When travelling through Palestine, the city that most surprised me was Nablus. Palestine’s second biggest city simply is a delight. With a vibrant old city centre, delicious street food and centuries old hamams you’d expect hordes of tourists here. But this is the West Bank, and although it’s perfectly safe to do so, travelling here is not always easy. Ever since the Israelis limited travel to and from this area, very few visitors make it to Nablus and other Palestinian cities.
To be fair, I didn’t know anything about Nablus apart from having heard its name a couple of times in the news (of course in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict). So when I arrived there I was surprised to find a charming, if somewhat rundown old city centre with at its heart an e-nor-mous souk.
Getting lost in the maze of little streets that make up the souk of Nablus is easy. But don’t worry, just let your senses guide you! Although the dark little alleys, the crumbling buildings and the constant noise and shouting might at times feel intimidating, this is a safe city with incredibly friendly people. Unlike other souks I’ve been to – such as the ones in Morocco – there’s little hustling going on here and the vibe is relaxed yet lively. At most, people might be surprised to see a foreigner here and are curious to find out where you’re from and what you’re doing in Nablus.
Nablus’ souk is a perfect place to do some souvenir grocery shopping. They sell amazing herbs and spices here. Make sure you buy some za’atar, a mix of dried local oregano, thyme, savory and sesame – eaten with some olive oil on toasted pita bread, it’s one of my favourite things in the world. The city is also famous for its handmade olive oil soaps. There are several soap factories in and near the old town and the souk is filled with places that sell the most delicious-smelling soap bars.
After you’ve done your shopping it’s time to get some Kunafeh: grilled cheese and wheat drenched in sugar syrup. It’s prepared, served and eaten on the spot and Nablus THE place to try it. The best Kunafeh in town, and indeed in the whole country – so I was told – is made in a small bar deep inside the old city. I forgot its name (if it even has one), but the fact that there was a queue outside illustrates the popularity of this dish and this particular place that sells it. Simply ask any local where you can get the best Kunafeh and they will direct you. This is Palestinian street food at its best!
One experience that you cannot miss when in Nablus is visiting one of the 2 Ottoman-era hammams that the city is rich. For less than €10/£10 you can get a full 40 minute hammam treatment, including a steam room, body scrub and a quick full body massage. The oldest, but slightly busier hammam is esh-Shifa but just as beautiful is al-Hana (es-Sumara). Both still serve as a bath house for locals, and although staff speak little English they’ll be more than happy to show you around. Note that there are separate visiting days for men and women, but if you ask in advance staff are sometimes willing to make some space for either women or men, as long as no members of the opposite sex are present. Make sure you bring a bathing suit and a towel.
And when you thought it couldn’t get any better, Nablus is also home to some fascinating ancient ruins. On the top of Mount Gerizim, with stunning view of the Nablus valley, lies a small Samaritan community compound and ruins of a Samaritan temple complex built in the 5th century BC. This is the place where the Samaritans – an ancient religion related to Judaism – believe the world was born. Locked behind a fence, a local guide will be able to show you the ruins of the temple and provide you with some background information about the complex and the Samaritans.
A bit further away, at the village of Sebastia, you’ll find the ruins of what used to be a Roman temple. Back in the day, the Roman Empire stretched as far as the Middle East (the name Nablus is derived from Neopolis, which means ‘new city’) and the remains you’ll see here and elsewhere near the city are testimony of that. However, in contrast to ancient ruins elsewhere in the Mediterranean, you are likely to be the only one here. Wandering around this deserted, almost forgotten place on your own – standing between pillars that are nearly 2,000 years old – is almost unreal.
Somehow, the sight of this forgotten yet beautiful temple complex kind of sums up Nablus for me: a centuries old city that is defying time against all odds, waiting to be (re)discovered by the outside world.
If I were you, I would go before everyone else does.