Weekends in the West Bank: Nablus

Nablus is the economic capital of the Palestinian West Bank, but also known for its cuisine, soap, and religious diversity. I had the opportunity to stay with friends in Nablus for 3 nights, and had an incredible time!

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Drone shot of the old town

The Old Town and Market

Wandering through the narrow streets is a great way to explore Nablus’ large old town. You’ll come across Ottoman and British-occupation buildings, beautiful mosques and political murals around each corner.

The marketplace of Nablus is one of the busiest in the West Bank, especially on Thursdays and Saturdays. Nablus is definitely the place to buy all your food and souvenirs; everything here is half the price of touristy cities like Jerusalem or Bethlehem, and there’s much more variety.

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Colorful bunting is strung from every corner of Nablus’ old town.

The alluring smells and colorful food are enough to keep you busy in the marketplace for a few hours at least.

Short on time? Instead of wandering aimlessly, and spending an hour getting lunch, walk straight through the market and graze as you go. Make sure to save room for dessert though!

The fruit section is a good place to start, with everything from figs and the best tomatoes you’ve ever tasted, to interesting local favorites fresh ‘loz’ (unripe almond-fruit) and loquats.

Further along, there are vegetable stalls, entire wooden carts full of olives, carrots, and eggplants. Some famous Nablusi cheese, a hard, briny sheep’s cheese, pickled vegetables, and fresh pita make a great sandwich.

Coffee, tea, and Tamarhindi (a tamarind drink) vendors, often dressed in Ottoman garb, make their rounds in the marketplace, offering drinks $1-2.

Tip: The drink vendors will keep refilling your cup if you just stand there– refills aren’t free!

From there, wander through the gory meat and fish sections (if you’re like me, as quickly as you can) until you reach the sweets. Here, you’ll find some famous pastry shops like Al-Aqsa and Beiruti Sweets, as well as smaller vendors.

Tip: Don’t be shy to ask for one of something you want to try (Wahid, bus, min fadluk). and offer to pay, out of respect– most vendors will happily let you taste something for free or a few cents.

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Delicious pickled cauliflower, carrots, peppers and pickles.

Tip: the marketplace is completely closed on Fridays in observance of Juma prayer.

Other than food, the market also sells household good, school supplies, and anything else anyone might need!

“Al-Aqsa” Knafe/Kunefe

Knafe, which is a popular sweet all over the Levant, is thought to have originate in Nablus. The Nablus style, is distinct from knafe I’ve had in Israel, other West Bank cities, and in Jordan so maybe it’s true! Nablusi knafe consists of two thin layers of sugary dough, separated by a thick gooey layer of sweet cheese. Then, it’s shamelessly topped with rosewater syrup. In other knafe shops, the top layer is usually a flakier, phylo-type dough, most characteristic of Turkish and Greek pastries. Some prefer the general Levantine style, but I found the Nablusi style interesting and just as good.

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Al-Aqsa is the place for knafe in Nablus. Men, women and children of all ages line up to get a hot slice but don’t worry, the line moves quickly, as the cooks whip out one cheesy pie after the next. The open kitchen allows for a view of the knafe-making process. After your first slice, stay for another! Even if you’ve had knafe before and didn’t like it, I suggest you try it again, because it really is different here. However you choose to spell it, knafe or kunefe, it’s delicious.

Al-Aqsa is in the heart of old town and impossible to miss, just follow your nose! (also don’t be shocked if you get cut in line, it happens)

Soap Factory

Nablus is most famous for its olive oil soap, which made exclusively of olive oil and a single binding agent, sodium hydroxide. This natural, aromatic soap is a lovely gift, and you’ll have the opportunity to purchase it right from the producers. It’s generally inexpensive so you can buy it for all your smelly friends and in-laws, to drop a subtle but tasteful hint.

The most famous soap factory in the old town is Al-Bader, but it was unfortunately closed when I was there. Luckily, I met a guy in the street who knew somebody who makes it (that’s often how things work here in the West Bank), so I followed him through the old city to a stone home where a father and his son were churning away. I bought a few bars for less about a dollar a pop and they smell lovely. Every factory in town uses the same recipe, so don’t worry if you can’t find a specific place.

In the good ol’ days, the soap-maker said with a sigh, this factory alone could produce a ton every week, using a huge churner in the ground which was heated from a fire burning the basement. Today, for many unfortunate political reasons, most soap producers are producing it in smaller quantities, by hand.

Tip: If you see somewhere you want to go, go immediately. You probably won’t be able to find it again, in the maze of the old city!

Old City Murals

The art in Nablus is very political and beautiful, often representing the Palestinian struggle. If you don’t understand, read this: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict in a Nutshell.

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The Dome of the Rock in the Jaws of Israel
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The Green Mosque, Church and Clock Tower are Nablus landmarks.

The Hamam

A hamam is an Ottoman bathhouse, like a spa. For hundreds of years, the hamam and the mosque were the two important places for men and women in the Middle East. The Hamam is still a popular place to socialize and relax.

I had never been to a traditional hamam before. In Istanbul, they are often touristy and expensive, but here in Nablus, hamams are frequented by locals and tourists alike.

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How-to-Hamam

The hot tile was really hot at first, I couldn’t lay on it for more than a minute at a time, but slowly got used to it. The hamam was large, and a dozen or so other guys were also laying on the tile with us, as one man sang traditional music. His voice quavered with emotion, and rang out through the hamam’s stone walls and domed ceilings.

Then, we sat in the dry sauna for 5 or so minutes, before moving in to the steam room. I’d been in a sauna and steam room before, but never had I been in one so hot! Breathing in the steam room felt like inhaling fire, I didn’t last long in there!

In the main room, there are faucets along the walls, and people take turns washing each other with fresh loofahs and olive oil soap. After being completely exfoliated, I got the firmest massage I have ever received from a very large Palestinian man. I spent an hour and a half in the hamam and got a massage all for less than $30– what a deal!

Tip: Men and women go to the hamam at different times, so make sure to check the schedule!

More importantly: Ask what the hamam’s policy on nudity is, and make sure you’re comfortable with it! At some places, people wear bathing suits or towels, at others, people may be completely naked.

Samaritan Community

On top of Mount Gerizim, 800 Samaritans live in ‘Kiryat Luza’ (Town of Power). The Samaritans practice an ancient religion that shot off from mainstream Judaism thousands of years ago; though in many ways similar in practice, there are some key differences, such as the location of the Holy City and mountain. For the Jews, it is Jerusalem, and they believe many of the stories take place on Mount Zion. For the Samaritans, it is on Mount Gerizim.

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Torah scroll written in ancient Samaritan Hebrew

Interestingly, the Samaritans generally consider themselves Palestinians, and their mother tongue is Arabic, though they use also ancient Hebrew in their writings and ceremonies.

There is a small Samaritan Museum, where a young Samaritan from the prominent Cohen family does tours, which are really informative. Samaritans are mostly known for their appearance in the Book of Luke, where the “Good Samaritan” gives Jesus water, even though at the time the Jewish and Samaritan people did not have diplomatic relations.

Further up Mount Gerizim is the site where Samaritans believe God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, but, right before he does it, a white lamb appears. Abraham then sacrifices the lamb, having passed God’s test. So every year for Passover, the Samaritans slaughter lambs on top of Mount Gerizim.

(It’s a disgusting ceremony where a bunch of old men chant and kill dozens of animals while people smile and take pictures. I’m not really sure why people support this, but hey, freedom of religion right?)

They have lived under the ruling empires of Greeks, Persians, Byzantines, Ottomans, and Arabs; for over two thousand years in harmony. Today, Samaritans attend public school in Nablus with Christian and Muslim Palestinians, an example of diversity which is not usually found in Israel. The Samaritan community hopes to help bridge the gap between Israel and Palestine.

Tip: Like Jews, Samaritans keep Shabbat, the day of rest, from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday, so expect things to be closed early or completely.

Nablus isn’t high on many tourists’ radars, but it should be! If you’re visiting Jerusalem and Bethlehem, or in Jordan, pop over to Nablus for some of the best food in Palestine!

This enchanting old city is only 1 hour north of Ramallah. Though it’s only 30 miles away, it takes roughly 4 1/2 hours to get to Nablus from Tel Aviv. Special thanks to Mohammad Amerah, and his friends Mohammad, Mohammad, Hamood, and Baraa for hosting me.

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