Refaim Valley: The Palestinian villages of Al Wallaja and Battir Archaeological View
Refaim Valley is located between the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Malha (former Palestinian village of Malha) and Katamon on its northwest end and the Palestinian village of Battir on its southern end, and between the Palestinian village of Al Wallaja on the eastern side and the Israeli villages of Ora (former Palestinian village of Al Djora) and Aminadav (where the old Al Wallaja used to be) on the western side. A railway from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv runs through the valley.
Uniqueness of the area
The ancient agricultural terraces of the RefaimValley, some of them still in use, bear witness to thousands of years of human activity centered around water springs which dot its slopes. A wealth of archeological remains can be found in the Palestinian villages of Al Wallaja and Battir, around the springs and along the ancient roads winding through the valley and its slopes. Most of them haven’t been excavated yet, nor harmed by modern development. In order to preserve this unique cultural landscape, the Israel World Heritage Committee has recommended recently that the terraced fields in the area be classified as a protected UNESCO site.
Based on the few excavations carried out in the area, the RefaimValley was first settled in the Chalcolithic period, about 4,000 BCE. Numerous finds from later periods were found as well, for example, remains of settlements from the Middle Bronze Age II (the 17th and 18th century BCE), a village from the 7th and 8th century BCE, and graves from the 2nd Temple Period (1st century BCE to 1st century CE). The valley had been settled extensively in the late Roman Period (2nd and 3rd century CE), and in the Byzantine Period up to the early Arab Period (the 7th and 8th century CE). The Palestinian villages in the area, including those destroyed in 1948, date back hundreds of years.
There are no sites in the area that could be identified with historical or Biblical sources, nor with other ancient traditions, except for Khirbet al Yahud and Ein el Hanniya. The better known Khirbet al-Yahud, located in the village of Battir, has been often identified with the historical Betar, a settlement during the Bar Kochba revolt where the Jewish rebels suffered a crushing defeat by the Romans. The water spring of Ein el Hanniya, located on the slopes of Al Wallaja village, is regarded by the Ethiopian Christians as the baptism place of the minister of the Ethiopian queen Candace who became the first Ethiopian Christian (see Acts 8:26-39). Groups of Ethiopian pilgrims visit the place every year in order to undergo a symbolic baptism ritual and drink from the holy water.
The Archaeological Importance
The RefaimValley is known for its multitude of springs, the most frequented of which are Ein Levan, Ein Yael, Ein el Balad, Ein el Hanniya, Ein al Goz, and Ein el Hadaf. People have settled around them since Prehistoric times. The terraced fields of Al Wallaja and Battir date back 2,000 years and some of them are still in use today. They were part of the ancient agricultural method developed over centuries in the rocky-hilly areas of the Judean Hills and attest to continuous human activity throughout different historical periods in the area.
The railway running through the RefaimValley follows an ancient road which used to lead from Jerusalem to Bet Guvrin and from there to Gaza. Bet Guvrin (Eleutheropolis) was a major city in the Judean Plain during the Roman Period (app. 200 CE) and its prosperity also had an impact on the Refaim Valley, as the archeological finds attest to a heightened human activity in the area during the late Roman and Byzantine periods.
The Archaeological Excavations and their Main finds
The most extensive excavations of the RefaimValley were carried out by the Israel Antiquities Authority in the area of the Malha shopping mall and the Biblical Zoo. At both sites, a village was exposed dating back to the Middle Bronze Age II B (1,700 – 1,800 BCE), and below this village, remains of an earlier village were found from the Early Bronze Age IV (2,200 – 2,100 BCE).
The excavations at Khirbet el Yahud in Battir exposed a large fortified site, most probably a settlement from the Middle Bronze Age II B. A layer from the Roman Period, identified with the 2nd TemplePeriod, was also exposed there. However, no remains attesting to the Bar Kochba revolt were found at the site.
At Khirbet Abu Shawan, at the southern edge of Al Wallaja, there are remains from the Early Bronze Age III (2,800 – 2,500 BC) and from the Iron Age (8th and 7th centuries BCE). The site is located on the top of the hill and has not been excavated yet. During the salvage dig along the route of the Separation Wall, currently under construction in Al Wallaja, remains from a settlement from Middle Bronze Age II B were found at a number of places. Antiquities from the 7th and 8th century BCE were found at the A-Ras site, on the slopes of the Malha neighborhood located at the northwest edge of the RefaimValley.
The excavations at Ein Yael (Ein Yalo) exposed a magnificent Roman villa from the 2nd – 3rd century CE containing a few unique mosaics and a bathhouse used until the early Arab Period. Nearby, remains from the Crusader Period were found.
One of the most impressive structures from the late Roman Period is a nymphaeum (adorned Roman fountain) the remains of which are still standing in Ein el Hanniya located below Al Wallaja. Until recently, the water running through it was clean and drinkable. In the 1920s, a church with a colorful mosaic floor was excavated close to the nymphaeum, dating back to the Byzantine Period. After the excavations, the remains were covered by soil and their exact location is not known today. Remnants of ancient arches and ruins of buildings can be seen nearby as well as plenty of pottery shards. The pottery shards are also scattered around Al Wallaja and Battir. All these ancient remains attest to extensive human activity in the area throughout the ages.
Summary and suggestions
A number of factors turn the RefaimValley into an unusual area in the local landscape. It is located along the Green Line between Jerusalem and the Palestinian villages, it has remained almost untouched by modern construction, and it conceals a wealth of ancient remains from many different periods. Unfortunately, the current massive construction works on the Separation Wall, which is going to enclose the village of Al Wallaja, have turned part of the unique landscape into a scarred one.
The fact that no major historical or religious traditions are related to the past of this area could offer a fresh perspective on the contested region. Visitors coming to Al Wallaja, Battir or other parts of the Refaim Valley could learn about the local history in a novel way: not through religious texts or conflicting national narratives, but as a story of the development of human society, a story of the multitude of human cultures which have shaped the local landscape in the course of thousands of years.
The RefaimValley has a tourist and educational potential that has not yet been explored. Offering insights about the different cultures that inhabited the area in the course of thousands of years, archaeology could open the way to learning about the other – the other who lived here in the past and the other who lives here today as our neighbor. The visitors could enjoy its unusual cultural landscape, learning not only about its past but also about the daily life of its current residents. The local school children, both Palestinian and Israeli, could learn more about the unique area they live in and deepen their connection to it, a connection which is inclusive of the other rather than exclusive.
The Refaim Valley offers the possibility of learning about archaeology which is not identified with any national narrative, and, as such, could encourage a dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, based on the understanding that the local landscape and its past does not belong to either, but that they are both integral parts of the continuous human activity that has shaped the area over thousands of years.
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