The Stonemasons of Beit Jala: Location, Skill, and Passion

By Dan Koski

[part 1 of 2]

The quiet hilltop city of Beit Jala that overlooks Bethlehem and the Jordan Valley in the West Bank has, by and large, escaped the interest of Biblical scholars, archaeologists, chroniclers and greater travelogues, but any serious student of the Holy Land will have at the very least come across its name or passed on through this Christian village. Yet the village has made its mark in more ways than one, including, quite literally, a mark in stone through its legacy of stonemasons.

The quality of the stonemasonry in Beit Jala is one of its many charms. From its Ottoman city centre to its more modern constructions from the British Mandate onwards, its residential, commercial and religious buildings have long been admired by pilgrims, travelers and researchers either passing through or residing in the village (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Historic Beit Jala buildings, late Ottoman to post-Jordanian era (photo by D. Koski).

It is said that Beit Jala was the first water-skin stop of the Holy Family en route to Egypt. With its abundance of water, relatively cool climate and proximity to both Jerusalem and Bethlehem, it is no wonder that Beit Jala took the interest of many of the disciples of Jesus who passed through it in his first few days on Earth. While identified as a Christian place of pilgrimage by at least the Ottoman era on a surviving Greek Orthodox pilgrimage map of the Holy Land in Crete, its Arab Palestinian Christian population became of equal interest by the 19th century.

With a surge in Catholic, Protestant and Russian Orthodox missionary activity in the late Ottoman Era, as well as a resurgent Greek Orthodox Church, local quality stonemasons were in high demand for innumerable building projects ranging from churches, schools and hospitals to more refined work such as statues needed for chapels (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Stone icon of Saint George above the lintel of a Beit Jala home (photo by D. Koski).

Being geographically close to Jerusalem and having contacts through the various Christian churches and communities which already had a keen interest in Bethlehem district, Beit Jala stonemasons had an invaluable leg up from the competition. Furthermore, with a local abundance of much-valued Jerusalem stone, known for its quality and pinkish rose-tinted hue (indeed, oral history attributes the columns of the nave within the Church of the Nativity to as being from the vicinity of present-day Beit Jala), administrators overseeing building projects could potentially use both local skill and building material, significantly reducing their overhead. The magnificent stonework of the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene on Gethsemane and the façade of the Milk Grotto Church in Bethlehem, both completed in part by stonecutters from Beit Jala, bears witness to the quality work that could be accomplished by the end of the 19th century.

Unsurprisingly, a local market for expert stonemasonry begun to emerge in the late 19th to early 20th century, as the prosperity of several prominent Bethlehem and Beit Jala families from successful business ventures in the Americas resulted in a new urban middle class that sought to both house their growing families and show off their wealth. Unlike the family palaces of the Old City of Nablus which sought to emulate the grand hosh of Damascus, Bethlehem and Beit Jala families favored a style of residential architecture with more Western influences, with the front entrance of the home facing outwards and buffered by a small courtyard fenced off with either wrought-iron gates or a simple stone wall. Most famous of all of these homes is the Jacir Palace of Bethlehem near Rachel’s Tomb, at present the most prolific hotel in the region, if not the entire West Bank. The Greek Orthodox cemetery of Beit Jala boasts edifices which rival their Victorian peers (Fig. 3).

Fig 3: Relief panel of the Ottoman-Era Rizqallah family sarcophagus, located in the Greek Orthodox Cemetery of Beit Jala (photo by D. Koski).

Another unique structure is the Judah Salah House of Beit Jala, whose ornate decorative stone façade includes two caryatids of family members in 20th century dress.  During the Second Intifada, in which Beit Jala was occupied by the Israeli military in part due to its strategic, elevated position over Bethlehem, one of the heads of the caryatids was shot off in the crossfire between Palestinian militants and Israeli forces, and has since served as a continuous reminder of the constant threat of conflict in the region.

As a principally Palestinian Christian city, it should come as no surprise that the village includes some excellent examples of stone work on its five churches (three Orthodox, one Catholic and one Lutheran), its cemeteries and in the homes and businesses of its residents.  As elsewhere in the Holy Land, Christian and Muslim homeowners alike place commemorative stones over the front entrance of their homes as a blessing (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Decorate stone lintel over a 20th-century Beit Jala home (photo by D. Koski).

By far the most common depiction of Palestinian Christian stone iconography is Saint George, patron saint of Palestine, followed by an ornate cross, the Virgin Mary and Christ. Beit Jala stone icons of Saint Nicholas can also be found, for the gift-giving saint was known to have resided in a cave near what would become a monastery dedicated to Saint George (and himself) in later years.

At Virgin Mary Orthodox Church in the town’s center on sleepy summer afternoon, an inquiry on local stone sculptors at the local parish office with the priests and office workers resulted in no less than half a dozen family names without so much as a pause between names:  Matar, Saba, Abu Ghattas, Rabah, Nastas….

“See Fawzy Nastas, my father in law,” the church secretary suggests. “My wife will take you to meet him. He’s one of the best there is.”

In Part 2 of this blog, Beit Jala stone sculptor Fawzy Nastas will delve into his experience of “Making the Stones Speak.” Dan Koski is long-term a resident of Beit Jala, and can be reached at dankoski1979@gmail.com.

The Stonemasons of Beit Jala: Making the Stones Speak

By Dan Koski

[part 2 of 2]

Fawzy Nastas of Beit Jala is one of the most prolific stone sculptors in the West Bank. Having first learned his trade as an apprentice to his father during the renovation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the 1960s, he is the third stonemason within four generations (his grandfather having fled the country due to mass conscriptions into the Ottoman Army). Fawzy speaks English with a soft Italian accent; a remnant of the many years in which he studied stonemasonry in Italy. His workshop is witness to over five decades of consistent work in the Holy Land and abroad; commemorative grave markers for the Christian deceased, a veritable iconostasis of stone icons for residential and commercial homes, life-sculptures of national, civic and religious figures ranging from the Virgin Mary to Palestinian civic and national leaders (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Beit Jala stone sculptor Fawzy Nastas in his workshop (photo by D. Koski).

His commissions both sacred and secular can be found across the Holy Land. Some have suffered the fate of continual conflict in the nation; an enormous statue of Christ was vandalized by sectarian extremists while in a studio in Jerusalem; another statue of the Palestinian national leader Abd al-Qadr Al-Husseini, commissioned by a West Bank university, was decapitated by Islamic fundamentalists who objected to the life-sized imagery being so prominently placed (a copy was made and the original, now restored, stands sentinel in front of the Nastas family home) (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: Samples of stone icons for sale in Fawzy’s workshop, traditionally placed above the front door of Palestinian Christian homes and businesses (photo by D. Koski).

No mere artisan, Fawzy holds a doctorate degree from the Academy of Fine Art in Brera, Milano, and is frequently called to lecture on and represent Palestinian stonemasons and artists in conferences and exhibitions across the country. His knowledge of the history of the craft extends to delightful folk stories, such as an oft-repeated legend of one of the first well-known stonemasons of Beit Jala, Jabra Saba, who while working on the Jacir family home of Bethlehem (now the Jacir Palace) kept pestering the French architect for his next assignment at the building project. The architect, tired of the conversation, eventually blurted out a command: “go make a monkey!” – a task which the eager artisan eagerly set himself to and promptly displayed his finished work to the exasperated architect some time later.

Other legends of the works of Beit Jala stonecutters take on a darker side; for as with many other places where grand homes and buildings from eras past are part of local history, stories of haunted houses occasionally surface.  The afore-mentioned Salah house of Beit Jala, now past its prime, plays the part of the haunted house in many children’s neighborhood games and stories, while a long-standing story of a boy who once visited the Jacir Palace described meeting a man in outdated clothes – and then identified him from a mural portrait of the original owner, long since deceased (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: The Judah Salah Family home of Beit Jala, considered one of the finest examples of Beit Jala stonework (photo by D. Koski).

A Future?

Now reaching his sixth decade of stonemasonry, Fawzy continues to work exclusively with his hands, and also teaches stone masonry. Like many other artisans in related fields, he is wary of the future of his craft.

“They use robotics and computers,” Fawzy says, speaking of the new generation of stone sculptors in general. “They don’t know how to draw, and they can’t finish (the fine-detailing) of their work. There are people who come to me with offers to work on projects with computers, but I refuse. To work on art, it must be done by hand. Almost every year, I am going to symposiums across the world for art, to represent Palestine. The question is, why are they choosing me? It is because, in my opinion, I am working by hand.”

Will stonemasonry in Beit Jala survive this century? With an exception of a few artistically-inclined souls, the younger men of Beit Jala do not see stone sculpting as a viable future. Today, Beit Jala is better known for its disproportionate number of doctors, engineers, and academics, for another legacy of Beit Jala’s proximity to Jerusalem and Bethlehem has been access to private schools, missionary organizations and civil society organizations that continue to open doors to higher education in Palestine and abroad. With an exception of a few artistically-inclined souls, the younger men of Beit Jala do not see stone sculpting as a viable future.

While taking photos of decorative lintels and stone icons. I came across a construction site near the city centre. A skeletal frame of a new building using more expensive stone dressing is going up, and while not even the exterior walls of the first floor have been completed, a large stone icon of Saint George slaying the dragon (Fig. 4), complete with a blessing and an inscription of the year in which the foundation of the structure was laid, has been placed at the upper center of the street entrance.

Fig. 4: Stone icons of Saint George, patron of Palestine, Christ, and other Christian figures, created by Fawzy Nastas (photo by D. Koski).

The smooth polished stone face of Saint George, untarnished as of yet by exhaust fumes and the intensity of the Palestine sun, looks on over the old city of Beit Jala and towards Jerusalem.

 

 

 

 

Dan Koski is a long-term resident of Beit Jala, and can be reached at dankoski1979@gmail.com. A special thank you to Faten Nastas Mitwasi, artist, Chairwoman of the Visual Arts Department of Dar Al-Kalima College and daughter of Fawzy Nastas, who is preparing a book on Palestinian stonemasonry.

Archaeologists in Print

By Amara Thornton

Over the course of two afternoons sometime in 2015, I wandered around the shelves of the PEF’s Library. I’d been there many times before, for meetings and archive research. But this time I came as a browser, my eyes scanned the spines as I paced round the room. I was focused on finding archaeologists’ popular publications. It was the subject of my postdoctoral research, now published as my first book, Archaeologists in Print: Publishing for the People (UCL Press).

Archaeologists in Print details the history of popular archaeology publishing in Britain roughly between the 1870s and the 1970s. It focuses on the books that British archaeologists produced for a non-scholarly audience, how these came to publication, and how archaeologists built a public presence in order to commodify their archaeological experience in popular formats. For the most part, the archaeologist-authors featured in Archaeologists in Print were working in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East. Names familiar to PEF members and friends (and represented on the Library shelves) are among those included: Flinders Petrie, David George Hogarth and John Garstang, for example. Women, including Mary Brodrick, Annie Quibell, Margaret Wheeler and Dorothy Mackay, were equally active in archaeology as these more famous men, not only in excavation, but also in promotion and public archaeology, particularly through tours and guidebooks. They are highlighted in Archaeologists in Print both in a specific chapter, “The Women Who Did”, and deliberately integrated throughout the book.

Archaeologists in Print is comprised broadly of two parts. The first part is an overview, charting how archaeologists were defined through education, training, and experience (especially travel-related), revealing the role of newspapers and compendiums in enhancing archaeologists’ public visibility as experts, and examining how books were marketed through series, circulating and public libraries, and bookshops.  The second part focuses on three important publishing houses: John Murray, Macmillan & Co, and Penguin. It details the rich histories to be found in publishers’ archives, and evaluates the careers and books of a number of different archaeologists who published with these companies. The book ends with an exploration of archaeology in fiction, concentrating on three genres: romance, horror/fantasy, and crime.

I thoroughly enjoyed my foray into the fascinating history of popular archaeology publishing, and discovering some unexpectedly fruitful archives along the way. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed the writing and research!

Archaeologists in Print: Publishing for the People can be downloaded as an open access pdf free from UCL Press: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/ucl-press/browse-books/archaeologists-in-print 

Paperback and hardback copies are also available for purchase.

 

Holy Lands in the USA: Two Tabernacles and Christmas

by Crispin Paine

[part 2 of 2]

The remarkable use made of drama as a mission tool by US Evangelical Christians has attracted some attention. In Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a Holy Land has grown out of a Passion Play. The Great Passion Play Theme Park was founded in the mid-1960s on the land of his retirement home by Gerald L. K. Smith, an ageing right-wing radio evangelist who hated Blacks and especially hated Jews (he insisted that Jesus wasn’t a Jew, but that Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower were.) Smith was a ‘Disciples of Christ’ minister, but also a very active politician whom even right-wing Republicans regarded as extreme. An active rabid pro-Nazi, after the War he campaigned for the release of Nazi war criminals. (The park today seems to have entirely escaped its founder’s racism: indeed, one of the attractions offered to visitors is an Israeli bomb-shelter, obtained via a colleague of Netanyahu.)

There he created his Sacred Projects, beginning with Christ of the Ozarks, a 67ft hilltop statue of Christ, following it in 1968 with the annual Great Passion Play, modelled on the Oberammergau Passion Play (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1: The Great Passion Paly stage (photo by C. Paine).

Smith’s plan was to create another major attraction: a full-size replica of the Old City of Jerusalem. He died when only the East Gate (of stone, and still impressive) had been built, and the project was abandoned (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: The “East Gate of Jerusalem” at “The Great Passion Play Theme Park” (photo by C. Paine).

Instead, in the early ‘90s, across the neighbouring hills were set up some 25 sites illustrating particular places/stories in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. These are used as foci for the New Holy Land Tour, which is in effect a two-hour mobile sermon. My tour was led by a Texan who, with her husband, spends the winter as a missionary in Mexico, and the summer acting in the Great Passion Play. Seven retired people and two newly-weds were taken round in a mini-bus; all the others appeared to be Evangelical Christians. Not all, however, seemed entirely familiar with their Bibles; an initial prayer, while parked under the East Gate, was followed by a discussion of whether Christ at the Second Coming would enter Jerusalem through the East Gate. One tourist remarked that ‘the Muslims’ had created a cemetery outside the gate in order to discourage Him.

The highlight of the tour was undoubtedly the impressive replica of the Tabernacle, which gets 16,000 visitors a year (the Play gets 50,000) and where the tour-guide’s husband Rob suggested (with huge use of parallels, symbols and numerology) that “everything in the Tabernacle points to Jesus”. At each stopping-point on the tour the guide delivers a little homily drawing a Christian message from the site. Other high points are the Upper Room and the Sea of Galilee (a very pretty lake), where on larger tours actors reenact the Last Supper and Jesus walking on the water.

‘Holy Land’ attractions approached from an archaeological and historical perspective are quite common in the US. ‘Bible History Exhibits’ in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, is a very modest example, housed in a small bungalow on the main road (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3: The “Bible History Exhibits”, Paradise PA (photo by C. Paine).

The simple displays are mostly of museum reproductions of artifacts, inscriptions and manuscripts, collected over the past twenty years and carefully chosen to tell the story first of the Hebrew Bible, then of the New Testament, and then of the Bible’s impact. In the garden is a modest replica of a Palestinian tomb and an olive press. The one-hour tour is led by Dr. Stephen Myers, who describes a selection of the exhibits, following broadly the story of the Bible.

 

Holy Lands appear in all sorts of places. The nearby ‘National Christmas Center’ is the life’s work of Jim Morrison, and includes a very large collection of cribs, a replica of a 1950s Woolworths Christmas display, endless Santa Clauses from a variety of countries, and so on. It also includes a display representing the Holy Family’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. This is a walkthrough combining replica Holy Land buildings and full-size dioramas of market traders in a Caravansarai (‘like a modern truckstop’) and of the birth of Christ (Fig. 4). The dangers of the journey are represented by a pair of stuffed mountain lions.

Fig. 4: Traders in the caravansarai, “National Christmas Center” (photo by. C. Paine).

Not far away is the Biblical Tabernacle Reproduction. This is one of the better-known Tabernacle replicas, though certainly inferior to that at the Great Passion Play theme-park, partly because the quality of reproduction is less, but also because this one is indoors. It was created in the late 1940s as the ‘Moses Tabernacle in the Wilderness,’ by a Baptist minister in St. Petersburg, Florida. Mennonites later purchased the replica and eventually joined it with the Mennonite Information Center. The Tabernacle has partly-open sides, enabling visitors to watch while a Mennonite minister gives an explanation. More straightforward than the presentation at the Great Passion Play, nevertheless he too drew a Christian message from the experience.

In his website http://www.materializingthebible.com, James Bielo of Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, lists 433 visitor attractions worldwide themed on the Bible. ‘Some are educational, some for fun, some for devotion. Some playful, some deeply serious. Some elaborate, some simple. Some controversial, some not. A few are all of the above.’ Were he to extend his list to include other ‘Holy Land’ places, he might include such attractions as ‘Prophet Muhammad Cinematic City’ near Qom, which reproduces Mecca at the time of Mohammed, and even Vrindavan, where ISKCON is building a theme-park to celebrate the birthplace of Krishna.

A Day in Jerusalem

By Charlotte Kelsted

In April 2018, a generous travel grant from the Palestine Exploration Fund allowed me to carry out an introductory research trip to Palestine. My research explores the attitudes and experiences of British women (colonial wives, missionaries, teachers, nurses and others) who resided in Palestine during the British Mandate (1920-1948), focusing specifically on encounters between these British women and local Palestinian Arab and Jewish communities. I started my PhD seven months ago, and this research trip has undoubtedly been the highlight of my doctoral study thus far.

After arriving into Tel Aviv late in the evening, I spent the first night of my trip at the charming Kenyon Institute in East Jerusalem. The Kenyon Institute, formerly the British School of Archaeology at Jerusalem (BSAJ), was established during the British military administration of Palestine in 1919, as result of a joint effort by the Palestine Exploration Fund, the British Academy and the Foreign Office. The library at the Kenyon Institute contains over 10,000 volumes on the Middle East and is particularly rich in material relating to Mandate Palestine.

Next to the Kenyon Institute is Dar Issaf Nashashibi, an inspiring archive and library devoted to promoting Palestinian cultural heritage. Dar Issaf Nashashibi was my first stop in Jerusalem and I was fortunate to meet Dua, Head Librarian, who was exceptionally helpful. From the top of Dar Issaf Nashashibi one can see Mount Scopus and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Fig. 1). Founded in 1918 and inaugurated under the British Mandate, the Hebrew University has rapidly expanded since the early twentieth century: with 270 students in 1934, in 2017 there were 23,000 students registered at the university.

Fig. 1: Mount Scopus and Hebrew University of Jerusalem (photo by C. Kelsted).

 

Next I visited the Mount of Olives to see the Dome of the Rock in all its splendour. This iconic shrine dominates the Jerusalem landscape and as the golden dome sparkled in the midday sun, the adhan from Al-Aqsa Mosque drifted up the Mount of Olives. Setting eyes on this view for the first time was a stirring moment for me, having gazed longingly at a photograph of this view from my desk in Exeter for several months prior to the trip (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: The Dome of the Rock seen from Mount of Olives (photo by C. Kelsted).

Back in the heart of this remarkable city in the afternoon, I entered the Old City for the first time through Damascus Gate. The atmosphere that greeted me was intoxicating: narrow passageways full to bursting with fervent tourists, locals expertly weaving in and out of the crowds as they attempt to carry out their daily business, clamorous shopkeepers and street vendors selling their wares, young men speeding through the ancient, cobbled streets on motorbikes, popping up behind you without a moment’s warning and the intoxicating smell of cinnamon and other aromatic herbs and spices emanating from the souq.

Escaping the intensity of the Old City, I roamed along the ramparts from Jaffa Gate to Damascus Gate and onwards, finally reaching the Spafford’s Children Centre. I had first heard the moving story of this centre from The Right Honourable Lady Cope of Berkeley at a Remembrance Service for the British Palestine Police in November 2017, and had been looking forward to visiting ever since.

The Spafford’s Children Centre was founded by Bertha Spafford Vester – an ancestor of the Rt Hon. Lady Cope, a patron of the British Palestine Police Association – in 1925 (Fig. 3 – Special thanks to Rachel Lev at the American Colony Archives, for kindly supplying this image).

Fig. 3: Mothers, nurses and children, Anna Spafford Baby Home (today the Spafford Children’s Centre), 1925 – 1934; part of Members and Activities of the American Colony and Aid Projects, 1926 – 1937 (courtesy of American Colony Archive, Jerusalem).

Bertha’s parents, Horatio and Anna Spafford were pious Christians who moved to the Holy Land in 1881 following the loss of four of their children at sea and another to scarlet fever. On arrival in the Holy Land, Horatio and Anna Spafford founded the American Colony and embarked on a project of philanthropic work to benefit all sections of Jerusalem’s population. In 1925, inspired by the work of her parents, Bertha established the Spafford Baby Home (now the Spafford Children’s Centre). To this day, the centre aims to assist all children and families in need of support, regardless of race or religion.

In the early evening I left the Old City and headed northwards, back to the Kenyon Institute in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. On the way I came across St George’s Cathedral (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: Façade of Saint George’s Cathedral (photo by C. Kelsted).

This cathedral was built in the late nineteenth century under the instruction of George Blyth, who had founded the Jerusalem and East Mission (now the Jerusalem and the Middle East Church Association) in 1888. This charming cathedral was the principal Anglican place of worship in the Palestine during the Mandate and thus a focal point for the British community between 1920 and 1948. Taking a moment to envision the British colonial wives, missionaries, teachers, nurses and others who would have congregated at this cathedral – several of whom taught at the adjoining school and college – was the perfect way to end my first day in Jerusalem.

Blooming dolmens!

By Jamie Fraser (Project Curator – Ancient Levant, British Museum)

In March 2015 I submitted my PhD thesis “Dolmens in the Levant”. For six weeks I had worked frantically in the library at the American Centre for Oriental Research in Amman, attacking my keyboard like a pianist the Rach 3, dreams haunted by an unfinished Chapter 9, or a bibliography missing any author with a name starting with ‘C’. Oh the elation near midnight at the end of the month, when I clicked ‘submit’ on the University of Sydney’s webpage; the burden slipped from my shoulders; my head became light; and I ascended, weightless, the library stairs to the Residences above, where the Director poured me a scotch, agreed that she too could hear heavenly choirs, and suggested I go home to bed.

I awoke three days later like Dorothy in Oz, keen to explore a new technicolour world. “Let’s go dolmen hunting!” I cried to my friend Isabelle Ruben, an archaeologist, botanist and long-time Amman resident, whose books include a Field Guide to the Plants and Animals of Petra. Isabelle readily agreed, but on condition we visited the Wadi Zerqa, a likely spot to find in bloom the famous Black Iris of Jordan. “You hunt your dolmens, I’ll shoot my flowers”, she replied, reaching for her camera and macro lens.

Zerqa river, Wadi Zerqa

Zerqa river, Wadi Zerqa

7. Isabelle Ruben, shooting flowers

Isabelle Ruben, shooting flowers

 

The Zerqa is the second largest tributary of the River Jordan. It rises near Amman, then drops almost 2,000 m in elevation as it flows through the escarpment to the rift valley below. Known as the Biblical Jabbok, the wadi was supposedly the place where Jacob fought with an angel, and these resonances drew scholars such as Capt. Conder (1889) and Dr. MacKenzie (1911) of the PEF. However, it was the psychedelic carpet of wild flowers that drew Isabelle and me: poppies, anemones, daisies and buttercups – it was enough to stir the heart of any battled-wearied thesis survivor. Just as I was about to burst into song, Isabelle pounced. “Aha!” she cried, whipping out her macro lens like a great white hunter on safari, “Iris nigricans – the Black Iris of Jordan!” Although their petals range from purple to black, their beauty, Isabelle explained, belies a remarkable reproductive machine: three upright petals help advertise the flower to nectar-gathering insects; three drooping petals draw the insects to the stamen within. Unfortunately, their beauty has also seen numbers decline, and the iris is now protected by law.

Close up of a Black Iris.

Close up of a Black Iris.

After sniffing our last Ranunculus, we crossed the Zerqa to the Wadi Rayyan, one of the most fertile wadis in Jordan. The well-watered Rayyan has long been known, somewhat ironically, as the ‘dry’ or ‘barren’ Wadi ‘Yabis’. Scholars explain this incongruity by identifying in the toponym ‘Yabis’ the name ‘Jabesh’ Gilead, a town mentioned in the Bible in relation to Kings David and Saul and their battles with the Philistines and Ammonites. Regardless, the wadi was renamed the ‘verdant’ Wadi Rayyan in the late 1990s, with possible associations to the Rayyan door named in the Qur’an as one of the Gates of Heaven through which the virtuous may pass into paradise.

 A dolmen surveyed at Tell er-Ras in the Wadi Rayyan

A dolmen surveyed at Tell er-Ras in the Wadi Rayyan

The Wadi Rayyan is also renown for its dolmens. Dolmens are megalithic tomb monuments that were probably built as stone charnel houses by village communities at the start of the Early Bronze Age, c.3800-3000 BC. Early travellers were fascinated by these megalithic monuments, which seemed so familiar to the European experience; indeed, in his Survey of Eastern Palestine (1889), Conder declared dolmens to be “one of the most interesting features of the survey expedition”. Although they once numbered in their thousands, many cemeteries are now destroyed, and descriptions by travellers such as Conder are the only accounts that some dolmen fields ever existed. As part of my postgraduate research, I had surveyed over 100 dolmens on the north side of the Wadi Rayyan, and I was back to validate reports of a smaller cemetery near the Byzantine period site of Deir el-Halawa on the opposite ridge.

A dolmen near Deir el-Halawa in the Wadi Rayyan

A dolmen near Deir el-Halawa in the Wadi Rayyan

After parking the car at the bottom of a hill, we climbed through olive orchards towards the ridge-line above, which marked the south side of the wadi. We weren’t disappointed: although overgrown and partly collapsed, we found at least 15 dolmens scattered across the hill-side, their upright slabs, rectangular chambers and megalithic capstones highly distinct. I took a few notes, then we headed to the Deir el-Halawa ruins at the top of the hill, almost falling into a massive rock-cut cistern on the way.

Tell el-Maqlub in the Wadi Rayyan, possibly ancient 'Jabesh-Gilead'

Tell el-Maqlub in the Wadi Rayyan, possibly ancient ‘Jabesh-Gilead’

The ridgeline affords a spectacular view over the impressive site of Tell el-Maqlub (the ‘upside down mound’). The tell is strategically located on a perennial stream at the only point where the steep-sided wadi can be easily crossed, and it is no coincidence that the Roman road between the Decapolis cites of Pella and Jerash ran right past the site. This location makes Tell el-Maqlub the best contender for the Iron Age settlement of Jabesh Gilead itself, although no archaeological work has ever been conducted on the mound. Feeling the weight of my trowel in my back pocket, I sighed, turned around, and traipsed back down the hill with Isabelle, passing more dolmens covered in wild flowers on the way.