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’, I made for Darat Al Fanun “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 on 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, beyond that 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, that refers to 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 who are in Jordan, be sure to go see it in person, as there are many participating artists and organizations whose amazing work and research is on exhibit. 

(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, hawthornes, oaks, pistacias, and more, on land with signs that say “for sale”.  Lately, I keep wishing I had millions of dollars, so I could buy up all that land and put an end to 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. This tree with its thick trunks, twisted branches, and luscious leaves that hang low 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 kinds of 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 sit on 1% of its landscape.  With the missing thick canopies of trees, the moisture from leaves that thickens the air is lost, a major contribution to the drought we are experiencing.  

As with anything that is that old, abundant, and important to the seasonal cycles, trees were seen as sacred by 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.  All these trees have similar culinary and medicinal properties, and seem to be linked to similar sets of stories, with their own specificities of course.  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 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 associated with Assyro-Babylonian goddess Ishtar, who was also called “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 biladi (my homelands).  As with natural springs, you will still find trees that are 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 both 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 rain season, Yam, who represents 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 is able to overcome these elements by subduing Yam, and literally overcoming Mot, death itself, nothing would be possible without the other elements, 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.  

It seems our Canaanite ancestors understood deeply the importance of trees.  In the myth, which is 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.  To me, this alludes to the important relationship between trees and rain.  In order 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 strong link to bodies of water, and one of her sons Yam, the god of the sea.  Her link to water also alludes to the importance of trees, and their vital connection as a source of support in 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 heroes journey took center stage.  Yet I believe, at the essence of the myth, my ancestors were trying to tell a different story.  A story of collaboration, a story of balance, a story of the need for all the 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 indiegenous cultures already knew and had studied for thousands of years, shattered the idea of competition and hierarchy in other than human beings.  I believe the Ba’al Cycle must be seen in the same light.  

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

While working on my ‘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 biggest plants on earth.  Because they have long lives, some of them thousands of years, they invest heavily in their landscape and environment.  The pistacia atlantica in particular is known for its strong 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 act as connectors between the inner earth, earth’s surface, and sky.  

While researching Asherah I came across the fact that some archaeologists believe there is a link between her and Qudshu, the Canaanite and Egyptian goddess, whose name means ‘holy’.   The connection being that Qudshu, holy, is another element or name of Asherah.  While this idea is not agreed upon, I am fascinated by the ways in which 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 can still find the name 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 this idea that ownership means to do with it whatever we want.  To my people, trees, land are seen as sacred, and they are protected as such, perhaps alluding to the true meaning of what owning land really means. 

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, then 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 that lives on the edges of Amman.  She lives with many other oaks, majestic mother and grandmother trees, that felt to me 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 surely cannot survive otherwise.  


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 it also gives readers a chance to do further research on their own, making their own connections and insights.  It is also important 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 but also through deep listening.  So sometimes my references are a specific tree, the wind, fire, water, soil, or an animal.  Sometimes it is 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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