Tending the Flock in the Hills of Judea

IF a star appeared in the heavens tonight announcing a birth in Bethlehem, Mohammed Abu Sharq would probably miss it.

Mr. Abu Sharq does not watch his flocks by night. He shuts them up in the cave next to the one in which he sleeps. But other than that, his shepherd's life on a hillside 25 miles south of Bethlehem differs little from that of his forebears.

True, the sky-blue sweatshirt that he wears, with ``Basketball-San Francisco'' emblazoned across the chest, is not too Biblical. Neither are his jeans and sneakers. But the white cloth he wraps, turban-style, around his head is an ancient tradition. And his routine is eternal, dictated by the sun and the seasons.

Abu Sharq doesn't have to look far for reminders of the past from which he springs. One of his sheep-pen walls is built on the remains of a Roman wine press. And on a hilltop across from his camp lie the ruins of a Byzantine church that are a millennium and a half old.

Abu Sharq lives with his wife, Badriyeh, and three of his children in a favorite spot for shepherds. Fifteen other families tend their flocks from the same rocky hillside, living in caves like Abu Sharq's or in long, square-ended Bedouin tents patched together from woven woolen blankets and modern plastic sacking.

Shepherds have congregated here through the ages, Abu Sharq explains, partly because of the caves themselves, which provide ideal, ready-made shelter.

His father lived in his cave once, and his own father before him, and the cave now belongs to his extended family.

At the same time, he says, ``I chose to come here because there is a lot of space and there are no trees, which is good because it's illegal to let your sheep eat trees. And then there are the underground cisterns,'' dug by earlier inhabitants beyond the reach of memory, which fill with rainwater during the winter and generally see Abu Sharq through the year.

Before coming to this hillside, Mohammed had cared for other peoples' sheep. He has been a shepherd ever since he left school at age 12 because he didn't like his English teacher. Began with small flock

He started, he recalls, with ``11 lambs and a goat, that a Bedouin gave me to look after for 12 months.'' And over his teenage years, earning the standard shepherd's rate, which is one quarter of all the lambs born in the year, he built up his own flock to about 80 sheep.

Today, he keeps about 100 sheep - ``like money in the bank'' he calls them - selling some at market when he needs to, and also selling their wool once a year, as well as the butter and yogurt that Badriyeh makes in the spring.

His days start - as shepherds' days have started since time immemorial - just after dawn, when he breakfasts on unleavened bread, tomatoes, and perhaps a potato baked in the ashes of Badriyeh's fire, washed down with strong, sweet tea.

Then he feeds his sheep with a mixture of wheat grain and chaff, for, aside from the brief spring months, the grazing is poor on the barren hills around.

He takes his flock out anyway each morning and walks with them, along with the two dogs he keeps to ward off wolves that live nearby. ``I walk alone,'' he says. ``I prefer to be alone, and I spend my time just thinking about the sheep, what food to give them, how to make them better. I'm happy, and it's good. I like this life.''

His wife is not so sure. Badriyeh preferred life at her parents' house.

``Things were easier in the village,'' she says. ``It's difficult to keep this cave clean; and when I give one of the children a bath, five minutes later he's filthy again, playing outside in the dust,'' Badriyeh says.

Even worse, she complains, ``in the winter the ceiling drips, and the place gets damp.''

The Abu Sharq family's cave is remarkably homey, with beaten earth floors, adobe plaster on some of the walls, and a ceiling - smoke blackened from centuries of fires - high enough to stand up in most places.

Mats spread on a raised earthen platform provide a bed, clothes are jumbled in cardboard boxes around the back wall, and pots and pans are stacked next to a two-ring gas cooker on the adobe countertop that is the kitchen.

By four in the afternoon, Mohammed is generally back home with his flock and feeding them again before putting them into their pens in the summer, or straight into their cave, for warmth, in the winter. The family is not poor

Despite their life as troglodytes, the Abu Sharq family is not poor. Mohammed's flock is an average-sized one, and he is careful with his sheep, losing less than most of his neighbors do to disease or wolves.

He dreams one day of owning a flock 800 strong, like some of the Bedouin shepherds for whom he once worked, but for the time being he cannot afford to expand: He is putting his two brothers through school.

One is a trainee dentist in Volgograd, Russia. The other, Ibrahim, is an archeology student in Jerusalem, and he has done a little freelance exploration around Mohammed's home.

In the caves, five feet below the present floor level, he has found Bronze Age artifacts, indicating that men lived here 3,000 years ago.

And round about he has uncovered evidence from every historical period since then - an Iron Age site at the bottom of the hill, Roman foundations everywhere, the Byzantine church, the ruins of a Mameluke mosque, and Ottoman walls - to show that this place has been continuously inhabited since well before the time of Christ Jesus.

Indeed, there might very well have been shepherds here the night that Jesus was born. And perhaps they saw the star.

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