Sataf on the Baal Trail - Jerusalem Hillls

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The Baal Trail

Sataf, nestling among the Jerusalem Hills in central Israel, is the site of an enchanted world watered by two springs, Ein Sataf and Ein Bikura, pools and walking trails. Beside the springs are collection pools that irrigate the orchards and vegetable gardens using agricultural techniques that date back to antiquity. Our route passes through farmland where no artificial irrigation is used and crops are dependent solely on rainfall.

The Sataf. Photo: Yoav Devir

Crop-growing without the benefit of artificial irrigation is known in Hebrew as hakla’ut ba‘al, an expression that derives from the name of the powerful Canaanite sun god Baal, who was believed to bring fertility to the land and who makes frequent appearances in the Bible (see, for example, 1 Kings 16:31-32). Thus, land that needs no artificial irrigation was regarded as being watered by Baal’s divine decree, in the form of rainfall. This type of farming is in a large measure a matter of necessity, because of the scarcity of water sources in the region, and baal agriculture was the principle farming method practiced in ancient Israel, covering a total area of thousands of dunams (1 dunam = approx ¼ acre).

Visitors to the site will enjoy the vista presented by the springs of water and the various orchards and groves scatted over the hundreds of dunam of terraces that are cultivated around the area of the springs, with rainfall as their only source of irrigation. Later, they can stroll along the network of paths marked out with wooden posts and footpath indicators; the Baal Trail is one of these.

Our route begins at the Sataf information booth. From there we turn north eastwards towards the green-marked Village Trail (Shvil HaKfar) and walk along it for around 100 meters until we reach a path that forks off to the right in a south westerly direction. This is the Baal Trail, which is marked in blue. The route is triangular and there are a number of stopping places along the way.

Bustan HaShalom (“The Peace Orchard”), which comprises a variety of fruit trees and a stone-built watchman’s tower for guarding the fruit at harvest time, has been restored and maintained by Jewish and Arab schoolchildren from the surrounding area. At the site you will also see a cistern, which together with the flat rock surrounding it, was used in the past for trampling grapes and collecting their juice to make wine. Later the cistern was used to store water. It was hewn into the natural rock and plastered with lime to prevent seepage.

Nearby is a cave (4) that served as a seasonal dwelling for a farmer or as a shelter for flocks. From here we continue through a pine wood until we come to another orchard that is tended by KKL-JNF volunteers.

Beside it are some caves and ruined buildings (5). From here we have an excellent view of the rain-irrigated (baal) and channel-irrigated areas of farmland and the ruined buildings of the Sataf site. We continue along the blue-marked route through the forest and the recreation area and cross a road beside the water tank. Now we descend in the direction of the fig orchard and the vineyards, still following the blue markings. This section of the route introduces us to a whole new world: the life of a farming community that relied only on rainfall to water its crops.

L-R: Adnan Shweiki and Daoud Abu-Seriya working in the garden. Photo: Yoav Devir

The first crop we encounter is the vine. The vines have been pruned and the terraces scrupulously plowed – both very necessary tasks in a rain-irrigated vineyard where the growth of weeds that might compete for the small amount of water contained in the soil has to be prevented. The vineyard is situated on terraces whose guard tower and surrounding walls were built from stones removed from the plots before planting – just as described in Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard: “…My wellbeloved had a vineyard in a very fruitful hill: And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine, and built a tower in the midst of it, and also made a winepress therein…” (Isaiah 5:1-2).

Above the vineyard is a fig grove planted by KKL-JNF as part of a project to conserve ancient native fruit tree species. Apart from the figs, nineteen other types of tree are planted here, including olive, pomegranate and pistachio.

The footpath continues uphill from the ruins of the watchtower at the edge of the vineyard and the fig-tree grove and leads to a broad section of an ancient path constructed in Roman times, which served as a link between farming communities on Mount Eitan. From the size of the stones used and the amount of work invested in its construction we may assume that this route was intended for transport caravans.

Photo: Gidi Bashan

Several dozen meters further on we come to another watchtower overlooking the path and we can climb up to it. Constructed from stone, it is 2 x 3 meters in size, with no inner chamber. It would have been used mainly at the end of summer when the fruit was ready for picking. An adjacent cave would have been used for dwelling or storage purposes. From the tower we return to a paved path between two stone walls.

A beautiful description of a mountain track of this kind can be found in the Biblical story of Balaam: “… And the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field […] But the angel of the Lord stood in a path of the vineyards, a wall being on this side, and a wall on that side,” (Numbers, 22:23-24).

Photo: Yoav Devir

At the crossroads we leave the path and, following the markings, descend to an olive grove.

Olives are the most commonly grown rain-irrigated crop in the Jerusalem Hills. We continue through the terraced olive groves. Below is a dense area of Mediterranean scrubland that occupies the untended section of the orchard. We make our way along our route until we reach a Byzantine wine press hewn into the rock. The major part of the area around it is covered with a white mosaic (please do not step on this surface lest you damage it), and this was the floor on which the grapes were trampled. The surface is scored with grooves along which the grape juice flowed, and there is also a smaller basin, referred to as the apple of the winepress, which was used when the grapes were trodden for a second time. This extra pressing was performed with the help of a beam or screw.

The next stop along the way as we follow the path downhill is at an oak woodland. This is a wonderful spot to pause for a rest in the shade of these large trees. At the site we can see the remains of what was once probably a church and a water reservoir from the Byzantine period. The oak trees here are exceptionally large for the Judean Hills region. Former inhabitants of Israel, Christian and Muslim, regarded them as sacred, and this would appear to be the reason for their continued survival, as Muslims still venerate the site, which they call Sheikh Ubeid.

o the south of the woodland we come to a collection cave with steps leading down into it and plastered walls to prevent the water from seeping out. Some believe it may have served as a mikveh, and its proximity to the winepress strengthens this supposition. From here we return to the path and continue on our way through the olive grove. Further on the path passes through plots of deciduous fruit trees – almond, apple, pear, plum and apricot.

After another 150 meters or so we can stop to enjoy a view of the Franciscan Monastery of St. John in the Wilderness, which is situated on the flank of the hill opposite and which was built at the end of the 19th century. According to Christian tradition John the Baptist hid in a nearby cave from the soldiers of King Herod. From here we continue across plots planted with pistachio and carob trees.

Below us sprawls an orchard comprising dozens of types of fruit tree native to the Land of Israel, with a wooden pergola at its center. KKL-JNF is at present in the process of making this orchard site suitable for visitors and is preparing to build a traditional-style watchman’s tower there from local stone.

Around 200 meters further on we reach steps that lead up to Ein Sataf spring, and this marks the end of our walk along the Baal Trail.

Photo: Gidi Bashan