Israel Travel Blog

Holy Sites in the West Bank

The West Bank is an area of land lying between Israel and Jordan, with the Dead Sea to its south. It was given this name after being captured by Jordan in 1949 but after the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel took control of the territory. Today, parts of it are administered by Israel and parts by the Palestinian Authority. Whilst it can be challenging to visit there, it is certainly possible, particularly when traveling as part of an organized tour.The Church of St. Catherine, BethlehemHere are some of the holy sites in the West Bank that are holy to three major world religions - Judaism, Christianity, and Islam and a guide to what makes them so special to their followers.To see the list ofholy sites in Israelhave a look at this article. To explore the West Bank and its sites join us - we offer awesome, guidedJericho toursand Bethlehem tours.Jewish Holy Sites in the West BankHill of Phinehas -In the Bible, it says in the book of Joshua that the Hill of Pinehas is the burial place of Aaron's sons, Itamar and Eleazer. Aaron’s grandson, Phinehas, is also believed to have been buried at this site. Awarta - In Arabic, Awarta means ‘windowless’ or ‘hidden.’ Inhabited since Biblical times, between the 4th and 12th centuries the town was an important Samaritan center and was the place of one of their synagogues. In Awarta today there are three large sites which, according to Jewish tradition, are the burial tombs of Aaron’s sons, Itamar and Eleazer.Eshtemoa synagogue -This ancient city mentioned in the Bible houses the remains of an ancient Jewish synagogue dating from around the 4th–5th century CE. The remains of the synagogue were excavated in 1934 by archaeologists Reifenberg and Meyer. They described a hole in the wall which they believe was used as a Torah Ark. A further excavation in 1970 by Ze'ev Yeivin showed that the synagogue was built in the main part of the village. Constructed in a ‘boardhouse’ style it had no columns and worshippers could enter by any of 3 doors on its eastern side. Archaeologists found external ornamental carvings and a mosaic floor. Four menorahs (Jewish candelabra) were found carved onto doors and one of these can, today, be seen in the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem. Two benches were built along the north and south walls.Jericho synagogue - Discovered in 1936 in excavations carried out under the British Mandate, archaeologists estimate that this synagogue dates back to the late 6th/early 7th century CE. All that remains of it today is a mosaic floor, on which there is an Aramaic inscription. Visitors can also see a medallion on which is carved "Shalom al Yisrael" (meaning "Peace on Israel"). This is the reason some people refer to it as the “Shalom al Yisrael synagogue. Whilst the site was taken care of by Israel after the Six-Day War, it came under the control of the Palestinian Authority after the Oslo Accords. However, since 2005, prayer services for Jews have been allowed there once a week.Tombs of Joshua and Caleb close to Kifl Hares - Joshua and Caleb were two Israelite spies, who took the initiative to obey God and lead their people into the Promised Land. Revered as national heroes by religious Jews, it is still possible to pray in this area but under guard provided by the Israeli Army.Hebron -Situated south of Jerusalem, Hebron has been a focus of religious worship for over 2000 years. Its name is derived from the Hebrew word haver (friend), a description for the Patriarch Abraham, the friend of God. Hebron has a long Jewish history that relates to the Cave of Machpelah, which Abraham purchased as a family tomb. This was the first piece of land owned by the Jewish people in the Promised Land. According to the Bible, the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Matriarchs Sarah, Rebekah, and Leah are buried there, and, in the Jewish tradition, the tombs of Adam and Eve are also located in Hebron.Cave of the Patriarchs, Hebron. Photo by Dan Rosenstein on UnsplashChristianHoly Sites in the West BankChristian Holy Sites in BethlehemThe Church of the Nativity - This basilica is the oldest of its kind in the Holy Land and is of incredible importance to Christians since they believe it is the spot where Jesus was born. First commissioned by Emperor Constantine the Great, there is a grotto inside which thousands of pilgrims flock, year-round. At the heart of the Church of the Nativity is the Grotto, the cave where Jesus is supposed to have been born, and north of it is the Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine. The original Roman-style floor is now covered with flagstones but beneath a trap door, there is a part of an original mosaic from the time of Constantine. The medieval gold mosaics that covered the walls are now, for the most part, gone. Midnight Mass is held here every Christmas Eve and is also broadcast live around the world.The Milk Grotto -The Milk Grotto is a sacred spot for Christians since, according to legend, it is the place where Joseph and Mary stopped so that Mary could nurse her baby, Jesus. Tradition also has it that as she nursed him, a drop of her milk fell upon the stone on which she sat, and it turned white. Today, visitors will see the carved rock is white. This is a popular spot for new mothers to pray, as well as women who wish to conceive.Shepherds' Fields - On this spot stands a Roman Catholic church and tradition has it that this is the site where angels announced the birth of Jesus to the world. The church was constructed in 1953 by Franciscans and designed by the famous Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi (who has a stellar reputation for his numerous monuments in the Holy Land). Inside are five apses, which are supposed to resemble the outline of a tent. Nativity scene, stained glass, Church of St. Catherine, BethlehemChristian Holy Sites in JerichoZacchaeus Sycamore Tree - This tree in Jericho is named after Zaccahues, an influential tax collector who lived in Jericho. He is known for being so devoted to Jesus that he climbed a sycamore tree to see him. Zacchaeus was known for his generosity (giving away much of his wealth) and as a descendant of Abraham, some Christians regard him as carrying out Jesus’s values of charity.Elisha’s Spring - Also called ‘the Prophet’s Fountain’ this freshwater spring is located near Tel Jericho.. According to the Bible, the city’s water source was polluted, making local people sick and women infertile. Elisha was told by God to throw salt in the water and a miracle was then performed - healing the water and giving new life to the city.The Mount of Temptation - Located on the edge of a cliff in the Judean desert, this is - according to the Gospel of Matthew- the place where Jesus battled Satan for 40 days and 40 nights, resisting all of the temptations that were offered to him. Halfway up the mountain is the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Temptation ("Deir al-Qarantal" in Arabic).Jacob's Well - Constructed out of rock that is believed to be about 2,000 years old, this deep well is located close to the archaeological site of Tel Balata. It lies within the complex of an Eastern Orthodox monastery in the city of Nablus.Mar Saba Monastery-Set amid the stunning scenery of Wadi Qelt this is a must-see, even if you cannot get inside. Please keep in mind women are not allowed in the Monastery.St. George's Monastery, Wadi Qelt- also known asthe Monastery of Choziba, is an amazing construction hung on the cliff.If you want to get in women should wear clothes that cover their legs and shoulders. This outstanding location is not to be missed.The real sycamore tree from the Bible, the Greek Orthodox church in JerichoMuslim Holy Sites in the West BankNabi Musa, Tomb of Moses - Nabi Musa lies about 20 km east of Jerusalem and 10 km south of Jericho, this site is also known as Nebi Musa, it is believed to be the place where Moses was buried. It is also the name of an important religious festival that lasted 7 days and was celebrated each year by Palestinian Muslims, beginning the Friday before Good Friday. Some argue that it is the most important pilgrimage site in Palestine. The building has several white domes and sits on the Jerusalem-Jericho road. Historically, this was a major route used by Arabs in the Mediterranean, who traveled along the road en route to Mecca, for a pilgrimage. Great Mosque of Nablus - This is the largest and most well-known mosque in the whole of Nablus. Originally built as a Byzantine church, it was converted into a mosque during the Islamic era, rebuilt as a Latin church by the Crusaders, and then rebuilt once more as a mosque in the 12th century. It is situated in the east of the Old City and its interior is long and rectangular. The building has a silver dome. It is used daily for worship, by locals and Muslims across the West Bank, and although not particularly touristic, visitors can see just how old it is from the stone pillars. There is a smaller entrance for women at the side. Locals often refer to this building as the Al Salahi Mosque. Mosque of Prophet Yunus - This mosque is home to a tomb that Muslims believe to be that of Prophet Yunus. The mosque was built in 1226 CE by the Ayyubids and can be found in a town near Hebron by the name of Hulhul. It is built on Mount Nabi Yunus, the highest peak in the West Bank. Yunus is also known by two other names - Dhun-Nun (Lord of the Fish) and Sabhilil-Hot (Companion of the Fish). Built on two floors, the burial area is in the crypt. The building has a square floor surrounded by porticoes, with well-built cross vaults. Yunus, of course, was Jonah in the Bible and the embroidered green cloth covering the tomb has beautiful Arabic calligraphy written on it.Nablus, West Bank.Photo by Nour Tayehon UnsplashSites in the West Bank Holy for All 3 Faiths:Rachel's Tomb - For Jews, this is the ‘Kever Rachel’ and for Muslims, it is the Bilal bin Rahab mosque. It is located in the north of Bethlehem and is generally considered to be her resting place. The earliest recording of this comes from the 4th century, from the Bordeaux Pilgrim. When Moses Montefiore, a Jewish philanthropist, renovated the site in the mid-19th century, he obtained keys for Jews but also built an antechamber for Muslims to pray. The site is the third holiest in Israel for Jews and because of its location in the West Bank remains a contentious site and is often closed; for more details, check out our updated guide for travelling from Jerusalem to Bethlehem,Cave of the Patriarchs - Situated in Hebron, and also known as the Cave of Machpelah, this site is holy both to Muslims and Jews. Muslims call it by the name of the Sanctuary of Abraham. After theTemple Mount, Jews consider it to be their second most holy site. In the book of Genesis, it is told that when Sarah (Abraham’s wife) died, he purchased this land to bury her - it is the first commercial transaction recorded in the Bible. The rectangular building is divided into two sections with four cenotaphs dedicated to Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, and Leah. The entrance to the enclosure is on the southwest side of the building and there is a mosque outside the entrance - this must be passed through to gain access to the cenotaphs. Pottery found by archaeologists in the area indicates that the site could well date back to the 8th century. Today the site is extremely sensitive, with restricted access both to Muslims and Jews, under the terms of the Wye Agreement. At present, the Waqf (an Islamic Charitable Agreement) controls 80% of the area.Cave of the Patriarchs, Hebron.Photo byDan RosensteinonUnsplashTomb of Samuel - Known both as Nebi Samuel or Bebi Samwil, this is considered to be the traditional burial site of Samuel, a prophet both for Jews and Muslims. It sits on a high heel, 900 meters above sea level, close to the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev and the Palestinian village of Beit Hanina. Archaeological excavations were carried out there between 1992 and 2003 although conclusions as to the area’s importance are still disputed.Joseph's Tomb - Located on the outskirts of Nablus, 300 meters from Jacobs Well, this monument is at the foot of a valley that separates Mount Gerizim and Ebal. It is considered to be holy by Christians, Jews, and Muslims, and some Muslims believe it is the location of a local sheik, Yusef Al-Dawlik, who lived in medieval times. There is no concrete archaeological evidence that this is Joseph’s tomb but the Bible gives clues. In Genesis, it is said that his brothers swore to carry Jacob’s bones from Egypt to Canaan, and in Exodus, it says they were taken by Moses. Later accounts state the bones were brought to the Promised Land by the Children of Israel and interred in Shechem (the biblical name for Nablus). Oak of Mamre - Also known as the Oak of Sibta, this site is located in Hebron. Its name is so because of the ancient tree that grows there that appears to be dead, only there is a young sprig/sapling next to it. Some traditions say it is where Abraham hosted three angels and pitched his tent. Nearby is a Russian Orthodox monastery, making the site a major pilgrimage site for Russian pilgrims. Today, it is the only functioning Christian site in the entire Hebron area.If you'd like to learn more about the West Bank, Israel, and Jordan, feel free to check out our travel blog - and contact us if you wish to visit these wonderful holy places; it is our specialty.
Par Sarah Mann


Fed by abundant springs and close to the Dead Sea, Jericho is probably the oldest city in the ancient world, with archaeological discoveries on the tel going back between eight and ten thousand years. The readily available fruit of the oasis tempted the ancient nomadic hunter to settle. Trading the salt, without which man cannot live, from the Dead Sea, provided a source of wealth.Jericho cable car over the Jordan Valley. Photo credit: © ShutterstockThe first recorded conquest of Jericho, the tel, was by the Children of Israel, under the leadership of Joshua (Josh. 6:1-21) over three thousand years ago. Centuries later the city moved to its present place at the foot of the tel. Close by are the excavated remains of a Hasmonean and Herodian palace, including theatre and hippodrome, as well as a later one of the Arab Omayyad dynasty. Towering over Jericho is Mount Qarantal where Jesus was tempted by Satan (Mat 4:1-11, Luke 4:1-13).Jericho sits on the west bank of the Jordan River in the Palestinian Territories not far from the northern end of the Dead Sea and 10km from Jerusalem. The city is surrounded by a dry, arid environment but is inhabitable thanks to the abundant natural springs in the area. Jericho has had a long and colorful history. Jericho was occupied by Jordan from 1949 to 1967 then fell under Israeli rule until 1994 when it became part of the Palestinian Authority West Bank. Thanks to Jericho’s good relations with Israel it is a popular tourist destination included in several tours.Jericho is often called the Oldest City in the World and the Lowest City in the World. It is in fact one of the world’s oldest inhabited settlements and is located not far from the Dead Sea – the lowest point on Earth. Jericho has also been branded the City of Palms for the abundance of palms that grow in the area but also because Jericho is referred to as the City of Palms in the Bible (Deuteronomy 34:3).View of Jericho from the Mount of Temptation.Photo credit: © ShutterstockJericho in the BibleIn the Book of Joshua, we read of the Battle of Jericho when the Israelites came to conquer Canaan. The Israelite troops marched around the walls of Jericho for seven days. On the seventh day, Joshua’s army marched around Jericho seven times as seven Israelite priests blew on ram’s horns and the army shouted out. Miraculously the walls of Jericho fell.In Luke 19:1-4 Jesus enters Jericho surrounded by adoring crowds. As he makes his way into the city a local tax collector called Zacchaeus wanted to get a better look at Jesus. Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree so that he could see Jesus. When Jesus passed the tree he called out to Zacchaeus to join him. Jericho is also mentioned in Kings I 16:34 and in Mark 10:46-52 where Jesus cures a blind man. Jericho AttractionsMt. Temptation - From Jericho, you can take a cable car to the summit of Mount Temptation. It was here that Jesus spent 40 days and nights in the wilderness. It was also on this mount that the devil tried to tempt Jesus to forsake God. Once at the top of the mount visitors can see the Monastery of Temptation built into the hillside. Tell es-Sultan (Tel Jericho). Photo credit: © ShutterstockTell es-Sultan - The ancient mound of Tell as-Sultan lies at the foot of Mount Temptation. It is an outstanding archaeological site where ancient Jericho settlements have been excavated dating back to 9000BC. The site includes a Neolithic tower and the oldest existing city walls. Alongside the archaeological site is Ein as-Sultan (the Spring of Elisha). This natural spring has supplied the city with fresh water for centuries and continues to do so.Hisham’s Palace - The remains of this palace complex is a major Islamic archaeological site. At the excavation site, you can see the remains of the palace, bath complex, and agricultural estate dating back to the 7th century.Sycamore Tree - Visitors can see the ancient sycamore tree climbed by Zacchaeus in the Bible. Today the tree stands in the gardens of the Russian Museum. Near to Jericho is the baptismal site Qasr al-Yahud, believed to be where John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. Also not far from Jericho is St. George's Monastery in Wadi Qelt. If you want to visit Jericho, join one of the numerous Jericho tours.Elisha Spring, Jericho.Photo credit: © Shutterstock
Par Petal Mashraki

The Best Ways to Visit Bethlehem During Your Trip to Israel

Whether you’re a Christian pilgrim, a history lover, or simply a curious traveler, visiting Bethlehem is a must for anyone who’s taking a trip to Israel.Practically a household name in most of the Western world (and much of the East too) this little town, a few kilometers from Jerusalem, is - of course - famous for hosting one of the most well-known events in history - the birth of Jesus Christ.The Church of the Nativity, BethlehemRecreating the Nativity StoryThe Nativity Story, as it is known, began in Nazareth, in northern Israel, when a young Mary was visited by the Angel Gabriel (telling her she would bear a child who would be the Son of God.It ended in Bethlehem, with Mary and Joseph cradling their infant in a stable, because there was no room at a nearby inn. It’s a much-loved story and, over the centuries, the Nativity story has been woven into the fabric of children’s lives.Carol concerts (with hymns that include ‘Oh Little Town of Bethlehem' and ‘Away in a Manger’) and nativity pageants, recreating the story of shepherds watching their flocks, Jesus lying in a manger (since he had no crib for a bed) and the journey of the Three Kings - Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar - who traveled from faraway lands, bearing gifts for the infant, are something that really brings the story to life.A Holy Town with a Rich HistoryNo wonder then that every Christian pilgrim will want to make a journey to this sacred place, and those of other faiths will find it no less interesting, because of the rich history surrounding the tale.Bethlehem at duskHome to the Church of the Nativity (in a building constructed by the Roman Emperor Constantine, inside which a silver star marks the spot where Jesus is said to have been born), the town also boasts the Mar Saba monastery (carved into a cliff overlooking the Kidron Valley, and inhabited by 15 Greek Orthodox monks), the Milk Grotto (popular with those who wish to pray to Jesus’ mother, Mary), Shepherd’s Fields (where the birth of Jesus was announced) and Solomon’s Pools (which, historically, were an essential water source for Jerusalem). So there really is quite a lot to see!Where is Bethlehem?Bethlehem is extremely close to Jerusalem - approximately 9kms (5.5 miles), in the southern area of the Judean mountains - which makes for a relatively easy journey. However, the fact that it sits in the West Bank means that when you travel there you will have to cross out of sovereign Israel territory into an area controlled by the Palestinian Authority. So, having your passport handy is essential - other than that, it’s not a difficult journey to make.Shepherd’s Fields ChurchIn practical terms, as we’ve said above, it’s a simple journey to make, since it really is a hop, skip and jump from Jerusalem. Moreover, there are no restrictions as to how many times you can go back and forth, and because the border crossing is easily accessible, and the guards on both sides are helpful and friendly, you don’t need to worry.Star Marks the Spot, Where Jesus Christ Born, Grotto of the Nativity BethlehemAnd in terms of safety, whilst there are occasional flare-ups in Israel, Bethlehem tends to be a very safe place for tourists to visit and very few people encounter any problems. So, let’s look at the options for getting there:Visiting Bethlehem by Public BusTaking a public bus is cheap, safe, and pretty easy and there are two upon which you can hop, one in the west of the city and the other in the east:Egged bus 163 - this leaves both from the city’s Central Bus Station on the Jaffa Road (next door to which is the main train station and opposite which is the Jerusalem light railway). The journey itself only takes 27 minutes; however, it will not drop you exactly in the town, rather at Rachel’s Tomb, on the Israeli side of the border. You can then walk across the checkpoint (showing your passport) and continue on by foot, for 25 minutes (or grab a cab).Note thatEgged Buses are usually greenBus 21 from the East Jerusalem Bus Station - located on Sultan Suleiman Street, opposite the Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem, there’s no timetable for this bus but the service is frequent. The bus is blue in color and don’t be afraid to ask the locals for help - everyone is friendly and speaks English.Unlike the Egged bus, the 21 bus travels through Beit Jala, right across the checkpoint, and drops you directly in Bethlehem. So whilst it takes a bit longer than the 163, it’s direct and the chances are that you’ll be able to show your passport on the bus itself, rather than disembark.Visiting Bethlehem by TaxiThis is a viable option if you want to travel independently but want to avoid the hassle of public transport. If you are traveling to Bethlehem from West Jerusalem, you will be picked up in a taxi with a white number plate and this can only take you as far as the checkpoint.There, you can cross by foot and then easily catch a taxi with a yellow number plate the rest of the way (or walk, which takes about 25-30 minutes).The most popular ride-sharing app in Israel is GETT, and you can also use Uber and YangoAlternatively, take the Light Railway to East Jerusalem and there find a taxi with a yellow number plate. This driver will be able to take you the entire way. The best thing to do, in our opinion, is to negotiate a price before you get in and ask the driver if (for a reasonable sum) he will wait for you in Bethlehem and then drive you home at the end of your trip.Visiting Bethlehem On FootIf you’re up for an adventure, and you’ve got comfy shoes, it’s certainly possible to follow in the footsteps of Mary and Joseph and walk to Bethlehem, though you should allow a good two hours, if departing from the Old City. Note that this method should be practiced with a group of pilgrims and a local guide.Walking to Bethlehem? It's possible, but there are better waysEssentially, you’ll follow the Bethlehem and Hebron Roads, and if you’re walking in summer (which we don't recommend, since you might end up with heat exhaustion) make sure to take plenty of water and a wide-brimmed hat.Visiting Bethlehem with a Rented CarWhilst renting a car in Israel is easy and relatively inexpensive, because Bethlehem is in the West Bank (and under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority), for insurance reasons it is not possible to take an Israeli rental car across the border/checkpoint.Cars you've rented in Israel won't be able to enter Palestinian territoriesIt is possible to drive your rental car to the checkpoint and leave it there, continuing after the checkpoint either by taxi. You can then cross back after your trip and jump back in your car.Visiting Bethlehem with a Guided TourThis is by far and away the most convenient option, in that everything will be taken care of for you. The advantages of taking an organized tour are not small - not only will you be picked up and dropped off at your hotel (or another central point in Jerusalem), but you will also have the services of Israeli and Palestinian guides.An organized tour: the simplest way to see Bethlehem They are experienced, qualified guides, with a command of both the Hebrew and Arabic language, and they’ll be with you at all times, to deal with the logistics of the border crossing and also to allay any nerves you might have.And not only are there regular tours departing from Jerusalem to Bethlehem running daily, but it’s also possible to take a ‘multi-location’ day trip - perhaps to Bethlehem, Jericho, and Qasr al Yahud (the spot at which John the Baptist baptized Jesus) or combine Jerusalem and Bethlehem - perfect for Christian pilgrims.Qasr al Yahud Baptismal Site, right next to the Jordanian BorderTo sum up, it might be a little more expensive but taking a guided tour is definitely the easiest way to navigate this kind of trip. In the event that there are political tensions, you’ll know about them beforehand via your guide, plus you won’t have to deal with language barriers, cultural differences, and any issues at the checkpoint itself.On a typical organized trip, you’ll be taken to all of the major sites and, should you be traveling to Israel in December, then there’s the option of taking a Christmas Eve tour to Bethlehem, where you can soak up the wonderful atmosphere and take part in the traditional Midnight mass in Manger Square.For more about the package tours, privately-guided trips, and day excursions around Israel (and to Petra, in Jordan) that we offer, contact us by email or telephone and, in the meantime, feel free to take a look at our blog, in which we write about every imaginable aspect of Israeli life, from food & drink, sandy beaches, and desert fortresses to holy places, national parks and desert hikes.
Par Sarah Mann

Traveling to Hebron

Hebron is a city in the south of the West Bank, 30 kilometres from Jerusalem. Located in the Judean Hills, it lies 930 metres above sea level. Hebron, in Hebrew, means ‘friend’ or colleague’ (although the original sense of it may have alluded to an alliance) and in Arabic it is called ‘Khalil al-Rahman’ (the name for Abraham, in the Quran, meaning ‘‘beloved of the Merciful’ or ‘Friend of God’. Hebron has enormous significance in the Hebrew Bible, since it was near this city that God entered into a covenantal relationship with Abraham telling him that he would be the ancestor of a multitude of nations.Cave of the Patriarchs, Hebron.Photo by Dan Rosenstein on UnsplashThe History of HebronArchaeologists are of the opinion that Hebron existed as long ago as the Bronze Age and was flourishing in 8 BCE. Excavations at Lachish (the second most important city in Judean times, after Jerusalem) show that Hebron was an important economic center. Under the British Mandate, most of the land around Hebron was owned by waqfs (Islamic charitable trusts) but by the 1920s, around 265 Jews had moved there. In 1929, tensions boiled over and the Jewish quarter was destroyed, and 67 people were murdered. This set the scene for many more years of conflict which, unfortunately, continue until today. In 1994, a Jewish settled by the name of Baruch Goldstein entered one of the city’s most holy sites - the Cave of the Patriarchs / Ibrahim Mosque - during Muslim dawn prayers and shot and killed 29 worshippers. As a result, Jews and Muslims are now restricted to certain areas for prayer, save for 10 days a year in which adherents can enter all parts of this building.Hebron Today - Sites of InterestHebron is timeless and as the holiest ancient city in the West Bank has numerous holy sites which are rich in Jewish heritage and history but also important to Muslims. Today, Hebron is a UNESCO World Heritage, meaning it is an area guaranteed special protection by international convention.Public transport in the area is available but quite limited and due to the ever-changing political situation, the best way to visit this area is definitely with theprivate tours of the West Bank. Let’s look at some of the sites in this area that you might consider visiting, on a trip to this unusual city:British loyalty meeting in Hebron, 3 July 1940. Photo credit:J Matson, Matson Photo ServiceTomb of the Patriarchs (Ma’arat Machpelah) / Ibrahimi MosqueThis is probably the most famous site in Hebron since it is not just sacred both for Jews and Muslims but, in the last century, has been a flashpoint for political controversy and violence. Historically, it was first a church, in Byzantine times, but then turned into a mosque by the conquering Arabs. After the Crusaders arrived, it was turned back into a church and then once the Mamelukes appeared on the scene, it was once more turned back into a mosque.Sacred to Two Peoples -Layout and Design of the Cave / MosqueFor Jews, after Temple Mount in Jerusalem, this is their second most sacred site. It is where the first commercial transaction in the Bible was recorded - that is when Abraham purchased a plot of land, around 3700 years ago, to bury his wife, Sarah. Genesis actually records the price paid to Ephron the Hittite - 400 shekels of silver (which, incidentally, was the full market price). Jews believe that Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Rebecca, and Leah all have their final resting place here, which is why they refer to it as the Cave of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs.For Muslims, it is the Ibrahimi Mosque. Muslims, just like Jews, revere Abraham and his descendants and regard it of great importance to their faith. Muslims also believe that Abraham, along with his son Ishmael, built the Kaaba in Mecca. It goes without saying then that, after the Temple Mount, the Machpelah Cave / Ibrahimi Mosque is the most contentious‎religious site in the Middle East, with both faiths laying claim to it. The building itself is quite magnificent. Around the Herodian structure are huge stone walls and its corners point to the four points of the compass. Inside the Cave of the Patriarchs, Hebron. Photo by Dan Rosenstein on Unsplash Inside, the design is extraordinarily eclectic (probably because the building changed hands so often!) A visitor will see domes, minarets, columns, arches, and corridors from all different periods. The Cave/Mosque contains several cenotaphs (burial tombs and those of Abraham and Sarah are covered with beautiful embroidered green cloth. Nearby is the Shrine of Abraham, where it is said that Abraham left a footprint when he went out of the Garden of Eden.Through a wide door, you enter into the mosque - the stained glass windows, pillars, and vaulted ceiling indicate this was once a Crusader church. The mosaic and marble mihrab (a niche in the wall of the prayer room marking the direction facing Mecca), and the pulpit are carved out of wood walnut wood, brought to Hebron by Saladin.Next to the pulpit is a flight of stone stairs, leading down to the actual Cave of Machpelah. The caves are not normally accessible (due to political tensions and also out of respect for the dead). The other entrance to the actual cave, however, is sealed by a large stone and covered by a prayer mat. This is close to the ‘Seventh Step’ on the outside of the enclosure and is famous for being the spot from beyond which the Mamluks forbade the Jews to venture.The building’s ceiling is decorated with murals dating back to Ottoman, Mamluk, and Crusader times. Today, the Cave/Mosque is strictly divided into Jewish and Muslim areas. Muslims enter close to the northwestern wall and Jews enter via the southwestern wall.Quran, the holy book for Muslims.Photo by Syed Aoun Abbas on UnsplashThe Cave of Othniel Ben KnazOthniel was an ancient Jewish leader and the first Judge of Israel. The cave lies around 200 meters to the west of Beit Hadassah, at the top of a rocky area. The Mishnah (the earliest authoritative body of oral Jewish law) describes the traditional burial practices of the Jews at that time. The cave is today under the control of the Palestinian Authority, but despite this religious Jews come occasionally to worship here. Popular times to make a pilgrimage to this cave include the holidays of Tisha B’av and Lag B’Omer.The Tomb of Abner Ben NerAbner Ben-Ner was the greatest fighter in King Saul’s army and, according to Jewish tradition from the Middle Ages, was buried close to the Cave of Machpelah, which corresponds to the current location of the site. In Samuel II, in the Bible, it says: “And they buried Abner in Hebron and the king raised his voice and wept on Abner’s grave, and all the people wept”. The tomb itself is a stone structure with several rooms all arranged around a courtyard. The gate is designed in Mamluk style.The Tombs of Ruth and JesseRuth and Jesse were the great-grandmother and great-grandfather of King David. This tomb is situated within the ruins of Deir Al Arab’een in the Tel Rumeida section of Hebron. Early references to it come from a student of the Rambam in the 12th century, who records a visit there. In the 1970s the site was excavated by Profession Ben Tzvi Tavger and subsequently re-opened to the public. Next door to the tomb is a small synagogue where visitors come throughout the year. A particularly important festival for them is the festival of Shavuot (in the spring), when it is traditional to read from the Book of Ruth.Ruth 2:1-20 NIV.Photo by Brett Jordan on UnsplashBeit HaShisha and ‘The Six’In May 1980, outside the historic Beit Hadassah building in the Old City of Hebron, six young men were ambushed and killed. Beit Hadassah was founded in 1893, as a result of the work of Rabbi Franco. It was the country’s first Hadassah hospital (the same is now situated in Jerusalem and is world-famous). Twenty years after the murders, a new building was erected in memory of the six men killed and named ‘Beit HaShisha’ which, in Hebrew, means ‘House of the Six.’Tel Hebron and the Admot Ishai-Tel Rumeida NeighborhoodTel Hebron is an ancient archaeological park in Hebron, within a residential neighborhood called Admot Ishai. Archaeologists believe that the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and the Matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah (all who are buried in the nearby Machpelah Cave) lived here around 4,000 years ago.Between two ancient walls, visitors can see stone stairs dating back thousands of years. Excavations have led archaeologists to speculate that ancient Hebron’s original gate might even be underneath them. This gate is actually mentioned in the Bible’s book of Genesis, when Abraham purchased the area as a burial place for his wife, Sarah. Avraham Avinu SynagogueBuilt in 150 by Hakham Ashkenazi, this structure became the hub of the Jewish community at that time, as well as a center for the learning of Kabbalah (a mystical and esoteric Jewish school of thought). This domed synagogue fell into disuse after the 1929 Hebron Massacre and was destroyed after 1948. After Israel conquered the area in the Six-Day War in 1967, permission was granted for it to be rebuilt, the architect of the project being Rabbi Ben Zion Tavger, and today prayer services are held there every Friday night.Torah Scroll.Photo by Taylor Wilcox on UnsplashBeit HadassahBeit Hadassah was erected in 1893 as a clinic and charitable institute. Thanks to the contributions of North African, Indian, and Iraqui Jews, it flourished and by 1911 it was offering free medical care to local Jews and Arabs alike. In 1929, as a result of the riots in the city, the building was destroyed.The building remained vacant until Passover 1979 when a group of Jews occupied the building and refused to leave until they were granted permission by the State of Israel to make it their permanent home. A year later, after an ambush that left six young men dead, the old Beit Hadassah building was repaired and extended and today it is home to some Jewish families.Beit RomanoBeit Romano was constructed in 1879 by Chaim Romano, a prosperous Turk. It was a symbol of centers outside the ‘ghetto’ of Hebron and served as a guest house. The ‘Istanbul Synagogue’ was subsequently established here. Under the British Mandate, the building was turned into a police station and used to shelter the injured during the Hebron Riots of 1929. Under Jordanian control from 1948-1967, it was used as a school and only in 1980 reclaimed by the Jews. Between 1996-2000, renovations were carried out and another floor was discovered underneath the building. Today it is home to a yeshiva (Jewish study area) and an Israeli Army military camp.The Oak of Sibta (Oak of Abraham,The Oak of Mamre)This ancient tree, according to non-Jewish tradition, is supposed to mark the place where, as recorded in the book of Genesis, Abraham pitched his tent. The Oak of Mamre can be found in the Russian Orthodox Church of the Holy Trinity, which owns the land. The oak fell down in 2019 but plans to preserve its trunk and endeavor to encourage a new shoot to grow are underway.Mamluk ArchitectureAll around Hebron are buildings that were constructed during the Mamluk period, between 1250 and 1517 CE. Some of these include the Fountain of Qayt Bay, the Gold Market, and the Bab Al-Asbat Minaret. Mosques of this period include Al-Jawali, Mahkamah, Katib Al-Wilaya, Ibn Marwan, Aybaki and Al-Shamah.The Oak of Mamre in 2008, before collapsing in 2019. Photo credit:Copper Kettle - originally posted to Flickr
Par Sarah Mann

Top 10 Sites to Visit in Nablus

Nablus (‘Shekhem’ in Hebrew) is a city in the West Bank. The city, and the surrounding area, has an overwhelmingly Arab population. Nablus was occupied by Israel after the Six-Day War in 1967 but, since 1995, as a result of the Oslo Accords, it has been controlled by the Palestinian Authority. With a population of 135,000, it is one of the largest urban areas in the West Bank. It is a major commercial centre, well-known for its production of wood, pottery, soap and olive oil, famed for its delicious ‘knafeh’ dessert and home to a respected university, Al Najah.Nablus street, West Bank.Photo by nour tayeh on UnsplashThe Geography and History of NablusGeographically, it is around 60 km (45 miles) north of Jerusalem, between Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim. It sits in the middle of a fertile valley and is at the centre of a natural oasis, which is fed by a number of springs. Historically, the city of Nablus occupied a strategic position since it lay at a junction between two ancient commercial roads, the first linking the Sharon coastal plain to the Jordan Valley and the second linking it to Judea in the south and the Galilee in the north. It was founded by the Roman Emperor Vespasian in 72 CE and named ‘Flavia Neapolis’. Today, it is a bustling commercial centre with plenty to offer the visitor. Yes, it is in the West Bank, which means visitors should exercise a certain degree of vigilance. However, it is definitely safe to visit, although we would recommend travelling there with a private tour, since being accompanied by someone who speaks Arabic and knows the area is invaluable.Since it is only about an hour’s drive from Jerusalem, it makes for an ideal day trip so let’s take a closer look at this ancient city’s attractions and what you should do there, to get the most out of your time.Nablus Governorate. Photo by nour tayeh on Unsplash1. The Old CityThe Old City lies in the heart of Nablus and is densely populated, with many prominent local families living there. It is made up of six quarters: Habala, Qaysariyya, Aqaba, Yasmina, Gharb and Qaryun. There is plenty for the visitor to see including:Mosques - there are many mosques in the Old City, including the Great Mosque, the Al-Khadra, the Al-Abnia and Ajaj. The Great Mosque is the oldest and largest of these buildings and was originally built as a Byzantine church by the Crusaders. After the conquest of Saladin, it was converted into a mosque in the Islamic period. It has a long, rectangular floor and a silver dome.The Abd al-Haid Palace - built in the 19th century as a residence for the Abd al-Haid family, this white limestone building has many hidden treasures including winding staircases, unobtrusive courtyards, balconies and gardens.Al Nimr Palace - this huge 17th-century palace is situated in the Habala neighbourhood and was built by Abdullah Pasha, a leader of the Ottomans. Tuqan Palace - considered to be one of the most important historical buildings in the city, this palace has more than 100 rooms and was built by Pasha Tuqan in the 18th century.Hammams - these Turkish baths were built between the 16th and 19th centuries. One that is still used today is Al-Shifa - estimated to have been built around 400 years ago, look out for the engraved plaque above the door. Manara Clock Tower - built in 1906 on the orders of Sultan Abdul Hamid, to celebrate his 30-year reign, its style is similar to those found today in Tripoli and Jaffa. Visitors with a keen eye will notice the Arabic calligraphy, praising the Sultan. One of the palaces in Nablus. Photo by nour tayeh on Unsplash2. Mount GerizimOne of two mountains ringing Nablus, Mount Gerizim sits on the southern side of the city’s valley. The Samaritan population (the majority of whom live nearby) regard it as the oldest, highest and most central mountain in the world. For them, it is the centre of their civilization. They consider it to be more sacred than the Temple Mount - for them, God intended it to be a holy temple.In the Bible, it is said that when the Israelites entered the Promised Land, Moses instructed them to celebrate by making blessings on Mount Gerizim. Specifically, In the book of Joshua, it is also said that an altar of stones was built there. Today, it is still possible to see ruins at the top of Gerizim, including the remains of a fortified church and an old Samaritan temple. A large stone structure, named ‘Structure B’ is thought by archaeologists to have once been an altar built by the Samaritans in the 5th or 6th century.3. Beit FalasteenInfluenced by the great Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Palladio's "La Rotonda", Beit Falasteen is an extraordinary replica of a 16th-century Villa, transplanted to a Nablus hilltop built by the Palestinian millionaire and philanthropist Munib Al-Masri. You could be forgiven for thinking you were in Italy when you see the stone steps, porticos, grand salons, huge library and even a greenhouse! This classical villa is full of priceless objects, including statues, rare manuscripts, tapestries and even a gold-plated throne. Sitting on Mount Gerizim, in south Nablus, the house is steeped in biblical history. Mount Gerizim is the place where, supposedly, Adam and Eve met, Noah built his boat to avoid the Flood and Abraham almost sacrificed his son, Isaac, on the orders of God.Look out for the mosaic floor (unearthed during excavations, when the foundations were being built) and the educational displays - rooms put aside for geology, archaeology and the history of the Palestinians, with interesting information about Masri’s life and how he came to build the villa.Villa Rotunda in Vicenza, Italy built by Andrea Palladio.Photo by Gunnar Ridderström on Unsplash4. Nablus Market -Olive Oil and KnafehThis traditional bustling market (or ‘shuk’ in Arabic) is a great place to wander, with its narrow alleyways and exotic smells and sights. Called the ‘Khan al Tujjar’ (‘the Sultan’s Market') it’s said to have been constructed in 1569. With its narrow street (no more than three metres wide at any point), the walls are designed in traditional Islamic style - with high arches - and if you look carefully you’ll see Ottoman inscriptions on them.Here you’ll find endless stores selling everything from clothes and shoes to houseware and hardware. Fishmongers, restaurants and trinket stores line the streets and it’s also a wonderful place to pick up sweet treats (including baklava) and spices. Look out for the traditional olive oil soap that’s sold everywhere - it’s wonderful for the complexion. Moreover, prices are competitive and it’s quite acceptable to haggle!Furthermore, Nablus is a green and lush part of the West Bank, which means that there’s a varied choice of fruits and vegetables and many good places to eat. One thing that must be tried is the local olives (either as a snack or buying locally-produced olive oil). There’s also sheep’s cheese, preserved in brine, that tastes a little like halloumi and goes well with bread and other ‘mezze.’ And then, as we mentioned before, there’s knafeh, probably the most well-known food item in Nablus. Basically, this is the aforementioned cheese, stuck between layers of crispy pastry, and then cooked in butter, before the final ingredient - sugar syrup - is poured over it. Neither your dentist nor your waist will thank you for indulging but it’s quite delicious and very ‘more-ish!’ The best place to sample it, we think, is the Al-Aqsa bakery - an institution renowned across the West Bank - where it’s made in huge trays in their open-air factory. Yum!Knafeh dessert.Photo by Mehrshad Rajabi on Unsplash5. Jacob's Well, BalataSituated in the complex of a church, within the grounds of an old Eastern Orthodox monastery, this is a deep well, constructed out of rock, which has been associated with Jacob, in the Bible, for around two thousand years. It is possible to access the well by entering the church and going down the stairs into a crypt. With a narrow opening and made partly of limestone, this is where it can be found, along with a bucket, a tiny winch and some icons and candles. Manuscripts written by Pilgrims show that Jacob’s Well has been within the site of different churches on the same site, at different times. It is alleged to be the place where baptisms took place and also where Jesus had a conversation with a Samaritan woman.6. Tel BalataThe site of Tel Balata is where you will find the remains of an ancient Israelite/Canaanite city. About 2.5 km from the centre of Nablus, it was an important cultural and historical centre in ancient times. The location has many water sources in addition to fertile land and lots of rainfall in the winter.There are several ruins that can still be seen, including the ‘fortress’ (once a temple) on the hill, two large gates, huge city walls and a governor’s palace (which boasted guardrooms, living quarters, a kitchen and even a small private shrine). Olives. Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash7. Joseph's Tomb, BalataJoseph's Tomb is located close to Tel Balata and just north of Jacob's Well, this is believed by some to be the burial place of Joseph, although there is no concrete archaeological evidence to substantiate this. Thousands of years ago it may have been a Samaritan site but after Israel captured the West Bank in 1967, Jews began praying there again. It is housed within an Ottoman-era building marked by a white dome.8. Remains of Sebastiya (Ancient Samaria)Located about 12 kilometres northwest of Nablus, this Palestinian village is home to around 4,500 inhabitants. According to the Hebrew Bible, it was once home to a number of Israelite tribes and today boasts some archaeological sites. Visitors will see a sarcophagus next to the road and there is also a large cemetery of rock-cut tombs in the north of the area. The neighbourhood has small springs and a tiny ruined mill. Most of the villagers are Muslims, with a minority being Greek Christians.A courtyard in Nablus.Photo by nour tayeh on Unsplash9. Mount SartabaThis ancient hilltop fortress was built by the Hasmoneans and from its top, there are stunning views of the Jordan Valley. It is not the easiest site to reach since there is no paved road so it is recommended only for the more experienced hiker. Alternatively, it can be accessed with a four-wheel-drive jeep.10. ShilohAccording to the Hebrew Bible, it was to Shiloh that worshippers flocked before the First Temple was constructed. However, it has a history that predates that - long before the Israelites arrived, dating back to the Middle or Late Bronze Age, it was a walled city complete with a religious shrine. Excavations from the 1920s onwards have unearthed impressive remains, showing that there were inhabitants in Shiloh until at least the 8th century. In the 21st century, the remains of Byzantine churches with lovely mosaic floors were unearthed. The designs are geometric, as well as portraying flora, a cross and three inscriptions.To see the list of Dos and Don’ts when making a visit to the West Bank feel free to read this article.Mount Sabih, Nablus Governorate.Photo by nour tayeh on Unsplash
Par Sarah Mann

Christmas in Bethlehem

Christmas in Israel can be magical and a truly spiritual experience. There are services in local churches (mainly in Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem) as well as services held at the locations where Christmas events took place. Many tour buses leave Jerusalem on Christmas Eve to services in Shepherds' Field where an angel appeared to the shepherds on Christmas Eve. The tours continue to the Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and end off at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem for the Midnight Mass.Christmas tree in Bethlehem.Photo credit: © ShutterstockOf all the Christmas celebrations in Israel, perhaps the largest and most moving is at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, where gather in Manger Square to be a part of the celebration of Jesus’ birth on the spot where the events unfolded.Christmas in Bethlehem includes processions through the streets, carol singing, and religious services which can all be an extremely spiritual experience.Roman Catholics celebrate on the 24th of December at Saint Catherine’s Church in Bethlehem, as well as on the 5th and 6th of January when the Epiphany is commemorated. Greek, Coptic, Romanian, and Syriac Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on the 6th of January in Bethlehem. For those belonging to Orthodox denominations, it is customary to join into one of the many religious processions that are held in Bethlehem. Armenians tend to hold their services at the Basilica of the Nativity, although this falls a few weeks later than Protestant/Catholic times (usually the third week of January). These processions always pass through Manger Square, close to the site where it is believed that Jesus was born. For Protestants, it is a different matter.Some of them, of course, will attend evening services in their local churches whilst others will make the trip to the Church of the Nativity or Shepherd’s Field. For Protestants who want to travel to Bethlehem from Jerusalem, the YMCA organizes an evening trip. In Jerusalem, popular Protestant and Anglican churches include the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer and St. George’s.Nativity scene, stained glass, Church of St. Catherine, Bethlehem.Photo credit: © ShutterstockChristmas traditions in Bethlehem tend to be in the same vein as those in Europe and North America. A week or two before 25th December lights will be put up, as well as other decorations, and flags will fly. Christians often paint crosses on the doors of their home and traditional Christmas markets are held, selling all kinds of fare associated with the holiday. If you look in the windows of peoples’ houses, you may also see miniature Nativity scenes on display.On 24th December - Christmas Eve - an afternoon parade is held in the center of the town and all of the residents, not to mention pilgrims and tourists, crowd the streets in an attempt to get a bird’s eye view of the celebrations. At the head of the Parade are officers on horses and behind them a man - also on a black horse - carrying a cross. Following him are government and church officials. Once the parade has arrived at the Church of Nativity followed by a man riding over a black steed and carrying a cross. After him comes the churchmen and government officials. After the parade has entered the Church of the Nativity, a statue of the ‘Holy Child’ is placed inside. The honored guests then descend down a long flight of stairs which leads them into a grotto. There can be seen a silver star - this is the place that marks Christ’s birth.In Nazareth, there are Christmas Eve parades and firework displays as well as church services. In all over 90,000 foreign visitors arrive in Israel annually to celebrate Christmas. Christmas is celebrated also in Haifa and in Jaffa. It is important to remember that throughout the rest of Israel you could probably not even notice that it is Christmas in Israel as unlike America and Europe the streets and stores are not decorated, there is no Santa ringing a bell outside shops, and Christmas music cannot be heard in the streets. Book a tour to the Christmas Eve in Jerusalem & midnight mass in BethlehemInside the Church of St. Catherine, Bethlehem.Photo credit: © Shutterstock
Par Petal Mashraki
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