Sheikh Bureik, Lajjun

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Sheikh Abreik shrine, 2011

Sheikh Bureik, also called Sheikh Abreik or Sheikh Ibreik',[1] was a Palestinian Arab village located 10 miles (16 km) southeast of Haifa.[2] Situated at an ancient site that shows evidence of habitation as early as the Iron Age, it was an important center of Jewish learning in the 2nd century, with habitation continuing during the Byzantine era, Islamic era, and the Crusades.

The village appears under the name Sheikh Bureik in 16th century Ottoman archives. Named for a local Muslim saint to whom a shrine was dedicated that remains standing to this day, it was a small village whose inhabitants were primarily agriculturalists. Rendered tenant farmers in the late 19th century after the Ottoman authorities sold the village lands to the Sursuk family of Lebanon, the village was depopulated in the 1920s after this family of absentee landlords in turn sold the lands to the Jewish National Fund.

A new Jewish settlement of the same name was established there in 1925. Excavations at the site in 1936 revealed the ancient city, known in Greek as Besara and identified as Beth Shearim by Benjamin Mazar. Now an archaeological site, it has come to form part of the Beth Shearim national park which is managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.


The site is first mentioned in the writings of Josephus, the 1st-century Jewish historian under the name Besara.[2] The Arab village was named for a Muslim saint (wali) known as Sheikh Abreik for whom a two-domed shrine was erected which is still a site of pilgrimage (ziyara).[3] The name translates from Arabic into English as "the sheikh of the small pitcher".[4] It has also been suggested that the name Abreik recalls the name of Barak, the military general mentioned in the Bible's Book of Judges as the son of Abinoam.[3]

Following excavations in 1936 of an ancient city located within the hill upon which the village was located until its Arab inhabitants were evicted, Benjamin Mazar identified the site as Beth Shearim, and this has been the official name of the site ever since.[3]


Pottery shards discovered at the site indicate that settlement there dates back to the Iron Age. During the 2nd century, rabbinical literature mentions it as an important center of Jewish learning. Rabbi Judah I, the editor of the Mishna, was buried there, as were many other Jews from all over the country and from as far away as Phoenicia. While it was originally thought that the town was destroyed during the Jewish revolt against Gallus in the mid-4th century, recent research has revealed the destruction to be far less extensive. An earthquake in 386 caused some damage, but the town recovered and enjoyed prosperity during the era of Byzantine rule. Almost 300 inscriptions primarily in Greek, but also in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Palmyrene were found on the walls of the catacombs containing numerous sarcophagi.[2]

Excavations uncovered 75 lamps dating to the period of Umayyad (7th-8th centuries) and Abassid (8th-13th centuries) rule over Palestine. During this period of Islamic rule, in the 9th century, the site was also a center for glassmaking. There is also evidence of settlement during the Crusader era (12th century).[5]

Sheikh Abreik shrine, February 2008


An elegy written in Arabic script typical of the 9-10th century was found in the nearby Magharat al-Jahannam ("Cave of Hell") during excavations conducted there in 1956. Written by Umm al-Qasim, a poetess, her name is given in acrostic in the poem, which reads as follows:[6]

I lament the defender (who passed away)

While desire within his breast is still afire.
His generosity was not very manifest to the eye,
So that the envious ones neglect desiring him.
Yearning (for him) has made his resting place
(a site of) wakefulness and a shrine where people stay.
The blessing of beauty he enjoyed. Can any thing equal them
in the worlds? Nothing to match them can be found.
Closer come the Ages, but distance they cause;
for nearness they aspire, but friends they keep afar.
Were Desire to cause blame (to a person), (still) it could not subdue (him);
And if man's fortune does not ascend, he (too will) not rise.
Ask about it, and the experienced ones will tell thee
That Time combines both blame and praise:
As long as limpid it remains, life is happy, blissful
But once it turbid turns, miserable is life and painful
And wrote Ahmad b. Muhammad b. Bishr b. Abu Dulaf al-Abdi, and in these verses is a name. Take from the beginning of each verse one letter and you should comprehend it. And it was written in the month of Rabi II in the year 287 (or 289).[6]

Moshe Sharon, professor of early Islamic history at Hebrew University, speculates that this poem marks the beginning of the practice of treating this site as the sanctuary of Shaykh Abreik and suggests the site was used for burial at this time and possibly later as well.[3][7] He further notes that the cave within which the inscription was found forms part of a vast area of ancient ruins which constituted a natural place for the emergence of a local shrine. Drawing on the work of Tawfiq Canaan, the Palestinian physician and ethnographer, Sharon cites his observation that 32% of the sacred sites he visited in Palestine were located in the vicinity of ancient ruins.[7] The tomb of Sheikh Abreik is located within a small building made up of two domes with an interior that is painted red.[3][8]

Sheikh Abreik himself is described by Sharon as a local saint believed to have bestowed the nearby swamp of al-Matba'ah with healing properties that were said to be useful in treating rheutamism and nervous disorders.[9] Canaan, who wrote about the shrine of Sheikh Abriek in 1927, noted that it was also a site frequented by women seeking to remedy infertility: "After a barren woman has taken a bath in el-Matba'ah she washes herself in Ein Ishaq ["Spring of Isaac"]; she goes then to ash-shekh Ibreik to offer a present."[10][11]

Village under Ottoman rule[edit]

Sheik Bureik, like the rest of Palestine, fell under the rule of the Ottoman Empire between the 16th and 20th centuries. In the imperial daftar for 1596, it is recorded as a village of 22 Muslim families located in the nahiya of Shafa in the liwa of Lajjun, whose inhabitants paid taxes on wheat, barley and summer crops.[12] In 1859, the tillage of the village was 16 feddans.[13] In 1872, the Ottoman authorities sold Shayk Abreik (together with a total of 23 villages and some seventy square miles of land) for £20,000 to the Sursuk family of Lebanon.[14] In 1881, "The Survey of Western Palestine" described Sheikh Abreik as a small village situated on a hill with a conspicuous Maqam[disambiguation needed] (Sanctuary) located to the south. The village houses were made mostly of mud, and it belonged to the Sursuk family. The population at this time was estimated to be around 150.[13][15] During World War I, the "finest oaks" of Sheikh Bureik were "ruthlessly destroyed" by the Turkish Army for use as rail fuel.[16]

Village under British Mandatory rule[edit]

During the period of Mandate Palestine, in October 1922, the population of Sheikh Bureik was recorded as 111 Muslims (51 male and 60 female).[17] At some time during the early 1920s, the Sursuk family sold the lands of the village to the Jewish National Fund, via Yehoshua Hankin, a Zionist activist who was responsible for most of the major land purchases of the World Zionist Organization in Ottoman Palestine.[18] The Arab tenants were evicted and in 1925 an agricultural settlement also named Sheikh Abreik was established there by the Hapoel HaMizrachi, a Zionist political party and settlement movement.[19] By 1930, the new Jewish settlement had a population of 45 spanning an area of 1,089 dunams.[20] In 1940, the High Commissioner of the British Mandate for Palestine placed the village in Zone B for land transfers, meaning that transfer of land to a person other than a Palestinian Arab was permitted in certain specified circumstances.[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Palmer, 1881, p. 116
  2. ^ a b c Negev and Gibson, 2001, p. 86.
  3. ^ a b c d e Sharon, 2004, p.xxxviii
  4. ^ Mazar, 1976, p. 34.
  5. ^ Negev and Gibson, 2001, p. 87.
  6. ^ a b Sharon, 2004, p.xli
  7. ^ a b Sharon, 2004, p.xlii
  8. ^ Conder, 1887, p. 254.
  9. ^ Sharon, 2004, p. xxxix.
  10. ^ Canaan, 1927, p. 111. Cited in Sharon, 2004, p.xxxix.
  11. ^ Sufian, 2007, p.51
  12. ^ Hütteroth, Wolf-Dieter; Abdulfattah, Kamal (1977), Historical Geography of Palestine, Transjordan and Southern Syria in the Late 16th Century. Erlanger Geographische Arbeiten, Sonderband, Erlangen, Germany: Vorstand der Fränkischen Geographischen Gesellschaft, p. 158 
  13. ^ a b Conder and Kitchener, 1881, SWP I p. 273
  14. ^ Conder and Kitchener, 1881, SWP I p. 356
  15. ^ Also cited in Sharon, 2004, p.xxxviii
  16. ^ Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, report of 1923, quoted by R. El-Eini, British forestry policy in Mandate Palestine 1929-48: Aims and realities, Middle Eastern Studies, Vol. 35, 1999, pp 72–155.
  17. ^ Barron, 1923, Table XI, Sub-district of Haifa, p. 33
  18. ^ Aryeh L. Avneri, The claim of dispossession: Jewish land-settlement and the Arabs, p122.
  19. ^ Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol 6, entry "Colonies, Agricultural", p287.
  20. ^ Jewish Agency for Palestine, Land and Agricultural Development in Palestine (1930).
  21. ^ Transfers of land restricted, Palestine Post, 29 February 1940, pp1-2.


Coordinates: 32°42′08″N 35°07′45″E / 32.70222°N 35.12917°E / 32.70222; 35.12917