Pat-a-cake, Pat-a-cake

Goats in Haran. Note the traditional “beehive” shaped houses on the right.

The squad crosses the road. They are intent on the march, despite a lack of herd and shepherd. That some are speckled, spotted, or streaked makes me smile. After all, this is the village of Harran in modern Turkey, the exilic home of Jacob the trickster (see his shenanigans in the text of Gen 30:25-43). It is a place where goats, sheep, and humans have co-existed for millennia.

Naturally, such relationships have by-products.

An enormous mound outside the door.

I stop in front of a house. It is a mudbrick warren roofed by several “beehives.” Beside the wooden door is a mound of another order. This mound is not big, mind you. It is enormous. In fact, it is five vertical feet of enormity. I can’t help myself. I am drawn in for a closer look.

“Oh, pooh,” I twitch.

It is excrement. Dung. Poop. Zibble. The center of the brown mound is saggy and shapeless, a chocolate cake frosted too hot. At the edges, shapes become discernible. Twigs, cardboard, and other burnables litter the base.

Dung patties.

I make out patty stacks. They are not certainly not gut shaped. Some have finger impressions. Other appear to have been formed in a mold. A basket perhaps?

Patties like these have appeared elsewhere on our trip this year. Near the Iranian border, I remember patty stacks taller than a man. They rested on masonry fences between houses and corrals. There, the stacks could be stored in the sun, were available when needed, and gave height to the barriers.

A house in Çevirme. The snowy peak of Agri Dagi, traditional Mt Ararat, rises in the distance. Dung-cakes are arranged on a wall in the foreground.

On the mountain, I remember shepherd camps with dung-cakes in-process. Animal droppings, straw, ashes, and water were kneaded, shaped, dried, and stacked. This is typically the work of young girls. Rocks were used for griddles.

The dung-cakes were patted out on every available surface. After a few days in the sun, they were ready to be burned. Domestic and commercial markets for this source of energy are well-attested in the Middle East. Here, wood is scarce and expensive. Sheep-goats are everywhere. They are fuzzy-legged fuel factories.

I conjure up a new (and twisted) image for the old nursery rhyme: “Pat-a-cake, pat-a-cake, baker’s man. Bake a cake as fast as you can.  Roll it and pat it . . .” (never mind).

Summer encampment for a herding family. Note the dung cakes arranged on rocks on the edge of the camp.

In rural Palestine and Jordan I have seen dung fuel burned. Women make flatbread in a small clay “igloo,” an oven called a tabun. They heat the exterior of the oven with dry dung. A lid keeps the bread fresh and clean on the inside of the “igloo.” In household production centers, these ovens smolder with the slow burning stuff day and night. The fire is fed and stirred in advance of daily baking.

A dung-fired bread oven near Madaba, Jordan. The flatbread is cooked on smooth, clean stones. Outside the  oven is smoldering dung. The circular metal lid in the back will cover the access hole once the flatbread is flipped.

Pottery kilns are also fired with dung. I have not seen living space heated in this way, but it undoubtedly happens. Dung fuel creates good heat (especially sheep-goat pellets, because of compactness). It burns slowly and once dried, gives off very little odor.

Two different words represent dung in the Hebrew Bible. The first,era’im, appears in the profane speech of the Assyrian official as he threatens the inhabitants of Jerusalem with siege conditions (Isa 36:12/2 Kgs 18:27). Under such circumstances, even dove-dung can become a “valuable commodity” (2 Kgs 6:25).

A dung-fired pottery kiln in central Palestine. The firebox is on the right. Sacks of dried dung line the walls.

The second term in the Hebrew Bible, gēl (from galal, “to roll”),appears a few more times. Most significant in the present context is Ezek 4:12 and 15. Here, too, the text flirts with the profane. The prophet is commanded to bake his bread with dried human dung. After protest (since using such fuel would produce “defiled bread”), Ezekiel is directed to use animal dung instead.

I’m sure he was relieved.