Tour Guide on Tour to The Wild West... Bank
On Tuesday I set out for Samaria - of Judea and Samaria - also known in modern political terms as the West Bank. It's an area, as a tour guide of Israel, that I don't often get to in my tours. Unless someone is particularly interested in politics or ancient Biblical sites or multicultural sites it's not going to show up at the top of one's itinerary requests. However, a case could be made for a nice day out which involves a little bit of everything (especially for a repeat visitor)...
Stop 1: The Ride from Jerusalem to Itamar
Just on the journey from Jerusalem to Itamar one could point out numerous different Biblical stories. The central mountain range really is the Biblical heartland - Hebron, Bethlehem and Jerusalem in Judea and Beit El, Shechem and Shilo in Samaria. Historically-speaking, our ancestors were mostly gathered in these mountains (or what we call mountains) whereas the Coastal Plain (where 70% of Israelis live today) was usually in the hands of other people such as the Philistines and the Phoenicians.
We passed by an alternative site for the burial place of Rachel, the hometown and burial spot of Samuel the prophet/judge in Ramah, the forest where Elisha called on two she-bears to defend his honor against a bunch of punk kids, Beit El, the site of Jacob's famous ladder dream, where Saul went searching for his donkeys when Samuel found him, Shilo, where the Tabernacle sat and which was the religious pilgrimage site of the Israelites before Jerusalem, as well as many lesser-known stories. Of course the present was plain to see as well: we saw the security barrier, two major checkpoints into Jerusalem, several settlements (including ones that were removed) and Arab villages as well.
On a normal day trip with clients I would probably include Shilo ,but that's the one place if I do go to Samaria I often end up at, so the goal was to see what things could be added to it to make a great Samaria day.
Stop 2: Itamar
Itamar is mostly known as a place which has endured a bunch of terror attacks in the past - including the brutal slaughter of the Fogel family (including 3 children) in their beds in 2011 and which has been the source of some of the "price tag" attacks by Jews on Palestinian property. Basically a symbol of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, at least when it comes to the territories.
On our way we made a quick stop at a viewpoint - our first view of Nablus/Shechem and the mountains of Gerizim and Ebal as well as the valley of Beit Dagan - the house of wheat. On a clear day we could have seen the Mediterranean Sea in the distance between the mountains - we also would have stopped at a view of the "3 Seas" - Mediterranean, Dead and Galilee (Kinneret), alas the visibility did not permit it. We then drove through Itamar itself (a bit more mainstream settlers), and out of Itamar's [upgraded] fence, past some of the outposts (where the "hilltop youth" and the more extreme settlers - have headed) to a bit of a unique spot.
This was a chance to have a real authentic experience and conversation. We met with a couple who were living in a firing zone - the only ones in all of Israel doing that. They were raising their 7 kids on a farm surrounded by sheep and cows, living in a truck and shipping containers. Our hosts talked with us about their lives, the legalities of their situation, the hilltop youth phenomenon, their neighbors and the army. All this while answering our questions over some homemade cheese. It was a chance to meet someone authentic and hear from someone that we often hear about but never hear from.
Stop 3: Alon Moreh
We stopped at a nice little B&B. I wouldn't stay there with tourists (maybe a weekend getaway for locals) - unless you kids are dying for a very neat but very cramped triple level bunk bed. She also owns a bakery where she runs baking workshops and chocolate-making workshops which could be nice as an end of the day treat for any well-behaved kids on tour.
Stop 4: Har Kabir Winery in Alon Moreh
And now the real reason for stopping in Alon Moreh: the Har Kabir (Kabir Mountain) Winery. This place had great views and excellent wine - the Merlot was exceptional, the Shiraz was apparently better and their blend, the Har Gerizim 2016, received a double gold medal at Terravino, the Mediterranean International Wine and Spirits Challenge in 2018.
Stop 5: Har Kabir Lookout
Did a nice little 360 degree summit walk on the top of the mountain around the tomb of a sheikh. Had some great views of Nablus/Shechem and the surrounding Palestinian villages as well as the settlements of Alon Moreh and Itamar. On a clear day one can even see north towards Mount Tabor, Gilboa and even Mount Hermon as well as across the Jordan Valley to Jordan. f course Jordan
Stop 6: Mount Gerizim
This is where Joshua gathered the people upon entering the Land of Israel, placing 6 of the tribes of Israel on Mount Gerizim to read the blessings and the other 6 on Mount Ebal to read the curses. It is the holy mountain of the Samaritans, who claim to descend from the Israelite tribes of Levi, Menashe and Ephraim, but according to the Bible were scattered here by the Assyrians some 2700 years ago (just as they scattered 10 of our tribes elsewhere). Upon arrival they asked "how to worship the God of this land," since many people believed in ancient times that gods' powers were restricted to the lands they ruled. They keep a number of the traditions from the Torah including sacrificing lambs on Passover (always a big show there). The traditions that we place in Jerusalem they place here on this mountain and they even had a big temple here to rival ours in Jerusalem. Later on there was a Byzantine octagonal church here whose ruins are still there today. The closest thing to that that we could see today was the home of the richest man in Palestine which looks like a Roman temple.
Stop 7: Joseph's Tomb Lookout
All day long we were getting closer and closer to Nablus/Shechem. Shechem is the Biblical/Jewish name of the city; the Romans called it "Nea Polis" or "new city" - like Naples/Napoli in Italy. The Arabs can't pronounce the letter P so it became Nablus. Finally we got a view looking straight down onto the city. We could see the Balata refugee camp and the "casbah" as well as Tel Balata - the ancient Shechem where the Patriarchs and Matriarchs visited. We saw a church which commemorated the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Finally, we were able to see the tomb of Joseph. The tomb was turned over to the Palestinian Authority (along with the rest of Nablus/Shechem in 1996) and was immediately torched by the Palestinians (they've done it a few more times since then as well). Because of that, Israel made sure to keep Rachel's tomb on the edge of Bethlehem in Israeli control (which accounts for the crazy security wall over there).
A nice day could be had visiting Shilo and Mount Gerizim/Joseph's Lookout. Throw in the Samaritan Museum (or meeting one in person) for those into multicultural Israel, meeting with our settler by Itamar for those into politics, and for both, finish up watching the sunset from the Kabir Winery or chocolate-making if you are with kids. Or both since they are nearby - you drink wine and watch a romantic sunset and I'll watch the kids make chocolate; just save me a glass...
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