The Sanctity of Trees حرمة الشجر

Wild Pistachios   بطم اطلسي – بطم عدسي 
Pistacia Lentiscus / Pistacia Atlantica 
Critically Endangered / Near Threatened   
نوع قريب من الخطر / نوع مهدد بخطر انقراض أقصى
نوع مهدد بالانقراض بدرجة خطورة عالية
Asherah اشره 

Ba’ali series 1 

I created the ‘Ba’ali’ series from my art installation of the same name, displayed at the “Re-rooting” exhibition at Darat Al Fanun. The series can be read individually, but each post contributes to a larger exploration of the ‘Ba’ali’ concept, inspired by rainwater-dependent plants in Levantine culture and the Canaanite storm god Ba’al. I will cover topics such as the three plants used in the exhibit and share more about the installation itself. If you’re in Jordan, don’t miss the chance to see the amazing works and research on display. Visit for more information.

(Poster for the re-rooting exhibition.)

If you venture to the outskirts of Amman, particularly in places like Dabouq, you’ll come across what remains of a once-vibrant forest. Among the land that bears “for sale” signs, you’ll find wild zaatar, oaks, hawthorns, pistacias, and more. I often find myself wishing I had millions of dollars to acquire this land and halt the encroaching sprawl of development.

Two years ago, I stumbled upon a Pistacia Atlantica in the remnants of these old forests. Its thick trunks, twisted branches, and luscious leaves offered a sense of serenity – the kind of tree you can’t resist lounging in, leaning against, or resting upon.

(A short promo video with Deema Assaf on her Native Plants 101 course, shot under a Pistachia Atlantica tree.)

Across West Asia, North Africa, Jordan, and Palestine, these trees thrive in various habitats, from forests to deserts. This adaptability and resilience are a testament to the tree’s fortitude. However, human intervention, such as logging, fires, city sprawl, and overgrazing, puts these trees at risk of extinction in Jordan and worldwide.

Only 1% of Jordan’s landscape bears what’s left of its forests. With the thick canopies of trees gone, the moisture from leaves that thickens the air is also lost – a significant contributor to the drought we are experiencing.

In ancient times, trees were sacred to my ancestors, the Canaanites, as they were essential to seasonal cycles and abundant in the land. In the Old Testament, the Terebinth (wild pistacia) is referred to as “Elah,” derived from the Canaanite deity “El,” the father god of the Canaanite pantheon.

Terebinth also encompasses other species of wild pistacia in the region, such as Pistacia Palestina and Pistacia Lentiscus. These trees share similar culinary and medicinal properties and are connected to various stories with unique specificities. Nonetheless, the Pistacia Atlantica’s ability to grow up to 20 meters tall and live for 1000 years makes it the “grandmother” of this wild species.

(P. Atlantica grandmother tree on the outskirts of Amman.)

In ancient times, trees were revered as gods by many cultures. The oak and wild pistacia were associated with Asherah, the Canaanite mother goddess, while the acacia tree was linked to the Arabian goddess Al-Uzza. The date palm was associated with the Assyro-Babylonian goddess Ishtar, and the cedar tree was believed to house the soul of the Egyptian god Osiris.

Even today, trees hold a sacred place in many cultures, including bladi (my homeland). The sidr tree and christ’s thorn jujube, found in the Jordan valley and other cities, are believed to embody spiritual qualities. Cutting down or taking from these sacred trees without permission can bring disaster.

The Ba’al Cycle, a Canaanite myth, provides an allegory for the cycle of drought and rainy seasons in bilad al sham (the Levant). Ba’al represents fertility, rain, and abundance, and struggles with the elements of drought and chaos of the rainy season. The goddess Asherah, mother of all gods and goddesses in the Canaanite pantheon, is crucial to this cycle, just as trees are essential to the rain that Ba’al provides.

Our Canaanite ancestors deeply understood the importance of trees. In the myth, Ba’al must seek Asherah’s permission to build his house, symbolizing the critical relationship between trees and rain. To give rain, Ba’al must be in harmony with Asherah, and the trees.

(My second attempt to sprout P. Atlantica seeds, given to me from Deema Assaf, foraged from the wild in Jordan.)

The ancient Canaanite goddess Asherah, also known as “she who walks on the sea,” is strongly associated with bodies of water and her son Yam, the god of the sea. This link underscores the crucial role of trees and their connection as a source of support, bringing rain and fertility to the land.

As society became more patriarchal, the male hero archetype took center stage, eclipsing other archetypes. However, our ancestors were trying to convey a different story, emphasizing collaboration, balance, and the importance of all elements, even death and the chaos of Yam, having their place and purpose.

The work of forest ecologist Suzanne Simard reminds us of this interconnectedness. Her research shows that mother, grandmother, and grandfather trees have a symbiotic, collaborative relationship with the fungal network and younger plants and trees around them. Indigenous cultures have known and studied this for thousands of years, overturning the notion of competition and hierarchy among non-human beings. Similarly, the Ba’al Cycle must be seen in this light.

(The Asherah clay figure for the ‘Ba’ali’ exhibition piece.)

As I worked on the ‘Ba’ali’ installation for Darat Al Fanun’s “Re-rooting” exhibit, I was inspired to create my own Asherah figure. These figures, made from clay, wood, and trees, were found throughout Canaan in the 10th Century BCE. While molding the figure, I saw Asherah as a grandmother and have since been fascinated by the image of Hajjeh (elder) Asherah.

Trees are essential to our planet, with some living for thousands of years and investing in their environment through robust root systems that prevent erosion and help maintain humidity and slow wind. Trees offer a connection to our past, present, and future, providing wisdom across generations. They also connect the earth’s surface, inner earth, and sky.

Researching Asherah led me to the Canaanite and Egyptian goddess Qudshu, whose name means ‘holy.’ Some archaeologists believe that Qudshu is another element or name of Asherah. In Levantine Arabic, the word for ‘holy’ is ‘muqadas,’ from the root ‘Quds,’ and our name for Jerusalem is ‘Al Quds,’ meaning ‘holy sanctuary.’ Trees and the earth are sacred to many indigenous cultures, with ownership meaning protection rather than domination.

As I write this article, Palestinian Christians and Muslims are facing harassment, abuse, and arrest while worshiping in Jerusalem under the Zionist regime. Ownership should mean protection, not destruction. We must protect trees and forests, learn to be in power with rather than over, and end all colonization everywhere to survive.

I revisited Pistacia Atlantica, the grandmother tree on the edges of Amman, and felt a connection to the oaks and majestic trees that protect and sustain us. Their for sale sign still stands, and we must ask ourselves if we will protect them and remember how to coexist with nature. We cannot survive without them.


A note on references: It’s important to me to reference specific articles and people where this information comes from. It gives people credit and offers readers a chance to do further research on their own, making their own connections and insights. It is also essential for me to say that knowledge can come in ways other than academic articles and courses. The natural elements have so much to teach us through observation and deep listening. So sometimes, my references are a specific tree, the wind, fire, water, soil, or an animal. Other times a feeling, an insight, or an intuition. Sometimes it is an experience or a dream.,and%20the%20Ajloun%20Nature%20Reserve

“Stories from Ancient Canaan” by Michael D. Coogan and Mark S. Smith.

Layla Feghali 

Deema Assaf – Native Plants 101 course materials and notes

Rami Sajdi – 

“Agro Forestry for Palestine:  Good trees for a better future”.  By Thomas Fernley-Pearson

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