Visiting Nablus for the first time was such an amazing experience, that I have still not begun to take it all in. My travels to date have been confined to Europe with one excursion to California, so I was pretty much unprepared for my first experience of the Middle East. So this is very much an initial overview of the place and some my thoughts about Nablus. More detailed posts should follow.
The first thing you notice about Nablus is that it is confined by the surrounding steep hills. The city sprawls a bit along the valley floor and as it grows, it expands up the hillsides – Israelis permitting! So to start, some photos of the hillsides. The first was taken from An-Najah university and shows how the hills continue way into the distance, far from the city itself. This hillside area is only being recently developed. The next shows one of the more central hillsides and you can see how busy and crowded the city is. The final one in this sequence is a night time shot looking down at the town from the other side of the valley. Nabulsis are particularly proud of their new football stadium.
Nablus is of course a very old town and many of the most attractive sights are to be found in the Old City. This will definitely be a future post, but for the moment here are three glimpses of the heart of the town. There is even the grassed over remains of a Roman Theatre, which is the next photo below. This is followed by a glimpse of one of the bustling and thriving market streets. Not all of the old city is in good condition as can be seen from the last photo in this sequence. Alas a lot of Nablus is full of rubble and unkept buildings.
Nablus is a predominantly muslim city and mosques could be seen everywhere. Though unlike Christian churches they are nothing like as prominent or ostentatious. What does tend to stand out, literally are the domes, most of which are painted in bright colours. Next up is a photo of the green dome of the Al Naser mosque, which was right behind our hotel. We thus had the pleasure of being awoken every morning at 4.00 by the call to prayer. The site of this mosque is very ancient, but the current building dates from 1935 and is in the style of Istanbul mosques. The following photo shows three stained glass panels from inside the mosque. A most surprising discovery, as I did not associate this type of decoration with mosques. The final photo is a rather grainy photo of one of the Christian churches in Nablus. This was taken from some distance away on one of the hillsides. There is still a small but active Christian community who participate fully in the life of the city.
Christians and muslims are not the only religious communities in Nablus. The city is also home to a small community of Samaritans, who now live on the upper slopes of Mt Gerazim. The Samaritans of course date back to Biblical times and Nablus was the centre of their small territory, which was conquered and destroyed by King David and incorporated into his kingdom. Israelis have a bit of form when it comes to conquer. Today the Samaritans are in an unusual situation. Though not strictly Jews, the Israelis give them Israeli ID, while the Samaritans consider themselves to be Palestinians and as students they go to An-Najah university in Nablus. The language of their religious texts is Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. We were very fortunate to be able to visit the Samaritan village, as our local guide and leader, Shaden, has friends in the Samaritan community. The place itself is pretty bleak, but the hilltop is sacred ground to the Samaritans. The first two photos below show views of the countryside by the village. The third photo shows two smiling Samaritan women, one of whom most kindly invited us into her home to share tea. Trully amazing and heart warming to meet the descendents of Biblical people.
While we were in Nablus there were elections to elect a new city council. They clearly take their democratic rights seriously. At one of the informal meetings we attended there was a heated debate/argument about politics and the election. As it was all conducted in Arabic we were no wiser as to what was being said. The passion though was all to obvious and audible. The city was also plastered with election posters for the rival groups. On polling day we walked past one of the polling stations and the next photo shows some voters waiting to vote. To ensure that there is no voting fraud, each voter has their fingerprint taken, and the next photo shows three voters proudly showing off their blackened fingers. Of course full political freedom for Palestinians is lacking due to the continuing presence of the Israeli occupation. High on the hillside above Nablus you can see Israeli military outposts and their watchtowers as they literally dominate life in Nablus.
The predominant impression of Nablus that stays with me is the wonderful friendship and hospitality of Nabulsis. We had been warned of this beforehand, but even so, it was a bit overwhelming at times just how welcoming and generous our hosts were. Passers by in the streets would also welcome us with some words in English. Clearly we did not look like Palestinians. Our welcome started at the top, when we were received by the retiring Mayor, Adli Yaish in his office. The next photo shows Mike from our delegation handing over some Scottish goodies to the Mayor. The following two photos show some of the wonderful dishes we sampled while in Nablus. The first is the glorious spread put out for us by our friend Rami’s mother, when we were entertained in his family’s home. Lovely food too! The third photo is one of the colourful salads we encountered at an unpretentious roadside restaurant.
As a muslim city, alcohol was hard to come by, not that we tried to find any. We were happy when in Rome to do as the Romans do, as they say. Given the high temperatures – over 30º – this was probably a good choice. Instead we had an endless supply of teas and fruit drinks, such as this mint flavoured lemon drink in the hands of yours truly. At the Al-Fanoun cultural centre in the Old Askar refugee camp the young people were so keen to welcome us they put on an impromptu display of dabke dancing, the traditional dance of Palestinians. They even persuaded a couple of our party to join in as you can see from the following photo. This overview of Nablus ends with another example of the friendship and hospitality of our hosts. The last evening of the official visit we spent in the home of Mr Arafat who had generously arranged and paid for our accommodation. We were again treated to a delicious feast of numerous and tasty dishes. And to cap the evening our delegation was presented with a beautiful hand made chain in the colours of the Palestinian flag. I end with a photo of Jess, one of our group, modelling the chain, surrounded by Mr. Arafat, his wife and his eldest daughter. Many, many thanks to everyone who helped to make our stay in Nablus so memorable.