Building terraces is not a registered patent
As the scientific question of dating the Jerusalem hills terraces shifts to the political realm, it turns superficial and undergoes dehumanisation. ■ The Palestinians who lived in the mountains until 1948 made a crucial contribution to landscape design. Whether they inherited ancient terraces or not. ■ Terrace is not a registered patent; it is part of the daily life of real people who have lived here. 73 years ago, Palestinians were expelled from their land and since then an effort has been made to erase their existence in the landscape and history.
By Nir Hasson*
Anyone travelling on the road between Har Hatayasim Reserve and Ramat Raziel in the Jerusalem hills these days would encounter a dramatic sight: a large mountain slope, totally burnt out and dotted with charred dead tree . But the fire also exposed a spectacular terrace system, the landscape infrastructure of the slope that had been hidden for decades by the trees. This sight opened a discussion on the question to whom do the terraces belong? The terraces of the Judean hills are Jewish, asserted Mor Altshuler (Hebrew Haaretz, 24 Aug), in response to Hanin Majadli (English Haaretz, 24 Aug) and therefore, she claims, the pine trees planted by the Jewish National Fund [JNF]F were not intended to hide them. However, the truth is more complex and more interesting.
Terraces are the most distinctive mark of a cultural landscape, created by humans in a long process that has been going on for decades and centuries. Its greatness lies in its simplicity — it is made of a long low retaining wall built of local stones, without concrete or cement, and its function is to prevent erosion and to deposit soil behind it to allow for agricultural crops. The dating of the terraces in the Judean Hills is a complicated scientific issue, which should not be confused with the childish political debate, on the question of who was here before and to whom the landscape belongs.
The most important scientific study of this question was conducted in 2016 by a team of researchers led by Dr Yuval Gadot from Tel Aviv University. They used the OSL method, which dates the last time the quartz grains in the depths of the terrace soil were exposed to sunlight. The study’s results were unequivocal. The researchers found several terraces that are 1500 and 2000 years old (and not a single one from the biblical period). But the vast majority of the terraces are no more than 400 years old. So one can conclude, that the impressive terrace landscaping of the Jerusalem hills is the labour of those farmers who tilled the land during the Ottoman period: Palestinian Arabs living in the country, most of whom were deported or fled during the 1948 Nakba.
The study has been controversial. Other researchers have argued that the OSL method would date the time of terrace renovation rather than the time of construction. Another question raised is how could such a small town, like Ottoman Jerusalem, and the small villages around it, sustain such a large system of terraces. But the study confirms the historical fact that the Arab peasants are at least the holders of preference shares in the landscape design of the Judean hills.
Anyone looking for further proof of the close links between the Palestinian peasants and terraces will find it along the Green Line in Nahal Refaim south of Jerusalem: on the left are well-kept and beautiful terraces of the villages of Batir and Wallaja and on the right are the pine forests covering the half-ruined terrace system of the villages that existed there until 1948.
Majadli is correct in contending that the pines are the enemies of the terrace. Not only because one of the purposes of their planting was to erase the previous landscape, but also because of their short root systems. Whenever a pine tree falls, which happens relatively often, it also takes part of the terrace with it. The biggest destruction of terraces in the Jerusalem hills was probably in the winter of 2013, when a severe snowstorm caused tens of thousands of pines to fall. The fire that raged last week in the Jerusalem hills revealed, on the one hand, spectacular terrace systems, such as the one below Ramat Raziel. On the other hand, when the burnt pines start falling soon they will destroy the terraces with them.
As the scientific question of dating terraces shifts to the political realm, it turns superficial and undergoes dehumanisation. Altshuler states that the Muslims “inherited” the terrace technique from the Jewish farmers who cultivated the biblical “stairs.” By implication, in 1948 the Jews reclaimed their property. But from whom did the Jews inherit the stairs? From the Canaanites? And the Canaanites? From the Neolithic farmers? This attempt at appropriation is ridiculous. The landscape, especially the Jerusalem one, is a long and complex accumulation of a variety of cultures and identities and there is no need for complex scientific research to know that the Arabs who lived in the mountains until 1948 made a crucial contribution to landscape design. Whether they inherited ancient terraces or not.
Terrace is not a registered patent; it is part of the daily life of real people who have lived here. 73 years ago, these people were expelled from their land and since then an effort has been made to erase their existence in the landscape and history. But like the prickly pear (sabr/sabra) bushes, the terraces are stamped in the landscape, a reminder. Denial of those who were expelled and the mark on the landscape they left behind amounts to running away from the truth and the pain of their descendants. The terraces are an extraordinary architectural and cultural treasure that is part of the story of this land. The state must nurture and preserve this treasure and its incumbent on decent citizens to look directly at the landscape and the truth behind it: the terraces below Ramat Raziel were built by the residents of the village of Kasla, who lived in the area up to the Nakba. The British census from 1931 included 299 people in the village, and had two main families, Hazayan and Iyad.
Translated from Hebrew by Sol Salbe of the Middle East News Service, Melbourne, Australia.