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Of Memory and Magic, Missionaries and Museums:more than meets the “eye” in Artas

Contributed by Artas Folklore Center on 25.02.2006:

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The magic of Artas begins soon after you leave Hebron Road a couple of kilometers south of Bethlehem. If the wind is just right, you can hear the clatter of hoofs and rumbling of chariots as Solomon comes into the Enclosed Garden to dally with the beloved of his Song of Songs. Cock your ear and you will hear the bark of a Turkish officer at the fort as a caravan passes on its way to Hebron. Take a deep breath and inhale the fragrance and the story of how Maramiya, the herb which perfumes Palestinian tea, was blessed by Mary for having provided shade and refreshment during the Flight to Egypt. Blink and while your eyes are closed, on the trees in that glade, an unseen hand will carve the names of the six clans of the village. Shake the tree, and leaves inscribed with generations of names will fall, eddying around those of the missionaries and scholars with whom they shared their lives. Snap your fingers and the passing parade of civilizations, peoples and individuals who have lived in Artas will swirl back into the handwritten almanac of village life collected by the late Musa Sanad. In this magical place hills and springs are alive and the valley literally echoes with tales of Abraham and Solomon and Noah, alive in the folktales of the village as if only yesterday, while more recent characters such as Sitt Louisa and Sitt Hilma have receded into the mists of myth and legend. In Artas, the line between animate and inanimate is blurred: humans are clothes that jinn “wear” at will, and even the vegetables bear a curious resemblance to swords, old baskets, and jewelry.

The Book

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Musa Sanad, (1949 – 2005), devoted his life to collecting, preserving and disseminating the rich body of history, genealogy and lore associated with Artas, which he copied into this book. Seen here is a page of genealogy. In addition, to establishing the Artas Ethnographic Museum and the Artas Folklore Center, he did much to improve village life. (See “The Death of a Modern day Palestinian Folk Hero” in This Week in Palestine, March 2005)

The Fortress (Qala’at Al Burak)

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Built by the Turks in the 17th Century, this stronghold has sometimes served as a refuge for the people of Artas. J.E. Hanauer in The Holy Land, Myths and Legends (1907) tells the story of how the Artas peasants, exempt from paying taxes in return for guarding the Solomon’s Pools and aqueduct to Jerusalem, grew rich, influential and eventually arrogant. Instead of coming to the aid of their allies, they insulted the women sent as messengers. Almost all of the inhabitants were killed when their men-folk took revenge, the remnant and their descendents living in the fort until about the mid 19th Century.

King Solomon’s Pools and the Jinn

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The work of the jinn, or spirits, is particularly evident in the stone terraces and staircases in the now-drained second pool. It was King Solomon, king of jinn as well a humans, who ordered them to build the pools that bear his name. Leaning on his staff, he sat and watched them as they worked. Only when the staff gave way, years after his death, did the jinn learn of it; thus set free just before completion of their labor, they escaped to Artas, which provided a most hospitable environment. This story was collected from Musa Sanad by Celia Rothenberg, an anthropologist whose new book Spirits of Palestine, (Lexington Books, 2004) provides a fascinating look at the complex interplay of folklore with psychological, social, religious and political factors involved in cases of haunting or possession by jinn in contemporary village life.

Missionaries, Scholars and Seekers

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No longer in the collective memory of the village is the first foreign female to play a role on the village stage, an American woman by the name of Clorinda Minor. Such is not the case of “Sitt” or “Lady,” Louisa, as the villagers affectionately called Louise Baldensperger. a member of a Missionary family who settled in Artas in the mid-19th century in the house pictured above.’These missionaries introduced new agricultural methods, species, tools and machinery. Staying on in the village after her family left, Louisa became very knowledgeable about village life, and served as a resource for other scholars. These included the Finnish Anthopologist, Hilma Granqvist, “Sitt Halima,” who wrote five monographs on village life, and the botanist, Grace Crowfoot, whose collaboration with Louisa resulted in From Cedar to Hyssop, A Study in the Folklore of Plants in Palestine. Almost every aspect of Artas has been studied, if not as a specific study, then as part of a broader inquiry. This includes the life cycle of the villagers, plant-lore, proverbs, animal tales, the water system and more. Palestinians, including the physician Tawfiq Canaan and Stephan A. Stephan, also collected this rich body of lore, much of which was published in the Journal of Palestine Oriental Studies during the Mandate years. The heritage of the village continues to inspire people in all fields of endeavor. In October 2005, a Finnish film crew spent several days in Artas on the trail of Hilma Granqvist, for a television series on Finnish anthropologist, and nursing students from Bethlehem University studied the health situation in the village.

The Enclosed Garden and the Song of Solomon

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Built in 1901 by Bethlehem architects for an Archbishop in Uruguay, the Hortus Conclusus Convent is named after a verse in Solomon’s Songs. “A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed” Song of Solomon 4:12. According to the Arab Educational Institute/Bethlehem’s Dr. Toine Van Teeffelen, a Bethlehem-based anthropologist specialized in discourse analysis, Solomon’s Song has continued to reverberate in Palestinian peasant proverbs, the poetry of Palestinian Poet Laureate, Mahmoud Darwish, and in the thinking of Western feminist theology. In recent years the valley has been the site of the April Lettuce Festival, and one of the highlights of the Nature and Heritage walks tailored for various local and foreign groups. Often these culminate in a home-cooked Palestinian meal eaten in the traditional manner in a renovated historical building overlooking the spectacular convent and valley.

The Springs

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With five springs and numerous caves, whether in the hillsides or in the foundation of homes, Artas provides many favorite haunts for jinn, Ain Saleh, near the second pool, looks like a lovely spot for such creatures. Jinn in the form of two antagonistic sheep, one black and one white, were once said to live at the picturesque Artas Spring, in the heart of the old village near the valley, where village women and girls still can be seen washing clothes. ( See Tawfiq Cannan in “Haunted Springs and Water Demons in Palestine,” Journal of Palestine Oriental Studies, Vol I, 1920-21.)

Springs are alive in the folklore as well, as in the story of how a girl from Artas gave her name to Ein Hamdah. Annoyed by her laughing, her brother strangled her until her eyes popped out and stuck to the rock she was sitting on. When people asked what had become of her, he told them to go drink from her “ain” which means both “spring” and “eye” (In Arab Stories from Artas, edited by Dr. A. M Barghouthi, Birzeit Univeristy 1987)

Cave under the Museum

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Ethereal by candlelight, this cave, which serves as the foundation of the historic building housing the museum, has been variously used at least since Roman times as a store-room for medicines, as a clandestine church of sorts, and a stable.

Strange Vegetables

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When sent out to buy vegetables by his wife, Musa Sanad was just as likely to return home with one of these knives collected from the village and surrounding areas, for the museum.

The City in the Hill

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“See that hill over there? There’s a city in it.” That is how one villager described the hill of Khirbet el Khokh, seen here with part of the Artas valley in the foreground. The site is thought to house the remains of Etam, one of fortified cities during the period of the southern kingdom of Judea over 2500 years ago. Artas is rich in traces of the various civilizations which it hosted, including Biblical, Roman, Byzantine, Crusader and Ottoman ruins.While the road to Bethlehem was being paved recently, workers stumbled onto a cave holding artifacts dating back millennia.

Visit Artas

Artas offers much of interest to tourists, from simple country rambles, and authentic Palestinian cookery, which can also be ordered as take-away, to in-depth explorations of its rich and unique heritage. The annual lettuce festival is not to be missed. For more information or custom tours of Artas, contact Artas Folklore Center: See “Contact Us” for current contact information

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