Nature Society Surveys Jerusalem’s Ancient Roots

Survey lists thousands of historic trees found in capital; many may face danger in the future, particularly from construction.

Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat
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Zafrir Rinat
Zafrir Rinat

Some 5,000 ancient trees have been located in Jerusalem in the first survey of its kind, carried out by the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel (SPNI).

Most of the trees, whose past is intertwined with the city’s history, are in good condition, but they may face danger in the future, particularly from construction.

The survey’s findings will be shared on Sunday in a conference on preserving ancient trees in Jerusalem.

Between 2011 and 2013 SPNI, assisted by volunteers, conducted a comprehensive survey of old trees in the capital’s built-up areas. Surveyers, assisted by many volunteers and in coordination with the Agriculture Ministry and Forest Commissioner, mapped every tree, noting its condition and association with cultural and historic heritage.

“When we examined the findings and stories in depth, we discovered a whole world, a whole layer of cultural and historic landscape that gives the city identity and a natural dimension,” says Sigalit Rahman, SPNI’s Jerusalem director.

The survey lists trees over 50 years old. More than 600 of the trees are classified as especially old, meaning they date back at least 80 years. Altogether 63 types of trees were found, the most common of which is the Aleppo Pine, followed by the Mediterranean Cypress and olive tree. The largest number of trees are located in Talbieh neighborhood, which was once covered by fields and orchards.

Most of the trees mapped in the survey are within the Old City and the first neighborhoods built around it.

“The urban landscape in this part of the city has a lot of trees in it, creating a country-like urban space,” the survey summary says.

Some of the trees are part of the capital’s cultural and historic heritage. For example, a giant carob tree in Ein Kerem provided shade for the last pilgrims rest stop before they would proceed into Jerusalem.

A mulberry tree in Ein Kerem marks the central meeting place of the Palestinian village that was once located there. The tree later became the meeting place of the Jewish residents of neighborhood built on the site. Another example can be found at Beit Ticho: Some of the trees growing next to the house where artist Anna Ticho once lived have been immortalized in her paintings.

A carob tree in the East Jerusalem village of Isawiyah features in the folklore of the village elders and is mentioned in stories of events that took place hundreds of years ago. Eucalyptus trees in the valley also have a history. According to one version, they were planted by an Australian camel riders regiment in WWII.

The survey says most of the trees are in good condition, but their future is far from assured.

Some trees are threatened by construction work. “Just the other day a number of olive trees that were slated for preservation were damaged,” says Rahman.

About half the ancient trees are located on private property, where they are in danger of being cut down by construction workers.

The law prohibits cutting down trees without the Forest Commissioner’s permission, even on private property. But about a third of the trees classified as holy in a survey conducted by Prof. Avi Shmida 30 years ago no longer exist. Most of them have been chopped down, probably due to construction work.

The survey recommends that trees that are more than 80 years old not be uprooted, even on sites where construction plans have been approved. If there is no choice, the trees are to be relocated to new neighborhoods where there are fewer trees.

Construction work must be kept at least three meters away from ancient tree trunks and accompanied by an agronomist, the survey says.

“I hope the planners and city officials taking part in the conference on Sunday will take it on themselves to protect the trees,” says Rahman.

An ancient olive tree in Israel.Credit: Yaron Kaminsky

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