When a group of eight journalist tree huggers from China, Germany, the US, Canada and Israel attempt to encircle an uncommonly large, centuries-old Common Oak here – and run out of hands and arms only some halfway around the mammoth tree’s circumference – I appreciate the fact that forestation, ecology and conservation were major issues in Israel decades before they became buzzwords in the West.

The eight of us are on a tour sponsored by Keren Kayemet L’Israel (the Jewish National Fund) of ancient trees in the vicinity of Jerusalem in honor of Tu Bishvat – Judaism’s arbor day, the 15th of Shvat, which falls this year on January 30.

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Led by tour guide Ya’acov Shkolnik, author of the 2008 Hebrew book 101 Special and Amazing Trees in Israel, our first destination is the monastery of Beit Gemal 30 km. southwest of Jerusalem. There we are welcomed by Father Antonio Scudu, the Sardinia-born head of the Salesian shrine that marks where the body of St. Stephen – the first Christian martyr – was brought after his death by stoning circa 34-35 CE by an infuriated Jerusalem mob encouraged by Saul of Tarsus, the future Paul.


But Scudu isn’t particularly interested in talking about St. Stephen, preferring to discourse about his contemporary Rabban Gamliel, a leading authority in the Sanhedrin in the mid-first century and grandson of the great Jewish teacher Hillel. Gamliel may – or may not – have embraced Christianity, and Beit Gemal marks the ancient village where the rabbinic master lived.

Leading us through collapsed terraces left from the Palestinian village of Beit Jimal (pop. 240) destroyed in the War of Independence, we arrive at an olive tree of timeless splendor and immense girth – called the tree of Rabban Gamliel. Lichen decorates its multibranched trunk, while weeds root in its gnarled bark.

“How old is this tree?” I gasp in wonder.

“It’s a legitimate question but very difficult to answer. More than a century there is no question. Three or four thousand years is not a scientific number. It is almost certainly 2,000 years old,” says the Catholic priest. “While psychologically the tree has great appeal, there is no difference between its oil and that from much younger trees. Everything in life is relative.”

Shkolnik explains the difficulty dating ancient trees. Since they usually have a hollow core, there is no original wood left to allow a Carbon 14 dating or an annual ring growth analysis, he says.

In the unseasonably pleasant January sunshine, Shkolnik worries about the warm weather. Israel has had five consecutive years of less than average rainfall. The early arrival of spring in January with the almond trees blossoming almost a month before their time is a harbinger of yet another disastrous drought, he warns.

Driving to Kibbutz Tzuba halfway up the mountains to Jerusalem, we pass through the forested Judean Hills with their homogeneous cover of pines. The hardy, fast-growing Aleppo Pine was a favorite of European-born JNF arborists decades ago, reminding them of the forests of their native Poland and Russia. “Was it a mistake to plant a homogeneous rather than mixed deciduous and evergreen forest?” I ask.

“That was the knowledge in those days,” replies Shkolnik. Today the JNF, which has planted 240 million trees across Israel since it was founded in 1901, prefers a variety of indigenous trees, including oak, cypress and carob. “More about the latter later,” he winks.

Forests were part of the biblical landscape and remained into the 19th century, Shkolnik continues. Citing II Samuel 18:8-9, he recalls how King David’s rebellious son Absalom was caught by the hair in the branches of a large oak in the forests of Gilead while the mule he was riding kept going.

Gilead, today’s Jordan, still has remnants of that ancient forest. But huge swathes were cut down to power wood-burning steam locomotives following the opening of the Hijaz railroad in 1906. Branches of that track also led from Damascus to Haifa and Nablus, resulting in deforestation west of the Jordan River. A second cause of the disappearance of the trees, continues Shkolnik, was overgrazing by Beduin livestock. But the real culprit, archaeologists now believe, was more prosaic – peasants’ need for vast amounts of fuel to fire kilns to dissolve limestone and produce lime used as a stabilizer to keep their adobe mud homes from being washed away by winter storms.

“What we see now is the result of 4,000 years of human activity,” Shkolnik summarizes, pointing at the landscape of barren and forested hills. “Trees can survive thousands of years in dry climates where there are fewer parasites and beetles.”

Our next destination is the mammoth oak near Kibbutz Tzuba. Shkolnik explains that the tree was revered by Muslim villagers, who created a cemetery around it, thus preserving it. Similarly sacred trees, often beside a sheikh’s tomb, dotted the landscape before  Arab villagers fled their homes in 1948. 

Continuing through the Jerusalem Forest and into the city proper, we arrive at the Monastery of the Cross. Here twin cypress trees, brought by a pilgrim from Greece’s sacred peninsula Mount Athos some 150 years ago, tower over the medieval compound.

More interesting still is a painting of a bizarre tree composed of interwoven cypress, cedar and pine trees. An ancient Christian legend links the site to Abraham and his nephew Lot. The Old Testament relates that after three angels visited Abraham (Genesis 18:16), they continued on to Sodom, presumably to see Lot. According to this tradition, the angels left their staffs with Abraham, who subsequently tried to bargain with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah from destruction (Genesis 18:32). God did spare Lot and his two daughters. His wife, however, was turned into a pillar of salt as a punishment for looking back after she had been instructed not to (Genesis 19:26-30).

Lot’s daughters, thinking they were the only humans left alive, got their father drunk and seduced him. Although the Bible says that Lot was unaware of his incest, Christian tradition does not hold him blameless. Seeking atonement, Lot asked his uncle for advice. Legend holds that Abraham gave his nephew the three staffs, urged him to plant them near Jerusalem and water them with water brought from the Jordan River.

Lot, though hindered by Satan for 40 years, finally prevailed. Miraculously the three staffs instantly blossomed into a tripartite tree of pine, cypress and cedar branches. This tree is said to have been cut down to make the cross on which Jesus was crucified.

If the trees at the Monastery of the Cross are the subject of lore, our final stop is somewhat of a mystery. Hidden in a courtyard behind 2 Rehov Yosef Chaim in Jerusalem’s historic Nahlaot neighborhood is a towering 15-meter-high, five-century-old carob tree. While the house that protects it was built in 1908, no one knows anything about the tree’s story, says Ezra Friedlander, whose family bought the building in 1995.

“The tree’s not mine. I don’t own it. I only live here,” says Friedlander, who brings in a tree surgeon every spring to give the tree a “haircut.”

Picking up a carob pod to munch on, Shkolnik turns to one of the mysteries of the Bible. While 70 species of plants and trees are mentioned there, the carob is not one of them. Yet the carob tree features prominently in the Mishna, written  some 500 years later. Shkolnik cites the story of Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yohai and his son Eleazar, who for 12 years hid from the Romans in the Galilee village of Peqi’in, being nourished by a carob tree and a spring. A similar legend exists about John the Baptist subsisting on the slightly sweet pods in the wilderness, hence the name St. John’s bread.

“It’s very odd that it’s not mentioned in the Bible but then suddenly becomes widespread,” says Shkolnik. “One theory is that the tree was introduced into the Land of Israel after the Bible ended, and then spread across the Near East.”
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