In blessed memory of my father, who passed away while this article was being written
For generations, stops and waystations along historic roads in the Land of Israel were determined and developed by both the central government and private entrepreneurs. The sites of road stations were located at points where the caravan or wayfarer found what they required in the context of their journey. Some of the stations were at the site of a water source (spring, cistern, well, sabil, etc.) or under a tree or group of trees, which create shade on the exposed road, and constitute a corner for rest and relaxation. Within the network of organized state roads, there were khans that provided all the needs of travelers, private and official alike, including protecting beasts of burden. The higher the status of the road in the hierarchy and in its purpose, the more stations were located along it, and their development was regulated by the government. The distance between such station was determined by the riding ability of beasts of burden, around 25-30 km per day.
Bir el-Zeibaq is an example of a stopping point and waystation along the historic road arteries of days gone by. In a time when means of travel were under-developed, and based on walking or riding animals, there was a need for waystations where travelers and their animals could drink water, rest and be refreshed.
The Bir el-Zeibaq site was not built as a road khan, but it is rooted in the history of the area as a station on the Ramla-Lod road, and it comprises mainly a water source and an expansive sycamore tree opposite it. The water source began as a well, and over the years a water system was built, which includes troughs, and a structure that envelops the entire complex and creates a kind of sabil (water fountain). The ancient sycamore tree and the well adjacent to it invite passers-by to stop and rest, and to refresh themselves with cool water.
Bir el-Zeibaq is one of the most prominent symbols of the city of Lod, especially in the modern era, in the 20th century, but it has hardly been systematically discussed in research. This article examines how the site developed, functioned and operated as a waystation, along a historic road in the Land of Israel. The article is part of a comprehensive study on sabils and road stations (Sasson 2002; 2007; 2012) and continues a series of articles on sabils in Lod (Lydda) (Sasson 2019a; Sasson and Marom 2020; Fig 1).
In this study we will present the historical evidence about the site, we will describe the architectural finds, and with their help we will try to learn about the date, functioning and development of the site.
The purpose of the article is to reconstruct the history of the site and examine its spatial connections to the human fabric of the cities of Lod and Ramla. In addition, we intend to examine the role played by the site in religious narratives in the Lod city area.
The sources and limitations of the study
This study is based on a geographical-historical methodology. Although this is a relatively central site, located on a historical road that has been central throughout time, few have devoted research attention to it. Indeed, the various research literature, both archaeological and historical, hardly discuss the site. The site has not received any in-depth architectural study, apart from the superficial description by the British scholar Andrew Petersen, as part of his work on Muslim buildings in Palestine (Petersen 2001: 208). No systematic archaeological excavation has been carried out around the structure, apart from random adjacent digs, with no direct connection to the well (Talmai 2020). Thus, we do not have data that indicate the structure’s original scope and help in its exact dating.
Fig. 1: Map of sabils in Lod (Sasson 2019: 65)
Fig 2: Bir el-Zeibaq, location map (drawn by M. Kahan)
Fig. 3: Current aerial photograph of Bir el-Zeibaq
Very general information exists in the descriptions of travelers, researchers and tourists. In this area, we have located a long list of sources and testimonies, provided by representatives of the three Abrahamic religions, so that a broad picture of the site’s place in eschatology in the context of the region is also available. Travelers’ descriptions of the site are usually very short, and their depiction of the architecture and landscape is superficial.
The prominence of the site and the nearby sycamore tree in the local landscape led to extensive visual documentation in the late 19th century. In this study we make use of these visual sources, which constitute tangible documentation of the condition of the site. So, for example, we located in the archives of the Department of Antiquities of the British Mandatory Government of Palestine, which is currently in the possession of the Israel Antiquities Authority (“The Mandatory Archive”), several photographs from 1939, showing original ornamentation that has not survived, typical of the Mamluk and Ottoman periods. We will show some of these visual materials in the figures.
Historical topographic maps contribute to the analysis of the locators and placement of the site, as well as to the understanding of the architectural structure, as will be seen below.
In this study, three types of sources – historical, architectural and eschatological – are used for the first time in an attempt to reconstruct the history and characteristics of the site.
Location and placement
The well is currently located on Jerusalem Street (Sderot Yerushalayim) in the city of Lod (Israel Grid 1894.6497, today – Road 484; Fig. 3) on the western side of the road, 1,000 m northeast of the Mandate-period police station (the present-day Ayalon Prison). As then so today, the site is located on the main road connecting Ramla and Lod, about 2 km distant from the centers of each of the historic cities (today, due to the growth of Lod to the south, the well is located in the urban area of the city). This axis is actually a section of Ṭarīq al-Barīd or Ṭarīq al-Sulṭānī, the historical route on the way from Egypt to Syria (Gat 2015: 147, 2020: 14; Figs. 4, 5).
During the Ottoman period and under the British mandate, Bir el-Zeibaq served as a border between the municipal areas of Lod and Ramla and the site was included in the municipal area of Lod (see, for example, 1930 Map; Fig. 22).
In the British survey map (1878), the site is called “Bir ez Zeiba” (Fig. 4). This name also appears in World War I maps, such as the German map (Bir ez Zeba), where the well is marked as a sheikh’s tomb or a mosque (1918 Map; Fig. 6). “Zeiba” is an urban pronunciation of Zeibaq, according to the common dialect in Ramla and Lod, where the letter qāf is pronounced as an alīf.
Petersen is the only one who uses this name – Bir-al Zayba – in modern research (Petersen 2001: 208). The meaning of the name, as explained by Edward Henry Palmer a member of the British Survey Expedition, is “the plentiful well”, which may indicate the nature of the well in the past (Palmer 1881: 214). But in most sources, the well is called Bi’r al-Zaybaq or Bir ez Zeibaq, meaning “the quicksilver well”, apparently due to the clarity and purity of its water (Baldensperger 1913: 73; Clermont-Ganneau 1896: 99; Hanauer 1907: 79).
After the establishment of the State of Israel, at an unknown date, the Lod Municipality changed the site’s name to “the well of peace” (Be’er Hashalom).
The history of the site and its environs according to written sources
It seems that no systematic archaeological or architectural research of the structure and its surroundings has ever been done. Excavations in the area conducted during the last 20 years have revealed remains dating from the Middle Bronze Age to the Ottoman period.
Fig. 4: The site and its environs, 1878 (Palestine Exploration Fund Map, sh. XIII; Sasson collection)
Fig. 5: The Ramla-Lod road in a diagonal aerial photograph from the east, taken on November 26, 1917. The site is circled. (Sasson collection)
Fig. 6: The site and its environs in a map from 1918. (Sasson collection)
However, the closest excavation to the site was hundreds of meters east of the structure, so it is not possible to indicate a direct connection to it (Talmai 2010).
Scholars and tourists in the Ottoman period provide us with more information about the site. From the testimony of Irish Bishop Richard Pococke, who visited the country in March 1738, it can be understood that there were two buildings on the site, a well and a structure for repose:
On the twenty-third we set out for Lydda, a league [a French measure of distance, 3.25-4.68 km—AS] distant from Rama; I observed the plain was more sandy than it is to the east; about half way I saw a well, and near it a small building, designed for the convenience of travelers; it being usual in these countries to have such places (which they call Mocotts [a corruption of masqaṭ or musquṭ, a resting place—AS]) near their fountains and wells, for passengers to repose in and to shelter themselves from the heat of the sun. (Pococke 1743: 50)
French archaeologist Charles Simon Clermont-Ganneau (1846-1923) visited the site in 1873-4. He is the only one to mention that at this well there was a sabil, but he did not describe the site (Clermont-Ganneau 1896: 99).
The folklorist James Edward Hanauer (1850-1938) (describes in the early 20th century “a well inside a small domed building halfway between Lydda and Ramleh and called ‘Bir es Zeybak’ or the Quicksilver Well” (Hanauer 1907: 79).
At the end of the Mandate period, Zeev Vilnai noted that the ruins of the sabil were visible. However, he expanded on this (Vilnai 1945: 212): During the War of Independence, the walls of the building were damaged, and the military government invited Bursha Abu Farid, a master stonemason from Ramla, to take care of the structure.
Fig. 7: Bir el-Zeibaq photographed from the north-east at the end of the 19th century. Called a wely (saint’s tomb). (Franklin 1911: 17)
Description of the site
The well is housed in a square structure, with a dome at the top (Figs. 7, 8, 10). The structure is similar to a wely, a saint’s or sheikh’s tomb, as it was indeed mistakenly described by some surveys and sources (1918 Map; Franklin 1911: 17; Fig. 7). During the period of the State of Israel, the building was renovated, thus some of the architectural items and decorations were altered. The building (dimensions: 6.5×6.5 m, height: 5.5 m), built of combined chalk and kurkar stones. The thickness of the building’s walls is 1.1 m. In the outer wall of the building, there is a denticulated cornice, each notch being 8 cm long (Figs. 8, 11, 12). The entrance to the building is in the eastern wall, facing the road. The building’s entrance and the window facing east, are recessed in the wall, and set in a stylized vault (Figs. 8, 9, 11, 12).
Fig. 8: Bir el-Zeibaq, view from north-east, 1939 (Mandatory file, IAA, 20.307)
Fig. 9: Bir el-Zeibaq, view from south-east, 1939 (Mandatory file, IAA, 12299)
Fig. 10: Bir el-Zeibaq, general plan (drawn by M. Kahan)
Fig. 11: Bir el-Zeibaq, the façade viewed from the east, 1939 (Mandatory file, IAA, 12300)
On either side of the entrance are found benches (0.50×0.45 m, height, 0.6 m above the ground; Figs. 11, 12). The entrance is decorated with a large arch, 2 m wide and 3 m high (the dimensions of the entrance opening are 2×1.05 m).
Above the entrance was a round window, about 0.25 m in diameter, decorated with a wreath. On either side of it were prominent circles carved in stone. In the center of the arch, above the opening, is a recess and it is possible that there used to be an inscription board in this spot (Fig. 11). In the north-eastern corner of the roof is a gutter (apparently made of marble in secondary use), that drains to the nearby agricultural plot (Fig. 8). Looking at the building’s façade creates a symmetrical and clean image of all its components.
On both sides of the entrance, on the inside, were niches that were used for placing water jugs and various objects (Fig. 13). Another niche (dimensions: 0.3×0.2 m) remains above the entrance. In the western wall, a recess in the shape of a large arch was built (0.6 m thick, 2.55 m high, and 2.50 m wide at the base). Large double windows were set in the northern and southern walls (the dimensions of each window are 1.00×1.70 m; Figs. 8, 9, 10, 14). The windows rest on a canopy arch. The outer lintels of the original windows were decorated with carved panels in two shallow arches. Originally, there was a vent above each window, designed in the style of a Star of David (Seal of Solomon) (Figs. 8, 9). Today, the window frame is made of marble slabs (in secondary use, in the south window) and the lintel in the north window is made of limestone. The windows, now closed with iron bars, were closed in the first phase of construction with two wooden boards that rested on hinges. The hinge stiles have survived in situ. Stone sills were built outside the windows (Fig. 10). The building was paved with kurkar stones.
Fig. 12: Bir el-Zeibaq, the façade viewed from the east (drawn by M. Kahan)
Fig. 13: Bir el-Zeibaq, 2-2 section (drawn by M. Kahan)
Fig. 14: Bir el-Zeibaq, the façade viewed from the south (drawn by M. Kahan)
Fig. 15: Bir el-Zeibaq, 1-1 section (drawn by M. Kahan)
The dome rests on the base of four pendentives, triangles with round sides that connect the square structure to a dome with a round base, which rises about 1.5 meters above the ground (Fig. 16). The dome ceiling is made of molded plaster, with a conch pattern, with three radial fans (Figs. 10, 17). At the base of the dome are large pendants. In the center of the dome, an original metal ring survived, from which an oil lamp had previously hung (Fig. 17).
Fig. 16: Base of the pendentive and southern window, 2017 (courtesy of architect Michael Jacobson)
Fig. 17: The ornamentation of the inner dome, 2021
Fig. 18: The wellhead and the southern troughs, 2002 (photograph: Avi Sasson)
In the center of the floor of the room is the wellhead, made of marble, probably a marble pillar in secondary use. The outer diameter of the wellhead is 0.60 m and the inner is 0.40 m, its thickness is 0.20 m (Fig. 18). The 15 grooves that survived in the wellhead indicate its age and the extent to which ropes tied to vessels were used to draw water from the well (the “rope and bucket” method) were used. However, it can be assumed that when the site operated in an institutionalized and supervised framework, the pumping of water was done with the help of another installation (such as a pulley), of which no remains were found. This suggestion is made in light of what was customary in historical periods at public sites. The water drawn from the well was poured into troughs built under the windows, two troughs on each side (0.8×0.5 m, depth 0.40 m; Figs. 10, 13, 18). The troughs are made of stone and are plastered with 2.5 cm-thick plaster. The plaster is mixed with potsherds, and is a hydraulic plaster meant to prevent water seepage. To the left of the northern trough (in the northwestern corner of the room), a small niche was built (measuring 0.35×0.50 m), suitable for placing a jug (Arabic: ibrīq) or drinking cup (Figs. 12, 13).
In the northwestern corner of the building, a clay pipe has survived, that drained surface runoff from the roof and the surrounding area into the well, which also functioned as a water reservoir. Today the well is clogged with rubbish and alluvium so its internal outline cannot be documented.
In the 1970s it was reported that an ancient Atlantic pistachio tree was growing on the south side of the building. It is not seen today and does not appear, for some reason, in historical and visual sources (Dvir 1976: 241). The author may have confused it with the ancient mulberry tree planted about 2 m west of the south-western corner of the structure.
From the analysis of the photographs and maps we learn that up to the time of the British Mandate, the road infrastructure was packed and unpaved (Peleg and Shavit 2019: 123; Fig. 20).
The sycamore tree
In historical memory and in the surrounding landscape, the well and the spreading sycamore tree were linked to each other as part of the road station complex. For some, it was the sycamore tree that attracted the most attention.
In 1912, Austrian-born Leo Kahn (1894-1983) arrived in Palestine, sent by the Jüdische Zeitung newspaper, in order to produce a series of photographs of the Holy Land, from a Jewish point of view. Most of the photographs immortalize the new Zionist settlements, historic sites and Jewish holy places. He published one of the most impressive photographs of Bir Zeibaq, and he named the site: Ramleh: Die Abrahamseiche (“Ramleh: Abraham’s Oak” in German; Fig. 19). The reason for this name and the geographical error it incorporates is unknown. However, analyzing the photograph, in which the tree, rather than the well, is more prominent against the background of the road, it seems that the photographer conflated this site with the Oaks of Mamre associated with Abraham (Gen. 18: 1-4), also a source of water and a tree. The source of the confusion may be related to the identification of the biblical Ramah with Ramleh in the Christian tradition. It may be that the names Ramah, Ramleh and Mamre sounded similar to the European traveler, causing him to link all the historical components to this piece of ground. This is another example of how Europeans imagined the Bible in contemporary Palestine; as it is the only evidence of its kind in relation to the site, our hypothesis cannot be confirmed at this stage.
Against the Jewish tradition, we find a Christian tradition from another visual source of about the same time. In a photo we located, part of the large collection of postcards produced in Cairo by the C.M. company at the end of World War I (1918), the Ramla-Lod road and the Bir el-Zeibaq site are seen, viewed from the south. The picture bears the title “Jesus Christ Tree near Ramleh. Palestine” (Fig. 20). This tradition is also unique and is perhaps based on Muslim and Christian traditions that link this site to struggles between Christianity and Islam, as we will describe below.
With the rise of the Nazi movement in Germany in the 1930s, Henrietta Szold (1860-1945) helped establish the Youth Aliyah (Aliyat Hano’ar) project to bring young people from Europe to Palestine where she set up educational centers for them in kibbutzim and youth villages (Hacohen 2019: 348-397). At the foot of the sycamore tree at the site, a stone bench was built, which Vilnai calls “the Szold chair” (Vilnai 1978: 3598). Here Szold used to rest from the hardships of the road, while touring the immigrant youth centers and on her way to the Ben Shemen institution. In 1955, a decade after her death, a memorial plaque was erected. It reads: “Henrietta Szold used to rest in the shade of this sycamore tree when journeying to visit the children of Youth Aliyah [in the farms and at the institution] Erected on the 10th anniversary of her death, Adar 1, 5715 (1955) by Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America and Youth Aliyah” (Benvenisti 1959: 72, Vilnai 1978: 598). Over time, the plaque became worn out and broken, and recently a new plaque was installed above it.
Fig. 19: The sycamore tree and Bir el-Zeibaq, viewed from the east, Leo Kahn 1912 (from the Bitmuna collection, courtesy of Nadav Mann)
Fig. 20: The Ramla-Lod road and the Bir el-Zeibaq site, viewed from the south in an early 20th century postcard (courtesy of the collection of the late Dr. Y. Rimmon)
Fig. 21: Sign commemorating Henrietta Szold, 2017 (courtesy of architect Michael Jacobson); top left: remnant of the original sign in 2021 (photograph: Avi Sasson)
Historical and folk legends about the site
Quite a few geographical-historical identifications, traditions and legends have been associated with the site of the well and its surroundings, which indicates perhaps most of all the site’s presence in the historical memory and prominence in the landscape of the area during the Ottoman period. In these traditions there is also evidence of the site’s status geographically, being a gathering place on a central longitudinal road.
Muslim tradition depicts the city of Lod as the place where the Dajjāl (a Muslim term, literally in Arabic the impostor, for the false Messiah, in Greek and Latin – the Antichrist). The 10th century Muslim geographer, Al-Muqaddasī (followed by later scholars), stated that Jesus would kill the Dajjāl at the entrance to the church there. The geographer Yāqūt, and like him many others, claimed that this would occur rather at the city’s gate, or nearby (Baldensperger 1913: 73; Le Strange 1965: 493-494; Schiller 1988: 67–66; Vilnai 1981: 29).
James Edward Hanauer, who discusses traditions about St. George, the false Messiah, and the dragon, presents various traditions about the Last Day, when Jesus will kill the false Messiah in Jerusalem and Lod. One of the traditions connects the Muslim imagining of Judgment Day with this well:
In Mohammedan eschatology Bâb el-Khalîl figures as the Gate of Lydda where ’Isa ibn Maryam will destroy Antichrist, although some amongst the learned, for instance Abulfeda and Kemâl-ed-Din, assert that the event will take place near the town of Lydda, and, as a matter of fact, a well inside a small domed building halfway between Lydda and Ramla, and called “Bir es Zeybak” or the Quicksilver Well, is pointed out as the exact spot where the “Dejjâl” (lit. imposter) or Antichrist will be slain. (Hanauer 1907:79)
The French priest Liévin de Hamme, who toured the country in 1859, did not describe the well itself but linked it to an event that took place in the First Crusade, in 1099:
It was between Lydda and Ramleh that a division of the Crusaders going to meet the Genoese at Jaffa, were attacked by the Mussulmen; the combat was fiercely sustained on both sides but the Crusaders after losing 200 men were victorious. The most celebrated among their dead were Gilbert of Trèves and Acharz of Mountmerlin in 1099.
From Lydda going South-West we pass after about 18 minutes near to a well of wholesome water called Bir-Zebak … (De Hamme 1875:30)
This is the story of the Crusaders’ descent from Jerusalem, to collect wood from the Genoese ships that were moored at the port of Jaffa at the time. We do not know on what basis de Hamme identified the site, since in the description of William of Tyre, the name of the site where the battle took place is not mentioned (in Cook and Krey 1943: 355-357).
We do not have unequivocal evidence of a Muslim sacred tradition attributed to the site. But it is precisely Western scholars who have indicated this tradition, perhaps because of the architectural form of the square structure that bears the dome. Various anecdotes in this regard were recorded at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. The British traveler G. E. Franklin surveyed the worship of holy tombs and sacred trees among Muslims in Palestine. He includes as an example a photograph from the end of the 19th century of the complex at Bir el-Zeibaq and calls the building a Wely (shrine, or holy grave; Franklin 1911: 17; Fig. 7). In a German map from World War I, the site is called Bir ez Zeba and is marked as a sheikh’s tomb or mosque (1918 map; Fig. 6).
Philip Baldensperger, the son of settlers in the village of Arṭās, recounts his impressions and experiences from his meeting with Haaed Muhamad, a dervish (a common nickname among the Bedouin for healers and witch doctors), who dealt in necromancy and healing the sick:
But where was he likely to be found? As he was a wandering dervish and gained a livelihood by his art, he might be wandering about the Plains of Sharon, somewhere between Ekron … Naby-Rubin … Sheikh Sidna Ali … he had departed that morning towards the south, possibly to Lydda or Ramleh, where he had many clients. However, after another hour in the saddle, I espied him sitting near Bir-ez-Zeibak, known as the well where St. George met the dragon. (Baldensperger 1913: 72-73)
Baldensperger mentions Bir el-Zeibaq in a list of holy places where dervishes were active. From this it may be possible to learn that Ehmed Imhamad did not stay at this site by chance, since such figures chose to operate near the well, due to it being a prominent site, in a central location on the main road.
In the early 1980s, Zvi Ilan noted that “Arabs usually gather next to it [Bir el-Zeibaq] and have a picnic.” However, he did not state whether this was a religious context (Ilan 1982: 163).
During the British Mandate, the site continued to maintain its symbolic status, also as a border between Lod and Ramla (Anonymous 1954). Yinnon reports that he heard from the elders of Lod that at that time, the custom was if a man from Lod married a woman from Ramla, members of the Ramla family would bring red flags to Bir el-Zeibaq, and if a man from Ramla married a woman from Lod, her family members would bring the green flag of their city to Bir el-Zeibaq. When the celebrants from the two cities arrived at Bir el-Zeibaq, the flag bearers would exchange the flags between them. This was a solemn meeting of the two families, and the exchange of flags symbolized the marriage of the two spouses, and the strengthening of the bond between the two cities (Yinnon, in preparation).
Yaakov Munir relates that among the children of Lod there used to be a legend about a great villain who lived in the building of Bir el-Zeibaq, so the children of the city were afraid to go there. But since he had to pass there on the way to school in Ramla, his father bought him a bicycle so that he could go by quickly (Yinnon, in preparation).
Discussion and conclusions
Throughout the history of Palestine, cisterns and wells have been excavated on the sides of roads to provide water for passers-by. In the Talmud, water sources such as these were given the concept of the “public well” (bor ha-rabim; Nedarim 5:5; Tosefta Bava Kama 6: 15 and more; Safrai 1995: 211-216). It is not inconceivable that the site originated in the water source alone, which has been available to the public since ancient times.
The structure erected above the well includes architectural and artistic elements that seem to link it to the Mamluk period. But if the building had been erected during this period, some historical testimonies to it are to be expected, as there are of the city of Lod at that time. It is well-known that in the Ottoman period, various styles and artistic elements from the Mamluk period continued to be used. A dome-bearing structure that does not cover the entire structure also survived in Khan Jubb Yusuf in the Galilee, above the opening of the cistern (Lee, Raso and Hillenbrand 1992: 75). Indeed, most researchers regard this as part of the Mamluk complex, but this is not certain. The entrance gate with its benches and the frieze decoration in a chess pattern, is also known from the Ibn ‘Awf sabil in Lod, which is dated, according to most finds, to the Ottoman period (Sasson 2019a: 63). In the inner courtyard of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, a small sabil with a similar structure was erected, with serrated decorations. Its construction is attributed to the 18th century (Sharon 2013: 229-230). A chess decoration was also used in the gate of Khan Hilu, but there is no indication that it is earlier than the beginning of the 19th century (De‘adli 2017: 157; Shavit 2020: 70).
The inner decoration of the dome, in the shape of a fan, is already known in the Mamluk period. But a complex decoration, of three fans around the same axis, is not known at that time. The Qasim Pasha sabil on the Temple Mount, which dates to the beginning of the 16th century, has a single fan decoration, very similar to that of Bir el-Zeibaq (Natsheh 2000: 667). A similar decoration, of one circle, is also found in the Sayyidna ‘Ali Mosque on the Sharon coast, also dated to the building’s Ottoman phase (Taragan 2004: 100) as well as in the Cave of the Patriarchs and other sites.
A decoration similar to the original window frames, which were carved in two shallow arches, was also found in Ramla, in front of the entrance to the Al-‘Awwan Mosque, dating to the 16th century (Petersen 1995: 85).
Although the inner dome of the site rests on an octagonal system, it lacks the squinches or domical vaults typical of similar structures from the Mamluk period (see for example Sasson 2020: 308-309)
The potsherds we found incorporated in the water troughs were dated to the Ottoman period. However, it is probable that the troughs underwent restoration several times during the period of the structure’s existence.
Although sabils from the Mamluk period are known in Israel, most of them were built within cities, for example, in Jerusalem, or at major holy sites along roads, such as Nabi Yamin. As far as we know at the moment, no independent sabil site from the Mamluk period, built on a main road, has been identified.
The lack of historical sources from the Mamluk period about the site, together with other finds from this period on the site, make it difficult for us to determine the date of its establishment unequivocally. However, the site is not mentioned 16th century Ottoman defters (land/tax registers). In light of all this, we have concluded that the present structure, above the ancient water source, was probably built at the beginning of the Ottoman period, from the end of the 16th century onwards.
Reconstructing the development of the site
The site began in a well on the main road. The many and deep signs of erosion indicate that the water was pumped using the traditional method (rope and bucket). However, it must be assumed that when the use of the well increased, a more sophisticated device, such as a pulley, was placed above it. However, we did not find any evidence of this, nor is there evidence of a more sophisticated facility, such as Persian well (“Saqia”, “Antillia”).
The inscription that may have been in situ, in the niche that remains above the front door, and the architectural character of the building, may indicate that the erection of the building was an expression of the patronage, kindness, donation or charity of a respected local person, whose identity we cannot determine. Thus, the importance of the well was emphasized on the one hand, and on the other hand, the service provided to passers-by was institutionalized. The remains testifying to devices for locking the windows and the entrance to the building indicate that no free entry into the building was allowed, and the distribution of water to passers-by was regulated and ordered. It is possible that there was someone stationed in the place whose job it was to pump water and supply it to anyone who asked for it, to maintain the site and to take care of its cleanliness. The troughs were used, in my opinion, as small reservoirs for various needs, including watering livestock. It must be assumed, given the plan and nature of the site, that no animals were allowed to enter it. Watering the animals was apparently done in basins placed outside the building. From the troughs inside the building, buckets of water were poured into other troughs and basins, which were placed nearby. In my opinion, the threshold stones in front of the troughs were used as steps for the drinkers to stand on, and to prevent road dust and dirt from entering the troughs.
The centrality of the site led to its development as a stop for convoys travelling on the road, in the section between Ramla and Lod. Due to this, the nearby sycamore tree was preserved and nurtured, thus providing shade and fruit for resting travelers.
Pococke’s testimony, from the beginning of the 18th century, indicates that at that time, in addition to the well, there was another structure that was used for rest (Pococke 1743: 50). His ignoring of the sycamore tree hints that it was this structure that provided shade to travelers, and not the tree. The additional structure is absent in later evidence. It is possible that at some point a masqi (misqā) style water facility was also built beside of the well house, to make it easier for the public. Such facilities were typical of Palestine (see below).
It should be noted that Bir el-Zeibaq is not included in the wealth of testimonies on water sources in Lod. Even in the other sources examined, we do not find a description of the water supply, the pumping method, etc. This may indicate that the well was marginal to daily life in the city, but was particularly significant to travelers (Vakrat 1977: 94).
It seems that the process of abandoning the sabil building and the deterioration in its condition began during the British Mandate, since already in photographs from 1939 the building looks broken and abandoned, and weeds are seen on all sides (Figs. 8, 9). It is not impossible that the sabil was no longer in use at that time. This supposition is reinforced by the testimony of Yaakov Munir, a veteran of Lod (born in 1923), who does not remember that water was pumped from this well during the Mandate. According to him, after the conquest of the city in 1948, when he worked for the Mata’ei Ha-Umma company, they drilled a modern well next to the sabil, and found that the site was not suitable (Yinnon, in preparation).
At the same time, we cannot determine that the well was completely abandoned, but quite the opposite. In a topographic map (1: 20,000) from 1930, it can be seen that the plots west of the facility were not planted with olive groves and orange groves like the rest of the surrounding area, but are characterized as an open area, but one where there are trees (perhaps a fruit orchard?). There may have been an irrigated vegetable garden and an orchard watered by the well.
Influence of factors of location and placement on the status of the site
As we have already shown, although we cannot determine the exact path of the international road from Egypt to Syria, it is accepted that it passed along this route. However, it is possible that the changes in the historical status of the two cities, Ramla and Lod, also affected the nature and function of the site in question. The rise in importance of the Jaffa-Ramla-Jerusalem road during the Ottoman period left Lod on a secondary axis. Such changes also influenced the development and decline of sabils and public water sites (Sasson 2017: 225-226). Therefore, taking the whole country into account, we assume that the status of the sabil declined during the Ottoman period.
The process of neglect and abandonment of the site accelerated during the British Mandate, following the development of the road system and the construction of paved roads. As early as 1921, a nationwide program was developed for the development of roads (Biger 1983: 100). A special committee was established in 1926 to set priorities for the construction of roads. Funding for the construction of the main roads came from the Government of Palestine. The first roads paved were those that met the administrative, security and economic interests of the government (Halfon 2019: 25-26). The road from Ramla to Lod and from there to Majdal Yaba (Migdal Tzedek) was paved (to a length of 24.5 km) already in 1922 out of a civil-economic motive related to the quarries that operated around Migdal Tzedek. The road construction was funded by the government (Halfon 2019: 29). For the sake of illustration, we note that in a traffic census conducted in 1930, about 1,000 vehicles a day were counted on the road between Ramla and Lod, a very large amount compared to other roads in the coastal plain (Biger 1983: 113).
This action seems to have suddenly raised the status of that route and its fitting for modern transportation. Unfortunately, this led to a decline in the status of the Bir el-Zeibaq site as a stopping place.
From a local point of view, it seems that the site still maintained its public status, and accordingly – its function as well. When examining the development of the area around Bir el-Zeibaq, we find that it is a spatial starting point, at which several paths, streets and roads converge. This created a kind of square around the site, which seems to stand out in cartographic sources, already from the late 1920s and early 1930s (Map of 1930).
Fig. 22: The environs of the Bir el-Zeibaq site, 1930 map (Sasson collection)
It seems that the physical preservation of the site is both a result of traditions of sacredness attributed to it, on the one hand, and because it was in the heart of a large agricultural area between the two cities, on the other hand.
The typology of the sabil
In our study of sabils, we pointed to four typological groups of sabils in Palestine (Sasson 2002: 122-123). One of the types of sabils in the Mamluk period is the sabīl kuttāb (سبيل كتاب), a structure built on two floors: the lower, the ground floor, is used by the water system, and the other is used as a classroom. In such a sabil, the source of the water was a cistern, well or reservoir, and not a source of flowing water, such as a spring or aqueduct. The water source was located within a building, and passers-by did not have access to it, unlike the other sabils that were open to the road. In a sabil–kuttab, there was usually someone who pumped the water and served it to passers-by. On the second floor, the students would effectively perform the commandment of charity, with each in turn standing at the sabil and serving the public. Such type of sabil characterizes areas lacking in naturally flowing water, and indeed this model is more common in Mamluk Cairo (Behrens-Abuseif 1989: 29-34, 147). In Palestine, the most famous sabil of this type is the Qaitbay sabil on the Temple Mount, which dates to the 15th century (Burgoyne 1987: 606; Walls 1993; Sasson 2002: 112, 2006: 315). However, such sabils continued to be built and to function in Ottoman Cairo until the middle of the 19th century (Bierman, Abu-el-Hajj and Preziosi 1991: 250).
The architectural structure of Bir el-Zeibaq, its water system, and the closure of the building indicate the restriction of movement within it. Although we have no evidence of a kuttab functioning at the site, it can be assumed that in the building sat one of the believers who served the public, providing water to whoever needed it. It is not inconceivable that the students or philanthropists who activated and maintained the sabil took refuge in the shade of the sycamore tree and studied beneath its branches. Since few are the sabils in which troughs for cattle have been found, presumably here there was a separation between the windows, on one side passers-by were watered and on the other – animals. It is also possible, that when the site was not permanently staffed, there were those who took care of filling the inner troughs, or any water container, for the benefit of passers-by. This type of sabil, in which a container of water is placed, was referred to in our study as a masqi, and exists, usually, in sites where the water source is far from the sabil or in the absence of a developed pumping system (Sasson 2002: 122).
Sycamore trees as a public service and as stopping places
In addition to the sabils built for the supply of water to passers-by, a custom of planting fruit trees on the sides of roads also developed, to afford provisions for passers-by. These trees were also called sabils. We hear and see echoes of this custom in the Land of Israel throughout history, and in the Talmudic literature there are regulations and laws on the subject. This custom was mainly the result of private initiatives, whose purpose was improving the public good (Sasson, forthcoming a).
This custom was also assimilated into Arab culture and continued even into modern times. Tawfiq Canaan testifies to fruit trees planted in holy sites, as a kind of sabil, so that their fruits may be enjoyed by believers who visit graves (Canaan 1927: 35). In Talmudic sources and historical testimonies, the main tree mentioned in this context is the fig. Evidence of the custom of planting trees on the sides of roads for the benefit of the public is found even during the British Mandate. J. Meyuchas, for example, says that “Some people dedicate trees in their gardens for the benefit of the public, such as fig trees … and every passer-by is allowed to eat their fruits. And even though these trees have no special sign on them, the locals know them and enjoy them” (Meyuchas 1937: 223).
It seems that in the Middle Ages, the sycamore tree joined the landscape of the country, especially on the coastal plain, as a “public tree”. Various studies indicate the antiquity of the sycamore tree in the Land of Israel (Galil, Horowitz and Stern 1980; Amar 2000: 194; Feliks 1968: 52-55). However, only in the Middle Ages do we find descriptions of avenues of sycamore trees, which extended from Egypt towards Gaza and Ashkelon, and from there north, in connection with the road (Tzafon 2011). In the testimony of al-Muhallabī, from the 10th century, he notes that on the road from Rafah to Gaza, a distance of three mīls, there are many sycamore trees on either side of the road. He estimates that there are about 1,000 sycamore trees in the area whose branches touch each other. Another source mentions the sycamores in Silqa in the Rafah area (later Khan Yunis) called shūra, probably due to the row of sycamores along the road from Sinai to Gaza (Amar 2000: 195, 198).
Throughout the country one can find many trees of environmental and social significance, which the inhabitants of the area attest to have functioned as shady stations on the roads. Often, and especially on the coastal plain, sycamores are mentioned as such trees, near a khan, sabil or some stopping place. A relic of such a station can be found in the Nitzanim Reserve, where large sycamore trees have survived, arranged in a large circle, delimiting and shading a particular site. Indeed, at the end of the Ottoman period this was a place for stopping and drinking, known as misqā (sabīl) Suleimān Agha, on the road from Gaza to Jaffa (Berman and Barda 2005: Site 85; Sasson 2019b: 977-979). Sabil Abu Nabut in Wadi Hanin, nestles in the shade of about 10 sycamore trees (Fig. 23).
Fig. 23: Sabil Abu Nabut (Ayyanot) in the shade of a sycamore tree, British Mandate period (Sasson collection)
One of the identifying marks of Sabil Abu Nabut, on the main road from Jaffa to Jerusalem, is the large sycamore tree next to it, in whose shade pedestrians and travelers used to rest (Sasson 2017: 224). In Yazur (Azor), a spreading sycamore tree survived on the site of a stopping place on the road from Jaffa to Jerusalem. In Umm Khalid (Netanya), as well, a dense sycamore is described in relation to the khan next to it (Yahav 2009: 63; Stern 1997: 48-49). In Nahariya, there is a large concentration of sycamores, along the route of a Roman road, which led Justus Meyer to suggest that a road inn operated near them (Meyer 1980: 93). These are a few examples and more can be given.
The Arabs used to call the sycamore concentrations by special names, sometimes by the name of the landowner, or of the clan that lived there, and sometimes using a description of the tree or the landscape of the area (see, for example, Berman and Barda 2005: Sites 170-171).
Near the Jawarish neighborhood in Ramla (Israel Grid 184895/647717), an archaeological dig under the direction of Ron Toueg was recently completed, in preparation for the widening of Road 200 in Ramla. Within this framework, a similar site, comprising a sabil and a sycamore, was studied. The site appears in the British survey map as Jummeizat el Joz, i.e. “the sycamore of the twins,” “the sycamore with the two trunks,” or perhaps “two sycamore trees” (Map 1878). The site is located directly on the historical path that celebrants used to take from Ramla to Nabi Rubin (Sasson 2018: 117, forthcoming b).
In light of the historical descriptions, we presented about the sycamore tree at the Bir el-Zeibaq site, which date back to the 16th century, we can state without a doubt that the tree dates back to the Mamluk period at least, which is in line with the prevailing assumptions about the planting of sycamore avenues on the coastal plain.
Although we do not know when and by whom the sycamore tree was planted, we estimate that the site’s status as a road station increased thanks to it. The connection of the tree to Henrietta Szold and the placement of the bench in her honor contributed significantly to the preservation of the entire complex to this day.
A stopping place does not have to be a khan or road inn. The variety of stopping places in Palestine is large, and they usually have a water source. Thus, for example, in the monastery of Mar Elias on the way from Jerusalem to Hebron (Sasson 2007). Since Bir al-Zeibaq is located between the towns of Lod and Ramla, both of which had active khans, there was no need for an additional khan between them.
The future of the site
From a review of tour-guide and Israel geography literature, it may be seen that Bir el-Zeibaq did not always receive attention during tours in the area. The status of the two nearby cities and the concentration of historical sites in them, overshadowed the Bir el-Zeibaq complex and it is absent in part of this literature, which caused it to be increasingly forgotten.
Over the years, the volume of traffic on the Ramla-Lod road has increased. In the last generation, the road has been widened so that its entrance is already on the threshold of the building’s door. In 2014, Mayor Yair Revivo issued a call for proposals to turn the building into a “commercial point.” Opposition from the Council for Conservation of Heritage Sites in Israel and other bodies influenced the freezing of the initiative (Jacobson 2017). The sycamore tree is still standing, prominent in the landscape, and recently a new marble plaque was installed, on which the memorial inscription in honor of Henrietta Szold was engraved, above the original plaque. On the other hand, development pressures on the route still threaten to damage this historic estate.
The spreading sycamore tree, and the relatively small structure at the Bir el-Zeibaq site, between Ramla and Lod, now seem to be apparently meaningless in the landscape. But their preservation throughout the Ottoman and Mandatory periods attests to the importance attached to them by the inhabitants of the area at that time. In this study, we traced two elements, history and functioning from the Middle Ages onwards. In addition to historical sources, we also made use of archaeological findings and cartographic sources, from which we learned about the process of development of a stop along an intercity road, which is a section of the international route from Egypt to Syria.
The methodology we used in this study, which combines geographical-historical and archeological tools, shows that research on seemingly marginal sites, even from modern times, must also be conducted using an orderly methodology, so as to best study the spatial narrative of their historical geography.
The site’s prominence in space led members of the three Abrahamic religions to link it to different traditions. These traditions seem to have added to the site’s power in spatial memory. Although the tree and the sabil could each stand alone, as a stop on the main road, both together form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In light of the building’s architectural and technological character, we consider it to be an example of a unique sabil-kuttab in the southern coastal plain, one of the few that existed and have survived in this country. We do not know why it survived, even though it probably no longer functioned during the Mandate, perhaps due to the traditions attributed to it.
The significance of this site is not only local, but it also bears historical and spatial insights. The glory days of the site were in the early Ottoman period, when traffic along the road was on foot or on beasts of burden, so that every shady tree or water source called to travelers to stop and refresh themselves. In modern times, and especially during the British Mandate, with the technological development, the penetration of the combustion engine and the increasing speed of road traffic, the site was gradually abandoned, the water source was destroyed, the sabil fell apart, and only the sycamore tree, here and there, still offered shelter. This process characterizes service facilities (khans, sabils and more) along many roads in Israel. The development of new means of transportation in modern times has led to the decline of medieval and Ottoman-era stopping sites, including Bir el-Zeibaq.
Although the site is present in the historical and local memory of the various populations of the city, as we have shown above, despite its prominence in the landscape, its future seems unclear. We call on the municipal and state institutions to initiate further systematic archeological research related to the site, and to build a conservation and display plan, in order to strengthen the site’s place in the city’s heritage and in tourism.
This study has been assisted by many institutions and colleagues and I am grateful to all of them. To the research committee of the Ashkelon Academic College and to Prof. Shimon Sharvit, who heads it; to Dr. Alon Shavit and the Israeli Institute of Archeology; to Mendel Kahn, for the measurements and plans; to Prof. Uri Yinnon, an independent researcher who shared original materials; to Roy Marom, Azrieli Fellow at the University of Haifa, for his help in interpreting the sources, his linguistic advice regarding terms in Arabic, and his enlightening comments that helped improve the article; to Dr. Uri Tal; to the late Dr. Yirmiyahu Rimmon, who donated from his collection; to Dr. Rafi Lewis of Ashkelon College; to Dr. Shlomo Lotan; to Dr. Gershon Bar-Kochba, Orot College; to Nahum Cimbalista of Kvutzat Yavneh; to Jacques Shitrit, former spokesman for the city of Lod; to Yoav Golst; to Nadav Mann from the Bitumaniya Laboratory; and to Dr. Assaf Zeltzer from the University of Haifa for enlightening me.
The site was first surveyed by myself, with the assistance of the sabil team – the late Amnon Kidron, Yonel Sharvit and Avraham Izdarechet, in February 2002.
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