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Palestinian Cave Culture

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 09.03.2011:

Palestinian Cave Culture Underground Cities and Cave Dwellings in the Mountains of Hebron

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

This Week in Palestine March 2011

Leading a life of dire poverty, hayat el-kafaf, is beyond contemporary Palestinian imagination.

“How did people survive in years of drought in the old days?” I asked Abu Ali on our way to visit the abandoned cave dwellings in Domeh, north of Dhahirieh.

“It is already the second year with minimal rainwater, and I am sure that the water wells have dried up. Is this a cyclical pattern?” I wondered.

“Even in the good old days they barely eked out a living. Bread was their daily sustenance. When a drought took place they would sell their halal (livestock), land, and even their own children to ensure their survival. Theirs was a life of kafaf (حياة الكفاف).”

Domeh is a suburb of cement houses that straddles a few rolling hills.

“Our house was built in the fifties. At that time we moved out of the cave,” explained Abu Farid. Short, stocky, with dark complexion and African features, his children are, nevertheless, white with blue eyes and blonde hair, a common genetic phenotype that becomes dominant in the isolated villages in southern Palestine.

“Our caves interconnected with each other.” He pointed his index finger to the opposite hill. “At that time, over seventy years ago, eastern Domeh was known as Itwaneh (عطوانه). The two quarters were connected to each other through an underground tunnel.”

“Whereas the interconnected caves of Dhahirieh, Beit Jibrin, Iraq al-Manshieh, and Tarqumia are on the same strata, the maze of caves in Domeh, Tell Zev, Al-Jof, and Al-Ramadeen are multilayered,” interjected Abu Ali Hantash.

The role the cave dwellings play in structuring the relationship with space is invaluable to the understanding of the underpinnings of modern Palestinian villages.

From the highway the sprawling village looks like a modern suburb. Once one is inside, the perspective of the village changes; paths branch out, sometimes interrupted by small squares from which dead-end ways emerge, leading to specific households. The hosh (courtyard), the room, and the orientation of space in the modern village on the ground parallel the structure underground. As we walked on the rocky plateau between the cement houses, my companions pointed out deep water wells and ventilation/light shafts in the various courtyards.

“My father moved out of the family cave and built our first domed room in 1952 … right on top of our cave,” Abu Farid nostalgically told me.

Even the multipurpose single-family room �” its orientation in space, the organisation of the areas used to stack mattresses, seat the guests, store food, keep the animals, etc. �” parallels the structure of the single multipurpose cave below, which must have structured the modern concept of space above.

“Our caves lie beneath those wells and each would have a separate entrance,” Abu Ala’ explained as we walked to his family cave. “The passages between the caves are often narrow. One would have to stoop down, crawl, and at times squeeze oneself between the small apertures connecting the caves. Only in the main underground tunnel connecting East (Itwaneh) to West Domeh could one walk standing upright.”

Through my subsequent visits I realised that modernity in architecture for our peasants describes the movement from a single multipurpose room to the specialised use of space in various rooms. The cave has become the space for livestock and the stone dome room serves invariably as the pantry. The various cement annexes develop specific functions; the kitchen, bathroom, living room, master bedroom that ensures marital privacy, and separate bedrooms that enforce male/female segregation. After the caves as dwellings were abandoned, the dead are now buried in formal cemeteries at a distance from home. The only exception is that of the Dababseh clan in Tarqumia, where the abandoned dwelling cave has retained its function as the burial ground.

The geological calcite structure of the Hebron Mountains abounds with subterranean caverns of various dimensions. For over five millennia caves have been endowed with a great symbolic value and have become the major architectural feature of the region. We meet with caves and grottos hewn in the soft calcite strata everywhere. In this region, known for its hot summers and cold winters, the caves provided comfortable housing and storage space. In summer it was much cooler in the caves than outside, and in the winter they were shielded from the cold. The volume of these cave rooms played a major role in favouring this form of architecture. The cool temperature in the hot summer provided extra storage advantage. Caves were used as shrines, dwellings, burial grounds, refuge, storage, defence, and tombs by the early Hurrite settlers and continued to be the Palestinian hearth until recently.

The survival of Palestinian cave culture until the turn of the twentieth century should neither surprise nor embarrass us. But the concept of “progress” has brainwashed us to believe that cave dwellers are “primitive.” It is an architectural tradition; a building style in the negative, whereby living space is made by enlarging natural caves through digging, scooping, and chiselling out rock. The Hurrites, as their name implies, were troglodytes, and were the first Palestinian cave dwellers. Later, the Edomites took over the dwellings as well as the country.

The move from the single multipurpose one-room tent, typical of Semitic housing, to a single multipurpose cave was an adaptation that accompanied the move from nomadic to settled pastoral life in the new ecological niche. Harvested grains, vegetables, and the various extracts of grapes and olives could be efficiently stored.

Throughout history the various peoples that settled in southern Palestine adapted the survival strategies that the early semi-pastoral Hurrites had devised within the Mount Hebron ecological niche. It is a cultural strategy dating to the early Semitic settlement of pre-biblical Palestine and whose powerful symbolism still resonates in the Judeo-Christian-Muslim tradition as is evident in the Cave of Abraham in Hebron, the Cave of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the cave under the exquisite Dome of the Rock, etc. To these cavernous rocks, once sacred Baalic sanctuaries, the three monotheistic religions have discursively ascribed their respective narratives.

Palestinian cave architecture is not only distinguished by a “one stone on the other” work of construction, but also a building style of the “negative,” where the inside is scooped out of the calcite stone. Whereas hard edges and protrusions are removed through chiselling, the cavities where snakes or scorpions could hide would be filled in with stones, and walls would be plastered. There is a great similarity between the single multipurpose cave dwelling and the conventional peasant hearth, al-jamalone, a Palestinian word of Aramaic origin that describes the popular twentieth-century single-room stone-domed houses.

Significantly both “negative” and “positive” styles of architecture are used in the Palestinian cave dwellings. Invariably the quarried stones would be used to build walls and create private space between connecting caves. More frequently stone blocks were used to build annexes at the entrance of the dwelling cave that resembles a narthex. A narthex is a vaulted tunnel extending to the right and left at the entrance of the cave, very similar to the vault in the Cave of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Often a big wall is built at a distance from the cave. Walls and a ceiling would be built, in jamalone style, which would link with the rock strata above to add more space to the quarried cave.

Different types of caves exist that reflect the various historical styles. Some caves have mills for crushing grapes and olives as in Deir Samet. Other caves were cut as dovecotes as in Dura and Domeh. Chambers were dug out of the soft rock and niches cut in the walls. Doves and pigeons would build their nests in the openings provided. Innumerable such niches were cut. The squabs, still considered a delicacy among Palestinians, could then be caught and eaten. Herodian ceremonial caves are dispersed here and there. Time changes and rearranges; what once was a cave tomb, an olive oil mill, or a pagan shrine became a dwelling place as cultures and symbolic values changed. In modernity, post-Byzantine period, irrespective of previous functions, these caves would serve exclusively as Palestinian dwellings, in which the practice of burying the dead in the hearth was common until as recently as one hundred years ago, a ritual that has been confirmed by all my informants. In Yatta, the practice of lighting candles at the windows on the Sabbath, dating to biblical times, still survives. These regional traditions are fossil survivals from ancient Semitic civilisations attesting to the heterogeneity of the Canaanite tribes in Ancient Palestine. The cohabitation with the ancestors buried in the ground in the same cave indicates that these early tribes were neither Jewish nor early Byzantine Christian but an ethnic religious population in whose context Judaism and Christianity defined their respective identities.

By building large underground storage areas, water wells, and complex ventilation systems as well as by connecting passages a few kilometres long, the mass murder of the early Canaanite tribes could be prevented. As Egyptian, Hittite, Philistine, Roman, Israelite, Babylonian, Byzantine, Persian, and Crusader armies and marauding Bedouins swept the land, the underground maze of caves provided ideal refuge. These multileveled subterranean towns could be easily sealed off by blocking the few entries by the mere piling of stones at the entrance or the simple placement of millstones at others. Throughout the past five millennia, that is from the Early Bronze settlements of the Hurrites through the Chalcolithic period and the eventual formation of the early Canaanite city-state to modernity, the caves provided an ideal shelter and ensured the survival of the Palestinians. The pattern of joint life in the interconnected caves dialectically structured the Palestinian family giving prominence to al-hamuleh, the clan, as the elementary unit of kinship.

Am Salamonah is a small hamlet south of Bethlehem. Its handsome stone villas strike deep roots in cave culture.

“The individual cave was huge.” Abu Nidal assumed a sober pose as he remembered his youthful experiences. “Our neighbours in the adjoining caves were my grandfather’s brothers. My grandfather and his children shared one cave, his brothers the others. No strangers lived with us.” He further explained: “In al-khirab, the hamlets, each clan would share a group of caves. My uncles built their modern houses on top of the ancestral caves.”

On the opposite mountain sprawl lie the houses of Al-Ma’sarah. Since its residents are of a “nomadic” background, the caves of Al-Ma’sarah reveal a settlement pattern which is dramatically different than “peasant” caves. In Al-Ma’sarah the clan members fragment into individual extended family units, each with a separate disjunctive cave, which spread along the ridge of the mountain terrace.

Khalil, from the Brijieh clan, a branch of Al-Zawahreh tribe that belongs to the Ta’amreh Bedouin tribes, took me to his grandfather’s cave. The cave is an indentation in the ridge of the plateau that was quarried to further expand its volume. The quarried stone blocks were used to build the front wall entrance, including a semi-jamalone ceiling to gain extra space. The threshold was of soil and not rocky to accommodate the space for the burial of the dead members of the family.

Regarding burial customs in the cave dwellings, Abu Nidal in Am Salamonah explained: “The dead need not be totally interred in the ground. In some instances holes are dug in the rock for burial purposes …” He told me he had seen caves where the dead were laid on top of the ground with soil and rocks heaped on top.

“The smell could not be problematic,” commented Khalil, “for the pungent, putrid smell of the chicken, donkeys, and sheep that shared the dwelling cave was overpowering.”

Unlike “peasant” dwelling caves, those in Al-Ma’sarah were extremely smaller in size. There was a marked absence of the rozanna, the ventilation and light shaft that is also used to haul in the grains for storage. I attributed the absence to the fact that Ta’amreh Bedouins specialised in sheep/goat herding. But Khalil insisted that the Ta’amreh did practice agriculture even in the old days.

A few days later he called me up to explain the absence of the rozanna in Ta’amreh architecture.

“Ta’amreh tribes stored their grains in a collective storage area near Al-Faradis, Herodion, and not in their dwelling caves.”

Abu Ala’, a virile enterpriser who owns a company for bulldozers, baggers, and trucks, is from Yatta, a huge province comprising 133,080 dunums and around 30 rural communities and hamlets in the southernmost area of the Mount of Hebron. Dura, the ancient Edomite Kingdom, remains the largest Palestinian province and has 99 hamlets and villages. These provinces �” including Dhahirieh, which has around 30 hamlets and villages (120,854 dunums) �” are huge conglomerates of villages. They are the bastions of Palestinian traditional life and have retained ancient Semitic cultural rituals and customs. The town, the market centre, is distinguished from its satellite hamlets, al-khirab, by its dense population. A kinship bond relates the entire population of the individual province from the clan to the intertribal level; all descend from one common primordial ancestor. Abu Ala’ knew of extant cave dwellers in the khirab of Yatta and offered to help me explore the region.

We arrived at At-Tuwani, a hamlet carved of rocks that bears no relationship to modernity; an anthropologist’s dream! The distant view of the cluster of the domed rectangular jamalone rooms leading into the cave dwellings piled one on top of the other straddling the rolling mound, as the traditional homestead of the Palestinian peasant, dissolves upon close inspection into an urban pastoral fantasy.

Bitter political reality dissipated my vision. In At-Tuwani the cave dwellers and cave culture are threatened with destruction. Jewish settlers supported by the Israeli army harass the residents on a daily basis. A handful of vigilant international volunteers from an organisation called Operation Dove have moved to At-Tuwani to safeguard the people and the hamlet. It is believed that the presence of Europeans shames the Israelis and acts as a deterrent to excessive cruelty against the natives. In At-Tuwani, European volunteers walk the children to and from school lest Jewish settlers beat them up, and they accompany the shepherds to graze their flocks lest the Israeli army bully them away.

I was ushered into the cave, accompanied with idioms of hospitality, gestures, and welcoming smiles, past the constructed narthex and into the hearth. A nude yellow light bulb added dramatic shadows to the cavernous room blackened by the soot of ages from the open wood fire for cooking and heating. The cave resembled the typical peasant multipurpose room but was extremely poor. In the upper centre of the room three mattresses, arranged in a U shape, demarcated the guests’ area. I was led to the place of honour, sidr el beit.

For the first time in Palestine I was in a house without television, without Internet, and without running water or even a refrigerator! I could establish a dialogue with neither the father nor the son; they belonged to a different world view, the encounter with which I had not been prepared for. Usually I conduct my interviews with people who had left the caves, abandoned agriculture, and had become relatively wealthy enterprisers, lawyers, and white-collar professionals whose nostalgia for the old ways has become an articulate discourse. Those who still live the traditional way have not yet disengaged from their life to reflect on it. They are not discursive. Abu Ala’ and the cave dwellers shared the same world view. A jolly charmer, he informed them of the name of his clan and asked about theirs. Then they engaged in clarifying a kinship chart; who do they know and what is their relationship to who’s who in Yatta.

My hazel-eyed, fuzzy, ash-blonde host smiled graciously as he embraced his children who huddled around him like chickens around a hen. Safe in their father’s embrace they scrutinised the city man. The minutiae of their daily life were innumerable. Behind me the mattresses, pillows, and blankets were stacked one on top of the other. At the entrance to the left stood a stove on which the tea was brewing. A metal locker, bags, piles of things spread along the sides… Ropes stretched across the ceiling. At one distant corner, a homemade wool pouch, the size of a prayer rug, dangled prominently in the air.

“It is for storing the bread. The pouch keeps it fresh.”

Among the Palestinians bread is as sacred as the Qur’an and the Bible. It is a common sight to see morsels of bread on the windowsills, on side steps, on gas tanks everywhere in Jerusalem. Our children never finish their sandwiches and throw the bread on the floor. Adults stoop down in the street, pick up the abandoned morsel of bread, kiss it three times, and put it aside. Lest God’s grace be trampled on by the unwary passersby.

The paramount symbolic significance of bread sets it apart from other foods. I attended a Ramadan meal in Jerusalem. Piles of rice and meat were left almost untouched. Before dessert, the cleaning men brought big black garbage bags and went around from table to table emptying the plates in the garbage.

I put a stack of bread in the garbage.

“No…not the bread!” I was reprimanded.

I pointed to the piles of rice and meat and chicken.

“Bread is different. It is God’s grace.”

For millennia life and death, the survival of the family and all that is meaningful depended on the only staple: bread. Daily life was a life of hardship, and bread was a gift of God, His daily Grace. In their sanctuary, beyond the built-up narthex, the Lord dwelled. Bread is the token of Divine love, His compassion and His mercy. Trusting in His grace our ancestors lived out the unfolding of our human spiritual drama barely surviving from day to day with bread as their daily sustenance, kafaf yawmina.

“Here” our Canaanite ancestors thanked their god of rain and fertility, Baal.

Their supplicant words have become our daily prayer.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. A specialist in the social history of Jerusalem and Palestinian peasant culture, he is the author of Before the Mountains Disappear, Jerusalem in the Heart, and the recently published Surviving the Wall, an ethnographic chronicle of contemporary Palestinians and their roots in ancient Semitic civilisations. His filmic documentary about French cultural identity, Le Regard de L’Autre was shown at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. Dr. Qleibo lectures at Al-Quds University. He can be reached at

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