Sataf - Ancient Agriculture in Action

Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive
On the western edges of Jerusalem, not far from Ein Karem, a green slope goes down to the Sorek stream. Both its streams water small sections of irrigated land, a relic from an ancient culture that has almost disappeared. As in biblical times, gardens that get their water from channels and orchards of Israeli trees – olive, grapevine, fig, almond and pomegranate – that provide the landscape a fresh look all throughout the year. Welcome to the Sataf – a hidden spot of beauty in which time appears to have stopped. The development of the site was done with the assistance of KKL-JNF's friends in Switzerland.
  • How to get there

    There are three ways of getting to Sataf:
    1. Turn southwards off the main highway to Jerusalem (Route no. 1) at the Harel Interchange and continue southwards via Maoz Zion in the direction of Kibbutz Tzuba (Route no. 3965).
    2. From Jerusalem you can take Route no. 395 from Ein Kerem in south-west Jerusalem.
    3. From the Coastal Plain you can also take Route no. 395 (in the opposite direction) from Eshtaol Junction and continue via Kesalon, Ramat Raziel and Tzuba. From Sataf Junction a paved road leads to Sataf. For pedestrians: from the Nahal Sorek road below the site (Route 386), a footpath ascends to Sataf.
  • Geographic location-

    Jerusalem - Judean highlands and surroundings
  • Area-

  • Special Sites in the Area-

    Ein Sataf spring, channel-irrigated agricultural plots, the Land of Israel Orchard, Ein Hindak spring.
  • Facilities-

    Lookout, Marked path, Archeological or Historic site.
  • Other sites in the area-

    Kibbutz Tzuba, Ein Kerem, Eshtaol, Ramat Raziel, Nahal Sorek (“Sorek River”).

Some History

Archeological research shows that settlement at the Sataf site began around 6,000 years ago, in the Chalcolithic period, and that terrace construction started around 4,500 years ago. The site attained its greatest size and splendor in the Second Temple and Byzantine periods. In Crusader and Ottoman times, Sataf experienced variable fortunes, and in 1949, Moshav Bikura was founded on the ruins of the Arab village of Sataf, which was abandoned in Israel’s War of Independence, leaving behind two water-collection pools, terraces and houses that fell to ruin.
Within a short time, however, the Bikura residents were obliged to abandon the moshav, and after the retaining walls collapsed, an earthslide covered the two collection pools and the aqueduct that had fed them with water from the springs. Throughout the 1950s, the site was used as a training area by Israel Defense Forces’ paratroopers and Unit 101.

Reconstruction of Ancient Agriculture

In the early 1980s, KKL-JNF workers began to reconstruct Sataf’s agricultural terraces. They restored the two collection pools serving each of the two local springs, Ein Sataf and Ein Bikura and re-dug the irrigation channels to the agricultural plots on the re-terraced land.
Thanks to their efforts, today we can observe hillside agriculture as it was practiced in Biblical times, and understand terms as ma‘yan hatum (literally “a sealed spring,” i.e., a spring whose waters have been diverted to make them more easily accessible), shalhin agriculture (i.e, agriculture that uses channel-fed irrigation) and ba‘al agriculture, which is dependent only on natural precipitation, without recourse to man-made irrigation methods. KKL-JNF also has a unique project in the Sataf called "Bustanof" – small soil sections that are available for a small fee to private individuals interested in agricultural development of the soil in their free time.
KKL-JNF has developed and marked travel paths that go through the orchards and near the shalhin sections, and among agricultural facilities as lodges and wine presses. The paths are marked with wooden poles, each bearing marks of arrows in different colors for each of the tracks.
Hoeing and Clearing
In the course of many generations, residents of the Jerusalem mountains had to develop agriculture on rocky slopes that were revealed after clearing natural groves, as hinted in the bible: "go up to the forest country and clear a place for yourself there…" (Joshua, 17:15).
The residents devoted considerable resources to hoeing (removal of the rocks) and clearing – moving the rocks to the edges of natural steps. The rocks were used to build supporting walls for fertile land brought to the area. These agricultural steps, known as terraces (from the Latin word terra – land). The remains of the rocks were used to build watchtowers meant to guard the crops.
A Garden Locked Up, Sealed Fountain
Due to shortage of water, most of the agricultural steps in the Jerusalem Mountains were used for growing unirrigated crops – grapes, olives, figs and pomegranate. Terraces were built around the few springs in the area, creating relatively large and leveled sections. These irrigated sections were used for growing different crops all throughout the year.
The springs in the Jerusalem Mountains are generally poor. The ancients have increased the water flow by carving aqueducts into the layer that carries the water (aquifer). In several springs, the length of the aqueducts can reach several dozen meters. A collection pool was built near each spring, and channels brought the collected water to the sections on the steps. This created the aqueduct streams, that are now an integral part of the Judea Mountains. This way of life is described in a verse from the Song of Songs (4:12): "You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain."

Before Hitting the Road

The Sataf contains a few marked travel tracks, providing a variety of possibilities for foot travel. The paths are marked with wooden poles with colorful arrow drawings that correspond with the marking of the tracks. One of the tracks follows the Israel Trail. Here, we will describe two tracks: the Village Track and the Dryland Farming Track.
Parking Lots
The Sataf contains three parking lots:
Upper parking lot – large and accessible to buses. The parking lot contains picnic tables, toilet, drinking water,a kiosk and a sports compound built in the memory of Hila Bezaleli. A short path for people with disabilities leads travelers to a stunning view of the Sorek stream and the Jerusalem Mountains.
Middle parking lot – containing 90 spots for private vehicles only. A paved road leads here from the upper parking lot.
Lower parking lot – near the Sorek stream, accessible to buses. Access from Road 386, about 3 kilometers west from the roundabout near Ein Karem.

Rules of Behavior at the Sataf

Sataf is a site that recreates ancient mountain agriculture. The place is meant for travel only. The following rules are aimed at preserving the place's unique character and the travelers' enjoyment.
  • Overnight stay and lighting fire are forbidden at the streams' site. Holding events in the site, and using generators, lighting and amplifiers are all strictly forbidden.
  • Drinking from, swimming in and jumping into the streams are all strictly forbidden.
  • The mountain paths are steep and meant for experienced travelers, who should practice caution while using them and keep to the marked trails.
  • During the rainy season, there's a danger of slipping in the site.
  • Travelers are forbidden from entering agricultural fields.
  • To visit the aqueducts, flashlight (and not candles) as well as shoes that fit walking in water are required.

The Village Track

Starting point: upper parking lot.
End of the track: lower parking lot. Travelers should arrange transportation at the end of the track.
Length: about two kilometers to the lower parking lot.
Color markings: green, and the marking of the Israel Trail. The route is not circular, but it can be circular if travelers return from Ein Sataf through the Shomrot trail to the lower parking lot (marked in red)
Terraces and Orchard Remains
The upper parking lot is where travelers should get ready for the track. They can eat a light meal before starting the trip, fill their water bottles and use the toilet. While there, the view (1) from the accessible trail, which goes along the edge of the upper parking lot, is worth seeing – it is the view of the steep slope of Eitan Mountain which goes down to the Sorek stream, the largest stream in the Jerusalem Mountains. The opposite view is of the Aminadav Ridge, and the town of Even Sapir and the Hadassah Ein-Karem Hospital in front of it.
The Village Track, marked with green arrows and the markings of the Israel Trail, goes out of the parking lot east and down in a few steps to the compound containing benches and orchard trees. The compound also contains an Israel Trail station with a map and explanations for those who travel through the trail.
Ein Bikura
Ein Bikura (Ein a-Sharkia) may be one of the most bountiful streams in the Jerusalem Mountains, yet it is still considered as relatively poor. To make the most of this natural phenomenon, the Sataf residents did two things: first, they built a tunnel across the layer which carries the water. Later, in a huge construction project, the covered the tunnel and created a dark aqueduct. The huge stone wall at the front of the aqueduct, which covers the flow, is a part of this project. Second, at the foot of the stream, the residents built a water collection pool. The water were collected in the pool during the night and could be diverted to the irrigated lands.
An interesting finding was discovered at the side of the pool – clay links that created round spaces. It is believed that the links were pasted to the sides of the pool during the Roman period, in order to grow fishes that will enrich the local menu.
The Ein Biuka stream water are collected in the large pool. A staircase at the side of the pool goes down to the aqueduct behind it. The aqueduct is high and travelers can pass through it in a standing position. A flashlight is necessary, since the aqueduct is dark. Travelers should watch their step and note natural and wet steps on their way to the tunnel. The water come from the ceiling, and sharp-eyed visitors can also spot small stalactites.
Irrigated Land Flowerbeds
The Bikura stream passes between agricultural steps shaded by orchard trees, among them almond, strawberry, and fig trees. The nettle trees, famous for their sharp-edged leaves, also provide a generous shading. At the foot of the trail are irrigated land flowerbeds (6) that are cared for in traditional methods and watered using channels that draw their water from the stream pools. Plowing is done using donkeys, and the rest of the gardening work is done using manual tools.
The water divide was a complex affair and villages usually appointed a person in charge of equal water divide. That person was would block the channels with mud and release the mud block of the next pool (possibly by kicking it), taking care of each channel in its turn. With the conclusion of the watering of the irrigated land, the water were diverted to the next section. The biblical verse "where you used to sow your seed and water it with your foot like a vegetable garden" (Deuteronomy 11:10) describes this method of watering.
The trail from Ein Bikura reaches the main Sataf trail, which goes down to the lower parking lot (Road 386), but before that, it is advised to go upwards to the right and quickly reach Ein Sataf and the great pool near it. The place is surrounded by a stone wall with a closed gate. It is an orchard of Israeli trees. Visiting the site requires registration.

The Dryland Farming Track.

Starting point: upper parking lot.
End of the track: lower parking lot.
Length: about three kilometers.
Color markings: blue.
Track type: linear. Travelers should arrange for a vehicle to pick them up. The track can be made circular and shorter, starting and ending at the middle parking lot (see details at the end of this section).
Water pit and Residential Cave
The trail goes down from the upper parking lot through steps and immediately reaches a crossroad. It passes through the edges of the KKL forest, and 100 meters later passes near an ancient water pit (3). While there are two streams in the Sataf, it can be assumed that the residents made use of the water when attending distant fields. The pit was dug in the natural rocky surface and its sides were plastered to stop water from running through holes in the rock.
When Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai wanted to demonstrate the memory strength of his apprentice Rabbi Eliezer ben Hurcanus, he described him as "a plastered cistern that loses not a drop". The water pit is carved in the stepping surface of an ancient wine press. It can be assumed that the site was active during the Byzantine period. After the Muslims conquered the country (during the 7th century) the wine press was no longer needed, and the water pit was probably dug then.
Near the water pit is a large cave, with a stone wall inside and an opening with a large doorpost stone. The cave is not large, but it provided comfortable living. Like other caves in the Sataf area, it was used for seasonal residence, or flock maintenance, and the pit appears to have supplied the residents with water.
The trail continues in a pine grove and reaches a system of abandoned agricultural steps, and another half-built cave beside it (5). At the spot there is a splendid view of the dryland farming steps and the remains of the Sataf village.
From here the trail leads to a pine forest with picnic table, where travelers can rest before continuing. The "blue" trail goes down from the parking lot and follows the paved road for about 50 meters before reaching the lower parking lot. The road turns right following the blue markings and reaches the Sataf's dryland farming sections.
Dryland Farming
The sight of the agricultural steps, that were recreated with great effort, as well as that of the vineyards that grow in the area is beautiful. This is where generation of Sataf residents grew trees that do not need extra watering, including olives, grapes, figs and pomegranate. This dryland farming is named Ba'al Agriculture in Hebrew, after the god Ba'al in the Canaanite mythology – the god of sky and thunder, rain and fertility. From here comes his original name – Ba'al Shemin (husband to the sky). The rain fertilizes the land and makes the seed inside it grow.
The first stop on the track is the vineyard (6). The wine press looks like an earthly incarnation of the famous biblical wine press allegory: "My beloved had a vineyard on a rich and fertile hill. He dug it up and cleared it of stones and planted it with the choicest vines." (Isaiah 5:2). Indeed, to create a vineyard here the residents have cleared the small stones and built the agricultural steps from them, along with the tower – the Shomra, which we will get to later. A vineyard needs a fence to stop animals from eating the leaves and fruits. The fence is also mentioned in the vineyard allegory: "I will break down its wall and it will become trampled ground" (Isaiah 5:5).
The vineyard was considered as one of Israel's natural treasures, as it could not be grown in Egypt or Mesopotamia, the two major cultural centers of the ancient world, and wine was an important product of the era. In those days, mixing water with wine as means of disinfection was a common practice.
Beyond the vineyard, between the terraces, travelers can see olive, fig, pomegranate, carob and pistachio trees. This collection of 16 different species of trees was brought here from all over the country courtesy of the Biblical Fruit Society of Israel. These tree species have been adjusted over thousands of years to the soil and climate conditions of Israel. The tree collection, which also include 25 different types of vine, is a genetic treasure, given that many of these species are no longer actively grown. When the trees bloom, travelers can taste their fruits, but not fill their bags.
Guard Shack Trail
The track continues along an ancient trail (7) which served the farmers and village residents in the area for transportation across many generations, possibly even during the Roman period. The trail uses the rocky steps of the Sorek formation – a geological formation built from layers of hard dolomite stone and soft marlstone. This structure is good for the creation of agricultural steps, since the marlstone layers between the hard rocks can be easily processed. The marlstone layers are waterproof, and they carry the Sataf streams and other streams in the Jerusalem Mountains.
The great stones that support the trail imply that it was meant for animals carrying crops. Such a trail is described in the story of Balaam in the bible: "And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, and his sword drawn in his hand: and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field: and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way. 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).
Above the trail is an old stone structure (8). This is the guard shack, lacking any inner space, 2X3 meters in size. Near the structure is a cave used for residence. During the harvest season, the farmer guarded his crops from the roof of the guard shack. A nearby cave was used for residence and storage. This may be the tower mentioned in the biblical vineyard allegory mentioned above.
 Above this guard shack is the upper guard shack, a more complex structure, with an inner space used for residence and storage. Stairs led to the roof. Both shacks were built in a spot overlooking the surroundings.
The trail leads to a crossroad (9). The blue markings go through a large olive grove (10). Olives, like grapes, were considered as Israel's natural treasures, since the olive oil was used for lighting and healing.

The Winepress and Oak Grove

The trail goes through a Mediterranean grove that took over the surroundings and demonstrates the grove's ability to regenerate naturally in the Jerusalem Mountains. Beyond the grove is a large winepress house, carved in the rock, dated to the byzantine era.
The pressing floor, where grapes were pressed to make the wine, is covered by a white mosaic. From the pressing floor, the wine was collected and passed to the winery. Note the hole in the middle of the floor; this is where the grapes were place after they were pressed, to collect the remaining wine. The extra pressing was usually done by a pole. Slots around the pressing floor were used to place the grapes. In the bible, there is a description of the pressing: "And they went out into the field and gathered the grapes from their vineyards and trod them and held a festival" (Judges, 9:27).
Near the winepress is the Oak Grove (12). The large trees provide generous shading and create a wonderful resting spot. Common oaks of this size are a rare sight in the Jerusalem Mountains. The nearby remains found in the area were probably a byzantine church near a water pool. It is possible that across the generations, the local residents have considered the trees as sacred, and cared for them for this reason. The Sataf's Arab residents called the place Sheikh Obid.
South of the Grove is a cave with steps in its opening (13). The walls contain the remains of plaster, used to block the passage of water, and it is obvious that the place was used to collect water.
End of the Track
The trail continues through an olive grove as well as almond, apple, pear, plum and pistachio trees. After walking 150 meters, travelers can stop and watch the John in the Desert Monastery on the opposite mountain slope. The monastery, belonging to the Franciscan Order, was built during the 19th century in honor of John the Baptist, who was a resident of Ein Kerem. The Christian tradition tells that in the cave in this monastery, John the Baptist hid from soldiers of King Herod the Great. The current structure was built in the 19th century on the foundations of other, more ancient monasteries.
The trail reaches steps that go up to the Sataf stream. From there, the trail marked in green leads to the lower parking lot, and a paved road offer a three-minute walk to the middle parking lot.

The Sataf Stream Water's Special Qualities

It usually happens very early in the morning or late at night, after the other travelers are gone. A pregnant woman and her husband come to the stream to drink from the water of the stream. According to a tradition, the Sataf water were blessed with the power to change the position of the child, who is still in his mother's womb, from bottom to head. While the tradition is completely modern, it appears to be as powerful as ancient traditions…

See the Almond Bloom

In the Sataf, travelers can enjoy the most beautiful blooms of the almond tree in Israel. Around the holiday of Tu BiShvat, the gorgeous white bloom paints the agricultural steps and adds another element to the area.

The Community and the Preservation of the Sataf Landscapes

The site is open to volunteers who wish to contribute to the preservation of the agricultural landscape in the Jerusalem Mountains. Volunteer opportunities include cleaning, renovation and building of agricultural terraces, according to needs.

For details, call 02-6583425