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The Christians of Ain Arik

text and photos by George Martin

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The first followers of Jesus came from small villages in Galilee: Capernaum, Bethsaida, Magdala. Only ruins remain of these villages today. Magdala, home of Mary Magdalene, is a small field of stones that a pilgrim would hardly notice unless a guide pointed it out.

It was in these villages, as well as in Jerusalem, that the early church sprang to life. Jesus had stayed in Peter’s one-room house while in Capemaum; here a paralytic, let down through the roof, was forgiven and healed (Mark 2:1-12). In the mid-first century, this room became the gathering place where Capernaum’s Jewish Christians celebrated the eucharist. The glass floor of a modern church allows one to gaze down upon this venerable room.

Christian communities have endured in the villages of the Holy Land until this day. Some are no longer villages: Bethlehem and Nazareth are bustling Palestinian cities. In other cases, such as Capernaum, ancient sites were abandoned as Christians migrated to new areas. Some of the places in which they resettled remain small villages and convey a sense of the antiquity of the church in the Holy Land. They may also provide a glimpse of what village life in the time of Christ was like; some things have remained relatively unchanged.

One such village is Ain Arik, which lies in the hills of the West Bank north of Jerusalem. In the Old Testament era it was the home of the Archites, a Canaanite clan incorporated into the tribe of Benjamin (Josh. 16:2; 2 Sam. 16:16). The “modern” village dates from 1480, when a Christian named Farah Shaheen moved to the site. He was probably attracted, as had been the Canaanites before him, by a free-flowing spring in the valley. The village gets it name from this spring and its Canaanite past: Ain Arik means the spring of the Archites.

This spring is the only source of drinking water for the more than 900 inhabitants of Ain Arik. There is no water or sewage system for the village, no telephones, no postal service; electricity came only in 1988. Wood and dried animal dung are used for cooking, or bottled gas by those who can afford it. Donkeys are still used for plowing. Each morning and evening the women of the village trek to the spring; only their plastic buckets separate them from the generations of women who drew water before them and carried it up the same steep hillside.

I visited some of their homes, accompanied by Abuna Hanna, the Catholic priest of the village. One home we visited was a Middle Eastern equivalent of a split-level house. Once through its door we had the choice of either continuing down into a cave that housed a flock of chickens, or up three steep steps into the single whitewashed room that serves as the living quarters. Here live Tawfeq Shaheen and his wife Miriam, descendants of the family of Farah Shaheen who had settled on the site half a millennium earlier. They welcomed us into their home and Miriam began to brew coffee for us.

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Tags: Middle East Christianity Village life Homes/housing