The Buqe’ah Valley is a small region in the Judean Wilderness on the last topographical step eastward before the final descent into the Rift Valley. It contains 3 Iron Age forts as well as several terrace dams associated with desert agriculture. Until the 1960s, when the valley was turned into a practice ground for the tank battalions of the Israeli military, it served as a marginal grazing land during certain seasons of the year for the Sawahireh and the Ibn ‘Ubed. In good years, these tribesmen planted crops in the kurum (“vineyards,” actually ancient irrigation systems which still hold moisture in the wadi beds for some weeks after the rains).
Because of its use as a tank unit training area this valley has been uninhabited since the early 1970s and possibly a little earlier. Sadly, the use of this valley for tank exercises and target practice have completely torn it up. Written accounts of the valley’s appearance 40-50 years ago fortunately give us an idea of what this valley once looked like. Today the valley floor has been bulldozed into massive piles of rock and dirt for target practice and troop exercises. If the Israeli military ever ceases to use this valley it will probably take multiple centuries for this valley to return to its original state. But even then, the Kidron Valley runs from Jerusalem down through the Wilderness and passes through the Buqe’ah Valley. With it, the Kidron brings all the sewage and garbage of Jerusalem. It makes for a horribly smelly southern border of the modern Buqe’ah.
Primary sources referring to the Buqe’ah Valley:
What was the ancient name of the Buqe’ah? It has been identified by some as the biblical Valley of Achor. However, the Bible and other sources do not provide sufficient toponymic and geographical data for more than a tentative identification to be made.
Joshua 7:24-26: And Joshua and all Israel with him took Achan the son of Zerah, and the silver and the cloak and the bar of gold, and his sons and daughters and his oxen and donkeys and sheep and his tent and all that he had. And they brought them up (they were camping at Jericho) to the Valley of Achor. And Joshua said, “Why did you bring trouble on us? The LORD brings trouble on you today.” And all Israel stoned him with stones. They burned them with fire and stoned them with stones. And they raised over him a great heap of stones that remains to this day. Then the LORD turned from his burning anger. Therefore, to this day the name of that place is called the Valley of Achor.
Joshua 15:6-7: And the boundary goes up to Beth-hoglah and passes along north of Beth-arabah. And the boundary goes up to the stone of Bohan the son of Reuben. And the boundary goes up to Debir from the Valley of Achor, and so northward, turning toward Gilgal, which is opposite the ascent of Adummim, which is on the south side of the valley. And the boundary passes along to the waters of En-shemesh and ends at En-rogel.
Isaiah 65:10: Sharon shall become a pasture for flocks, and the Valley of Achor a place for herds to lie down, for my people who have sought me.
Hosea 2:14-15: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.”
Eusebius: Called the Valley of Achor, where they stoned Achor, convicted of robbery. It was called Achor for this reason. It lies in the north of Jericho [territory], and is still so called by the inhabitants.
It seems like the Buqe’ah fits well with the descriptions of the Valley of Achor in the biblical text. However, the Zeboim Valley to the North of Jericho might also fit all the primary source data. So we cannot know for certain which valley the Bible is referring to.
Ecology – How people survive in the desert
Please be aware that you should not go out and try to consume plants by the names listed below in your locale. Plants by the same name in other regions of the world may have different attributes and consuming anything your body is not familiar with could have very uncomfortable consequences. If you make a visit to the Wilderness of Judah at some point I do not recommend tasting the local flora and fauna. Some plants have similar appearances and you would not want to ingest the wrong plant. If you really want to eat plants find a botanist or a bedouin whom you trust and ask them for direction.
Greens, spices and condiments
Saltbush-food for the shepherd and soap: A typical plant of the desert wadis is the saltbush (Atriplex halimus). It grows to a height of 1-2m and flowers from April through October. Its gray leaves are thick and salty. Although primarily a pasture plant the leaves of the saltbush often provide the main course for a passing shepherd. They are most palatable during the winter and spring, becoming saltier as the dry season lingers on. Today the Arabs use the ashes of saltbush in the manufacture of soap. Atriplex halimus is probably to be identified with the malluach of Job 30:4-7. Those banished to the wastelands to dwell in caves on the slopes of wadis “plucked saltbush (malluach), the leaves of shrubs; the root of the white broom was their food.”
Herbs: A few herbs are collected by bedouin for making tea. Teucrium polium of the mint family is one; yarrow (Achillea fragrantissima), another. Both are available even during the hot summer months.
Thyme for breakfast: A rare species of thyme (Satureia thymbrifolia) grows in isolated patches on hills of silicified limestone in the N part of the Buqe’ah. Wild thyme is an important spice used almost daily in many Arab villages. In Beitin a common breakfast consists of bread dipped first into olive oil, then into powdered wild thyme.
Tubers and bulbs
White Broom=long-lasting fuel: The white broom (Retama roetam) is a typical plant of the deserts of Palestine. This treelike shrub, 1-2m in height, has many branches. Its Latin name reflects Hebrew rotem, a shrub which always appears in a desert setting when mentioned in the Bible. Although its roots are edible (cf. Job 30:4), the primary use of the white broom is for fuel. Bedouin make charcoal from the wood which burns long and gives off an intense heat.
Salsify, tastes like chestnuts: The tastiest tuber found during Stager’s botanical field trip was salsify (Scorzonera papposa), a perennial herb populating the field about 1km W of the Buqe’ah. When cooked it resembles chestnuts in flavor.
Make a fire with phagnolan: Stager roasted the salsify roots over a fire built of dry stems and stalks gathered from the hillside. To ignite the fire he chose a low combustible plant called Phagnolan. By stripping the woolly and elastic skin from Phagnolan and rolling it into a ball, the bedouin have discovered that this plant makes an excellent “starter” for fires, igniting readily from even flint sparks.
Buckwheat and Storksbill: Other edible tubers growing on the higher terrain to the W include Emex spinosa, an annual of the buckwheat family (its leaves also eaten green or in salads) and the gray-leaved storksbill (Erodium glaucophyllum), whose roots develop fleshy tubers storing water and sugar.
Pungent wild onions: Wild onion grows throughout the Buqe’ah. This annual forms the dominant plant community in the valley itself. The bulbs of wild onion are much smaller than the cultivated species. Yet what they lack in size is more than compensated for in pungency.
Marigold bread: A very useful plant to the bedouin is Forskahl’s marigold. It grows in the Buqe’ah as well as in other places around the Dead Sea. Its seeds are the chief ingredients in “wild bread.” Bedouin gather dry stalks of the plant, then immerse them in water. The seed capsules open and the black seeds sink. They are collected and crushed into a solid mass which is then shaped into a bread cake.
Gray-leaved sagebrush/wormwood: This species is probably to be identified with the Hebrew la’anah, usually translated “wormwood,” a plant noted for its bitter taste. Although used in some Arab medicines, this plant seems not to have been highly regarded by the biblical writers. In fact, it was considered not a health potion, but a poison (cf. Dt. 29:18 and Jer. 23:15).
Mint and Yarrow: Two tea spices, the mint species Teucrium polium and yarrow (Achillea fragrantissima), are also thought to be remedies for a variety of illnesses.
Although the vegetation of the Buqe’ah is sparse when compared with that of the Mediterranean zone, there is, nevertheless, fairly good grazing ground for sheep, goats, and camels, throughout the little valley and surrounding hills.
Saltwort (year-round): Saltwort (dominant in density and total coverage) and Suaeda asphaltica (next most abundant species) – make fine foraging food for livestock. In addition, saltwort is a shrubby perennial that remains alive and active during the dry, hot summer months. It grows to a height of 0.20-0.30m and often flowers throughout the year, but primarily in spring. In November, late in the dry season and before the winter rains, herds of camels, lumbering through the Buqe’ah, stopped frequently to munch the dry-looking leaves and stalks of Saltwort.
Suaeda (winter-early summer): Suaeda asphaltica of the goosefoot family is another dwarf shrub with succulent leaves. It usually grows to a height of 0.30-0.50m. Suaeda makes very good pasturage from winter through early summer, flowering January through May. Its thick, fleshy leaves turn from dark luxuriant green to almost black as summer nears and its foliage is shed. At this time the black clumps of Suaeda asphaltica contrast strikingly with the gray desert backdrop. From June until the rainy season, however, Saltwort becomes the more important pasture plant, although Suaeda still has summer shoots bearing clusters of small leaves that are available even during summer months for grazing.
Saltbush (=most palatable): Saltbush does not approach the total coverage of Saltwort or Suaeda in the Buqe’ah; it is common along shallow wadis and in saline depressions. Yet it is probably the most palatable plant for browsing sheep and camels. The winter leaves are best. They drop off in early summer, replaced by short summer shoots. Because of the comparatively high protein content of saltbush, it provides a very valuable nutrient for livestock that most desert pastures usually deficient in protein, lack.
Poa Bulbosa grass: In the hills W of the Buqe’ah a short meadow grass (Poa bulbosa) grows. The better stands of this grass appear on the NW slopes and in rocky places. Poa bulbosa is good grazing grass. It was probably part of the range over which the ancient settlers of the Buqe’ah grazed their herds.
– there isn’t much: The climate of the Buqe’ah, receiving between 100-150 mm. of rain/year, is completely arid. Now and then some rain falls as early as October, but most of it comes in November-March, with the heaviest precipitation occurring in January. It is obvious that no farming can be done in this desert zone without increasing the water yield far beyond that supplied by direct rainfall.￼
How could people live here?
A Delicate Balance: The resources available for use by the inhabitants of this valley created a delicate balance between population size and the agricultural area which could be exploited. Because of this Stager supposes that there were fewer than 20 people living at each of the 3 settlements.
Take advantage of alluvium: The floodwater farmers of the Judean desert selected their farm sites to take advantage of accumulations of fertile alluvium transported from the western highlands.
Harness floodwaters: They were able to grow modest stands of wheat and barley as well as legumes by harnessing floodwaters and raising the water yield well beyond that supplied by direct rainfall. Desert farmers did not have to interrupt their production cycle with fallow periods. The soils were renewed and enriched each winter by “fertilizers” deposited by the floodwaters. Unlike most types of irrigation which eventually produce saline soils, floodwater farming left the fields of the Buqe’ah virtually salt free because of the annual leaching by fresh water.
Large catchment areas: The wadis supplied most of the water for the farms. The catchment area was necessary to collect and distribute the water so that it might be preserved for the duration of the dry season.
Was the decision to occupy this area made by the settlers themselves? If so, then we must conclude that they had some unknown reasons which led to subsistence decisions over-riding the natural desire to minimize work.
Why may people have settled here?
Access to the Dead Sea littoral: It is Stager’s contention that the inducement (or coercion) to settle in the Buqe’ah in the 7th century and to intensify the productiveness of the region came from an external source, the government in Jerusalem. This strip in the Judean Desert had no intrinsic resources of any special economic significance. However, the oases along the Dead Sea littoral did.
Even in recent times, when there were no permanent settlements or border patrols in the Buqe’ah, this little valley became “such a haunt of robbers that the road [could] only be traversed by well-armed parties…” Probably a similar situation existed in antiquity. Therefore, not because of any intrinsic worth of its own, but because of its important links between the kingdom of Judah to the W and the oases to the E did control of the Buqe’ah become significant.
Incorporating the “desert province” (Josh 15:61-62) into its eastern frontier gave Jerusalem access to minerals in and around the Dead Sea (salt, sulfur, and bitumen) and control over date-palm plantations first developed along the western littoral (i.e., seashore) in the 7th century BC. These plantations extended from Khirbet Qumran in the N to En Gedi in the S.
Historical Context and Conclusions
The administration of the United Monarchy included a group of “overseers of the king’s affairs” (1 Chr. 29:6). These government officials were in charge of crown lands and herds (1 Chr. 27:25-31). Uzziah (783-742 BC), king of Judah, followed a similar administrative pattern. According to the Chronicler, he had in his service “farmers in the Shephelah and in the plains; he had terrace-farmers (koremim) in the mountains and in the foothills (karmel)” (2 Chr. 2:10). As well as his agricultural exploits in the hilly regions, the Chronicler suggests that King Uzziah extended his pursuits in building and husbandry into the marginal lands, probably the northern Negev. Uzziah “built towers (migdalim) in the desert (midbar – probably transitional steppe, or grazing, land) and hewed out many cisterns (borot) for he had much cattle” (2 Chr. 26:10). Why is it that Uzziah gets on this agricultural kick? The Chronicler says, “…Because he loved the soil” (2 Chr. 26:10e).
However, there certainly seems to have been a larger strategy behind the movements of people to the frontiers. If the Buqe’ah was to provide an important link between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea settlements, this region could not be allowed to exist as a “haunt of robbers”.
It appears that Josiah induced soldiers and farmers to enter the Judean Desert during the latter part of the 7th century BC and to establish the first permanent settlements there. To small farmers or sharecroppers he might have granted tracts of state-owned wilderness in return for their loyalty and protection. This setup only lasted until the early 6th century when Jerusalem was defeated and Judah was dissolved as an economic and political entity by the Assyrians. Probably because of this the paramilitary settlements in the Buqe’ah were abandoned along with the oases along the Dead Sea. Despite this, somehow their desert farming technology was passed down through the centuries and utilized by the Nabateans and Romans later on.
Cross, F.M., and Milik, J.T. 1956. Explorations in the Judean Buqe’ah. BASOR 142: 5-17.
Evenari, M., et al. 1958. The Ancient Desert Agriculture of the Negev. III. Early Beginnings. IEJ 8: 231-68.
Kedar, Y. 1957. Water and Soil from the Desert: Some Ancient Agricultural Achievements in the Central Negev. The Geographical Journal 123: 179-87.
Mayerson, P. 1960. The Ancient Agricultural Regime of Nessana and the Central Negeb. London: Colt Archaeological Institute.
Stager, L.E., Ancient Agriculture in the Judean Desert: A Case Study of the Buqeiah Valley in the Iron Age [Thesis (Ph. D.)] (Harvard 1975).