pleasures and pains. Excerpt:


Shunning violence towards all beings,
never harming a single one of them,
compassionately helping with a loving heart,
wander alone like a rhinoceros.

One keeping company nurtures affection,
and from affection suffering arises.
Realizing the danger arising from affection,
wander alone like a rhinoceros.

In sympathizing with friends and companions,
the mind gets fixed on them and loses its way.
Perceiving this danger is familiarity,
wander alone like a rhinoceros.

Concerns that one has for one’s sons and wives,
are like a thick and tangled bamboo tree.
Remaining untangled like a young bamboo,

wander alone like a rhinoceros.

Just like a deer, wandering free in the forest,
goes wherever he wishes as he grazes,
so a wise man, treasuring his freedom,
wanders alone like the rhinoceros.

Leave behind your sons and wives and money,
all your possessions, relatives, and friends.
Abandoning all desires whatsoever,
wander alone like the rhinoceros (…)

B. Literature

Two other masterpieces from the same oeuvre are the famous Jataka, or « Birth stories of the Buddha’s previous lives », and the Milindapanha, or « King Milinda’s questions”.

The Jataka, which features numerous animals, shows how, before the last human incarnation in which he attained nirvana, the Buddha himself was reincarnated countless times as an animal – as various kinds of fish, as a crab, a rooster, a woodpecker, a partridge, a francolin, a quail, a goose, a pigeon, a crow, a zebra, a buffalo, several times as a monkey or an elephant, an antelope, a deer and a horse. One story describes how the Bodhisattva was born as a Great Monkey who dwelled in a beautiful Himalayan forest among a large troop of monkeys. And since it’s Buddha who’s incarnated in the animal, the monkey suddenly speaks words of great wisdom.

But on other occasions, the characters are animals, while our Bodhisattva appears in human form. These tales are often peppered with piquant humor. They are known to have inspired La Fontaine, who must have heard them from Dr. François Bernier, who learned them from him while working as a physician in India for eight years.

The Questions of King Milinda is an imaginative account, a veritable Platonic dialogue between the Greek king of Bactria Milinda (the Greek, Menander), who ruled the Punjab, and the Buddhist sage Bhante Nagasena

Their lively dialogue, dramatic and witty, eloquent, and inspired, explores the various problems of Buddhist thought and practice from the point of view of a perceptive Greek intellectual, both perplexed and fascinated by the strangely rational religion he discovers on the Indian subcontinent.

Through a series of paradoxes, Nagasena leads the Greek « rationalist » to ascend to the spiritual and therefore transcendental dimension, beyond logic and simple rationality, of nirvana, which, like space, has « no formal cause » and can therefore occur, but « cannot be caused ». So how do we get there?

And to one of his disciples, who once asked him whether the universe was finite or infinite, eternal or not, whether the soul was distinct from the body, what became of man after death, the Buddha replied with a parable:

C. Urban Planning

Taxila.

One of the great urban and cultural centers and, for a time, the capital of Gandhara, was Taxila or Takshashila (present-day Punjab), founded around 1000 BC on the ruins of a city dating from the Harappan period and located on the eastern bank of the Indus, the junction points between the Indian subcontinent and Central Asia.

Some ruins of Taxila date to the time of the Achaemenid Persian Empire, followed successively by the Mauryan Empire, the Indo-Greek Kingdom, the Indo-Scythians, and the Kushan Empire. 

According to some accounts, the University of Ancient Taxila (centuries before the residential bouddhist University of Nalanda founded in 427 AD) can be considered one of the earliest centers of learning in South Asia.

As early as 300 BC, Taxila functioned largely as a “University” offering higher education. Students had to complete their primary and secondary education elsewhere before being admitted to Taxila.

The minimum age requirement was sixteen. Not only Indians but also students from neighboring countries like China, Greece, and Arabia flocked to this city of learning.

Chanakya.

Around 321 BC, it was the great philosopher, teacher, and economist of Gandhara, Chanakya, who helped the first Mauryan emperor, Chandragupta, to seize power.

Under the tutelage of Chanakya, Chandragupta received a comprehensive education at Taxila, encompassing the various arts of the time, including the art of war, for a duration of 7–8 years. 

In 303 BC, Taxila fell into their hands, and under Ashoka the Great, the grandson of Chandragupta, the city became a great center of Buddhist learning and art. 

Chanakya, whose writings were only rediscovered in the early 20th century and who served as the principal advisor to both emperors Chandragupta and his son Bindusara, is widely considered to have played an important role in establishing the Mauryan Empire. 

Also known as Kauṭilya and Vishnugupta, Chanakya is the author of The Arthashastra, a Sanskrit political treatise on statecraft, political science, economic policy, and military strategy. The Arthashastra also addresses the question of collective ethics which ensures the cohesion of a society. He advised the king to launch major public works projects, such as the creation of irrigation routes and the construction of forts around the main production centers and strategic towns in regions devastated by famine, epidemics, and other natural disasters, or by war, and to exempt from taxes those affected by these disasters.

Sirkap.

In the 2nd century BC, Taxila was annexed by the Indo-Greek kingdom of Bactria which built a new capital there named Sirkap, where Buddhist temples were contiguous with Hindu and Greek temples, a sign of religious tolerance and syncretism.

Sirkap was built according to the “Hippodamian” grid plan characteristic of Greek cities. (*5)

It is organized around a main avenue and fifteen perpendicular streets, covering an area of ​​approximately 1,200 meters by 400, with a surrounding wall 5 to 7 meters wide and 4.8 kilometers long. 

After its construction by the Greeks, the city was rebuilt during the incursions of the Indo-Scythians, then by the Indo-Parthians after an earthquake in the year 30 AD. Gondophares, the first king of the Indo-Parthian kingdom, built parts of the city, including the Buddhist stupa (funerary monument) of the double-headed eagle and the temple of the Sun god. Finally, inscriptions dating from 76 AD demonstrate that the city had already come under Kushan domination. The Kushan ruler Kanishka erected Sirsukh, about 1.5 km northeast of ancient Taxila.

Buddhist sutras from the Gandhara region were studied in China when the Kushan monk Lokaksema (born 147) began translating some of the earliest Buddhist sutras into Chinese. The oldest of these translations show that they were translated from the Gândhârî language. 

D. Architecture, the invention of Stupas

Stupa of Sanchi, India.

The construction of religious buildings in the form of a Buddhist stupa (reliquary) – a domed monument – began in India as memorials associated with the preservation of the sacred relics of the Buddha.

The stupas are surrounded by a balustrade which serves as a ramp for ritual circumambulation. The sacred area is accessed through doors located at the four cardinal points. Stupas were often built near much older prehistoric burial sites, notably those associated with the Indus Valley Civilization. 

Ruins of buddhist monatry of Garhal Sarni, Gandhara, Pakistan.

Stone gates and gates covered with sculptures were added to the stupas. The favorite themes are the events of the historical life of the Buddha, as well as his previous lives numbering 550 and described with much irony in the Jatakas. (See B)

Monkey offering pot of Honey to Buddha, stupa of Sanchi.

The bas-reliefs of the stupas are like comic strips that tell us about the daily and religious life of Gandhara: wine amphorae, wine goblets (kantaros), bacchanalia, musical instruments, Greek or Indian clothing, ornaments, hairstyles arranged in style. Greek, artisans, their tools, etc. On a vase found inside a stupa, is the inscription of a Greek, Theodore, civil governor of a province in the 1st century BC, explaining in Kharosthi script how the relics were deposited in the stupa.

Many stupas are believed to date from Ashoka‘s time, such as that of Sanchi (Central India) or Kesariya (East India), where he also erected pillars with his edicts and perhaps the stupa of Bharhut (Central India), Amaravati (South-East India) or Dharmarajika (Taxila) in Gandhara (Pakistan). According to Buddhist tradition, Emperor Ashoka recovered the relics of the Buddha in older stupas and erected 84,000 stupas to distribute all these relics throughout Indian territory.

Following in the footsteps of Ashoka, Kanishka ordered the construction of the 400-foot grand stupa at Purushapura (Peshawar), which is among the tallest buildings of the ancient world. 

Archaeologists who rediscovered its base in 1908-1909 estimated that this stupa had a diameter of 87 meters. Reports from Chinese pilgrims such as Xuanzang indicate that its height was around 200 meters and that it was covered in precious stones. Also, under the Kushans, huge statues of the Buddha were erected in monasteries and carved into hillsides.

Sculpture: when Buddha became man 

ANICONIC PERIOD

It is important to know that in early times Buddha was never depicted in human form. For more than four centuries, his presence is simply indicated by symbolic elements such as a pair of footprints, a lotus (indicating the purity of his birth), an empty throne, an unoccupied space under a parasol, a horse without a rider or the Bodhi fig tree under which he reached nirvana. Scholars do not agree on whether these symbols represent the Buddha himself or whether they simply allude to anecdotes from his life. 

END OF ANICONISM

What led Buddhists to abandon aniconic representations remains a vast mystery. Such a development is quite unique in the history of religions. Imagine Muslims suddenly promoting statues of the prophet Mohammed!

The explanations put forward so far leave us wanting more.

For some, the Buddhists wanted to appeal to a Greek clientele, but both the Greek population and Buddhism were in Gandhara long before the iconographic revolution in question. The timing doesn’t fit.

For others, practitioners, in the absence of Buddha himself, would have been desperate to find a visual focal point, be it a statue, a painting or even a few hairs… But for that purpose, the symbols they adopted (wheel, fig tree, empty chair, footprint, etc.), were sufficient.

Buddha, it is reported, refused to be represented in any way, fearing that idolatry would flourish.

But over time, Buddhism evolved. In Gandhara, Mahayana Buddhism flourished.

While for the old school, Siddhartha Gautama was only an enlightened man setting an example, for the new school of Mahayana Buddhism, Buddha was a (successful) attempt to personify (the omnipresent spiritual force, the ultimate and supreme principle of life) in the conception of the first Buddha of all. In short, a kind of Jesus. Consequently, just like Christ from the 5th century on, Buddha could be represented in human form and express elevated states of the soul, such as tenderness and compassion. Added to this is the fact that for Mahayana Buddhism, the objective of helping all living beings to attain nirvana and liberate them from suffering has priority over reaching nirvana on a purely personal level.

Unlike many Christian artists in the West, who, following the doxa, represented Christ suffering on the Cross (the founding event of the Christian faith and Church), the artists of Gandhara present the Buddha as a being totally detached from human pain, looking with compassion to all of humanity.

More importantly, the goal is the elimination of suffering in all humans, compassion is not a passive notion for Buddhists. It is not just empathy but rather an empathetic altruism that actively strives to free others from suffering, an act of kindness imbued with both wisdom and love. 

DIFFERENCES IN FORM, DIFFERENCES IN CONTENT

Before discussing their differences, let’s simply distinguish four types of Buddha representations, among many others:

  1. The « Greco-Buddhist » Gandhara school, produced in the region between Hadda (Afghanistan) and Taxila (Punjab), via Peshawar (Pakistan);
  2. The « Indo-Buddhist » school of Mathura;
  3. The Andra Pradesh school in southern India;
  4. The school of the Gupta period (3rd to 5th centuries).

1. Greco-Buddhist in Gandhara

The term « Greco-Buddhist » refers to archaeologist Alfred Foucher’s (1865-1952) 1905 Sorbonne thesis on Gandhara art.

As André Malraux (1901-1976) wrote in Les Voix du silence in 1951, Greco-Buddhist art is the encounter between Hellenism and Buddhism. Instead of saying that art from Greece had metamorphosed into Buddhist art, as Malraux put it, I think that in Gandhara, it was Buddhist art that appropriated the best of Indian, Greek and steppe aesthetics.

However, Foucher was right to insist, against his English friends, that the influence was Hellenic and not Roman. For their part, with India emancipating itself from the British Empire, Indian scholars tried to validate the thesis of an indigenous creation of the Buddha image, contrasting the Gandhara style, which Foucher wanted to be Greco-Buddhist, with the style of Mathura, in the Delhi region, also part of the Kushan empire, and seen by some as contemporary, even if it is far less prolix than Gandhara art.

Gandhara art really took off during the Kushan period, particularly under the reign of King Kanishka.

Thousands of images were produced and spread throughout the region, from portable Buddhas to monumental statues in sacred places of worship.

In Gandhara, Buddha is depicted very realistically as a beautiful person, often a young man or even a woman. The spiritual charge is such that gender is no longer essential. We don’t know whether these are beautiful portraits taken from life, or pure figments of the artist’s imagination.

Buddha is often shown in meditative posture to evoke the moment when he reaches nirvana.

Crowned with a halo, his face serious or smiling, his eyes half-closed, he radiates light. Full of serenity, he embodies detachment, concentration, wisdom and benevolence.

His hair in a bun (the ushnisha) at the top of his head indicates that he is gifted with supramundane knowledge. The black dot between his eyes symbolizes the third eye, the eye of enlightenment.

In some sculptures, this cavity contains a crystal pearl, symbolizing radiant light. The earlobes are elongated to accommodate the heavy jewelry once worn by the young prince Siddhartha during his princely youth.

The positioning of the hands, as in the rest of Indian art, responds to codes. These include the « abhayamudra », the gesture of reassurance, with the palm facing outwards; the « varamudra », symbolizing giving, with the hand hanging open and the arm half-bent; or the « vitarkamudra », symbolizing argumentation, with the hand raised to chest height, half-closed, palm forward, index finger curved towards the thumb.

At Gandhara, Buddha is dressed in a monastic cloak covering both shoulders. The fabric is neither cut nor sewn, but simply draped in a Greek style around the body. The barely stylized folds follow natural volumes.

2. The School of Mathura

King Kanishka, while supporting all religions he found worthy, did not hide his preference for Buddhism. In practice, he encouraged both the Gandhara school of Greco-Buddhist art (in Taxila and Hadda) and the Indo-Buddhist school (in Mathura, closer to South Asia). 

As one can see, in Mathura, local artists produced a very different type of Buddha. His body is dilated by the sacred breath (prana) and his monastic robe is draped in the Indian style in a way that bares the right shoulder.

Mathura artists used the image of statues of the pre-Buddhist yaksha cults of nature as models for their productions. The body position is often more static and without contrapposto. Clothing can be so thin that the lower parts of the anatomy make a showing and detract the viewers’ concentration on Buddha’s spiritual nature.

3. School of Andhra Pradesh


A third type of influential Buddha type developed in Andhra Pradesh in southern India, where images of large proportions, with serious, unsmiling faces, are dressed in robes that also reveal the left shoulder. These southern sites served as artistic inspiration for the Buddhist land of Sri Lanka, at the southern tip of India, and Sri Lankan monks visited them regularly. Many statues in this style spread from there throughout Southeast Asia. 

4. The Gupta period

The Gupta period, from the 4th to 6th centuries AD, in northern India, often referred to as the Golden Age, is believed to have synthesized the three schools. In seeking an “ideal” image for mass production, mannerism took over.

The Gupta Buddhas have their hair arranged in small individual curls, and the robes have a network of strings to suggest the folds of the draperies (as at Mathura).

With their downward gaze and spiritual aura, the Gupta Buddhas became the model for future generations of artists, whether in post-Gupta and Pala India or Nepal, Thailand, and Indonesia.

Metal Gupta statues of the Buddha were also carried by pilgrims along the Silk Road to China and Korea where Confucius literati sometimes felt threatened by the rise of Buddhism.

But the Buddhas of Gandhara are very special and truly unique. They are distinct examples escaping any codification and standards. They were made by artists with a high spirituality, exploring new frontiers of beauty, movement, and freedom, and not objects produced to satisfy an emerging market.

As early as the first century BC, local artists, who had worked with perishable materials such as brick, wood, thatch, and bamboo, adopted stone on a very large scale. The new material used was mainly a light to dark colour gray shale stone (in the Kabul River valley and Peshawar region). Later periods are characterized by the use of stucco and clay (a specialty of Hadda).

The origin of Buddha’s beautiful image is a subject Pakistanis, Indians, Afghans, and Europeans like to wrangle about today. All claim to have been the main sponsors and authors of the « Miracle of Gandhara », but few ask how it came about. The techniques used for the sculptures and coins of Gandhara are very close to those of Greece. Questions about whether they were created by traveling Greek sculptors or by the local artists they trained are up for discussion. Who did what and when remains an open question, but does it really matter? 

When Asia meets Greece

Let’s take a look at some of the artistic expressions that testify to the beautiful encounter between Hellenic culture and Central Asian and Indian local cultures.

A. Kushan Coins 

A gold coin dating from 120 AD shows the king dressed in a heavy Kushan cloak and long boots, with flames emanating from the shoulders, holding a standard in his left hand and making a sacrifice on an altar with the legend in Greek characters: “King of kings, Kanishka the Kushan”

The reverse of the same coin represents a standing Buddha, in Greek costume, making the “fear nothing” (abhaya mudra) gesture with his right hand and holding a fold of his robe in his left hand. The legend in Greek characters now reads ΒΟΔΔΟ (Boddo), for the Buddha.

B. Bimaran Reliquary

A truly classical theme in the repertoire of any artist of the time consists of showing Buddha surrounded, welcomed, and protected by the deities of other beliefs and more ancient religions.

Bimaran casket.

The oldest such representation known to date appears on a reliquary found in the Bimaran stupa in northwestern Gandhara. On this small gold urn, known as the Bimaran casket, generally dated 50-60 AD, there appears, inside vaulted niches of Greco-Roman architecture, a “Hellenistic” representation of the Buddha (hairstyle, contrapposto, prestigeous wrap, etc.), surrounded by the Indian deities Brahma and Shakra. 

Just like Ashoka, the almost secular Kanishka, did not intend to reign against but with all and “above” all religions.

Thus, on occasion, the Greek deities, represented on coins (Zeus, Apollo, Heracles, Athena…), rub shoulders with the deities of Vedism, Zoroastrianism, and Buddhism.

Another example of this form of inclusiveness, is the cave and the temple carved into the rock in Ellora, in central India, with representatives of the three religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism) rubbing shoulders in the center.

C. The Hadda Triad

The Hadda Triad.

Another exquisite example of this Gandharan art is a sculptural group known as the Triad of Hadda, excavated at Tapa Shotor, a large Sarvastivadin monastery near Hadda in Afghanistan, dating from the 2nd century AD.

To give an idea of its vast artistic production, it is worthy of note that some 23,000 Greco-Buddhist sculptures, in clay and plaster, were unearthed in Hadda alone between the 1930s and 1970s.

The site, heavily damaged during recent wars, had beautiful statues, including a seated Buddha (image above), dressed in a Greek chlamys (white coat), with curly hair, accompanied by Heracles and Tyche (Greek goddess of fortune and of prosperity), dressed in a chiton (Greek dress), holding a cornucopia. 

Here, the only adaptation to local traditions of Greek iconography is the fact that Heracles no longer holds in his hand his usual club but the thunderbolt of Vajrapani (from the Sanskrit word which means “thunderbolt” (vajra) and « in the hand » (pani), one of the first three protective deities surrounding the Buddha.

Another statue recalls the portrait of Alexander the Great. Unfortunately, only photographs remain of this sculptural ensemble, .

According to Afghan archaeologist Zemaryalai Tarzi, the Tapa Shotor Monastery, with its clay sculptures dating back to the 2nd century AD, represents the « missing link » between the Hellenistic art of Bactria and the later stucco sculptures found at Hadda, generally dating back to between the 3rd – 4th century AD. Traditionally, the influx of master artists of Hellenistic art has been attributed to the migration of Greek populations from the Greco-Bactrian cities of Ai-Khanoum and Takht-I-Sangin (Northern Afghanistan).

Tarzi suggests that Greek populations settled in the plains of Jalalabad, which included Hadda, around the Hellenistic city of Dionysopolis (Nagara), and were responsible for the Buddhist creations of Tapa Shotor in the 2nd century AD. 

The Greek colonists who remained in Gandhara (the “Yavanas” or Ionians) after the departure of Alexander, either by choice or as populations condemned to exile by Athens, greatly embellished the artistic expressions of their new spirituality. 

Offering freshness, poetry, and a spectacularly modern sense of movement, the first Buddhist artists of Gandhara, capturing instants of « motion-change » allowing the human mind to apprehend a potential leap towards perfection, are an invaluable contribution to all human culture. Isn’t it high time that this magnificent work be recognized?

D. Take the Earth as your Witness

A magnificent sculpture, now on exhibition at the Cleveland Museum, depicts one of the narratives of the Buddha’s struggle to achieve nirvana. The bodhi fig tree under which the Buddha achieved enlightenment is at the center of the composition. It has been revered since ancient times by local villagers, as it is known to be the residence of a deity of nature. The altar itself is covered with kusha grass used as part of sacrificial offerings.

After sitting in meditation for seven days under his tree, approximately 2,500 years ago, the Buddha was challenged by nightmarish demons (Maras) who questioned the authenticity of his accomplishment. 

Mara, who stands on the right in an arrogant swaying position among his beautiful daughters, tries everything to prevent Buddha from succeeding. He threatens him and encourages his daughters to seduce him. Innocently, he asks Buddha if he is sure he can find someone to testify that he has truly reached nirvana. In response to the challenge launched by Mara, the Buddha then touches the earth and calls it to witness.

According to mythology, when he touched the ground, the young Earth Goddess rose out of the ground and started to wring the cool waters of detachment out of her hair to drown Mara. On the sculpture, one can see the Earth goddess, very small, at the base of the altar, kneeling before Buddha in reverence. She also took a human form when rising from the ground. The old religions intervened here to defend and protect the new one, that of Buddha.

The Indians who converted to Buddhism also seem to have missed the old gods and goddesses of their pantheon; hence, they too include their deities above the head of Buddha or next to it, such as the Vedic god Indra, for example.

E. All Bodhisattvas?

Finally, to conclude this section on sculpture, a few words about the bodhisattva, a very interesting figure that has emerged from the Buddhist imagination to make Buddhist spirituality accessible to ordinary people.

Animated by altruism and obeying the disciplines intended for bodhisattvas, a bodhisattva must compassionately first help all other sentient beings to awaken, even by delaying his own nirwana!

Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva of compassion.

Bodhisattvas are distinguished by great spiritual qualities such as the « four divine abodes »:

  • loving-kindness (Maitri);
  • compassion (karuna);
  • empathic joy (mudita);
  • equanimity (upekṣa).

The other various perfections (paramitas) of the Bodhisattva include prajnaparamita (« transcendent knowledge » or the « perfection of wisdom ») and skillful means (upaya).

Spiritually advanced Bodhisattva such as Avalokiteshvara, Maitreya, and Manjushri were widely revered in the Mahayana Buddhist world and are believed to possess great power which they use to help all living beings.

A wonderful example of the Bodhisattva concept can be seen at the Dallas Museum of Art (above). This terracotta sculpture represents a “thinking Bodhisattva” from the Hadda region in Afghanistan and is a typical production from Gandhara.

With very few visual elements, the artist produces here a huge effect.

The pillars of his large Bodhisattva chair are lions with slightly outlandish eyes, an allegorical representation of those passions that make us suffer and which are kept under sagacious control by the highly reflective effort of the heroic Bodhisattva on the chair at the center of the piece.

Buddhism today

Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi, received at the White House by JFK.

Paradoxically, since the 12th century AD Buddhism, as a religion, has almost ceased to exist in its own birthplace of India.

A fine example of the incessant struggle of the best Indian minds for emancipation was in 1956 when nearly half a million « untouchables » converted to Buddhism under the leadership of the political leader who headed the committee responsible for drafting the Constitution of India, the social reformer B. R. Ambedkar (1891-1956), and the Indian Prime Minister and leader of the Congress Party Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964), himself from a Brahmin family.

In June of the same year, the UNESCO Courier dedicated its edition to “25 centuries of Buddhist art and culture”. 

In India, the two statesmen orchestrated a year-long celebration honoring “2,500 years of Buddhism« , not to resurrect an ancient faith per se, but to claim status as the birthplace of Buddhism: this ancient religion that restores to the world an image advocating non-violence and pacifism.

Buddha statue offered by Nehru to JFK during his state visit in 1961.

Later, on November 9, 1961, during his state visit to the White House, Indian Prime Minister Nehru presented a Buddhist sculpture to President John F. Kennedy. 

The West’s gaping ignorance about the real nature of Buddhism and Nehru’s “non-alignment” would eventually turn decolonization into bloody conflicts, such as in Vietnam, where close to 80 percent of the population was Buddhist, but where 80 percent of the land was owned by Catholic interests considered more robust to resist communist expansionism. 

Mahatma Gandhi, like many Hindus, listened to Buddha’s message. For Hindus, Buddhism was just “another form of Hinduism”, and its justified social criticism, therefore, came “from within Hinduism”.

A point of view that Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru did not share. Deeply troubled by certain intrinsic features of Hinduism, such as ritualism and the caste system, Nehru could not place Buddhism, which abhorred these institutions, in the same category. Nehru was profoundly influenced by Buddhism. He even named his daughter Indira Priyadashini (the future Prime Minister Indira Gandhi), because « Priyadarshi » was the name adopted by the great emperor Ashoka after he became a Buddhist prince of peace! 

Nehru was instrumental in making the Ashoka Chakra (the Buddhist wheel incorporated into the national flag) the symbol of India. Every time he visited Sri Lanka, he visited the Buddha statue at Anuradhapura. 

Nehru, who continually urged superstitious and ritualistic Indians to cultivate a « scientific temperament » and bring India into the era of the atomic age, was naturally attracted to the rationalism advocated by the Buddha.

Nehru argued:

The influence of the Buddha was manifested in Nehru’s foreign policy. This policy was motivated by a desire for peace, international harmony, and mutual respect. It aimed to resolve conflicts by peaceful methods.

On November 28, 1956, Nehru stated:

Visibly inspired by Buddhist precepts, the concepts of « non-alignment » and Nehru’s « Treaty of Panchsheel », commonly referred to as the « Treaty of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence », were formally enunciated for the first time in the agreement on trade and relations between the Tibetan region of China and India, signed on 29th April 1954. 

This agreement stipulated, in its preamble, that the two governments,

Nehru, at the International Buddhist Cultural Conference held on 29th November 1952, in Sanchi, the very city where Kanishka had started building the highest stupa of antiquity, specified:

On 3rd October 1960, Nehru addressed the United Nations General Assembly when he said,

Nehru tried his best to apply the teachings of the Buddha in managing India’s internal affairs. His belief is that social change can only be achieved through the broadest social consensus that stems from the influence of the Buddha, Ashoka, and Gandhi.

In his speech of 15th August 15, 1956, on the occasion of Independence Day, Nehru sets out the challenges to be met: We are proud that the soil on which we were born has produced great souls like Gautama Buddha and Gandhi. Let us refresh our memory once again and pay homage to Gautama Buddha and Gandhi, and to the great souls who, like them, shaped this country. Let us follow the path they showed us with strength, determination, and cooperation.” 

Science and religion, Albert Einstein and Buddha

To conclude, here are some quotes of Albert Einstein discussing the relation between science and religion where he underlines the importance of Buddha:

NOTES:

(*1) Indo-Aryan languages. There are over 200 known Indo-Aryan languages spoken by about 1 billion people. Modern Indo-Aryan languages descend from Old Indo-Aryan languages such as early Vedic Sanskrit, through Middle Indo-Aryan languages (or Prakrits). The largest such languages in terms of first-speakers are Hindi–Urdu (c. 330 million), Bengali (242 million), Punjabi (about 120 million), Marathi (112 million), Gujarati (60 million), Rajasthani (58 million), Bhojpuri (51 million), Odia (35 million), Maithili (about 34 million), Sindhi (25 million), Nepali (16 million), Assamese (15 million), Chhattisgarhi (18 million), Sinhala (17 million), and Romani (c. 3.5 million). Southern India has Dravidian languages (Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam). In Europe, the main Indo-European languages are English, French, Portuguese, Russian, Dutch and Spanish.

(*2) Discords. As early as the 3rd century BC, no fewer than eighteen distinct Buddhist schools were at work in India, but all recognized each other as followers of the Buddha’s philosophy. Finally, Diamond Vehicle Buddhism, known as Vajrayana, whose complex texts and rituals were developed in the universities of northeast India around the 7th and 8th centuries.

(*3) Prakrit is a term that designates an Indo-Aryan language derived from classical Sanskrit. The word itself has a fairly flexible definition, because it sometimes has the meaning of “original, natural, without artifice, normal, ordinary, usual, or even local”, thus contrasting with the literary and religious form of Sanskrit; but sometimes, we can also understand Prakrit as meaning “derived from an original language”, that is to say, derived from Sanskrit. We can therefore say that Prakrit, like any vulgar and vernacular language of India, comes from Sanskrit. In a way, we can compare Prakrits to vulgar Latin, while Sanskrit would be classical Latin. The oldest known use of prâkrit is formed by the set of inscriptions of the Indian emperor Ashoka (3rd century BC). One of the most famous Prakrits is Pali, which achieved the status of a literary and intellectual language by becoming that of the texts of Theravada Buddhism.

(*4) Pâli is an Indo-European language of the Indo-Aryan family. It is a Middle Indian Prakrit close to Sanskrit and probably dates back to the 3rd century BC. Pâḷi is used as a Buddhist liturgical language in Sri Lanka, Burma, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. Its status as a liturgical language has made it, like Sanskrit, fixed and standardized.

(*5) Hippodamos of Miletus (born 498 BC – died 408 BC) was a surveyor and engineer from the 5th century BC. BC was also an urban architect, physicist, mathematician, meteorologist, and Pythagorean philosopher. Tradition has remembered his great works of urban planning. Although these works are characterized by the systematic use of the checkerboard plan, he is not its inventor, very ancient Greek colonies already providing us with examples of this urban structure.

Merci de partager !