Serendipity in Artas– Portrait of a Palestinian Village



Finnish anthropologist Hilma Granqvist (1890–1972) carried out her field research in the small village of Artas in Palestine in the 1920s. Artas, four kilometres south-west of Bethlehem, was one of the first restorationist and millennialist agricultural settlements in Palestine. Its identity had been influenced both by Western missionary presence for over eight decades and by Palestinian historical developments within the Ottoman Empire.

Granqvist’s choice of Artas was fortuitous. Bertha Vester Spafford of the American colony in Jerusalem recommended the village as an ideal community in which to conduct her research. Spafford introduced her to Louise Baldensperger, who provided lodging for guests at Artas in a European home that had been established in Artas already in 1850. Baldensperger, the unmarried daughter of an Alsatian immigrant, had lived almost all her life in the village. Erudite, affable and much loved by the community, she was well integrated into the fabric of everyday life.

The name of the village arises from the local Arabic pronunciation of the Latin word Hortus, which means paradise. The village stands on the site associated by Josephus with Hortus Conclusus, the enclosed garden mentioned in Solomon’s erotic Canticle or Song of Songs: “Thou art like a garden enclosed, my sister, my spouse, like a sealed fountain. Thy plantations are a paradise of delights.” In his narrative, Josephus visualized King Solomon, dressed in white. The mighty King would ride from Jerusalem to Hortus Conclusus (Artas) on a chariot pulled by magnificent horses. He would spend the afternoon in the garden, where he composed the Canticle. The biblical association of Artas with Hortus Conclusus and King Solomon’s Garden, as well as the ruins of the adjacent site of Etham, attracted European and American pilgrims, biblical researchers, archaeologists and orientalists to the valley; it also played a part in drawing millennialist settlers to the area in the 19th century.

Granqvist had arrived to Palestine in 1925 with the express purpose of complementing her exegetical analysis on the role of women in the Old Testament through the observation of women in Palestinian society. In five books, Granqvist’s ethnographies provide meticulous descriptions of the major Palestinian rites of passage (Granqvist 1931, 1935, 1947, 1950, 1965). Throughout her works, Artas is portrayed as a unique village—a veritable treasure trove.

The presence of foreign missionary settlers is intriguing. The villagers were extremely friendly, accommodating (to the level of self-ingratiation) the missionaries and foreigners who had settled in Artas for over eight decades, to whom they either rented or sold their land. Granqvist was casually accepted, and her fieldwork met no local resistance. Her chief informants, Alya, Hamdiyeh and the women of the village, were eager to share the most intimate details of their everyday life with El-Sitt Halimah, the Arabic local pronunciation for Granqvist’s first name, Hilma. Significantly, although Alya and Hamdiyeh were illiterate women (one provided domestic help to Louise Baldensperger and the other was given shelter in a cave adjoining the Baldensperger residence), their extensive knowledge of Islam from both the Quran and Sunneh, Muslim tradition, permeates their narratives to a surprising degree. European settlement, foreign land acquisition, peasant self-ingratiation to the missionaries and the pronounced dominance of Muslim narrative, in terms of which all Artasi cultural expressions were justified, were symptomatic of socio-economic historical processes underlying the unique character of Artas in the 1920s.

From an anthropological perspective, the dominance of the Muslim narrative in Artas as early as the 1920s is hyper-corrective and symptomatic of an underlying crisis in Artasi ethnic identity. The unique history of Artas underlies the special character of the community, scarred by the traumas sustained in the 19th century. This is hinted at throughout Granqvist’s works but also deployed as a defensive reaction formation to the Artasis’ proximity, in a relation of dependency, to the powerful, benevolent and relatively well-off foreign missionaries.

James Finn, John Meshullam and Henry Baldensperger, quintessential evolutionists, saw the past and the present of Palestine through Biblical eschatological glasses that made Artas appear like the Garden of Solomon of yore and the ideal starting point to prepare for the Second Coming of Jesus (Black 2012; Lewis 2008; Naili 2011, 2012). The Arabic appellation of the three adjacent ancient pools as the Solomon Pools—though after the 16th-century Ottoman Sultan Solomon the Magnificent, who had constructed the fort to safeguard the hydraulic system to supply Jerusalem with water—resonated well with the image of Artas as Hortus Conclusus.

John Meshullam was born into a well-to-do Jewish family in London and travelled first to Izmir in Turkey and later to Berlin and Malta. As he converted from Judaism to Christianity, he found serendipity to be his strongest ally: his achievements arose from adventures and encounters with exceptional individuals, inspiring and illuminating his path to Artas.

Following the massacre of his parents in Izmir, where they were caught up in Turkish and Greek riots, he became the sole heir to a large fortune that secured his economic independence. In Berlin, where he had travelled to study the German language, he met Joseph Wolff, then proselytizing for the London Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews. In 1840 in Valletta, the old port of Malta, he and his wife were baptized by Samuel Gobat, the future Protestant bishop of Jerusalem. An entrepreneur, Meshullam and his family moved to Jerusalem, where he opened the first European-style hotel. Here, in the Holy City, he met his strongest allies, whose shared religious affiliations made Artas the prominent millennialist/restorationist settlement: James Finn, who was British Consul at Jerusalem, and Henry Baldensperger.

John Meshullam’s discovery in the valley of Artas could not have been more fortuitous. He was to find his destiny four kilometres south-west of Bethlehem. On an auspicious morning in 1845, he came across an entirely abandoned village, whose fields swarmed with untended figs, pomegranates and vines. He found remains of an old system of open irrigation canal sin utter disrepair, leading to a perennial water fountain.

Meshullam must have taken the horse ride into Artas from Bethlehem. On that morning, he passed neither the Solomon Pools nor the adjacent castle where the Artasis had taken refuge for over two decades. He did not know of the tumultuous history that had brought about the demise of Artas and had left the Artasis terrorized in the Castle of the Pools. In fact, little was known by outsiders about the turbulence throughout Palestine in the first half of the 19th century, including successive massacres of Artasis by the vengeful Ibrahim Pasha, the slaughter of Wadi Arqube villages, and endless vendettas and blood feuds with the neighbouring Ta’amre Bedouins that had reduced Artas into ruins (Granqvist 1931; Sanad; Tibawi 1961). In 1845, the Artasis were still destitute in the Castle of the Pools pending the payment of a large amount of blood money (al-diyyeh) to the Ta’amre Bedouins.

After Meshullam established contact with the Artasis, an arrangement was reached whereby Meshullam would pay off the full indemnity and thus release the villagers, who could now return to rebuild their community. In return, the Artasis would lease him the other plots of the village’s agricultural land (Naili 2008, 2012; Tibawi 1961).

James Finn, the British Consul in Jerusalem, supported his protégé and expedited the complicated Ottoman legal procedure. The defrayment of the blood money and the lease contract had to be sealed and approved by the Ottoman authorities. Once Meshullam paid the stipulated sum, the Artasis returned to their ancestral village under the protection of James Finn. Meshullam turned over half the land to the rightful owners, a big portion of which he leased. In return, he paid an annual rent and gave them a quarter of the harvest. Since this contract took place before the land reform rules were instituted, the village land was collective property. In the absence of private land holdings, rent was collected by the head of each clan, the sheiks. Meshullam provided the sheiks with seed for their portion of the land and employed them as labourers on his own.

Cash flow changed the Artasi mode of production and affected their perception of their land as a commodity and themselves as wage labourers. They came to depend on the foreign missionaries for protection from raids by Ta’amre Bedouins and for their income, creating ties of gratitude. Overnight, the foreign settlers became the Artasis’ benefactors and secured their confidence.

The lease was guaranteed by the British Consul, which reinforced Meshullam’s position among the local population and kept the Ta’amre Bedouins at a bay but also kept him dependent on the Consul. Finn extended his protection to the village, enabling the Artasis to return there safely. He built a home in Artas, where he was visited by Jerusalem Palestinian dignitaries and foreigners.

The rise of Artas from a state of desolation to prosperity resulted in a debt of gratitude that the Artasis felt they owed to the foreigners, whose sense of Christian charity was seen as the kindness of strangers. The villagers profited from employment for cash on their former land and the provision of sundry services to the missionaries who flocked to Artas. Land sales allowed Bethlehemites and outsiders to purchase property in Artas. By the end of the 19th century, the obscure town had become the first Palestinian village accommodating foreign visitors, both temporary and longer-term 4 ones. Tourists visited Artas to picnic and marvel at the paradise on the edge of the desert, Hortus Conclusus.

Henry (Heinrich) Baldensperger (1823–96) joined John Meshullam’s project in 1849 and became the first European actually to build a house, settling with his wife Caroline in the valley of Artas. At that time, Meshullam had not yet moved into the valley with his family, as he was still living in Jerusalem. A shrewd businessman, Meshullam initially administered the estate as an agricultural enterprise, with only a percentage of the profit from the sold crops donated as charity to destitute immigrant Jews in Jerusalem. It was only from 1849 onwards that his agricultural estate became a settlement.

The golden age of Artas as a missionary settlement lasted no longer than ten years, from the end of 1850 to 1860. Baldensperger’s personal charm and erudition played a major role in attracting a slew of visitors and settlers to Artas. Conrad Schick and Frederick Palmer were chief among the famous personalities who sojourned in Artas. Palmer later became the principle of Mount Zion School, the Protestant boys’ school in Jerusalem established by Bishop Gobat. Theodor Schneller, who later built the famous Schneller Orphanage in Jerusalem, visited Artas frequently. Friedrich (Frederick) Grossteinbeck (grandfather of the American author John Steinbeck) and the Rhineland group (the “avant-garde” of German settlers in the Holy Land) settled briefly in Artas. Friedrich Grossteinbeck stayed longer than the rest of the group. In 1855, he joined the Mount Hope settlement near Jaffa.

Henry Baldensperger’s charismatic, genial presence in Artas ended abruptly in early 1851, when Bishop Samuel Gobat started Mount Zion School and Baldensperger became its principal. He moved to Jerusalem, but kept his house in Artas, where he would spend the weekends until he finally retired.

In Baldensperger’s absence, John Meshullam’s recalcitrant, restive personality antagonized many potential missionary settlers. His son Peter seems to have inherited his diffident character, but treated the local peasants roughly and arrogantly. As their grievances increased, Meshullam consulted his good friend James Finn. However, Finn appointed Peter Meshullam as chancellor in the British Consulate, thereby encouraging his insubordination to his father and his further abuse of the local peasants and Ta’amre nomads. When Peter was found murdered, Meshullam blamed the death on James Finn’s irresponsible attitude.

Owing to the dependence of Artas and Meshullam himself on the protection provided by the British Consulate, James Finn’s involvement in the administration of the settlement became increasingly overbearing. After his wife Elizabeth Finn became one of Meshullam’s main partners in Artas, the relationship between the two men deteriorated. In 1862, John Meshullam and Elizabeth Finn officially went to consular court after months of disputes about their accounts and debts. Consul Finn’s decision in favour of his wife led to Meshullam’s property being auctioning off and then bought by Elizabeth Finn. However, with increasing complaints from Jewish rabbis and Arab politicians related to James Finn’s presumptuous proselytizing of Jewish immigrants in Jerusalem, his arrogant meddling in Arab politics and his patronizing attitude, he was recalled from his post in disgrace. His successor overturned the decision and ruled in favour of Meshullam, and the Finns had to auction off all their assets, including their home in Artas, and were reduced to poverty.

After 45 years of service in the Gobat school in Jerusalem, Henry and Caroline Baldensperger retired in 1896. The family returned to work their land in Artas. Henry died soon after. Of their sons, Philippe moved on to Marseille and Emil followed his honey business to Jaffa. After Caroline’s death in 1906, their daughter Louise kept the family house, dividing her time between Jerusalem and Artas. Louise inherited her father’s personal appeal: she was affable, charming, erudite, genial and endowed with a great sense of humour. Her compassion, kindness and generosity to the village community earned her the local nickname El-Sitt Louisa, Ms Louisa. The Artasis loved and deferred to El-Sitt Louisa, the last descendant of a beloved family.

Granqvist arrived to conduct her fieldwork almost a century after the passing of the upheavals that had swept through Artas and made the Artasis destitute. The wounds of the two decades spent in the Castle of the Pools had left a deep scar. Ibrahim Pasha, the massacre of Wadi Arqube and the vendettas and blood feuds had already assumed a fairy-tale narrative quality with which they beguiled the evenings. There was almost no mention of the missionaries John Meshullam, Samuel Gabot and Clorinda Minor. Time, hardship and the kind example of the Christian missionaries for almost 80 years had heightened the Artasis’ sense of identity as Moslems. It was a period of plenitude; they lived in a state of grace and all aspects of life were ritual. Their gratitude to the foreigners under whose protection they were able to regain their home and their land left an indelible imprint on their faith in God and on their relationships among themselves and with the slew of international archaeologists, missionaries, biblical scholars, anthropologists and weekend visitors who kept coming to El-Sitt Louisa and Artas long after everyone else had left.

Granqvist had the good fortune to find her best friend and colleague waiting to welcome her in Artas. By El-Sitt Louisa’s side stood Alya and Hamdiyeh, who mediated, translated and proffered the details of everyday life. After the passage of almost 90 years, Granqvist’s writing has not lost its vitality. One still admires her work for its honesty and almost complete absence of condescension. Behind every sentence, the benign, kind and tender visage of El-Sitt Louisa looms larger than life.

Serendipity surrounds Granqvist’s momentous discoveries in Artas. Granqvist’s years in Palestine (1925–31) represent the confluence of, on the one hand, Occidental discourses in the field of Oriental Studies, Christian eschatology, colonialism and anthropology and, on the other, a period in local Palestinian historical development beginning with Napoleon’s siege of Acre and Ibrahim Pasha’s occupation of Greater Syria and culminating with the British Mandate and the Balfour Declaration. Her ethnographies punctuate the rupture and the onset of modernism in anthropology, Palestinian society and the rising Palestinian national consciousness. New beginnings were fomenting, yet the highly formalized ceremonial rituals, customs and manners of peasant life thrived.

Throughout her work, Artas emerges as a cultural treasure trove wherein Muslim traditions interpolate all aspects of everyday life. She lived the dream of every anthropologist: to experience, witness and describe the last glorious moment prior to the passing of a traditional society. In her work, she has bequeathed a great gift to Palestinians, contemporary Palestinian anthropology and the discourse of anthropology. In private correspondence, Dr Emanuel Marx, my friend and colleague, described Granqvist’s achievement as “the fullest and most accurate Middle Eastern ethnography.”


Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, artist and author. He grew up in Jerusalem and received his PhD in Art and Cultural Anthropology in the USA. Qleibo’s academical and artistic works give viewpoint to the history of Jerusalem and Palestinian culture. His first book ”Before the Mountains Disappear” (1992) is a rich combination of modern Palestinian everyday life and personal experiences in Jerusalem. Qleibo is currently the head of the Department of Fine Arts at Al-Quds University (Jerusalem).

Photo: The remainings of Hilma Granqvist’s house in Artas. Ari Kerkkänen.



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