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Mystery Lingers in Kfar Bir’im

By Ali Qleibo

My choices, including those related to the day-to-day aspects of life, like my usual excursions, are related to a sense of discernment that responds to a need that arises from conducting academic research, visiting historical sites, poring over the details, conducting interviews with people, and reading the signs.  Ethnographic anthropology guides me in my way of research, exegesis, and informs every step I take. Cross-cultural experience and a corresponding plethora of books and articles that I have written heighten my consciousness so as to isolate, identify, and infer meanings. The semiology of Palestinian culture as a hermeneutics has shaped my field of vision, structured the horizon of thought, and de facto defined the scope of my research.

The partially restored St. Maron Maronite Catholic Church in Kfar Bir’im.

“We are exempted from paying entrance fees,” my friend Maron Aboud explained as we drove past the gateway leading to his hometown of Kfar Bir’im, now an archaeological park with an admission fee, to attend mass. The villagers, who were forced out of their hometown in the Upper Galilee in 1953 had found shelter in adjacent Palestinian enclaves, namely Jish, Rameh, Acre, Haifa, and throughout Palestine and Lebanon. Maron further explained, “To preempt our return, and in defiance of the Israeli Supreme Court where we had won our case to return to our village, the Israeli army bombarded and levelled all the houses.”

Engraving on the lintel plaque at the entrance of St. Maron Church.

In Kfar Bir’im stands an imposing Canaanite temple in Hellenistic style, whose façade is decorated with the distinctive engraving of bunches of grapes, in reference to the fertility rites associated with Dionysus.

An otherworldly inscrutable feeling imbues the village, reduced to rubble and meticulously kempt as an archaeological park, with a strong sense of loss and longing. Nothing remains standing in Kfar Bir’im except the forlorn façade of a once sumptuous colonnaded Hellenistic Canaanite temple built along a south-north axis, as in all Edomite and Nabatean temples in southern Palestine and Jordan. The belfry of St. Maron Church and the arched façade and remaining stubs of the houses that spread around keep the memory of the place. The partially restored church serves as a focal point of reunion where the dispersed community celebrates mass every Saturday. The dead continue to be buried in the adjacent cemetery.

Mystery lingers in Kfar Bir’im. On the lintel plaque at the entrance of St. Maron Maronite Catholic Church an engraving represents a cross that is studded with stars and flanked by images of unfamiliar four-legged animals that combine the features of a fox, a rodent, and a lizard. After mass, as the celebrants gathered for coffee and cakes in the courtyard of the church, I inquired in vain about the referent of the symbolical animal represented in lieu of the more familiar pigeons or lamb imagery.

From ancient cave paintings to modern-day logos and websites, symbols provide the artistry with richness that very few art forms can produce to indicate an idea, object, or relationship. Symbols are necessarily polysemic and may be interpreted in numerous ways. For days I remained haunted by the arcane engraving in St. Maron’s lintel in search of a referent, be it a natural or legendary animal, until fortune led me to the archaeological site of Sepphoris (صفورية), the birthplace of the Virgin, next to Nazareth, where by chance I stumbled over a Hellenistic representation of the enigmatic animal depicted on the mosaic floor of “Villa Dionysus.” The mosaics date back to the third century AD.

Sepphoris, an ancient Canaanite city, is famed for its well-preserved, finely restored Hellenistic figurative and floral mosaics, chief among which stands the Dionysian tableau that depicts the life cycle of the Greek god Dionysus in “Villa Dionysus.” The Hellenistic period in Palestine witnessed a Canaanite syncretic development whereby the Baalic fertility cult involved Dionysian symbolism. In this era Dionysus assumed a great status, and his imagery and symbolism spread widely. The symbolic bunch of grapes on a vine, for example, became fashionable. The iconic image of the grapes was engraved and represented in lintels of Canaanite temples and in burial caves and represented in mosaics. Hellenism, a syncretism of Canaanite and Greek religion, involved the fusion of the iconography of the Dionysiac aspect as the god of fertility with Canaanite beliefs: In brief, Dionysus came to be the god of fertility on par with Baal.

The Canaanite temple.

Hellenistic scholars are meticulous. The iconic animal representations on the mosaics have been amply discussed, and the mysterious animal in question is identified as a mongoose, the nemesis of the serpents.

The mongoose.

My first encounter with mongooses took place in my garden in Jericho. It was many years ago, when open water canals were the only means of irrigation, the fields were still green, and the orange orchards were still thick. It was a time when splendid green-colored chameleons stood on the rosebush and migrating storks stopped over in the fields, when Jericho was a lush pastoral oasis. I still recall my terror when I saw a green snake slithering on a branch in the adjacent orange grove. I was sitting in my garden. Then I heard a gasp. I turned around and found a family of mongooses with three children looking at me agape, standing on their hind feet before they scurried away.

Stub of a demolished house in Kfar Bir’im.

A mongoose is a furry animal, like an enormous rat or a ferret, but unassuming, whereas the snake is feared and deadly. Yet, once the paths of a mongoose and a snake cross, regardless of the species or size of the snake, there can only be one winner: the mongoose. Indeed, the mongoose is known as the nemesis of snakes. No snake has ever overcome the attack of a mongoose, none! That notwithstanding, whenever a snake crosses paths with a mongoose, the snake does not roll over and fold in surrender. No! The snake gets into a fight of and for its life — which it eventually loses. Even so, the fight between the would-be victor, the mongoose, and the soon-to-be vanquished, the snake, can last for quite some time (usually no more than an hour, which in animal kingdom time is considered quite lengthy). And no matter how long it lasts, there will always be one victor: the mongoose. “The Japanese government imported mongooses to southern Japan to control the poisonous snakes,” explained my friend Dr. Eji Nagazawa, professor emeritus at Tokyo University.

In fact, the lore of the mongoose and its eternal combat against the snakes in which it always emerges as victorious echoes throughout the ancient civilizations of the Near East. In the pictorial discourse of the mongoose as a sacred animal in ancient Egypt, we see it alternately tethered in what is referred to as a leash, from its breast, a halter, and as such treated as a trained domestic animal, or elevated to the status of deity, as in the famous sculpture of the sun god Ra and the Mongoose. The same deferential status has been accorded to the mongoose in Babylonian civilization where it was treated as a pet. It is against this background that the serpent killer came to symbolize the eternal battle of good against evil and in which the mongoose is regarded as the savior.

The Canaanite temple

The eternal confrontation of the mongoose and the snake gives very vivid imagery of the battle between Jesus Christ and Satan! In this case, Jesus Christ is like the mongoose, and Satan is the snake. Indeed, the Bible calls him “that Old Serpent” (Revelation 12:9; 20:2)! As much as possible, Satan tries to avoid a confrontation with Jesus Christ, for he knows that once that meeting takes place, there can be only one winner – Jesus. Hence the significance of the engraving of the mongoose on the lintel of St. Maron’s church in Kfar Bir’im.

The cultural appropriation of the Palestinian church of the myth and rituals of the ancient classical civilizations – Babylonian, Egyptian, and Greek, for example – finds eloquent expression in the lintel of St. Maron Church. Ironically, this sole surviving element of the church that was destroyed by the Israeli army stands as testimony to our deep roots in Palestine, the cradle of monotheism.


Article photos are courtesy of the author.

  • Dr. Ali Qleibo is an artist, author, and anthropologist. Born in Jerusalem and educated in the United States, his books and artwork have taken him all over the world. Dr. Qleibo has lectured and held senior positions at Al-Quds University, conducted a fellowship at Shalom Hartman Institute, and served as visiting professor at Tokyo University for Foreign Studies and Kyoto University in Japan. At The Jerusalem Research Center, Dr. Qleibo developed the Muslim tourism itinerary in Jerusalem, encompassing tangible and intangible heritage. A specialist in Palestinian social history, he has authored the books Surviving the Wall, Before the Mountains Disappear, Jerusalem in the Heart, and Mamluk Architectural Heritage in Jerusalem, and published a plethora of articles locally and internationally

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