Nablus: Fauzi volunteers journey to the heart of the West Bank
By Joe M. – Fauzi Azar volunteer 2011-2012
Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Bethlehem, Ramallah…just a few of the most commonly visited cities in the Holy Land sought out by travelers today in the dawn of the 21st century. While excellent locations rich with history and culture, they are not the only areas in the region which provide one with a true sense of what it is to be in the Middle East. For those who wish to venture a bit deeper into the Biblical territories of Israel and Palestine, one city stands a head above the rest: Nablus.
It has been called various names throughout the centuries, including Neapolis, Sychar, and Shechem. It is also the hometown of the Samaritans (known foremost from the Gospels), a people which still exist in the area today residing atop one of the city’s twin mountains, Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. It is the place where Biblical patriarchs Jacob and Joseph once called home, and where the latter came to rest in his tomb.
When I expressed to Fauzi Azar Inn manager Suraida Shomar Nassar a desire to visit the holy city, she went above and beyond to make this a reality and adjusted the volunteer work schedule so that I and the four other Fauzi volunteers could make a day-trip. She booked a taxi to take us from Nazareth to Jenin, a city on the northern border of the West Bank. From this checkpoint, the volunteers (Petra, Erika, Julia, Heather and myself) hopped aboard a shared taxi (sherut) and began our trek deep into the heart of Palestine, en route to Nablus.
The drive was strikingly beautiful, even a bit surreal, with sparse Arab villages strewn across the hillsides on the way. We were met inside the city by the two mountains which dominate the landscape and surround Nablus itself.
The first stop on our trip was Jacob’s Well, a location from the Gospels (John 4) where Jesus stops to drink and speak with a Samaritan woman. The Well today is in the basement of a large Greek Orthodox church, and visitors are welcome to lower a bucket into the nearly 20-meter deep opening and drink for themselves.
Exiting the church grounds, the next stop on our pilgrimage was the Tomb of Joseph, son of Israel. It is only about a 20-minute walk from the Well, but thankfully volunteer Heather as an Arabic language student was able to ask for directions. Once at the Tomb, we were met by Palestinian police officers who opened the fence around the site without any problems. This is a politically contended site inside the borders of the West Bank, and many Israelis are forced to visit with army escorts, so it was pretty well-guarded.
It is a modest tomb, similar in design to Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. No pictures are allowed inside, but the officers were still very kind and courteous to us Westerners. In fact, after our 15-minute visit, one of them offered to show us one of the main archaeological sites of the city, a place called “Tel-Balata.” Again, Heather and her Arabic came to the rescue, as the officer only spoke the local language.
Tel-Balata is a national park and the site of ancient Shechem, known from the Old Testament as the place where Jacob and his sons lived (Genesis 33-34). Today it is in ruins, but not so much that one can’t tell a fortified city once stood there. We were invited for tea with the keeper of the site (which included the best sage I’ve tasted in the country), and after some farewells, we were off to the grand souq (market) of Nablus. The walk was about half an hour, and on the way we were honked at by several smiling and waving locals. This was a bit of a surprise, as Nablus has a very controversial recent history when it comes to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. Clashes between the two were common here, up until a few years ago. Nonetheless, we found the community very friendly toward us.
Once inside the souq, we enjoyed some shawarma and falafel, purchased some of the city’s renowned olive oil soap (only 1 shekel a bar!), and then hired a taxi to drive us up the holy Mount Gerizim to visit the Samaritan community. The top of the mountain itself is currently in Israeli territory, which means we had to cross another Israeli checkpoint to enter.
As we walked down the road through the community, a man sitting outside his home called at us to come over to his house, asking if we’d like to see his sukkah (it was then the Festival of Sukkot). We soon found out that his name was Joseph, and that he was in fact a Samaritan priest, one of seven. He treated us to some homemade musakhan (a Palestinian dish with chicken, spices, onions, and oil), and then invited us to the Samaritan Sukkot service that evening. We happily obliged, and all walked over to the synagogue.
The Samaritans are somewhat similar to modern Jews in their beliefs, except that they reject the teachings of the Writings and the Prophets of the Old Testament, adhering instead to their own version of the Torah (the five Books of Moses). The only recognizable aspect of the service was the raising of the Torah scroll, which Joseph had stated was over 2,000 years old. Even though the service was in Hebrew, it was hardly recognizable from that spoken by Israelis today.
All in all, this was an amazing trip. So much so, that I returned to Nablus again a couple months later with Millie, a new Fauzi Azar volunteer, and Ehlan, a guest at the Inn. We again met with Joseph, who drove us around the city to visit some sites, and then went to a restaurant with him for tea. This is an amazing city, and one so historically and Biblically important. It is certainly worth the trip if you are able to go there, and it is accessible from almost any area in Israel.