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> The Hebronite Spirit of Enterprise
> Nablus Revitalised
> Sebastia
> Dayr Tarif
> Ramallah: Palestine’s Bustling Metropolis
> Stroll along Ramallah’s Main Street
> Nightlife in Ramallah
> The Bethlehemian Smile
> Nablus: The Uncrowned Queen
> From the Ottomans to Modem Times
> Ancient Bethlehem
> Beit Sahour
> The Site of the Town of Bethlehem at Its Earliest...
> The History of Nablus
> Nablous
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> The Minerals and Climate in Samaria
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Nablus: The Uncrowned Queen
submitted by This Week In Palestine

By Peter Stockton

Why the uncrowned Queen? Cynics would say that it has something to do with the ring of jewels around the town that you can see at night, the distinctive yellow lights of settlements. It could be a reference to what is called the bracelet of Kabla, whose symbols tell the mythical story of the virgin of Nablus, and which was stolen by the Israelis, one of many archaeological artefacts that are missing at present. It could be my wife, who is from here! I’d like to think that it is a reference to the future potential of this place, my home for the last year-and-a-half, but I think it actually has something to do with the crusaders.

In the period that culminated in Salah al-Din’s invasion in 1187, there was a succession crisis for the crusaders. When Baldwin V died in 1186, one of the claimants, Isabella, and regent elect, Raymond of Tripoli, took his body to Tiberias for burial. Meanwhile, Sybilla, Baldwin’s sister, and her unpopular husband, Guy de Lusignan, had themselves crowned in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Isabella and her husband, Humphrey of Tibnine, gathered in Nablus and planned to have themselves crowned there. But at the last moment, Humphrey fled and submitted to Sybilla and Guy, thus ending the rebellion. Isabella remained the uncrowned queen. So even though that seems to fit, I think that all the legends add to the rather romantic, mysterious name.

Romance isn’t usually associated with Nablus, but I’ve always had pleasant associations with the city. The journey to Nablus from Jerusalem in a servees (shared taxi) used to be one of the most beautiful journeys I knew here, or anywhere. It was a bit slow, but to travel just before sunset was exquisite, with the rocky hills, olive groves, and winding road. It’s much more direct now but, because of checkpoints, often much slower. The big one at Huwara is not usually a problem when entering Nablus, but it often causes long delays for those leaving, even if they have the right papers. Because of this, the Huwara checkpoint now literally defines Nablus, the biggest city on the West Bank; many people simply do not go out of the confines of the city and haven’t done so since the beginning of the second Intifada.

If its position between two mountains had made it a trifle cut off in the past, this enclosure has given Nablus something of a reputation, not entirely unlike that of Gaza, as a place you can’t or shouldn’t go to, a reputation that doesn’t do the place justice. The particularity of the city and its inhabitants owes much to its position and its history and the interplay of the two. So, beginning after Huwara, we will follow a route through the city that will give at least a taste of this, and suggest that, even if not this week, Nablus is a place worth going to.

After Huwara, you take a left and follow the road into town, more or less round the base of Mount Gerizim. On the right, you can see Balata refugee camp, home to thousands of families who define themselves as coming from Jaffa and central Palestine rather than Nablus. It is one of the most militant in the West Bank. Israeli jeeps and armoured cars come up the same road, with Balata as their destination. Many nights and early mornings are punctuated by their gunfire, though more recently, there has also been inter-factional fighting.

Within a stone’s throw (such a popular expression among writers in the Holy Land) of this modern bastion of resistance are three sites of biblical and historic interest, reminders that Nablus has deep roots, a history of conflict, and potential as a big tourist draw in better times. (There are over 80 such sites here). Just to the right of the road at the junction, you can see a brown dome among three green ones, which is topped with a cross rather than a crescent. It is the recently restored church that houses Jacob’s Well, bought by the ancient patriarch according to the Bible, and the place where Jesus drank water given to him by a Samaritan woman who accepted him as Messiah, an act that for Christians symbolises Jesus’ breaking the narrow confines of Judaism to embrace the whole tribe of Israel.

Down the dip from the junction is, according to the Bible, the tomb of Jacob’s favourite son, Joseph. It used to be a mosque, but from 1967 to 2000, as well as being a military camp, it was a Jewish shrine and place of study-the third-holiest place in Judaism. A military base with settlers that was situated almost inside a refugee camp is asking for trouble and, in October 2000, clashes broke out around the tomb in which six Palestinians and one Israeli were killed. When the Israelis finally pulled out, the tomb was partly destroyed in the hope of preventing their return. It remains a shell and a sad precedent.

Almost behind it is the ruin of the ancient city of Balata, the original Shekhem. It has biblical connections to Abraham and Joshua, among others, and some remarkably well-preserved walls and gatehouses, ancient bastions of resistance. For all these reasons, it has the potential to be Nablus’ premier archaeological site.

The route into town next passes the massive prison on the left. Built by the Turks, it served the British, the Israelis, and the Palestinians before it was devastated by the Israelis in 2006. Gone is the massive painted picture of Yasser Arafat that used to adorn the walls. Gone are the walls. Instead, the iron skeleton of the building hangs with pieces of concrete still attached, giving it an odd appearance of melting. I’d once fancied this as a museum of some sort but can’t see that now.

When you get to the centre of town, between the hospital and the vegetable market, you can see a stone milepost that directs you to Sabastia, the Samaria of the Bible and the capital of biblical Israel, as opposed to Judea, and home to some impressive remains. Then, just behind the vegetable sellers, there is a deep drop, at the bottom of which is a very impressive, though neglected, Roman amphitheatre. If you had taken the turn just after the ex-prison and followed along that road some 400 meters, you would have found the other major Roman remains here, another amphitheatre, tucked into someone’s back yard. It is this that is featured on the mosaic map at Madaba, and its size (it was the largest in the Middle East and had a capacity of over 6,000 people) is the reason that archaeologists have surmised that Flavia Neapolis, as the Roman general Vespasian named the new town in 72 CE, was correspondingly large.

Passing through the vegetable market, you come to the Dawar, a venue for quite frequent political rallies, and beyond it, the old city. This is home to a souq that rivals Jerusalem’s in its atmosphere and, more than any other place, defines the atmosphere and the identity of the town as Arab and predominantly Muslim, and banishes the idea that nothing interesting or beautiful has happened here in the last 2,000 years. As well as all the food and other goods that you might need, there is a Turkish bath that was built around 1840, the Tujar Khan, the Manara clock tower, the Old Sayara Square, the Great Mosque (Jame’ al-Kabir), one of over 30 mosques in the city, and the attractive Yasmeena Hotel. Many of these date from the Ottoman era and are some of the few buildings that survived the massive 1927 earthquake. The old city is unfortunately a frequent target for Israeli raids, including the massive siege of 2002 that left so much damage. Like the people who live here, though, it seems to have a tremendous capacity to survive this kind of treatment.

From the old city, you can go up the hill past the library, home of very impressive English and Arabic collections, and a discarded cannon, and then a soap factory whose warm-day olive aroma reminds you of one of the bases of Nabulsi wealth and fame, past and present. Straight up would take you to the university and its annex, beyond which the land suddenly falls away to reveal a hilly landscape that stretches to the coast. Alternatively, the even more interesting route is to turn left just before the cemetery and follow the road up Mount Gerizim, the biblically named blessed mountain, twin of Ebal, the cursed one, across the valley. These two mountains define the elongated shape of Nablus and, if conversations do indeed echo off them, explain the sometimes gossipy nature of Nabulsi social life.

At the top of Gerizim is a village that is home to the Samaritans, the less famous of the two surviving tribes of the biblical Twelve Tribes of Israel. Numbering approximately 700, they are the smallest religious minority in the world, and they have clung on to their life on what they believe is the site of both Abraham’s would-be sacrifice and the Temple. You can still see the place where they believe that the sacrifice took place; the ruins left by the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and Salah e-Din; a fantastic panoramic view; and, oh, the Israeli observation post that has been watching you since you came to town.

That and much more is Nablus. Unfortunately, the situation hardly encourages prioritising the care of all these historic sites, and it can sometimes cause a certain wariness with strangers. However, I’ve lived here for nearly one-and-a-half interesting years, and as long as I don’t wear a bicycle helmet, I find that people are friendly, helpful, and often ironically humorous about ‘the situation’. Jenin may have its murals; Ramallah, its share of the culture (though a lot more classical music makes its way up here than you’d expect); Bethlehem, the infrastructure to cope with tourists and the Christian sites to show them, if they come; and Hebron, the Ibrahimi Mosque, grapes, and good jokes; but Nablus has a distinctive identity all its own and a huge amount to offer visitors. And, yes, that includes the kannafa.

Peter Stockton is an English language teacher in Nablus who works with Amideast. He is presently writing a book on the Prophets and their representation in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He can be reached at

This Week in Palestine
March 2007

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