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Notes on the Geography of The West Bank: Artas

Just south of Bethlehem, Artas (or Urtas) is one of the best-known West Bank villages. There are several reasons for this, beginning with a reliable spring, known to the Crusaders, who identified Artas as the place mentioned in "The Song of Songs." They gave the village its name, too, for Artas is a corruption of the Latin hortus, or garden. Because it was so close to Jerusalem and because of its scenery and its imagined biblical significance, Europeans in the 19th century adopted Artas as a summer retreat. The Europeans in fact were the ones who introduced or re-introduced horticulture to the valley, which for centuries had been subject to Bedouin attacks and therefore was much decayed. Finally, Artas is just north of the growing tip of Ephrata, an Israeli settlement frequently in the news, and so from time to time Artas appears in the news as one of the West Bank's hotspots.

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The West Bank: Artas picture 1

The village has grown enormously since the 19th century, when the Europeans built a few simple houses and an order of Uruguayan nuns built the convent that appears in the distance. One of the big recent changes has been the introduction of greenhouses for tomatoes. Another, unfortunately, has been the decline of the spring.

The West Bank: Artas picture 2

The small house in the center, approached through the arch way, was occupied for many years by Hilma Granqvist, a Swedish anthropologist who wrote of the village and made it perhaps the ethnologically best known village of highland Palestine. The house was empty in the 1990s but was the object of restoration efforts by the Palestinian authorities, who had plans to establish a cultural center here. The house stands just above the village spring, which, in turn, almost adjoins the mosque.

The West Bank: Artas picture 3

The view here is down-valley from the Granqvist house. Irrigated land extends only a short distance beyond the view. The valley itself leads to Herodion, a hilltop castle built by Herod and watered through a conduit that can still be traced on its route from Solomon's Pools through Artas. The tendency of Palestinians to build by adding floors has much to do with Israeli prohibitions against building on open land. The minaret of the village mosque is on the right; the spring, just off to the right.

The West Bank: Artas picture 4

During the optimistic 1990s, pneumatic hammers were banging away on foundations for new houses in every West Bank city and village. Behind the machine, the tower of the nunnery can be seen down in the valley. In the right distance, Ephrata approaches on land that every resident of Artas thinks belongs to them. Solomon's Pools (shown in the folder of that name) lie upstream on the valley coming in on the right.

The West Bank: Artas picture 5

The normally black opening of the village spring, illuminated here by the camera flash. (For a comparison with another spring, see the Battir folder.) The village women come to the pool at the mouth of the spring, mostly to wash clothes. The water continues into a channel diverted to the fields for irrigation.


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