Not many people know that the West Bank has a very rich archaeological site and several beautiful hikes only 1hr north of Ramallah. The good thing about this is that it is untouched and completely empty when you visit, although the downside is that the site is hard to maintain properly, and items can easily "go missing", presumably sold to Israel or overseas somewhere.
We had two visitors from London, a Dutchie and a Greek, so we decided to go on a spontaneous overnight trip to this magical place. We stayed overnight so that we could start hike in the late afternoon when it became cooler, and do another one in the morning before it got too hot. This worked out perfectly and there are a number of nice and affordable accommodation options in the town as well - who would say no to staying in a restored palace for £20 a night?
The walk we chose was to take us along the disused tracks of the Hijaz Railway, the last big project undertaken by the Ottoman Empire before it collapsed. Wikipedia has some interesting info on the railway line.
The walk started in Sebastia's old town, passing through a road full of roman columns - I usually find it hard to imagine what life was like back then, but the amount of these columns helps!
The road ended at what used to be the entrance to the city during Roman times. The view over the Palestinian hills was amazing!
As usual, we encountered several very friendly Palestinians - here a lovely farmer on his truck who could speak English very well and was quite happy to pose for a photo with the ruins in the background. I doubt a French farmer would be this nice to tourists :)
We got to the railway after another ten minutes, and were disappointed that all that remains of it is a dirt road - some of us thought we would hike along remaining tracks... apparently the metal has been used to build houses in the area. However it was still nice to imagine what the view from the train would have been like....
... although the illegal settlement on the first hill below definitely didn't exist 65 years ago... Nablus, one of the commercial hubs and the second largest city in the West Bank has been inhabited since the Canaanite times.
What does remain of the railway is the old station, which is no longer in use and not particularly well maintained, but it was quite interesting to see nonetheless.
The area around the disused railway station has some benches, and locals come there to picnic. A group of guys even shared their bbq meat with us which was lovely and very much needed as I forgot to pack the snacks we had brought from Ramallah!
Towards the end of the walk we witnessed a beautiful sunset.
Because we didn't want to walk back in the dark, we took a taxi back to Sebastia, and en route our very friendly taxi driver took us to a fantastic look-out on top of one of the highest hills in the area. It was stunning to be able to see all the way to the sea.
I'm not sure if this is Tel-Aviv or the concrete jungle of Netanya, but in any case it is a city by the water - a place unaccessible to Palestinians.
I'm pretty sure we saw some surveillance drones as well. The light in the picture above was too strong to be a star, and too low for a satellite.
Back in the village of Sebastia, we had a delicious dinner amongst a group of card-playing youngsters who were all behaving much better than I would have expected. Maybe it is because they don't drink alcohol. Then off for a good night's sleep in a restored palace, the proceeds of which support the local women's cooperative. It had great views.
The next morning, after a Palestinian breakfast of hummus, pitta bread and other spiced warm bread, we head off to discover the archeological site before it got too hot.
Lots of great stuff to see here. Here some quick facts... Sebastia was once the capital of the northern Israelite kingdom of Samaria and as such a major city around 700BC. In 332BC, it was captured by Alexander the Great, and it was handed to King Herod in 30BC. In the 2nd Century, the city became known as the site of John the Baptist's busial. The city was also captured by Islamic forces in 634 as well as by the Crusaders, who built a stunning cathedral that is now a mosque. This is only part of the story... but it shows how rich this quaint town is, and how important for religious pilgrims from all walks of life!
The main archeological site is at the top of a hill - right next to a big parking space and what locals use as a football field - once the Roman forum, with a well preserved basilica as a backdrop.
Here some more photos from the basilica which give a good idea of the state of the site.
Next up was a Roman theatre and Hellenistic watch towers.... as well as a temple built by Herod in honour of the roman emperor Augustus. Stunning views abound!
Next up we came across a church and it's keepers... the only Christian family remaining in the town. Looking after the church, which is knows as the place where John the Baptist's head is buried, seems to take it's toll on these guys, as it is frequently attacked by some Jews and Muslims - according to what they told us.
By now it was getting very hot, so we left Sebastia and headed back to Ramallah - but not without stopping in Nablus on the way to show our guests the things that I had previously written about in my post about Nablus. This time we also discovered a Tahini factory hidden away in the souq, as well as visiting the Samaritans or "Palestinian Jews" on Mount Gerizim.
Here some snapshots from the Tahini factory. Tahini is sesame paste and the main ingredient in hummus (after chickpeas). Now largely modernised, the factory nevertheless still uses the traditional grinder... which includes two large stones used as grinder. You could still see the incisions where large wooden poles were inserted into the stones, to which donkeys were strapped to move the stones around! The traditional method is still used for the less popular 'black sesame' paste. Black sesame doesn't actually exist, but the name is frequently used for this particular seed, which is unrelated to sesame. Delicious!
No trip to Nablus is complete without trying the sugary cheese snack... it is so popular with locals it seems like they have it for breakfast, lunch and dinner! The graffiti in the background reads 25 years of Hamas.
Following the Kunaffe snack, we had a drink at a local cafe... normally not for women but we looked like tourists and it wasn't busy so I think they made an exception. These lovely men were also more than happy for us to take a photo of them.
Because it was a Saturday, the Samaritan community was pretty quiet... but Mount Gerizim had a terrific view over Nablus. The palace on the left was built by Palestine's wealthiest man.