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July 25, 2011July 25, 2011  0 comments  Biblical Archaeology

NABLUS, West Bank - What happens when biblical history and modern turmoil collide?


Archaeologists in the tumultuous Palestinian Territories are digging up the ruins of Shekem, where Abraham once stopped, Jacob once camped -- and today litter is strewn.


The biblical ruin lies inside a Palestinian city in the West Bank, where modern researchers are writing the latest chapter in a 100-year-old excavation that has been interrupted by two world wars and numerous rounds of Mideast upheaval.


Working on an urban lot that long served residents of Nablus as an unofficial dump for garbage and old car parts, Dutch and Palestinian archaeologists are learning more about the ancient city of Shekhem -- and preparing to open the site to the public as an archaeological park next year.


The project, carried out under the auspices of the Palestinian Department of Antiquities, also aims to introduce the Palestinians of Nablus, who have been beset for much of the past decade by bloodshed and isolation, to the wealth of antiquities in the middle of their city.


"The local population has started very well to understand the value of the site, not only the historical value, but also the value for their own identity," said Gerrit van der Kooij of Leiden University in the Netherlands, who co-directs the dig team.


"The local people have to feel responsible for the archaeological heritage in their neighborhood," he said.


The digging season wrapped up this week at the site, known locally as Tel Balata.


The city of Shekhem, positioned in a pass between the mountains of Gerizim and Eibal and controlling the Askar Plains to the east, was an important regional center more than 3,500 years ago. As the existing remains show, it lay within fortifications of massive stones, was entered through monumental gates and centered on a temple with walls five yards (meters) thick.


The king of Shekhem, Labaya, is mentioned in the cuneiform tablets of the Pharaonic archive found at Tel al-Amarna in Egypt, which are dated to the 14th century B.C. The king had rebelled against Egyptian domination, and soldiers were dispatched north to subdue him. They failed.


The city also appears often in the biblical narrative. The patriarch Abraham, for example, was passing near Shekhem when God promised to give the land of Canaan to his descendants in the Book of Genesis. Later, Abraham's grandson Jacob was camped outside the walls when a local Canaanite prince raped his daughter, Dinah. Jacob's sons sacked the city in vengeance. The body of Jacob's son Joseph was brought from Egypt hundreds of years later by the fleeing Israelites and buried at Shekhem.


Two millennia ago, the Romans abandoned the original site and built a new city to the west, calling it Flavius Neapolis. The Greek name Neapolis, or "new city," later became enshrined in Arabic as Nablus. In Hebrew, the city is still called Shekhem.


Nablus has since spread, and ancient Shekhem is now surrounded by Palestinian homes and car garages near the city's eastern outskirts. One morning this week, a garbage container emitted smoke from burning refuse not far from the remains of the northwestern city gate in a curved wall built by skilled engineers around 1600 B.C.


A visitor can walk through the gate, passing through two chambers before emerging inside the city. From there it is a short walk to the remains of the city's temple, with a stone stele on an outdoor platform overlooking the houses below.


The identity of the city's ancient residents at the time remains unclear. One theory posits that they were Hyksos, people who came from northern Syria and were later expelled from Egypt. According to the Bible's account, the city was later Canaanite and still later ruled by Israelites, but archaeology has not corroborated that so far, van der Kooij said.


A German team began excavating at the site in 1913, with Nablus under the control of the Ottoman Turks. The dig was interrupted by World War I but resumed afterward, continuing sporadically into the 1930s under British rule. Much of the German documentation of the dig was lost in the Allied bombings of WWII.


American teams dug at the site in the 1950s and 1960s, under Jordanian rule. Israel conquered Nablus, along with the rest of the West Bank, in the 1967 Mideast war.


Over the years, the site fell into disrepair. The neglect was exacerbated after the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s, when Nablus became a center for resistance to Israeli control.


Its condition further deteriorated after the second, more violent, uprising erupted in 2000, drawing Israeli military incursions and the imposition of roadblocks and closures that all but cut the city off from the outside world. In recent years, with the Western-backed Palestinian Authority increasingly asserting security control over the cities of the West Bank, Israel has removed some roadblocks and movement has become more free.


Visitors to Nablus are still rare, but the improvements helped convince the archaeologists that the time had come to resume work.


The new excavations and the establishment of the archaeological park are a joint project of the Palestinian Tourism Ministry, the Dutch government and UNESCO. The project began last year and is scheduled to end with the opening of the park in 2012.


In Israel, archaeology, and especially biblical archaeology, has long been a hallowed national pursuit traditionally focused on uncovering the depth of Jewish roots in the land. For the Palestinians, whose Department of Antiquities was founded only 15 years ago, the dig demonstrates a growing interest in uncovering the ancient past.


The department now has 130 workers and carries out several dozen rescue excavations every year on the sites of planned building projects in areas administered by the Palestinian Authority, said Hamdan Taha, the department's director. Ten ongoing research excavations are being conducted with foreign cooperation.


All of the periods in local history, including that of the biblical Israelites, are part of Palestinian history, Taha said.


Digs like the one in Nablus, he said, "give Palestinians the opportunity to participate in writing or rewriting the history of Palestine from its primary sources."


This article was originally published by foxnews.com - you can read it here and the Associated Press



October 28, 2010October 28, 2010  0 comments  Historical Sites

Once infamous as a hotbed of hostility and terrorism against Israel, Nablus is now thriving with a mall, a movie theater and the head offices of the Palestinian Securities Exchange. The city is also more recently becoming a tourist destination with key biblical sites like Joseph's Tomb, Jacob's Well and an ancient Samaritan community nearby attracting tourists through the checkpoints from Israel.


With biblical sites, a new cinema and an old city where merchants sell spices, olive oil and the famous cheese sweet knafeh, this Palestinian city is turning out to be a West Bank gem. Just a few years ago, unreachable by foreigners, Nablus' recent economic upturn has opened a new door to tourism. The city was isolated and inaccessible during the intifada as Israeli checkpoints cut off the area from non-Palestinians. Nablus was not alone in this predicament.


Fear of violence and the prospect of crossing military checkpoints kept tourists away from many Palestinian sites in the last decade. While the intifada raged from 2000 to 2005, holy sites in Palestinian areas fell by the wayside in terms of tourism. Even Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, suffered from a drastic drop in visitors as a majority of tourists to the Holy Land avoided the West Bank and stuck to sites within Israel.


"I was a little worried about going back to Bethlehem late last year, but this time, I experienced nothing but friendliness from the people there," said Dan Wooding, the founder and international director of Assist News. "This visit to Bethlehem, was completely different to the one I made back in 2001 with my wife Norma. Then, we were held up by Palestinian gunmen. This last trip to Bethlehem was completely different - I went on my own - and the town was completely peaceful."



Dan Wooding outside Church of the Nativity

Photo Courtesy Dan Wooding: Dan Wooding standing outside the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem


Now, as tourism to Israel is reinvigorated by several years of relative calm, tourism to the Palestinian territories has also picked up. Out of the 3 million tourists that came to Israel, more than half visited Bethlehem last year. In 2009, 1.7 million foreign tourists visited the West Bank. The Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics reported that the number of guests staying in Palestinian hotels tripled since 2006  to over 450,000 people. So far 2010 could outperform last year's record with the year's first two quarters on pace to surpass 2009.



 Main Indicators for Hotel Activities in the West Bank by Month, 2006-2009)



No. of


No. of


No. of


No. of


No. of

Guest Nights

Average Number of  Rooms Occupied

Room Occupancy Percent
























































Source: Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, Travelujah


Since  2006 to 2009, the overall West Bank rooms supply has increased dramatically with  a compound annual growth rate of over 25% while the corresponding number of guest nights rose at  compound annual growth rate of over 40% during the same period. Clearly, should the strong growth continue, demand will soon outstrip supply, and, according to those in the industry, there is already a need for more higher end properties. So far all indicators point to 2010 is being a banner year. , Despite these increasing numbers, many destinations in the Palestinian territories, however, remain a largely untapped market for tourism.


The Middle East Quartet, a diplomatic peace initiative comprised of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations, has been working to build up the Palestinian economy, and has identified tourism as the sector that can make the quickest impact on the Palestinian economy.


"The tourist assets in the West Bank are unrivaled," said Ian Smith, business adviser to Office of the Quartet Representative Tony Blair. 


In a speech at Conde Nast Traveler World Savers Congress in September, Quartet Representative and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said tourism is one "huge economic opportunity for the Palestinian people."


The West Bank is ripe, Blair said, for a "major joint marketing campaign" with Israel to promote tourism to the Holy Land.


"Tourism is obviously an area that we believe is under exploited," Smith said. "There are 3 million visitors to Israel and the West Bank in one year and yet 4 million to the London Eye ferris wheel each year."


Smith said that for every dollar spent by tourists in the Holy Land 90 cents goes to Israelis and 10 cents to Palestinians. Visitors spend less time in the West Bank than in Israel and few spend the night.



A panel made up of officials and business people from both Israeli and Palestinian tourism industries, working under the auspices of the Quartet, has been brought together to promote tourism to all parts of the Holy Land as an integrated concept, not exclusively to Israel or Palestine.


"Cooperation allows both Israelis and Palestinians to offer a variety of travel packages designed to reach new, and for the most part, untapped markets," said Elisa Moed CEO of Traveluah, an Israel based Holy Land tour and travel site aimed at Christians interested in visiting the Holy Land.  "If the increasing numbers on tourism were the same anywhere else in the world, the industry would be on fire. But here it is not - yet."


Elisa Moed inside the souk in Nablus

Photo courtesy Travelujah: Elisa Moed inside the Nablus Souk


This concept of working together on the ground level complements the peace process, said Tim Williams, movement and access adviser for the Quartet.


"Israel and the West Bank are a single unit when it comes to tourism," Williams said. "It can be sold as a single entity, which means you can increase size of the tourism market. And increasing the regional market is mutually advantageous."


One goal is to enable tour operators to approach Holy Land tourism cohesively. During the intifada most Israeli tours ended up dropping visits to the West Bank and itineraries featured only the traditional sites in Israel.


With the Quartet's urging in the past two years, additional crossings into Bethlehem for tourists were promised, the northern checkpoint Jalameh has been opened, several West Bank checkpoints and roadblocks have been removed, Israeli tour guides are now allowed into Bethlehem and Jericho, and a route called the Footsteps of Christ is being promoted, starting from Nazareth in Israel, leading south to Jericho and Bethlehem.


Ibrahim Hafi, general director of Palestinian Tourism Services, said the Palestinians are already feeling a positive effect of the changes.  And with better policing in the territories, it is much safer these days.


"You can come and go easily. In the past three years, nothing bad has happened," he said. Five years ago maybe there were some problems. Today, you will notice there is a difference."


Smith maintains that the West Bank has much to offer in terms of tourism.


"It's not just interesting for Christians, but people who want to see a different side of life than Tel Aviv," he said. "In Jericho, you have the Mount of Temptation on one side, the Jordanian skyline on the other. It could've been Moses looking over the Holy Land."


Moed said that Christian tours would benefit from expanding the normal repertoire and adding to their itineraries sites in the West Bank.


"With Christians representing more than 60 percent of tourism arrivals, Christian tourism is the largest and fastest growing segment of tourism to the Holy Land and affords the greatest opportunity for future growth," Moed added. "If Christian tours were to include sites in Jericho, Hebron and Nablus, tours would be more diverse and, offered together in cooperation with Israelis and including sites in Israel these visits would help to not only drive the Palestinian tourism sector, but drive the region as a whole."




West Bank Travel is Rich in Biblical Significance


The West Bank is rich with tourism treasures Jericho, the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, boasts ruins and a Greek Orthodox monastery on the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus fasted for 40 days and was tempted by Satan. A cable car brings people from the lowest city on earth up to the cliffs near the monastery. Nearby on the banks of the Jordan river is Qasr al Yahud, the site where John the Baptist baptized Jesus.


Baptism at Qasr Al Yahud

Photo Courtesy Travelujah: Pilgrims entering the Jordan River at Qasr El Yahud



In Nablus is Joseph's Tomb, Jacob's Well and an ancient Samaritan community and its church. Nearby Sebastia is home to ruins from six successive cultures dating back 10,000 years.


mt of temptation

Photo courtesy Travelujah - Quarantal Monastary and the Mt. of  Temptation


On the outskirts of Jenin is a church partially built into a cave where Jesus is believed to have healed the 10 lepers. The Cave of the Patriarchs, the burial place of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob and Leah, is in Hebron.


Even though tourism is increasing, Israeli and Palestinian industries still lag relative to other countries. Moed is upbeat, however, and believes that the private sector, working together with common goals, "can be a positive vehicle for cooperation, trust, economic development and a model for peace."


Nicole Jansezian writes for Travelujah.com, the only Christian social network focused on travel to the Holy Land. People can learn, plan, book  and share their Holy Land tour and travel experiences on Travelujah.

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