Broken Reed, Mattresses, and Baskets
Sennacherib, the king of Assyria calls his chief of staff Rabshakeh from his siege on Lakhish to Jerusalem to give his message to king Hezekiah. Rabshakeh speaks to king Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem, castigating them for rebelling against Assyria and trusting Egypt, which is “the broken reed” (Isaiah 36, 6)… Rabshakeh needs no assistance from botanists. Everybody in his audience knows what a “reed” is, and what a “broken reed” is. It is hard to assume that the people of Jerusalem or of any other town in contemporary Israel would understand his metaphoric statement. Even contemporary poets (and out of respect I will not mention names) do not know how to differentiate reed (KANNEH in Hebrew) from cat-tail (SOUF in Hebrew) and use a combined name (KANNEH-SOUF which translates as “reed-cat-tail”) in poems. It seems that they do it because of the sound of the words in Hebrew or for rhyming purposes.
In the flora of Israel, there are several species, with hollow stems that look like a pipe with partitions in the internodes. The root KANNEH is mentioned in their Hebrew names. These are: [Phragmites australis], [“Phragmites frutescens” Ph. frutescens], [Arundo donax], [“Arundo mediterranea” A. mediterranea], [http://flora.huji.ac.il/browse.asp?lang=en&action=specie&specie=SACSPO Saccharum aegyptium], [“Saccharum ravennae” S. ravennae], and [“Saccharum strictum” S. strictum]. As one who uses a walking stick from time to time, please believe me that only one of the seven species may be made into a useful walking stick. This plant is [Arundo donax] (Figs. 2.1.1-2.1.3) which has thick underground stems, (rhizomes, pachyrhizomes). Of these frequently horizontal stems, thinner vertical stems branch up. They are strong and can carry considerable weight on the rhizome and on the cane (Fig. 2.1.4). In order to prepare the walking stick in Fig. 53, the grandfather of my grandchildren
uprooted a few vertical stems with their thick rhizome (as in Figs. 2.1.2 and 2.1.3), and removed all the leaves from the selected cane and the roots from the rhizome. This latter was done to prevent the tough roots wounding the hand when leaning on it. Another plant of the same family known as “bamboo” is famous for its physical structure and its high weight-bearing capacity. These plants do not grow spontaneously in Israel. They are used in tropical countries, mainly in Eastern Asia, to build scaffolding, houses and dozens of additional uses. Those who wish to expand their knowledge on the bamboo in Israel are invited to use [http://www.bamboocenter.net].
We mentioned above seven species with hollow stems: [Phragmites australis], [“Phragmites frutescens” Ph. frutescens], [Arundo donax], [“Arundo mediterranea” A. mediterranea], [Saccharum aegyptium], [“Saccharum ravennae” S. ravennae], and [“Saccharum strictum” S. strictum]. As mentioned in the same issue, the only species suitable for making a useful walking stick is [Arundo donax]. Although the botanical structure of the other six Israeli species is similar, their cane is not as tough and their thin rhizome does not fit the hand as in Arundo donax. And what about the “broken” in Rabshakeh’s speech?
The entire, round cane may serve only limited functions in house construction; however, the plant is known to supply raw material for the preparation of baskets and mattresses. The man seen in Fig. 2.2.1 sits on the ground near Ein Feidan, north-east of Nablus and prepares a basket from longitudinal strips of A. donax. He prepared them from the fresh stems seen on his left, by stepping on them, thus crushing (“breaking”) them (Fig. 2.2.2). Soon after crushing the strips are still easy to twist and thus the basket-maker twists them in his experienced hands and the basket is ready (Fig. 2.2.3). The mattress in Figs. 2.2.4-2.2.6 was prepared some 5000 years ago from reeds in Jericho. At the mattress edge is a rope made by the ancients from stems of Sorghum halepense (Shimony 1998). [flowertalk2 The mattress was discovered in the “Warrior Cave ” near Jericho] (Schick 1998).
The crushing of cylindrical, pipe-like stems of tall grasses is not a uniquely Mediterranean practice, and there is an interesting parallel in the way bamboo is prepared. When visiting the rain-forest area in Nicaragua 1977, I followed the process of house building by Juan Ovando in the Costa Atlantica area for two days. He constructed the basic frame of his house from dry branches of the forest trees. He prepared the roof from various palm leaves. The leaves closest to the frame were tied by knots of the leaf parts (Figs. 2.2.7-2.2.9). Juan made the walls from broken bamboo. He cut the thick, long, hollow bamboo stems in the vicinity, where they grow along the tributaries there, and transported them by floating them on the water (Figs. 2.2.10-2.2.11). He then made longitudinal cracks and broke the partitions in the internodes with an axe (Figs. 2.2.12-2.2.13). The long flat components of the walls were thus attached to the frame in the right places with nails. I was deeply impressed by the bamboo field in the experimental station (Fig. 2.2.14) and thought about the use of bamboo in Eastern Asia.
- Schick, T. 1998. 4. The plaited mat. In: The Cave of the Warrior, IAA reports 5: 23-25.
- Shimony, C. 1998. 15. Identification of fibers of textiles, basketry and matting. In: The Cave of the Warrior, IAA reports 5: 73-96.
Figures 2.2.4, 2.2.5, 2.2.6 courtesy of Israel Antiquities Authority.