Elements in the History of
Simakiyya1 : A Christian Village on the Karak Plateau
G. Wesley Burnett. Ph.D.
Simakiyya is a village on the northeast corner of the Karak Plateau settled about 1909 by two tribes of Christians under the leadership of Catholic missionaries from Palestine. Simakiyya occupies a site uninhabited except by Bedouin since Byzantine times. It has a Mediterranean climate of the driest type. Located approximately on the 200-mm isohyte, the absolute minimum for dry land agriculture, the site is subject to ecological constraints typical of semi-arid areas. Its residents depended on pre-industrial technologies until 1964, when piped water was first provided. This event marks a boundary both in architecture and life style between traditional Simakiyya, itself transitional between a Bedouin camp and a permanent settlement, and modern Simakiyya.
The settlers who founded the village belonged to two predominately nomadic Christian patrilineal descent groups, or tribes, the Hijazin and the `Akasha. Tribal affiliation is still central to village social organization, since villagers are drawn almost exclusively from these two groups. In 1884, they declared themselves to be Christians of the Latin Rite and came under the influence of a Catholic mission that had recently arrived in al-Karak. While a priest photographed elders from the two groups together in 1890, the two tribes were independent of each other. Although both had dwellings in the city of al-Karak that they used seasonally for housing and storage, they carried out their pastoral migrations independently, and they rarely intermarried.
Both groups regularly herded flocks around Simakiyya, then the uninhabited ruin, but neither indicated interest in settling there. The priests, however, eagerly encouraged the Hijazin and the `Akasha to settle since village life would make it easier to provide for an orderly parish life, and several characteristics made Simakiyya appealing. As a ruin located near other ruins, it was littered with cut stone that could be used for building and also contained many old cisterns that could be made functional again while the loŽss soils to the north and west of the village site were exceptionally fertile.
While the church was determined to promote settlement, its acceptance was based on changing economic and political conditions. By the eighteenth century both trade and village life on the Karak Plateau had reached its nadir; however, by 1875, regional economic growth, monopolized by a local elite, the Majali tribe, had begun to penetrate the Karak Plateau. Commercial activity increased after 1894 when the Ottomans installed a garrison in al-Karak and even more so after 1904 when the Hijaz railway reached al-Qatrana, 24 km east of Simakiyya, and its workers increased the region's market for local producers. Thus, re-establishment of commercial agriculture and the increasing value of land provided the `Akasha and Hijazin with the economic incentives to take up sedentary agriculture and the village life that the church desired for them.
In local tribal conflicts, the `Akasha and Hijazin allied themselves with the Muslim Majalis, the dominant group in the region, and thereby acquired potential rights to land around Simakiyya. Since a few Majali families still used the site during pastoral migrations, the Majalis refused to relinquish Simakiyya, even though they had given other nearby sites to other Christian tribes. Despite Majali objections, in 1909 Bishop Piccardo of Jerusalem intervened and convinced Ottoman officials in Jerusalem to pressure the Majalis to grant Simakiyya to the `Akasha and Hijazin. They occupied the site in November and December, 1909. However, it should not be thought that a fully developed village was constructed immediately. Rather, development was slow, the majority of villagers continuing to live in tents in the surrounding area while building granaries and then houses they occupied only seasonally.
The presence of the `Akasha and Hijazin at Simakiyya, however, did not go unchallenged. By 1912, young Majali hooligans were harassing settlers at Simakiyya to such an extent that the `Akasha and Hijazin appealed to Catholic authorities in Jerusalem. Consequently, the French consul in Damascus interceded with the Ottoman governor who sent a squadron of police to Simakiyya. Although no arrests were made, the harassment stopped. Again in the chaos and lawlessness following WWI, conflicts with the Majalis threatened the villagers. In May 1922, three Majalis caught poaching barley in a Hijazin field provoked a fight during which one of the Majalis was killed. After a long series of legal entanglements, the Hijazin were exiled to a village in Wadi `Araba, much of their property confiscated or destroyed, and it was several years before they were allowed to return.
In anticipation of settling Simakiyya, priests from Karak allotted land to the two tribes in 1900 and reserved land overlooking the village for a mission. The first resident curate arrived in 1912 and the mission wall was raised. Among the priorities of the mission was education of the children so a school was opened and Sisters of Rosaire arrived, an event that the Moslems viewed as a provocation and which added fuel to the testy relationship with the Majalis. School children were encouraged to make noise so that they would be heard by nearby Moslems who would thereby be notified that the village was permanently occupied. Indeed, schooling has remained an important activity in Simakiyya and the voices and the songs of the children can still be heard in the adjacent wadis and plateaus.
During WWI, the mission was abandoned and not reestablished until 1920 when there were 200 communicants at Christmas mass. Work was begun on the present church building in 1926 and completed in 1927. In 1934, however, a long standing quarrel between the Hijazin and the `Akasha resulted in the `Akasha asking for and receiving Papal permission to return to the Greek Rite of the Roman Catholic Church. Since the Roman Catholic Church does not allow congregations to select or change rites on a whim, permission would have required a demonstrable historical and cultural attachment to the Greek Rite.
Today relations with the Majalis, who remain the area's dominant tribe, are cordial though the social and cultural environment of a Christian community within the larger Moslem community is not without its stresses, to say nothing of the strain caused by the physical environment. These two factors are responsible for Simakiyya's stable population and high rates of migration. The drought of 1912 deprived the villagers of both food and the seed grain needed for the following year's planting, and in 1916 there was a locust plague. Serious drought followed in at least 1933 through 1936, 1943 through 1949, and 1958 while years of minor drought hardly merit mention.
The priests have complained constantly that village did not grow as large as the people's fecundity might suggest. They blamed it on drought and crop failure, both of which compelled many villagers to emigrate. The original population of about 300 settlers grew to about 500 in 1914 and thereafter there was no significant growth for 50 years until piped water became available. The arrival of piped water in 1964 is probably the salient event shaping the modern village's social structure and physical appearance. With piped water, the original dry stone houses with their shared walls crowed around their cisterns were abandoned in favor of free standing concrete houses on large lots clustered on top of the hill and around the churches. Symbolic of the importance of available piped water, Simakiyya's first olive tree was planted in 1965.