Showcasing the things that make Palestine a unique and inspiring destination

Day trip to Nablus - city of soap, sugary cheese snacks and communal weddings

Updated: Dec 30, 2018

Today we went on a day trip to the West Bank's second largest city, Nablus, a 1hr Serveece ride north of Ramallah. There is so much to talk about Nablus, here a quick summary:

  • Second oldest continuously inhabited city in the West Bank, dating back to the Canaanite Period in the 2nd Millenium BC

  • Known as the city most liked by international visitors (at least so I hear...)

  • Has two Guiness World Records: one for the largest Kanafeh (described later) and one for the largest communal wedding.

  • A centre for industry and production, notably for soap production due to olive oil as main ingredient

  • Resistance stronghold against Israel.

Nablus is also famous for Turkish Hammams, which I tried on the only day that women are able to use the renovated Hammam. I didn't take any photos but suffice to say I got a 'robust' scrub on a marble table that made me feel like I was a fish being scaled on a workbench.

Following the hammam, I tried to find a "palace" hidden in the old city, which stands for a grand home that is no longer in use but which you can have a peek into... I couldn't find it but a group of boys no older than eight years old took me right into the ruins, past a terrifying dog and up some very shaky structures way beyond what the guidbook said was appropriate. I was proud of this little discovery and the boys were really cute, holding my hand while I tried not to lose my balance. It felt like a little adventure and I must also admit that I did think about my safety a couple of times.

The boys were shy about pictures but my panoramic function caught a blurry glimpse :)

The Bradt Guide to Palestine (forget the Lonely Planet for this part of the world) pin-points very well the appeal of the Souq in the Old City. It is a huge place in which you can easily get lost, and there are absolutely no tourist items around - what you see on display is what people living there want to buy, which is really refreshing and I don't think I've ever been to a market like this. Again amongst hundreds of people I only came across one other obvious tourist.

It was daunting but fun to find my way through the market, and I made several interesting discoveries...

The famous Kanafeh bakery - which really lived up to expectations. Dozens of locals were gathered around the baker waiting for their hot slice of melted white cheese with a crispy sweet semolina topping and lots of thick sugar water. It was delicious! You can find Kanafeh all over Palestine but Nablus is famous for it. One guy even brought a pita bread and asked the baker to put the Kanafeh (plus extra sugar water) into it. The baker's tray was finished in a couple of minutes. Lucky another one was on its way soon.

This is where I wish I had a better camera to capture the ambience... each stall was in a tiny arch along narrow winding roads - pretty special.

The local eccentric barber...

Everyone was really friendly and happy for me to take their photo... I was even invited to dinner by an old Orthopedic Surgeon who had studied in Germany - and although I had to go back to Ramallah we agreed that I would invite him if I bumped into him again :)

... I did ask everyone if taking a photo is ok - apart from the guy sleeping on the right.

I also came across the local spice store, which admittedly was a bit touristy... I know it is an old hat but I still found some misspellings which I just think are funny - although yes I am sure I would make lots of mistakes if I were to translate everything into arabic.

And this young man took me to this store to show me his favourite pet. It was quite impressive and scary, expecially when the bird tried to jump onto a little boy in the crowd - it caused a bit of a stir.

Following the Souk I went to the local soap shop, only to discover that this was their factory and sales Head Quarters.

A tour of the facilities was so informative and appealed to my creative side.

This is the vat in which the soap is made from water, oil and caustic soda. It is cooked for about 5-7 days.

The soap mix is then carried upstairs and spread over the factory floor. The whole place was quite slippery as a result and there should definitely be some health and safety concerns for the men involved in carrying the soap up a narrow and steep flight of stairs. We were quoted very different amounts of soap that the vat can carry - from 4,000 bars to 40,000 bars... the photo below shows the soap spread on the floor.

The soap is cut into squares after a week or so. Each piece is also stamped with the company's logo - by hand.

And then the bars are stacked to dry for 2 months... this was my favourite part.

The small table on the below photo is used by the wrappers! Again we were quoted two separate stats - one man said that a wrapper can wrap 1,000 bars an hour; another guy mentioned they could wrap 2,000 per hour. Pretty impressive all in all.

Nablus is known as a 'resistance' stronghold and I can see why - narrow alleys, high walls and multi-story old stone buildings in the old city make it a perfect place for Arafat to hide and escape (or in my case to get lost in)... unless of course you are an Israeli Apache helicopter that just uses rockets to destroy anything in its way. The remnants of Israeli rocket attacks during the Second Intifada are still visible today, and seeing these things in real life brings tears to my eyes every single time. The situation is just heart breaking.

The fact that Nablus was a resistance stronghold also meant that it was essentially cut off from the rest of the world for many years until about 2009 when the Israeli military checkpoints were eased. Hearing first hand accounts of what military checkpoints actually mean is quite shocking - a friend was at one point told to go to "the hole", literally a hole in the ground used for collective punishment of Palestinians. Along with about 15 other people, he endured the blistering heat until the Israelis felt like letting him move on.

Nablus is slowly recovering from this ordeal.