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 

*Ba’ali series was created following an art installation called ‘Ba’ali,’ which I made for Darat Al Fanun’s “Re-rooting” exhibition curated by Rana Beiruti that runs from March 1st to September 30th, 2022. Each blog post will be a standalone piece, but for those interested in getting a fuller picture of the ‘Ba’ali’ concept I am exploring, each piece can be read as part of a bigger series. I will for sure write about the 3 plants I used in the exhibition, and I will see if I have energy and there is interest. The ‘Ba’ali’ art piece was inspired by a concept we still see in our Levantine culture today: plants and trees that live off rainwater alone. Ba’al also refers to the Canaanite storm god my ancestors revered, and this exploration centers around the Canaanite myth, the Ba’al cycle. Eventually, I will share more on my blog about the actual installation itself. For those in Jordan, be sure to see it in person, as there are many participating artists and organizations whose amazing work and research are on exhibit. https://daratalfunun.org/?event=re-rooting 

(Poster for the re-rooting exhibition.)

At the edges of Amman, especially in places like Dabouq, you will find the remains of what was once a lush forest. Wild zaatar, hawthorns, oaks, pistacias, and more, on land with signs that say “for sale.” Lately, I keep wishing I had millions of dollars to buy up all that land and end the encroaching sprawl of “development.”

Around two years ago, I met a Pistacia Atlantica on the outskirts of Amman, in the remnants of these old forests. With its thick trunks, twisted branches, and luscious leaves hanging low, this tree provided a feeling of solace. The type of tree you can’t wait to lounge in. To lean against. To rest upon.

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

Across Palestine, Jordan, West Asia, and North Africa, you can find this tree in many different habitats, from forest to desert. This tells me so much about the adaptability and resilience of this tree. Yet it is human intervention and things like logging, fires, city sprawl, and overgrazing that make this tree vulnerable to extinction in Jordan and critically endangered worldwide.

What is leftover of the forests of Jordan sits on 1% of its landscape. With the missing thick canopies of trees, the moisture from leaves that thickens the air is lost, a significant contribution to the drought we are experiencing.

As with anything old, abundant, and essential to seasonal cycles, trees were sacred to my ancestors, the Canaanites. In the old testament, the word for Terebinth (wild pistacia) is “Elah,” which comes from the Canaanite deity “El,” the father god of the Canaanite pantheon.

Terebinth also refers to the other species of wild pistacia found on this land, including Pistacia Palestina and Pistacia Lentiscus. These trees have similar culinary and medicinal properties and seem to be linked to similar sets of stories with their own specificities. Although in terms of size and age, Pistacia Atlantica can grow up to 20 meters tall and live to be 1000 years old, perhaps giving it the role of a grandmother of this wild species.

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

To ancient cultures, trees as gods were commonplace. The oak and wild pistacia are associated with Asherah, the Canaanite mother goddess, and consort of El. The acacia tree is associated with the Arabian goddess Al-Uzza. The date palm is related to the Assyro-Babylonian goddess Ishtar, also called the “lady of the date clusters.” The soul of the Egyptian god Osiris is said to dwell within a cedar tree.

The sanctity of trees didn’t end in ancient times in bladi (my homeland). As with natural springs, you will still find trees associated with biblical figures, seen as sacred, or said to be inhabited by spirits such as saints or jinn. According to the research of ethnobotanist Rami Sajdi, the sidr tree, the christ’s thorn jujube found around the Jordan valley, Jerusalem, and cities like Karak, are still said to embody spiritual qualities. It is believed that cutting down or taking from these sacred trees without permission can lead to disasters for individuals and tribes.

In the cycle of drought and rainy seasons in bilad al sham (the Levant), the Ba’al Cycle from Canaanite mythology gives us an allegory for this yearly recurrence. Ba’al, who represents fertility, rain, and abundance, struggles with the elements of drought, represented by Mot, and the chaos of the rainy season, Yam, which brings strong winds and frost, among other things. There is also a mention in this story of a seven-year cycle, which goes beyond the yearly seasonality, and some suggest it may mean that extreme drought and enough rain move in cycles of 7 years.

Yet our summers are marked by rising temperatures and zero rain. The rainy season begins in October and ends in March or April. So in this cyclical story, while Ba’al can overcome these elements by subduing Yam and literally overcoming Mot, death itself, nothing would be possible without the other aspects, each one playing a vital role. The goddess Asherah is the mother of all the gods and goddesses in the Canaanite pantheon. Without her, nothing on earth could exist. Seeing the deities as personifications of the natural elements, the same could be said for trees.

Our Canaanite ancestors understood the importance of trees deeply. In the myth about the importance of the seasons, Ba’al wants to build his own house, perhaps symbolic of cementing his element’s place in this cycle. But before doing so, he must get the permission of his mother (or maybe grandmother), Asherah. This alludes to the critical relationship between trees and rain. For Ba’al to give rain, Asherah, the trees, must be in harmony with him.

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

Asherah is also sometimes referred to as “she who walks on the sea” and seems to have a solid link to bodies of water and one of her sons Yam, the god of the sea. Her relation to water alludes to the importance of trees and their vital connection as a source of support, bringing rain and fertility to the land.

As our societies became more patriarchal, the male hero archetype became dominant over all the other archetypes. And the roots of the Hollywood hero’s journey took center stage. Yet my ancestors were trying to tell a different story at the essence of the myth. A tale of collaboration, balance, and the need for all elements, even death and the chaos of Yam, to have their place and purpose.

I am reminded of the work of forest ecologist Suzanne Simard, who found that mother, grandmother, and grandfather trees live in a symbiotic, collaborative relationship with the fungal network and younger plants and trees around them. Her work, which indigenous cultures already knew and had studied for thousands of years, shattered the idea of competition and hierarchy in other than human beings. The Ba’al Cycle must be seen in the same light.

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

While working on the ‘Ba’ali’ installation for the “Re-rooting” exhibition at Darat Al Fanun, I felt very called to make my own Asherah figure. These figures were found all over Canaan from the 10th Century BCE, made of clay, wood, and sometimes actual trees. While molding the figure from clay, I kept seeing Asherah as a grandmother, and that image of Hajjeh (elder) Asherah hasn’t left me since.

Trees are the most significant plants on earth. Because they have long lives, some of them thousands of years, they invest heavily in their landscape and environment. Pistacia Atlantica, in particular, is known for its robust root system that can prevent soil erosion. They help keep humidity in the soil and slow down the wind. Because trees are so long-lived, they give us a link between past, present, and future, offering their wisdom throughout generations of humans and more than human beings. Trees also connect the inner earth, the earth’s surface, and the sky.

While researching Asherah, I found that some archaeologists believe there is a link between her and Qudshu, the Canaanite and Egyptian goddess, whose name means ‘holy.’ The connection is that Qudshu, holy, is another element or name of Asherah. While this idea is not agreed upon, I am fascinated by how we still use her name.

In Levantine Arabic, the word for ‘holy’ is ‘muqadas’ مقدس from the root ‘Quds’ قدس. Our name for Jerusalem is ‘Al Quds’ القدس, meaning ‘holy’ or ‘the holy sanctuary. In the Christian holy trinity, for the holy spirit, we still use the word Qudus, a variation on the same root. For many indigenous cultures, to own land means to be the protector of that land, as opposed to the idea that ownership means doing whatever we want with it. To my people, trees and earth are considered sacred and protected as such, perhaps alluding to the true meaning of owning land.

Watching Palestinian Christians and Muslims being harassed, beaten, arrested, and abused in their places of worship in Jerusalem by the zionist regime while writing this article, really brought the idea of ownership to heed. If something truly belongs to you, you will do all you can to protect it rather than destroy it. My heart is with my Palestinian brothers and sisters, who suffer so much simply for trying to live their lives on their ancestral lands. Inshallah, next Ramadan, Easter, and Passover, we will be celebrating the return of this land and the end of all colonization everywhere.

I recently went back to visit this grandmother, Pistacia Atlantica, who lives on Amman’s edges. She lives with many other oaks and majestic mother and grandmother trees, which felt like some of the final remnants of protection and sustenance we have left on this land. The for sale sign still stands. Will we protect trees and forests? Will we learn and remember how to be in power with rather than over, control, and domination? We indeed cannot survive otherwise.

REFERENCES

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.  

https://www.mahmiyat.ps/en/floraAndFauna/715

http://www.wildlife-pal.org/en/life/type/3 

https://www.thegef.org/newsroom/news/solar-heaters-curb-illegal-logging-and-deforestation-jordan#:~:text=Deforestation%20as%20Economic%20Problem,and%20the%20Ajloun%20Nature%20Reserve

https://www.jordannews.jo/Section-106/Features/Financial-incentives-can-limit-deforestation-World-Bank-1397

https://www.jordantimes.com/news/local/regulation-penalising-cutting-endangered-trees-comes-effect

https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/encyclopedia-of-the-bible/Terebinth

https://www.britannica.com/topic/Dumuzi-Amaushumgalana

https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/19365844/117264678

https://emergencemagazine.org/interview/finding-the-mother-tree/

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

Layla Feghali https://www.riverroseremembrance.com/ 

Deema Assaf – Native Plants 101 course materials and notes

Rami Sajdi – Acacialand.com 

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

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