Palestine is a beautiful region with rich culture and fascinating history. Whether you are interested in food, religion, architecture, literature or others doesn’t matter: there is a bit of everything, a lot to see and learn about! This post will show the places I visited as a part of the work camp, while sharing any significant details about them.
Birzeit University: the institution goes back to 1927, started as secondary school for girls. It has 8 faculties and specialised centres for research and masters. I was marvelled by the stunning architecture and nature on the campus.
Birzeit town: a historical Palestinian village that dates back to even earlier than the Byzantine period. A representative of Rozana Association, an organisation based on the town that works to promote the rural development of the area, gave us a small tour around the place. Apart from walking around the town, we visited the Sa’deh & Technology House, home to a showcase of scientific innovation and education, the Al-Rozana Mosaic Workshop, a workshop where mosaics are made, and the Palestinian Circus School, an institution that uses circus activities to promote social and behaviour change.
We also learnt about the activities the Rozana Association is involved in, including alternative tourism, preserving heritage, Birzeit Heritage Week, engaging women and youth, and the annual Maftoul Festival, where Palestinian women come together to compete to prepare the best maftoul. Maftoul, a Palestinian dish, was chosen for the festival to preserve identity, highlighting something not usually highlighted. It is made differently across Palestine.
An ancient and historical city, home to significant landmarks for the biggest Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. We visited the Old City, located in East Jerusalem, to see these landmarks, including the Western Wall (Judaism), the Dome of the Rock (Islam), Al-Aqsa mosque (Islam) and the Holy Sepulchre (Christianity). We also went to the Mount of Olives, which is close to the Old City, known to me (as a Christian) as the place where Jesus went after he was betrayed by Judas. There is also a big Jewish cemetery.
Eastern Jerusalem is also a significant area due to disputes over sovereignty: while the Israeli state controls it, it is internationally regarded as part of Palestine. The construction of a wall by Israel, considered a violation of international law by the International Court of Justice, and other restrictions, separated the area from the West Bank. Now, Palestinians in the West Bank have a very limited access to Eastern Jerusalem. While Israel defends the Wall in the name of “security”, Palestinians regard it as an “Apartheid Wall”.
(This topic will be more explored on another post in the series.)
A busy and vibrant city in the centre of the West Bank. It is the administrative capital of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), the governing body in the West Bank area of Palestine. We walked around the city centre and visited the tomb of Yasser Arafat, the first president of the PNA and a renowned Palestinian leader. During the work, we went to two different bars: Vintage and Snowbar. Both of them had relaxing environments in which you could order food, drinks and shisha. I tried shisha, but I didn’t like it (I’m not a fan of smoking). On our free day, I saw the Mandela statue gifted by South Africa to show solidarity with Palestine, as well as the Ramallah Memorial Wall.
My favourite place I visited in Ramallah was the Dar Zhan Heritage house. It is more than 200 years, considered one of the oldest houses in Ramallah. It comprises three rooms, from three different family houses. There are two levels, in between there is an opening from which heat from animals from the low level came to warm up the high level. The family-run heritage house is fascinating showcase of Palestinian culture. There are painting exhibitions from Palestinians, including two Palestinians refugees and locals, artisanal products for sale, Palestinian items and old tools displayed. The owner of the house was very nice and offered us biscuits with tea/coffee, after giving us a nice presentation of the place.
A very warm city in the North of the West Bank, also one of the oldest cities of the world. We went there to spend the night, and were received by the local authorities, who gave us a lecture about Jericho. 3 years ago, it was the 10,000th anniversary of the city. At first, people lived in mountains and caves, then they moved to the valley and built small houses, starting farming. It is the lowest city in the world, more than 400 metres beneath sea level. Jericho is important because it is the fruit basket of Palestine, providing vegetables and fruits across the region. Because there is a lot of oxygen in Jericho, vegetables and fruits have superbquality and taste. There is no need to use chemicals or greenhouses to make the harvest faster.
There are more than 123 old sites (e.g. monasteries and palaces) in the city. Jericho has seen many empires ruling it. If you dig on the soil you can find many archaeological objects from different eras. In 2012, local authorities tried to make Jericho an international UNESCO historical place, but didn’t work. The state of Israel doesn’t want to leave Jericho to Palestinians, arguing about “security reasons”, but local authorities think it is because of the rich culture and history. There are issues with access to water, Palestinians don’t have a right to take water from Jordan. Water in the Jordan River costs millions of dollars and is used by Israel for chemicals and other matters.
In Jericho, we visited the Hisham palace, a significant site for Islamic heritage. The palace was destroyed due to an earthquake and its ruins were found by an archaeologist. It is part of the Umayyad caliphate architecture legacy in Palestine. In the inside, it had Persian and Byzantine decoration. On the outside, gothic elements and symbols. My favourite piece of art was the Mosaic of the Tree of Life: it was made of a tree, gazelles and a lion, representing good and evil, peace and war. Another place we saw was the Mount of Temptation, to which we travelled by cable car on the evening. The night views of Jericho from it were amazing.
A historical city in the South of the West Bank. We visited a Palestinian refugee camp, one of the 59 across the West Bank, Gaza, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. I always struggled to understand why Palestinian refugees existed inside Palestine: the definition of refugee involves being outside of your state. However, later I learnt that those refugees were citizens evicted from villages after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Their villages are currently part of Israel and they aren’t allowed to return. The camp we visited, known as Dheisheh, was created in 1948. For four years, it was composed of tents. Then tents turned into small units created by the UN. It was supposed to be a temporary arrangement, although the camp now looks like a well-established neighbourhood, even though quality of life in it isn’t great.
We also went to the Church of the Nativity, were Jesus was born. It was beautiful inside, I was in awe with the drawings and decoration. As a Christian, I felt very special being there because I have heard about the place many times through my life time.
The last place we saw in the area was a beautiful village called Battir. Battir means “house of the bird”. Around 5000 people live there. Many of the residents of the village come from registered refugee families, who left in 1948 because they were scared for their safety, but ended up coming back thanks to Hassan Mustafa, a community leader aware of the borders, the situation and their rights. In fact, community work was very important to build the community and the village, and the tradition still lives. Israel tried to build a wall there, but it was fortunately prevented.
Between 2006-2008, the oldest area in Battir was renovated and given the name “7 Widows”, because the only people who were still living there were seven widows. In it, there are ruins from different civilisations. Recently, the 1st chamber of commerce was open, an artisanal shop. The price of the items comes from its makers. 16 families own a tent each inside the shop. Each object has a label with name of the maker and price. The shop doesn’t take commission. There is box in each tent, anyone who takes something from it puts its cost there: it is a way building trust in the community.
Burqin is a village in the municipality of Jenin, 3.5km away from the city of Jenin. It is famous for its agriculture. There are five schools in the village: two for boys, two for girls and one mixed. There is one medical centre. There are 13 voted members in the municipality. The village wants to develop its tourism. It is home to the 4th oldest church in the world. It is a Roman Orthodox Church made of rocks, built in two different periods of time. The first part contains an old Roman well. People with leprosy used to be isolated inside the well and they were given food and water through an opening. It is reported that Jesus stopped around this place when travelling and cured these ill people.
Both the name of a district and the main city in it, Nablus is a notorious area in the North of the West Bank. We visited Sebastia village to see a historical place full of ruins. It had a roman theatre. Kings across empires and ethnic groups liked to build there. Close to the ruins there is an Israeli settlement. It is a strategical place politically, due to the quest for control over water supplies. The day we were visiting the ruins, we saw a destroyed family business, a café. It had been wrecked by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). The family wasn’t allowed to take things out, and they relied on the business for their income.
We also went to the city of Nablus. Students from the An-Najah National University in Nablus gave us a tour around the Old City inside. They spoke about how Nablus is home to Samaritans, Muslims and Christians, who live together as Palestinians. In fact, during Christmas, Muslims are invited to the celebration, and in Ramadan, Christians are invited to break the fasts. Nablus has some of the oldest mosques and churches. While walking around the Old City, we saw a parking were 30 families used to live in their homes. During the Second Intifada in 2012, the area was bombed by Israel and the homes were destroyed. 10 people died. On the streets, there were pictures of Palestinian Freedom Fighters, who sacrificed themselves to defend Nablus, its freedom and its dignity. The Old City is very crowded, but most shops are closed: there is not much tourism in the area.
When comes to landmarks and significant places, we saw a more than 800 years old Turkish bath from the Ottoman Empire, a Nabulsi soap factory owned by a family from Nablus and a kanafeh (delicious Palestinian sweet) bakery. We also learnt about the political importance of the city through history. In 1967, Yasser Arafat and others made significant operations against the Israeli army in the Old City. Over 300 Palestinian freedom fighters lived there. Israel bombed the area. Palestinian freedom fighters had to move to Jordan, then had to leave to Syria, and then to Lebanon. When Israel had war with Lebanon, many of them died. Some moved to North Africa. Many leaders of the movement were assassinated by the Israeli army even abroad. We were told that thanks to those fighters, cities like Nablus still exist.
The last place we went to was the Samaritan Museum. We were given a speech by a Samaritan priest. It was about the 5 principles of Samaritanism, traditions such as circumcisions, how women in their period are treated according to their faith, their version on the history of Judaism & Islam… Samaritans consider themselves the true descendants of Israelites, from Adam and Moses. The Samaritan calendar is often regarded as one of the most accurate in the world. During the division of Kingdoms, Jews were set in Jerusalem and Samaritans in Nablus (Judaism and Samaritanism are very closely related). Samaritans believe in peace, and this nature made them victims of killings through history, going from 3 million believers in Palestine to 785. Religiously talking, the Samaritan priest believed that Jesus came for a specific group, Moses for Israelites, & Mohammed for the whole world. The museum was located in Mount Gerizim, an important place for Samaritans.
(More pictures of all the trip will be uploaded in a near future to my Flickr account.)