Palace Guard (Part 3 of Our Adventures in the Palestinian Territories)

(In part 1 of this series, I detailed how my wife and I ended up in the old Hyundai of a well-meaning Palestinian tour guide, driving towards the ancient town of Jericho. We have passed the red signs on the road, containing the Israeli warning that we are entering territory “dangerous to your lives.” In part 2, I talk about the hotel and casino project lying along the Jericho road, a project that marks the failure of the Israeli-Palestinian joint venture following the 1993 Oslo Accords.)

As we drive into Jericho, the scenery turns greener. Jericho is an oasis, fed by ancient underground springs. Water from these springs is Jericho’s most precious resource – this is easy to understand, given that the region receives only about 5 inches of rain a year.  The principal spring in Jericho is named ‘Ein es-Sultan in Turkish, or Elisha’s Fountain in English. This spring is legendary; in the Bible, the prophet Elisha purified this spring with salt, making it fit to drink. There are smaller springs throughout Jericho, and these springs have been tapped for irrigation, turning Jericho into a town of small farms. We can see water for irrigation running down culverts on the sides of many roads as we tour through the town. But less water flows today than in the past, a result of decreasing rainfall and deep-well drilling in nearby Israeli settlements.

Our guide Assaf (not his real name) stresses that Jericho is a small town. Wikipedia confirms this, giving Jericho a population of less than 20,000. Even if we look at the entire Jericho Governorate – a region of the Palestinian Territories that includes Jericho along with much of Palestine’s Jordan River border, we’re still looking at a population of roughly 30,000 people. This is tiny by the standards of towns we consider small in America – towns like Boulder, Colorado, or Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Jericho’s fluctuating size is part of its modern story. Jericho used to be even smaller – in 1945, its population was closer to 3,000. But in the aftermath of Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, Jericho became home for some 100,000 Palestinian refugees who had fled  (or were forced to leave) Israel. At the end of the war, the West Bank (along with Jericho) was annexed by the new nation of Jordan, and perhaps the Jordanians reasoned that Jericho’s water resources made it a logical place to locate refugee camps. When Israel invaded the West Bank during the Six Day War in 1967, most of these refugees fled (or were forced) across the Jordan River. There are only 7,000 Palestinian refugees remaining in Jericho today – most of them children or grandchildren of the original 1948 refugees – but even with these reduced numbers, roughly half of Jericho’s current population lives in refugee camps.

Our tour of Jericho does not include these refugee camps. Instead, Assaf proudly points out the many small farms that dot Jericho’s landscape. “Do you know what they’re growing there?” he asks repeatedly. I hesitate to tell him that I can’t distinguish an artichoke field from one growing watermelons. “Zucchini!” he answers. Or “eggplant!” He reminds us that Jericho is primarily an agricultural village. He does not mention that most of Jericho’s farmland is owned by a handful of Jericho families, and farmed by sharecroppers. But if we ask, I’m sure he’d correctly describe how Jericho’s agriculture has been impacted by the Israeli – Palestinian conflict. Jericho’s agriculture is “export-oriented”: some of it is sold elsewhere in the Palestinian West Bank, but most of it – in particular, the “high-quality product” – is sold in Israel. When Jericho is subjected to “closure” – Israeli-imposed security restrictions on the movement of people and goods – Jericho’s export market collapses, and most of the food it grows is left to rot in the fields. In fact, agriculture suffers if there’s even a short delay in getting food to market, or in receiving or making repairs to farm equipment – and such delays can be caused by the unexpected appearance of a “flying checkpoint” or tightened standards at permanent checkpoints.

We drive further, and Assaf points out a United Nations school – the only school of any kind we’ll spot during our time in Jericho. He does not mention that the school is located in a refugee camp. This is something we should be able to figure out for ourselves. But it bothers me, that more than 20 years after the PA assumed control of Jericho, much of Jericho’s population remains in refugee camps. These camps are the oldest refugee camps in the world. During the 65+ years since the 1948 War, the original Palestinian refugee population – living in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan – has swollen from roughly 700,000 to over 5 million. The refugees in Jericho are only a small part of this population. Yet these Jericho refugees are Palestinians in a Palestinian territory, under Palestinian rule. Why must they continue to live in camps?

As we drive through and around Jericho, I look for signs of new infrastructure and industry. But the town looks much like it must have looked 20 years before, or for that matter 70 years before. There are a few large private homes under construction – Jericho is a popular site for “second homes” for wealthy Palestinians. I see a large prison, built with funds provided by The Netherlands. I see a training facility, the Palestine College of Police Sciences, built with funds provided by the European Union. “Who is being trained at this facility?” I ask Assaf. “Police,” he tells me. “Palestine has no army.” I guess this is true, technically speaking. Palestine has a Civil Police Force that engages in normal law enforcement activities, but it also has a paramilitary National Security Force – sort of a modern-day palace guard – entrusted with protecting Palestinian leadership. There’s also a Palestinian Preventive Security Force, in charge of national security.  Some Israelis are concerned over the possibility that PA security troops have participated in terrorist violence.

Assaf pulls his Hyundai into a dusty parking lot. We have arrived at our first destination of the day: Khirbat al-Mafjar, better known to English speakers as Hisham’s Palace. The parking lot is empty. We are the only people here, save for a young woman in a hijab who is there to collect our entrance fees. If there’s a sign indicating how much we’re supposed to pay, I don’t see it. Payment seems to be voluntary in any event; there’s no security at the site, no turnstiles; really, there’s nothing to prevent tourists (and looters) from walking right in. Of course, we’re not about to enter without paying! Our tour’s operators informed us in advance that we’re supposed to pay our own admission fees – they are not covered by the price of the tour – but Assaf volunteers to front these fees for us. We can reimburse him at the end of the trip. This makes me nervous. If I’m supposed to reimburse Assaf with Israeli shekels, I have only a few hundred dollars of shekels with me. What if it isn’t enough? I’d much rather pay as we go … but I don’t think I can override Assaf.

The ruins of Hisham’s Palace lie before us. The site is open and deserted, surrounded by low wire fencing that could easily be crossed by would-be tourists, or looters. A herd of goats watch us from outside the fence as we enter the site. In the distance, towards the mountains we crossed earlier that morning to reach Jericho from Jerusalem, I hear men’s voices, shouting in unison. I wonder what they are saying. “Do not be concerned,” Assaf assures us, referring to the shouting. “It is only the police, training.” To my ears, the voices sound like army marching cadence.

Pick up your ‘chutes and follow me
I’m the airborne infantry.

But whatever it is they’re shouting, they’re shouting it in Arabic.

It is about 10:15. We are still alone at this site. Perhaps it’s too early on a Sunday morning for Jericho tourism. I decide to ignore the shouting, and focus instead on the site itself. Following Assaf, we enter the ruin of what was once a magnificent palace built in the first half of the 8th century. What’s left today is mostly the lower portions of some of the palace walls, together with stone columns. Some columns are standing, others lie on the ground. The site has been looted over the years for building materials, but there are still plenty of rectangular-cut stones strewn around the site.

2014-02-16 09.50.04Assaf gives us the history. Hisham’s Palace was one of many palaces built by the Caliphs (rulers) of the Umayyad Dynasty, the empire that controlled the Islamic world during the 7th and 8th centuries. But seemingly like everything else in this part of the world, the palace had a troubled and uncertain history. The palace is named today after Hisham ibn Abd al-Malik, the 10th Umayyad Caliph, who was reportedly a good and pious Muslim ruler. But the palace seems like a rather sumptuous and secular place for a ruler like Hisham (for example, there were statues discovered at the site that were naked to the waist). It’s possible that Hisham had nothing to do with this palace, and that that the palace was the project of Hisham’s nephew, al-Walid II, the 11th Umayyad Caliph. Al-Walid had a reputation as a playboy and a heavy drinker, so perhaps he was the kind of ruler who would enjoy a pleasure palace or two, but he was also assassinated a few years into his Caliphate, so he wouldn’t have had much of an opportunity to enjoy this particular place. Actually, it’s not clear whether anyone lived in this palace, as it was destroyed by earthquake a few years after its construction began.

The ruins of the palace were excavated in the 1930s and 40s by what Assaf refers to as a joint British-Palestinian archeological team. Assaf’s description is accurate, from a certain point of view. The two archeologists who supervised the excavation of the site both worked for the Department of Antiquities established in 1920 by the British when it controlled all of Palestine. One of these archeologists, Robert Hamilton, was an Oxford-trained Englishman who ran the Department. The other, Dmitri Baramki, was at the time a high-school educated Christian from Jerusalem (he later received degrees from the University of London). By all accounts, Baramki did terrific work at Hisham’s Palace – his work may have been better than Hamilton’s – but Baramki did so as Hamilton’s employee and under British authority.

Still, Baramki is fondly remembered today by Palestinians, as he probably should be, as Palestine’s first archeologist. Archeology plays an important role in the current politics of this region: both Israelis and Palestinians are busy documenting their respective historic presence in Israel/Palestine, as well as their historic role in uncovering this presence. “Hisham’s Palace is part of the living legacy of Palestine’s past,” Assaf tells us, and he is right. The Palestinians have a history here that must be recognized by Israel and the rest of the world. When we cross the border back into Israel, there will be Israeli tour guides to point out the living Jewish legacy.

Assaf shows us how the remaining portions of stone walls mark the rooms of the palace. The walls of two of these rooms contain mihrabs, semi-circular niches in the walls, indicating that these rooms were once mosques. So if the palace was built by the playboy Caliph al-Walid, evidently he was not completely lacking in religious feeling. Off in the distance, the shouting of the police trainees grows louder. I ask Assaf what they are saying. “I don’t know,” he replies, “they are too far away.” Maybe. But if they are police, what could they possibly be shouting in unison? I suspect that if Assaf knew what these men were shouting, he wouldn’t tell me.

2014-02-16 10.03.57Assaf walks us across a field to a second ruin, that of the palace’s bath house. “Here is the largest surviving mosaic floor from the ancient world,” Assaf tells us proudly. We cross a sand-covered floor to one of the underground baths. The floor of the bath is a mosaic showing a tree of life. The bath is covered by a roof that lets in little light (my photo here, showing the tree upside-down, is how the mosaic appears to visitors), and it’s not easy to see the mosaic. The mosaic is beautiful … but is this really the largest surviving mosaic from the ancient world? I’m no expert on such things; have I overestimated the size of other mosaics? Anticipating my question, Assaf leads us back across the sand-covered floor, and lifts a corner of a carpet buried under the sand. I see more mosaic floor … and I realize that I’m walking on “the largest surviving mosaic from the ancient world,” nearly all of which has been buried by the Palestine Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities under three inches of sand.

The sand covering the world’s “largest surviving mosaic floor” is going to bother me for the rest of the day. Logically, the sand must be there to protect the floor – from the elements, I suppose, and in particular from Jericho’s unforgiving sunlight. But isn’t it a problem that thousands of tourists walk across this sand, grinding it into the ceramic tiles? Sand can scratch floors, right? More puzzling to me is why the Palestinians would bury this significant part of their “living legacy.” Aren’t there funds available to protect the floor with something other than sand – something like UV-resistant glass? Can’t they build a pavilion to protect displayed floor from sunlight?

Assaf does not tell us, but Hisham’s Palace is a site in trouble. The Global Heritage Fund lists Hisham’s Palace as one of twelve historic “Sites on the Verge” of irretrievable loss and destruction. Many of the sites listed by the Global Heritage Fund are endangered by war and conflict, but Hisham’s Palace is listed instead as endangered by development pressure and “insufficient management.” “There’s no expertise there to be able to care for it,” according to Global Heritage executive director Jeff Morgan.

Off in the distance, the shouting from the police academy dies out, replaced by the sound of automatic weapon fire. Evidently, this is commonplace. The goats outside of the palace’s fence don’t even raise their heads to take notice. Here, at least, is something that has changed since the PA took over Jericho: there are Palestinians in uniform being trained by a Palestinian government to use guns to protect public order. Whether the men being trained are police or security forces or something else, I cannot say.

But what Palestine may need, even more than its own security force, is another Dmitri Baramki to protect its historic legacy.