Israel for Muslim travelers

The Holy Land is an excellent travel destination for Muslim visitors; the country is packed with significant Islamic landmarks. The top Muslim attraction in Israel is Al Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif) in Jerusalem. The mosque is alluded to in the Koran, as “the Furthest Mosque” and it is Islam’s third holiest site. Take the Dome of the Rock Tour to see Temple Mount’s Islamic structures including the stunning Dome of the Rock, the Dome of the Chain, the Scale Arches, and Marwani Mosque. While in Jerusalem, Muslim visitors should see the Dome of Ascension, the Mosque of Omar, and explore the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. Jerusalem is also home to the Museum of Islamic Art. 

Beyond Jerusalem, the Holy Land holds historic landmarks built by iconic Islamic leaders. For example, The Old City of Acre is a stunning example of Ottoman, architecture. The 18th-century Muslim governor Ahmad Pasha el-Jazzar was responsible for many of the landmarks in Acre, including the beautiful Al-Jazzar Mosque, Khan al-Umdan, and the Citadel. On a trip to Muslim communities in Bethlehem, Acre, Jericho, and Jaffa, Muslims in Israel can and learn about the local Islamic culture, cuisine, and way of life. Like tourists of all faiths, Muslim visitors will want to see Israel’s top attractions like the Dead Sea, the Sea of Galilee, and Tel Aviv. In this section you will discover Israel from the perspective of the Muslim traveler. You will find here lists of holy sites, practical tips and our recommendations.

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
By Sarah Mann

Abu Gosh

Abu Gosh is an Arab-Israeli town located about 10 km west of Jerusalem in the Judean Hills. It is named after one of the most prominent clans inhabiting the town. Abu Gosh is known for its picturesque scenery, authentic local cuisine, ancient churches, and welcoming community. It is also home to the second-largest mosque in Israel. Flowers in Benedectine Abbey in Abu Gosh, Israel. Photo by Pauline on UnsplashAbu Gosh hosts a biannual music festival held during the Jewish holidays of Shavuot (Pentecost) and Sukkot (Festival of the Tabernacles). Most of Abu Gosh’s 7,000 residents are Muslims but there are also several Christian and Jewish families. History of Abu GoshThe majority of Abu Gosh residents come from four clans that can trace their roots back to the Chechen and Ingush tribes of the Caucasus Mountains. The ancestors of Abu Gosh residents were enlisted by the Ottoman army to join the fight for the Holy Land in the 1500s. They were known for their price, wealth, courage, and strength. Once the Ottomans had conquered Palestine, many of the Chechen and Ingush soldiers remained. They settled in the Abu Gosh area, and for hundreds of years, they controlled the pilgrimage route between Jaffa and Jerusalem. Sultan Selim gave them permission to charge travelers a tax or fee for safe passage along this route.Hummus made Abu Gosh famous.Photo byLudovic AviceonUnsplashHighlights of Abu GoshThe New Mosque - Construction of the New Mosque in Abu Gosh was funded by President Akhmad Kadyrov of Chechnya, in honor of the Chechen people of Abu Gosh. It was completed in 2014 and is the second-largest mosque in Israel after the Al-Aqsa Mosque on Temple Mount. The magnificent mosque has four tall minarets, a golden dome, and combines Middle Eastern and Caucasus architectural styles.Benedictine Monastery of St. Mary and the Church of the Resurrection - This monastery complex was built by Crusaders in 1141 and has beautiful gardens, a church, and a guesthouse. The monastery’s Church of the Resurrection has walls adorned with outstanding medieval frescoes. In the church crypt is the spring that attracted settlers to Abu Gosh thousands of years ago. The monastery is still active, and visitors can listen to Gregorian prayer chants sung throughout the day. Visitors can buy ceramics and candles made by monks and nuns. Abu Gosh is believed to be the site of Emmaus, a place mentioned in Luke 24. Two disciples were traveling the road from Jerusalem to Emmaus when they met and ate with a stranger who was the resurrected Christ.Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant Church - The second church in Abu Gosh is known for a statue depicting Mary carrying baby Jesus. The statue can be seen from almost anywhere in Abu Gosh. Below the sculpture of Mary is a base resembling the Ark of the Covenant. Abu Gosh is identified with the biblical site of Kiryat Ye’arim. The Book of Exodus tells how the Ark of the Covenant (an ornate golden chest containing the original stone tablets of the 10 commandments) was kept at Kiryat Ye’arim before being taken to Jerusalem by King David. Our Lady of the Ark of the Covenant was built in 1924 on the ruins of a Byzantine church. Part of the original Byzantine mosaic floor can still be seen.Local Cuisine in Abu GoshNo one comes to Abu Gosh without trying some of the excellent local cuisine. The main road is lined with restaurants serving authentic Middle Eastern dishes. Abu Gosh hummus is particularly famous.Abu Gosh is a model of coexistence. Its multicultural community welcomes international visitors and Israelis who particularly like to come here to enjoy the food. Abu Gosh is a unique destination with much to discover and the residents welcome everyone with open arms.If you are interested in visiting Abu Gosh, join one of our private tours.
By Petal Mashraki

The West Bank

The West Bank is a term that refers to landlocked territory of Judea and Samaria in the Middle East, lying between Israel and Jordan. Also referred to as ‘Cis Jordan’ (the Latin for ‘on this side of the River Jordan’) and Transjordan (literally ‘on the other side of the Jordan River’) it is a densely populated territory which, historically, has been ruled by the Ottomans, the British, Jordan and Israel in the last century or so. Its legal status continues to be hotly debated.The hills near Jericho in the West Bank. Photo by David McLenachan on UnsplashOrigin of the Term "West Bank"The actual name "West Bank" is an Arabic translation of the term “ad-Diffah I-Garbiyyah”. This refers to land west of the Jordan River that, after the 1948 war between Israel and the Arab nations, was captured by the Jordanians. In 1950, it was annexed by them and, in 1967, lost to Israel in the Six-Day War. Geography and Climate of the West BankThe West Bank has a mostly Mediterranean climate (particularly on the coastal plains) although, at night and in the winter, it is much cooler in the hills. It has limestone hills that are 700 to 900 metres high. Summers are invariably warm but there is much terrain that is relatively well-watered and used for sheep grazing. The Judean Desertand the Dead Sea areas are hot and dry.Olive groves are everywhere and their cultivation is widespread. The Jordan River valley is also intensely cultivated for all kinds of vegetables and fruits. Save for this arable land, the West Bank has few natural resources - forests and woodlands account for just 1% of the terrain, which is 5,600 square km in total.Demographics of the West BankThe total number of people living in the West Bank, as of 2021, exceeded over 3.2 million. Around 2,750,000 of these are Palestinians. About 390,000 Israeli settlers also live here, as well as around 210,000 settlers in East Jerusalem. The major population centres of the West Bank are Hebron, Nablus, Bethlehem and Jericho.Christmas in Bethlehem.Photo by Leon Wu on UnsplashHebron, West BankNestled in the Judean hills and just 30 km from Jerusalem, Hebron is of great significance both to Muslims and Jews and has numerous holy sites including the Tomb of the Patriarchs (also known as the Ibrahimi Mosque) and the Avraham Avinu synagogue. Public transport, however, is quite limited and due to the constantly changing political situation, we would definitely recommend visiting this city with a private tour. Nablus, West BankFamed for its bustling market (which sells local olive oil, soap and the delicious dessert ‘knafeh’), Nablus and its surrounding areas (including Jacob’s Well, Joseph’s Tomb and Mount Gerizim) are easily accessible on a day trip, since it is just 60 km from Jerusalem.Bethlehem, West BankFamous as the birthplace of Jesus, thousands of tourists flock here, particularly at Easter and Christmas, to visit the Church of Nativity and Shepherds' Field. Since it is so close to Jerusalem, it is easy to take an organised half-day tour here. Celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem is a one-of-a-kind experience for every Christian.Jericho, West BankVisit the town famous for Joshua’s battle, and stare at the Mount of Temptation (where Jesus battled the devil) on a day tour of Bethlehem and Jericho.Church of Shepherd's Field, Bethlehem. Photo credit: © ShutterstockHistory of the West BankAfter World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the territory of Palestine was governed by the British Mandate. In the years that followed, there was substantial immigration by Jews (predominantly from Eastern Europe). The future of the land was hotly debated and tensions often led to violence including riots in Jaffa and a massacre in Hebron.By 1947, the UN put forward a proposal that the land governed by the Mandate should be split into two territories - one for the Jews, the other for the Arabs. This Partition Plan was accepted by the Jews and rejected by the Arabs - a day before the Mandate was due to expire, Israel declared its independence.There then followed the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, with the aftermath being that Transjordan was left in control of the West Bank. Five years later, they annexed this territory and held onto it until 1967, when it was captured by Israel in the Six-Day War. From 1967 until the 1990s, and the advent of the Oslo Accords, the West Bank was under exclusive Israel control. Despite many negotiations, there has never been a final status agreement of the area.Consequently, today, the West Bank is divided into different areas - A, B and C. The Palestinian Authority (PA) currently controls 39% of the territory, with Israel in control of the other 61%. Most of the international community and the International Court of Justice regards this control as an occupation.View of Jericho from the Mount Temptation. Photo by Snowscat on UnsplashReligion in the West BankThe majority of Palestinians living in the West Bank are Muslim and, of these, 98% identify as Sunni on their identification cards. There are about 52,000 Palestinians who identify as Christian. Most Palestinians, it seems, do not identify as atheists or agnostics.Of the Jewish settlers living in the West Bank, a large number identify as religious - either ‘national religious’ or ‘haredi’ (ultra-orthodox) although there are built-up areas where secular Jews live. In general, the Jews who live in the West Bank tend to be more religious than those living in Israel.Legal and Political Status of the West BankThis is a much-contested subject. The future status of the West Bank has been hotly debated, since the beginning of the Oslo Accords and the 2002 ‘Road Map for Peace’ proposed by a Quartet of the USA, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations.The Palestinians hope, and believe, that the West Bank should be part of a future Palestinian state, with an independent legislature. They see any control of this territory by Israel as an impediment to their rightful statehood.President Obama’s view was that a final legal and political agreement would have to reflect current demographic realities i.e. that there would have to be a ‘land swap’ between Israelis and Palestinians, in order to pave the way for a Two-State Solution. The United Nations has passed resolutions, criticising and condemning Israel’s policy of establishing settlements in the West Bank.Palms in the West Bank.Photo by Levi Meir Clancy on UnsplashIsraeli society is split on how to deal with the situation. The ‘left’ broadly supports a two-state solution, as part of a ‘land for peace’ agreement, implying an independent State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel, west of the Jordan River. The centre-ground would support some kind of Palestinian statehood but with a continued Israeli presence, to prevent terrorist attacks. The more ‘right-wing’ elements advocate Israeli annexing the West Bank and giving Palestinians citizenship. The most radical elements of Israeli society believe in the idea of ‘transfer’ i.e. handing Palestinians over to Jordan.Public Opinion and the BDS MovementPublic opinion is heavily divided both in Israel and the West Bank, as to how viable a two-state solution is. More moderate elements of both groups advocate for peaceful co-existence and independent statehood for the Palestinians, as part of a land swap (which is agreeable to both sides, of course).Radical on both sides argue against this - Israelis say that Palestinians cannot be trusted to keep the peace if given a state of their own. Palestinians, in return, say Israel has no interest whatsoever in space moreover, they argue, many of the Palestinian refugees today (now many generations on) do not want to live in the West Bank - rather they want to return to their old homes in Jaffa andGalilee.Jews in the diaspora (i.e. Jews around the world) seem to be equally divided in their political opinions. Palestinians outside of the Middle East are equally divided. Some tend to have regarded the Oslo Accords as an act of surrender, a ‘Palestinian Versailles’. Others take the view that negotiations and compromise with Israel are inevitable if they are ever to realise their hopes of independence.Wadi Qelt, West Bank. Photo by nour tayeh on UnsplashTheBoycott, Divestment and Sanctions MovementThe Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) was established by activists in 2005 in order to push what they call the end of international support for Israel’s occupation. They support a range of tactics, all intended to put pressure on Israel to comply with its obligations under international law. These include boycotting academic institutions, disinvesting in Israeli companies and applying sanctions to the state of Israel. Many BDS activists argue that Israel is a colonialist project and, to all intents and purposes, an apartheid state. BDS argues that Israel must do the following three things: end the occupation of the West Bank and take down the Separation Barrier (‘the Wall); give full equality not just to Palestinians in the West Bank but Arab Israelis within the State of Israel; giving Palestinians the right to return to their ancestral homes, from which they left/fled as refugees.Opposition to BDSThose who oppose BDS say it is an organisation that is, in fact, anti-semitic, implies that Israel has no right to statehood and promotes discrimination against Jews. They argue that the Separation Barrier is, unfortunately, a very real and necessary barrier since it stops Palestinians from infiltrating Israel and carrying out terror attacks, which killed many Israelis in the Second Intifada.Moreover, they argue, support of the right of return for all Palestinian refugees is just a thinly-disguised attempt to dismantle the state of Israel. If all Palestinian refugees were allowed to return to their villages, before 1948, Jews would quickly become a minority in their own land. This would mean they would no longer have any right to self-determination.The BDS movement is widely (and often vociferously) opposed by the majority of Jews outside of Israel and campaigns against it have been made a top priority of the pro-Israel lobby in the USA. It has been described as a ‘dishonest cult’ since its members refuse to state, openly, that they do not recognise Israel’s right to exist.Cable car to Mount Temptation, Jericho.Photo credit: © ShutterstockCrossing PointAllenby Bridge - also known as the King Hussein Bridge, is the most important port for the Palestinians in the West Bank to the Jordanian borders. It is situated 55 km (about a 1 hour 15 minutes drive from Jerusalem). Close to Jericho, it can be used by Palestinians, foreign travellers and diplomats. Israel citizens can not cross it.The Allenby Bridge crossing was established during World War I, and was nothing more than a simple wooden bridge by which soldiers could cross over the Jordan River simply. Today, it is under the administration of the Israeli Airports Authority (IAA).TourismMaking a trip is becoming increasingly popular with visitors and, for sure, taking a tour to the West Bank is an experience that few forget. The area has beautiful scenery, holy sites (mosques, synagogues, monasteries in Wadi Qelt, etc), bustling markets in the major centres and some fine cuisine. For Christian pilgrims, tours to Bethlehem (the birthplace of Jesus) and excursions to Jericho (where Jesus healed a blind man) are moving experiences. Making a visit to the West Bankis not without a few practicalities - so it’s definitely advisable to plan ahead. On major Jewish and Muslim holidays, the borders may sometimes be closed. In times of political tension or outright military conflict, it may also be difficult (and inadvisable) to cross. The best thing to do is to keep updated with the news and, of course, take the advice of your tour guide.It is possible to travel to the area yourself but, in general, much better to take guidedday tours of Bethlehem and Jericho, for example. Your guide will be someone who knows locals and this is always of great help. The locals are friendly and often very hospitable, but it is good to be aware of their customs and traditions and a guide can answer your questions as to what kind of behavior is expected. For more about this subject, take a look at our article Making a visit to the West Bank - a Few Dos and Don’ts.Ancient Jericho, a UNESCO-nominated archaeological site, the West Bank. Photo credit: © Shutterstock
By 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
By Sarah Mann

Jerusalem and the Crusades

The Crusades are an extraordinary and fascinating period for anyone intrigued by history, particularly in the context of Israel (or what was then referred to as ‘the Holy Land’). Some scholars argue they were a pilgrimage whilst others see them as a Holy War. Much has been written, and can still be written, about these military expeditions but for those who want the basics, this article is an attempt to explain some of the major events that occurred over these centuries, and how they impacted Jerusalem.A Crusader in the Army Museum, Paris.Photo byJeremy BezangeronUnsplashWe don’t promise here to give you all the answers (we couldn’t, even if we wanted to!)...rather look at a few of the important questions dealing with the long and arduous journeys undertaken by nobles and knights, all the way from northern Europe to Jerusalem....and what transpired when they finally reached the Levant. Today, we’re going to focus primarily on the First Crusade (scholars are still arguing about exactly how many there were) and the impact it had on Europe and the Levant.So what exactly were the Crusades?Essentially, from the perspective of the Christian history timeline, the Crusades were a series of religious wars/military expeditions that took place between Christians and Muslims. They began in the 11th century and were instigated by Western European Christians who were angered by centuries of Muslim rule. Supported, and often directed, by the Latin Church, the best known of them are the ones directed towards Jerusalem, between the period of 1095 and 1281.Sunset in the Old City of Jerusalem.Photo byDavid HolifieldonUnsplashIn 1009, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre needed to be rebuilt, after being destroyed by the Caliph of Egypt, Al-Hakim. Subsequently, Christian pilgrims were free to visit the church. Around 1077, Muslim Seljuk Turks took control of the Holy Land, and it became harder for Christian pilgrims to visit there and rumors of pilgrims’ mistreatment spread. Soon, the Byzantine Emperor Alexius, who feared that the Seljuks might soon invade his land (and reach the Christian city of Constantinople) reached out to the Pope, appealing for help. The call to arms by Pope Urban II was heard by tens of thousands of men, young and old, across Western Europe, and apparently, his words resonated with them. “May you deem it a beautiful thing to die for Christ in that city in which he died for us” he told them. Thousands cut out red Crusader crosses and sewed them into their white tunics before setting off. For them, the die was cast - they would fight for Jerusalem, at whatever personal cost. Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem. Photo byAdam KringonUnsplashWho took part in the Crusades?The popular response across all social classes was enormous - both the People’s Crusade and the Princes’ Crusade attracted no end of participants. The Crusader's journey to Jerusalem was certainly seen as a ‘worthy’ penitential privilege and a willingness to accept Papal commands was common. What we do know is that the ‘call to arms’ was spearheaded by Pope Urban II at the 10-day Council of Clermont. There he gave a rousing and impassioned speech, designed to recruit men.As a result, many noblemen from France and England also signed up for the Crusades. Knights were particularly well represented, particularly a mysterious Order named the Knights Templar. Originally, their purpose was to protect pilgrims from danger but, over time, they ‘expanded’ their duties and became known as defenders of the Crusader states in the Holy Land. These knights were certainly brave, skilled warriors, and even today, tales of their military prowess are told to schoolchildren.Сrusader armor. Photo byNik ShuliahinonUnsplashWhat were the motives behind the Crusades?There were all kinds of reasons behind the Crusades in fact. Some individuals felt the need to obey the Pope, who had decreed that the Holy City of Jerusalem should be freed from Muslim infidels, in order to grant Christian pilgrims free access to worship. In the words of St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “Oh men of war, oh mighty soldier, you now have something to fight for. If you win, it will be glorious. If you die fighting for Jerusalem, you will win a place in heaven.”Others were anxious to be forgiven for their sins since the Pope offered automatic forgiveness for anyone who signed up. Particularly for Knights, who had killed many in battle, this was an opportunity to have their soul cleansed. Serfs signed up because they were promised freedom from indentured labor. And then there were some troublesome young men who were ‘packed off’ abroad by their families. Obviously, there were other more materialistic reasons too - if victorious, the spoils of war would be theirs, particularly in the form of land (which could always tempt knights who were not destined to inherit their father’s lands). Finally, let us not forget the question of ‘honor’. Participating in a Crusade was an opportunity to prove one’s bravery, as well as see the world and have an adventure into the bargain.Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. Photo byGary ChapmanonUnsplashWhy was Jerusalem important in the Crusades?To medieval Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the Holy Land was not a mere geographical entity in the Middle East. Rather it symbolized purity and spirituality. All three faiths revered Jerusalem - for Christians, it was where Jesus was crucified, buried, and rose again. For Jews, it was where the city of King David was once captured and then made the capital of the ancient Jewish people.For Muslims, the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount was the place where Mohammed the Prophet was said to have flown over, on his fateful journey to Mecca. The enormous significance of Jerusalem to all three faiths in the time of the Crusades could not be underrated.The First CrusadeThe Crusaders marched across Europe, from France, Germany, and Italy, to Constantinople. After crossing into Asia Minor, they split up and began pillaging the countryside. There was an orgy of killing, in which citizens and enemy soldiers alike were massacred and even the arrival of a large Turkish army could not stop them. The Antioch fortress surrendered to the Europeans.The Crusaders rested and reorganized for some months but their eyes were still on the great prize - Jerusalem. Although they had lost many men in previous battles, they still numbered 1,200 cavalries and around 12,000-foot soldiers. On reaching Jerusalem, they found the city to be heavily fortified and so began building three huge siege towers. A week later they were complete. The Gate of St. Stephen was first to be penetrated and, once opened, the Crusaders flooded in.Knight's armor, the Army Museum, Paris. Photo byJeremy BezangeronUnsplashIn this battle, thousands of its Muslim defenders were massacred without mercy. The attack was so brutal that a Christan from that time actually claimed: “the slaughter was so great that our men waded in blood up to their ankles.’ Another eyewitness, Ralph of Caen, watched the battle from the Mount of Olives and reported, “the scurrying people, the fortified towers, the roused garrison, the men rushing to arms, the women in tears, the priests turned to their prayers, the streets ringing with cries, crashing, clanging and neighing.”For sure, having to surrender Jerusalem to the Crusaders was an enormous blow to the Muslims. Christians quickly took control of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock. Many Jews fared just as badly - thousands hid in their synagogues but were found and killed. Soon after, the Kingdom of Jerusalem was established under the rule of Godfrey of Bouillon. Al-Aqsa Mosque, Temple Mount. Photo byToa HeftibaonUnsplashThe Crusader StatesOnce they had fulfilled their vows of pilgrimage, many of the Crusaders left the Holy Land to return to Europe. This, of course, left the problem of who would govern these now conquered territories. At first, there was some disagreement about what kind of government should be established. Godfrey of Bouillon refused to take on the title of ‘King’ since he wished Jerusalem to be a secular state. Eventually, he took on the title of ‘Defender of the Holy Sepulcher‘.After Godfrey of Bouillon died suddenly of typhus (there was great mourning, and his body lay in state for several days, before being buried at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre) the throne passed to his brother Baldwin I, also known as Baldwin of Boulogne. His Latin Kingdom eventually boasted 15 cathedral churches including the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Four large western settlements, or Crusader states, were eventually established, in Jerusalem, Edessa, Antioch, and Tripoli By 1112, Caesarea, Arsuf (Apollonia), Acre, Beirut, and Sidon had been captured. Crusader castles were built in Galilee.In the meantime, all around the city of Jerusalem, you could see arts and crafts from different traditions - Latin gold workers on one side of the market, and Syrian goldsmiths on the other. Some pieces that you can see today even bear inscriptions, showing that they were made by an Islamic craftsman for a Christian purchaser!Muslim people near Herod's Gate, next to the Old City of Jerusalem.Photo byLevi Meir ClancyonUnsplashThe French Influence of the CrusadesThe vast majority of the Crusaders in the Jerusalem Kingdom were from France, not to mention the soldiers and knights who arrived in the next 200 years to act as reinforcements. Of course, with them they brought the French language, thus making Old French the lingua franca of the Levant. Without a doubt, King Baldwin was able to take advantage of the rivalries that existed between his Muslim enemies and soon extended his control along the Mediterranean coast.The states were ruled very successfully for the next 20 or so years. But by 1131, the rule of the early Crusaders had come to an end. There was no more a policy of expansion, rather a consolidation of what had been captured. Unfortunately, the northern Crusader states were now endangered, since the Byzantines were preparing to go to war. In 1133, Edessa was captured and this would set the scene for the next chapter - the Second Crusade.Analyzing the CrusadesSo what was it all about? Some historians argue today that whilst the overriding initial motive for the Crusades was religious, many pilgrims succumbed to their darker impulses i.e. greed and a lust for power. What we do know is that the dead number is millions. Ultimately, the Crusades never did manage to create a ‘Holy Land’ that they envisaged would be part of Christendom but with their actions, they certainly changed history forever. Montfort, the principal Crusader castle of the Teutonic Order, Israel.Photo credit: © Dmitry MishinWhat was the Impact of the Crusades?The Crusades, over time, did not have the impact they had hoped insofar that Islam was not defeated - in fact, the actions of the Crusaders in what is now Israel eventually produced a backlash. When Saladin famously conquered Jerusalem in 1189, his plan was to avenge the slaughter of Muslims in Jerusalem by killing all of the Christians he found in the city. Luckily for them, he eventually agreed to let them ‘purchase’ their freedom, as long as they gave assurances that Jerusalem’s Muslim citizens be left unharmed.Who controlled Jerusalem after the Crusades? Without a doubt, Saladin’s achievements were astonishing - he unified the Muslim Near East, using a clever mixture of diplomacy and warfare. At the height of his power, his sultanate spanned Egypt, Syria, the Jazira (Upper Mesopotamia), the Hejaz (western Arabia), Yemen, parts of western North Africa, and Nubia. After defeating the Crusaders in the Battle of Hattin, he regained control over the city after 90 years of Christian occupation. Muslims across the world still consider this liberation of Jerusalem a great incident, particularly because Saladin restored the city’s religious, political, and social balance. Arsur of Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, Apollonia National Park, Israel.Photo credit: ©Dmitry MishinIn the meantime, Europeans learned a great deal from this period of history too. They became better warriors - more adept at designing castles and using gunpowder. They learned a great deal from Muslim scholars about medicine and science, and eventually adopted their numbers system (1, 2, 3) which they found more straightforward than Roman numerals.The Crusaders also learned that the world was vast, and that beyond Jerusalem were India and China, places where they could buy and sell. Over the years, trade flourished and many goods were brought to Western Europe, including silk, spices, cotton, and lemons. Much was also learned about agriculture, the breeding of animals and flora, and fauna.Today, of course, the argument still reigns about the Crusades and whether they were a legitimate reaction to Muslim aggression or simple colonial aggression. What we do know, however, is that the battle for Jerusalem was far from over - and that centuries of war would lie ahead, as armies wrestled for control of this extraordinary city.If you are interested in Christian day toursfeel free to contact us. If you are willing to visit some Crusader castles in Israel, let us know and we will elaborate a customized private tour for you.Belvoir Crusader Castle,Jordan Star National Park, Israel.Photo credit: ©Dmitry Mishin
By Sarah Mann

Muslim Holidays in Israel

As Muslim holidays are not officially part of the Israeli national calendar the observers of these holidays can take personal days off work and Muslim owned businesses can choose to close or close early. You can best feel the Muslim holidays in East Jerusalem and Arab villages, towns and cities where there is a large Muslim population. In Jerusalem’s Old City the Muslim Quarter and the Temple Mount are the focus of Muslim holiday celebrations. Muslims observe Friday as their weekly holy day. Muslim holidays begin at sundown on the day preceding the date listed below. As the Muslim calendar is lunar the dates can vary so here are the predicted dates for the main Muslim holidays in Israel for 2014.Mawlid al-Nabi (January 13th 2014) The Prophet’s birthday is celebrated with family gatherings and special prayers.Laylat al-Miraj (May th 2014) This holiday celebrates Muhammad’s Night Journey to Heaven from the Dome of the Rock as described in the Quran. Many Muslim families visit the Temple Mount and the Dome of the Rock on this day. Families come to mosques where there are special prayers and the story of the Night Journey is told to the kids. The prayers are often followed by a feast.Ramadan (June 28th – July 27th; June 18th-July 17th 2015) During the month-long period where Muslims fast during sunlight hours the visiting times at Muslim sites in Israel are often shorter. In Jerusalem, the beginning of Ramadan and each sundown during the month is signaled by cannons being fired from the Eastern Jerusalem Armory. The gates of the Old City are strung with festive lights. This is a great time to visit certain Arab villages in the evening after sundown. At Umm al-Fahem the streets come alive at night with people strolling through the streets and eating delicacies from the bakeries which sell traditional sweets and desserts.Eid-ul-Fitr (July 28th 2014) Eid-ul-Fitr is a three day celebration marking the end of Ramadan; it involves dressing in your best clothes, prayer, celebrating and feasting. The holiday can be best shared with the Muslim community in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City and East Jerusalem although there will be crowds at the main sites and some businesses may be closed. Muslims in Israel often decorate their homes with lights, gather together to prepare traditional foods and have a festive time. Families also like to visit the beach during this holiday.Eid-ul-Adha (October 4th 2014; September 24th 2015) This holiday celebrates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son to God; it also marks the end of the annual Hajj to Mecca. It is traditional to eat mutton, dates, nuts and where possible a lamb is slaughtered as part of the festivities and feast.Al-Hijira (October 15th 2014) The Islamic New Year marks the move by Muhammad and his followers to Medina (622BC). This holiday is not celebrated with loud parties and fireworks as in the Christian culture.
By Petal Mashraki
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