Mediterranean Shrublands

Iconic scenes from the Heartland always include terraced fields and olive trees. The scene was drawn from the outskirts of the village of Birzeit, Palestine.

Shrublands ring the Mediterranean seaboard from Palestine to Spain and create the most familiar landscape to the reader of the Bible. Here, winters are short, mild, and wet, while summers are long, dry, and hot.

A carob tree (Ceratonia siliquia) stands beside the hiking path known as the Jesus Trail in Galilee. Long seed pods dangle in the summer sun.

These conditions both foster and isolate an enormous variety of life forms and encourage the dynamics of localization, or endemism, that complicate the task of species identification. However, these forces also offer enormous opportunities for food production and help explain the attraction and intensity of human settlement in this part of the world.

Plowing in the rich terra-rossa soil of central Palestine (near Al Lubban ash Sharqiya). Note the olive orchard in the background.

Apart from the high oaks that continue intermittently from the highlands, trees and shrubs found here tend to grow in dense thickets or maquis. These often include the pistachio or terebinth (Pistacia palaestine; Heb. elaalla), carob (Ceratonia siliquia; Gk., keration), myrtle (Myrtus communis; Heb. hadas), fig (Ficus carica; Heb. te’ena; Gk. sykonsyke), pomegranate (Punica granatum; Heb. rimmon), fig-sycamore (Ficus sycomorus; Heb. siqma; Gk. sykomorea) and other companion species, often with drought-resistant features. Prickly thorns, thistles, nettles, and brambles also grow readily, but are difficult to identify with certainty. Some 70 species have been identified within the borders of modern Israel alone.

Pomegranates are a yummy fruit! This tree was growing near the archaeological site of Iraq al amir in Jordan.

Mediterranean shrublands have been regularly occupied and cultivated by man. Many vegetables, herbs, and fruits thrive here and are mentioned in the Bible. Lentils and beans are attested (Heb. adasimpol, and possibly edom; Gk. keration), as are onions (Heb. basal), garlic (Heb. sum), melons (Heb. abattihim), cumin (Heb.kammon; Gk. kyminon), dill (Heb. qesah; Gk. anethon), and mint (Gk.hedyosmon). Beyond these, the olive (Olea europeae; Heb. zayit; Gk.elaia) and grape (Vitis vinifera; Heb. enab; Gk. staphyle) have been intensely propagated and exploited. The wood, fruit, and oil obtained from olive trees are key products for understanding human lifeways in Mediterranean shrublands.  Similarly, the grape was domesticated at an early date and eaten directly or processed as raisins, vinegar, and wine.  Oil and wine were viewed as blessings from God (Deut 7:13) and formed an integral part of sacrificial and celebratory activities.

Cultivated field outside of Atara, Palestine. My friend is both a herder (sheep/goat) and a farmer who is well acquainted with patterns of food production in Mediterranean shrublands.