When it comes to agriculture, the people of Artas have been specially blessed. The lush and fertile Artas Valley, fed by many springs and the Solomon’s pools, stands out in sharp contrast to the desert which begins almost immediately beyond it. In addition, over the centuries they have enjoyed special advantages over other villages. During the Ottoman period, for example, as guardians of the Solomon’s Pools near the dangerous Hebron Road, Artas was spared the heavy taxation which weighed so heavily on other villages, thus growing wealthy and influential. In the mid 19th century, though, the situation of the villagers was anything but enviable. Only the descendents of a small remnant who had taken refuge in the fort near Solomon’s pools had survived a massacre related to the Qais and Yemen factionalism which prevailed in the countryside and agriculture was at a standstill. Venturing back to the village, they found aid in the revival of their village and flourishing of its agriculture to a most unexpected source: Christian missionaries.
For these missionaries, it was important not only to live off the land themselves, but to ensure that the land be flowing once again with milk and honey, which they sought to achieve by introducing new agricultural methods, species, tools and machinery. While they devoting most of their energy to on the Jews, whose immigration they actively promoted in preparation for the second coming of Christ, they also worked with Arabs, and several groups stayed in Artas, some very briefly, before passing on to bigger things in Jaffa.; their influence however, lasted far longer than their presence. One person who owed her presence in the village to this missionary/agricultural tradition was Louisa Baldensperger ca (1852-1938) whose family introduced a superior brand of apricot and introduced the movable hive system in Palestine in bee culture. By choosing to remain in Artas, after her brothers followed the well-beaten path to Jaffa, living among the villagers, and getting to know much about their habits and customs and land, Sitt Louisa, as she was affectionately known by the villagers, replaced a missionary attitude with a new spirit of enquiry and others soon followed.
Agriculture plays a large role in the social practices, and rhythms of village life. For example, some families gained or lost land due to marriage practices. If someone didn’t have money for the bride price, he might sell off a piece of his land. The wedding date itself would be set according to the agricultural cycle, with richer people marrying in April and poorer folk after the harvest. April is a particularly important month in the agricultural cycle and thus a fitting month for the annual Lettuce Festival, celebrating the agricultural and cultural heritage of Artas, which are so intimately connected. However the dry season will soon start. Agricultural references appear in many traditional proverbs and sayings for different months of the year. Here are a few for April:
April is a month of roses and weddings.
He who is married in January licks the cooking pot; he who is married in April eats meat, eggs and milk and vegetables.
A drop of rain in April is worth the plow, the yoke the hen and chickens.
February sun for my daughter-in-law, March sun for my daughter, April sun for my parents
In the photo above Students from Bethlehem University's Masters Program in Pilgrimage, Tourism and Culture visit Artas to explore the possibilities of Agricultural Tourism with the Artas Folklore Center in November 2006.
You could read more about the Agricultural Heritage of Artas in scattered studies and written folktales - or you could come see it for yourself and hear the stories from Artas residents, by contacting the Artas Folklore Center.