Middle East Chronicles: Nablus

We only have a couple of hours to visit Nablus and we’re also a bit tired from our rushed visit to Ramallah and in fact we end up falling asleep on the van on our way there.

As soon as we get there we get a similar feeling of what we could breathe in Ramallah, a young ( in terms of population’s age), vibrant and chaotic place. However, we could still feel something different in the air. The same air you can breathe in Rome, Athens or Istanbul. The air of history, an ancient history.

Nablus is one of the oldest cities in the world, possibly first established 9000 years ago. It was originally called “Shechem” by its Canaanite inhabitants. The Romans built a new city (Flavia Neapolis, in honor of Flavius Vespasian) a short distance from Shechem. The name Nablus comes from Neapolis. The old city of Nablus is located on the site of Neapolis, but in modern times the city has grown to include the site of Shechem as well.

Nablus is distinguished by its location in a narrow valley between the two mountains Gerizim and Ebal. This makes for an impressive view when you are within the city itself.

During the British Mandate, Nablus became the core of Palestinian Nationalism, and it was the center of resistance against the British. After the 1948 Arab-Israeli War Nablus was occupied by Jordan, and 2 refugee camps were built near the city. In 1967, during the six days war, Nablus was occupied by the Israeli army, the infrastructure of the city was damaged and 3 refugee camps were added to accommodate the people who fled to the city. Jurisdiction over the city was handed over to the Palestinian National Authority on December 12, 1995, as a result of the Oslo Accords Interim Agreement on the West Bank.

During the Second Intifada Nablus was a center of violence between the Israel Defense Forces and Palestinian militant groups. There are many damaged buildings and debris-filled fields around Nablus, the result of past Israeli attacks, but today most of the damage was repaired. Israeli restrictions on the city are generally looser than they used to be, and a visit to Nablus in the daytime is a safe and worthwhile trip.

The majority of Nablus’ inhabitants today are Muslim, but there are small Christian and Samaritan communities as well. Much of the local Palestinian Muslim population of Nablus is believed to be descended from Samaritans who converted to Islam. There are seventeen Islamic monuments and eleven mosques in the Old City.

The Old City of Nablus is a charming area filled with winding narrow streets and small shops selling all kinds of foods, clothing, and trinkets. We simply enter the alleyways leading into it nearby the massive parking garage in the center of town, and wander around until we recognize every street. The sooq  is a typical colorful and loud Palestinian vegetable market located right in the center of town. The the tent roofs really stand out.

We must run back. We have an appointment in the evening in Ramallah and we must rush to the bus station and take a mini-van to the Palestinian administrative capital. We are a bit lost in the sooq and fortunately we find a kind man who offers to walk us back. We get talking and he explains to me that he lived in Benghazi (Lybia) for many years, where the Italian colonial tradition, according to him, is still vivid in the local culture. I’m not very proud of the disastrous colonial past of my country and I even forget Italy had colonies sometimes. He was a very kind person displaying the solemnity typical of someone that has seen war, probably many wars among civil and against an external enemy. A solemnity the I will still discover during our upcoming visit to the South West Bank.

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