The man-made terraces in the Judean Hills surrounding Jerusalem are at the center of a fierce debate after a new study claimed the agricultural features were mainly built by Arab workers in the past 400 years. Critics dismiss the study and say it merely reflects the most recent building work.
The UNESCO-protected village of Battir, south of Jerusalem, features one of the most famous terraces and became the subject of lengthy legal arguments when the Defense Ministry’s plan to place the West Bank separation barrier through it threatened to ruin postcard sales. The terraces around Ein Karem, the neighborhood of Ramot and other locations were also used as examples arguing against urban development. In several locations in the Jerusalem Forest and Nahal Refa’im, the Jewish National Fund and Jerusalem Development Authority have embarked on projects designed to refurbish old terraces, as well as building new ones.
The power of a man-made terrace lies in its simplicity: It is a series of steps, with the earth held back by a wall of stones to enable tilling the mountainside. Its simplicity actually makes it difficult to date a terrace. In contrast to ancient structures, terraces are not usually part of a wider complex, which might include other artifacts that could be dated.
To add a further level of complexity, the terraces we see nowadays are the result of a never-ending project of building, reconstruction and repairing – a process that has continued for many generations. Thus, even if artifacts are found nearby, it’s difficult to ascertain whether they belong to the time the terrace was originally constructed or to a later time when it was repaired.
Despite these difficulties, the working assumption was that the first terraces in the area were constructed thousands of years before the Common Era. Indeed, the argument went, some of the terraces we still see today are remnants of terraces built by the residents of the Kingdom of Judah during the Iron Age (the Biblical era), or in subsequent classical periods (Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine) at the latest.
Researchers assumed there was a close link between the existence of prosperous communities in these hills – such as during the Iron Age or the Byzantine period – and the covering of these hills with extensive terrace systems. The common assumption was that agriculture wasn’t possible in these hills without terraces (or maybe mountain goats).
In order to overcome the inherent difficulties in dating these terraces, researchers used a method called Optically Stimulated Luminescence to address the issue. Researchers included Yuval Gadot from Tel Aviv University; Uri Davidovich from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem; Naomi Porat from the Geological Institute; and Gideon Avni from the Israel Antiquities Authority.
OSL is based on dating the last time at which quartz particles in the earth were exposed to the sun. This is based on the radioactive radiation they accumulate once they are hidden from sunlight. Gadot explains: “A grain of sand starts out in Sudan, gets carried in the wind and settles on the ground. As long as it’s exposed to light, it has no electric charges. As soon as it’s covered, it starts accumulating electrical charges. A farmer then comes along and gathers earth into his basket or pail, subsequently pouring it onto a terrace he has built. The grain is reexposed to the sun and the charges are reset at zero again. This is how we know when the earth containing it was poured onto the terrace.”
Working in the dark
In their study, the researchers gathered earth samples from the bottom of a terrace. In order to avoid resetting the electrical charges on the grains of quartz, Porat performed this in darkness, covered by a thick down blanket.
The data was analyzed at the Geological Institute and the results were stunning: nearly all the tested samples showed that the terraces were constructed only over the last 400 years. There was no building by Judeans, Hellenists or Romans – not even Crusaders or (12th-13th century) Mamluks. Instead, the study says, credit for creating the landscape around Jerusalem must go to the Arab fellaheen (agricultural laborers) who lived here during Ottoman times.
The study has thus far focused on two locations: Mount Eitan and Nahal Refa’im (aka Refa’im stream). Of 18 samples from Nahal Refa’im, 12 date from the Ottoman period, mostly to the period spanning the 17th to 19th centuries. Three samples were dated to the Mamluk period, making them about 700 to 800 years old, while one sample was dated to the Middle Ages (some 1,200 years ago). Only one belonged to the late Roman period, from almost 2,000 years ago. The researchers found no shred of evidence for terrace building in periods preceding the Second Temple era (i.e., before 538 B.C.E.).
On Mount Eitan, meanwhile, 24 samples were dated to the last 600 years. There were also three samples from the late Roman period and three from the Hellenistic period, about 2,000 years ago.
The study lends support to earlier results by Prof. Oded Lipschits from Tel Aviv University, who studied terraces in Ramat Rahel, just south of Jerusalem.
These results pose two sets of problems. First of all, it’s clear from endless archaeological and literary sources that there was a flourishing agricultural community in the Judean Hills in biblical times, as well as in later periods. If these terraces are a relatively new phenomenon, how do we explain how the earlier prosperity was achieved?
Another problem is that Jerusalem and its environs were sparsely populated in Ottoman times – estimates put the population in 1800 C.E. at fewer than 10,000. How could such a small populace sustain such a large network of terraces, in terms of capacity for tilling the land and potential market size for any agricultural produce?
“The impact of these results was surprising,” admits Gadot. “I didn’t think it would be easy to trace earlier periods, but I thought we’d find some from the Iron Age era.”
Gadot suggests several possible explanations for the findings. “It could be that terraces aren’t essential, and that one can live in these hills without them – there are enough valleys and flat areas. Also, there could have been earlier terraces, but on a limited scale,” he reasons.
He also offers an explanation for why terraces were constructed in the Ottoman period. “It could be related to the Turks’ taxation system,” offers Gadot. “This linked the effendis, who lived in the towns, with the tenant farmers. Perhaps the fact that the land belonged to one person enabled work to be carried out on a large scale – work that individual households could not carry out on their own.”
The results from Nahal Refa’im were presented four months ago at a research conference devoted to Jerusalem. It prompted criticism by directly conflicting with basic assumptions about the land’s history. Some of the criticism referred to the methodology that was employed. Critics said the findings point to the final reconstruction phase of the terrace, not to its original construction date.
“The basic question is whether what they found was merely the final and latest maintenance phase,” says Dr. Jon Seligman from the Antiquities Authority, who studies Byzantine-era agriculture.
“The terrace contains remnants of earlier activity,” responds Gadot. “If it was destroyed and rebuilt, we could detect that. We see earth from 15,000 years ago, which is the original layer. Then there’s a jump to the Mamluk or Ottoman periods. We’re looking at the 50th terrace and haven’t yet found anything earlier than the Hellenistic period.”
Seligman also points to the scattering of agriculture-related findings in the area, such as grape or oil presses from the Byzantine period. “If there are presses, there were crops – and growing these without terraces poses a problem,” he notes. “This means that there were some terraces there. The biblical word ‘step’ also refers to terraces.”
Another researcher, who asked not to be named, points to another problem with the finding: Numerous reports by 19th-century travelers to the Holy Land, describing ancient, destroyed and abandoned terraces, and barren and uncultivated surrounding hills. Up until the 19th century, Jerusalem’s sparse population couldn’t possibly have consumed the amount of food produced by such a large network of terraces – and there’s no evidence of massive exports of food to other locations, they say.
Clearly, the study has raised questions regarding the ability of scientific tools to solve archaeological questions. In recent years, archaeology in Israel has been relying heavily on analyses being conducted in laboratories. Some critics claim there is an excessive reliance on these methods, and that even numerical results require interpretation and juxtaposition with archaeological and historical sources, in order to place them in the right context.
Undeterred by the criticism, the researchers are now focusing on two additional sites – Nahal Halilim and Nahal Shmuel, both northwest of Jerusalem. There are collapsed terraces there, and the assumption is that they’re older than previously examined terraces.
The terraces at Nahal Shmuel, just like many of the terraces in the Judean Hills, are at risk of being destroyed due to a plan to build a new neighborhood there. Similarly, the last few decades have seen the destruction of huge areas filled with terraces for the sake of new buildings, roads and the West Bank separation barrier.
So, even while the academic debate is heating up, the terraces are gradually disappearing. “They say to you, ‘Should we stop building a new neighborhood because of a terrace? There are a thousand more!’ However, the truth is there used to be 1,000, but 990 have already been destroyed,” warns Gadot.