West Bank’s Nablus Wagers on Spices, Samaritans, Palaces
In Nablus, being a good Samaritan is something locals take literally. That’s because some are.
I’m on Mount Gerizim, meeting Samaritan Museum Director Husney Kahen. He’s wearing a long traditional robe and rounded hat, his gray eyes shimmering.
“People don’t believe that Samaritans exist, that it is a story in the Bible,” he says. “People are surprised to find that there are actually such people.”
Until visiting the West Bank city of Nablus, once a center of violence during the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israel that broke out in December 2000, I also thought Samaritans were a fable.
Their religion mirrors Judaism, but rather than Jerusalem, Samaritans believe Mount Gerizim was where the Temple Mount existed and Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac.
Christian legend states that Jesus met a Samaritan woman in Nablus at Jacob’s well, marked now by a Greek Orthodox church. The parable talks of making peace with people whose beliefs differ from your own.
“I think without peace here in the Holy Land, there is not peace in all the world,” Kahen says, adding, “there is no winner or loser in the war. Everyone is a loser.”
Samaritans should know. Millennia of violence have shrunk them to about 700 adherents.
The city of Nablus, originally Neopolis, or New City, is ancient, its history stretching back at least 4,000 years. Even the building housing my hotel, the Yasmeen, is more than 600 years old, nestled within the Old City’s souk.
With sites holy to Islam, Christianity and Judaism, Nablus feels like Jerusalem, minus the tourists. Yet there are odd adornments in the Old City: discomforting posters of young men killed in the intifada, terrorists or martyred freedom fighters, depending on your view.
There’s a hope that conflict is slipping into the past. I’m taken around by 27-year-old Nizar Abuzant, raised in the Old City with nine family members crowded into two rooms. He delights in guiding foreigners, part of his work with the Canadian nongovernmental organization Project Hope. We visit the Basil Break spice shop, almost sardonically named for its owner, and redolent of zaatar, cinnamon and coffee.
Old City landmarks range from crumbling Ottoman palaces to an olive-soap factory, producing one of Nablus’s most famous products. Cleanliness seems to be a civic virtue. We look at an ancient hammam, or bath, Al-Shifa, one of two still operating in Nablus, down from 10 in the Ottoman era. Owner Hazem Marea claims the building was originally Roman, which would make it among the world’s most ancient operating hammams.
Despite feeling welcome, I am often the only foreigner. It’s the same several miles away at one of the West Bank’s grandest archaeological sites, the still largely unexcavated Sebastia. Here I meet smiling, suited Hafez Kayed at his restaurant Holy Land Sun, near the ruins.
When I ask how many people came to visit that day, he saddens. “Usually, we have pilgrims, from Italy, from other places,” he says. “Today, only you.”
We enter the ruins through a colonnaded procession route, stumbling into a forum where kids play soccer within the columns. Long gone are the acropolis temples, but marble ledges hold column bases perhaps 5 feet across, hinting at their scale.
Below, I see Palestinian farms in a valley, outlines of unexplored ruins texturing the landscape. I cast my glance in another direction to an Israeli military base. As layers of civilization under my feet attest, occupation and conflict have always been here. Later we visit living Sebastia, itself thousands of years old, where one building has a Roman column embedded in a Crusader-era wall and sports an Ottoman roof. Nearby is a tomb said to be that of St. John the Baptist.
Locals prefer to focus on history’s peaceful aspects.
“Jesus walked from Nazareth to Jerusalem to Bethlehem to Jenin to Nablus. We hope the road will be re-opened the way that Jesus walked it,” says Khaled Tamem, in charge of festivals and events for Nablus’s tourism office.
He’s referring to intifada days, when fighting and roadblocks decimated tourism. Checkpoints are largely gone, but only companies serving the heartiest Christian pilgrims have returned.
I learn of plans to revitalize the Old City for tourism from Naseer Arafat, director of the Civil Society of Nablus Governorate. Folding open a book detailing a 13-point master plan, he explains the architectural richness of Nablus, once the West Bank’s largest city.
Amid palaces and biblical sites, Arafat points out “a caravanserai with 150 rooms built 400 years ago” for camel- riding merchants who traipsed through the deserts. “This is a long-term plan that needs a lot of money, but it is a good shot because here you have a framework,” he says.
His office, within a restored Ottoman building with kaleidoscopic windows and ornate columns, screams potential.
One Nablus mountain is commanded by Beit Falastin, or the Palestine House, the Palladian mansion of Munib Masri, one of Palestine’s wealthiest men. He’s chairman of Padico, the Palestine Development & Investment Co. (PADICO), building tourism properties including the Moevenpick hotel in Ramallah.
“Look up, you see God, and after God, you see Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed,” says Masri as our voices echo in the art-filled rotunda. “So you see we are all together.”
That’s something Masri says he explains to Americans and Israelis alike, although he voices frustration. “Tourism with the occupation, it doesn’t work, you have to have an independent state,” he says. “We are angry at the world, because they don’t understand the situation.”
Masri’s time in the U.S. as a young man inspired his mansion, based on the Palladium, a grand Chicago restaurant.
“We know lots about America, but the Americans, they know very little about us,” he says, adding that he also wants Israeli tourists to visit and learn about their Palestinian neighbors. “The people who don’t know anything at all are the Israelis. They know nothing and they are a few meters away.”
(Michael Luongo writes on travel for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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