In the beautiful village of Walaja just between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, a valley rich with fruit trees, a small path descends away from the houses and into the orchards. A special breeze gathers along the route. If you follow it, you will likely be accompanied by birds as you walk along ancient stone walls that traverse the valley, passing a spring that still spouts water into a stone cistern. Continue just a little bit, and you will arrive at what Palestinians believe to be the oldest olive tree in the world, the Badawi tree.
Some say that the Badawi tree is four thousand years old, others five thousand, others only a thousand. No one really seems to know. But everyone agrees that the al-Badawi tree is a deep part of the local heritage. Schoolchildren come to visit it. Old men walk here to sit under its branches. I first learned about it from my own students, who spoke of an ancient Palestinian tree that they had heard stories about in their childhood.
The tree is carefully guarded, in a fenced off area and behind a locked gate. If you call out, as I did, a man will come and unlock the gate for you.
He is Salah Abu-Ali, and I ask him if he is the guardian of the tree. He corrects me. “No, I am the servant of the tree,” he says.
The tree itself is massive and full of character, extremely wide, with knots in the trunk that are half my size and huge roots that sink into the ground. Seemingly impossibly, the ancient branches still sprout fresh green leaves, as the tree still produces olives during olive season. Beit Jala, which is nearby, is purported to have the best olive oil in all of Palestine. Abu Ali insists that the oil from the al-Bedawi tree is the finest in the country, with a unique taste different from that of other trees.
Beside it stand several smaller trees—also old, but not nearly as old as the ancient tree at its heart. Abu-Ali tells me that this is because the al-Bedawi tree is simply the oldest of several generations: “There’s an entire family of trees here. Do you see? There is the father and the mother, the daughter, and the granddaughter.”
A Holy Tree
Abu Ali’s job as the Servant of the Tree is to spend his days nearby the tree, letting people in to sit beneath its branches. He tends to the tree as well as the nearby olive trees in the orchard, and considers his work to be in service not only to Palestinians, but to the history of the whole world, since this is its oldest olive tree. Over the years, he has formed a connection to the tree that even he does not understand: it provides him solace and relief from stress. When he is gone from the village, the first thing he wants to do upon his return is see the tree. He insists that it is not enough to merely water and prune such a tree. “The most important thing is to love her,” he insists. “You must sometimes even hug her.”
He calls the tree a “treasure” and a “miracle,” noting that its place between Bethlehem and Jerusalem means that the tree has witnessed the history of the land. He compares its significance to that of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem and the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron. Prophets and holy men likely walked beneath it, and rested beneath its branches, as the massive tree provides shade to the entire area. “In the past there were not so many trees,” he notes, “and so the people who came upon it spent time resting beneath it.”
While some people claim that the tree is named after a villager from several centuries ago named al-Badawi, it seems more likely that the tree is named after the famous Islamic wali, or holy man Ahmad al-Badawi, who lived in the 13th century. Born in Fez, Morocco, he spent a prolonged period in Mecca before he eventually made his way back to Egypt, where he founded one of the largest Sufi orders in Egypt, whose influence was felt throughout the region. Whoever al-Badawi was, locals in al-Walaja believed he spent a prolonged period resting under their tree, so long that the tree came to take his name. Later his followers gathered under the tree, where tradition says they would make food to be distributed to the poor. His tree became a holy place, not only a tree but a maqam or shrine. “God blessed this place,” Abu Ali says.
Now, few locals know the story of Ahmad al-Badawi, and the tree is famous only because of its age and its deep roots in the history of the village. But like so much in the agricultural areas between Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron, it is in a fragile position. Most of the village lands of al-Walaja were confiscated in 1948 and 1967. A new military road was recently built not far from the tree. “A tree like this needs silence,” Abu Ali says. “It needs peace.”
It is hard to know what will happen to such a tree. But Abu Ali hopes that its future will be as storied as its past. “Who knows?” he asks. “Maybe two or three hundred years from now, people will speak of me being here, beneath this tree?”