SARAH’S host at Al Buraq Arabians, David Garbe, was amazing. He was the US-trained veterinarian I mentioned before, who had come back to make the West Bank his homeland and rescue sick and injured horses on his farmstay. For two days he showed us around. If it had not been for David, we would not have been able to see most of what we saw in Bethlehem and beyond.
David took us first to see the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity, also known as the Basilica of the Nativity, is one of the most famous churches in the world, built on a grotto where Jesus’s manger — his birthplace in most Christian traditions — was said to have been. It includes a museum, where you can see historic photos of Bethlehem and of the church itself.
Within the church, a silver star marks the spot where Jesus was supposed to have been born. The star is located in the Altar of the Nativity, itself located in the Grotto of the Nativity, which is underneath the chancel of the church and can be reached by means of a pair of Romanesque stone doorways and stairs leading down.
The Church of the Nativity fell into a dangerous condition by the 21st century, after hundreds of years of earthquakes, leaks, and decay of its timber roof beams. It is currently being restored by the Greek Orthodox Church, Armenian Apostolic Church and the Franciscan Order, under the auspices of UNESCO and the Palestinian Authority.
We visited the museum first. Then we entered the church and made our way down into the Grotto of the Nativity through one of the stone doorways, which was fully open, and beheld the Altar of the Nativity.
(I think ‘beheld’ is the right word in the circumstances, don’t you?)
Unfortunately, right at that magical moment, the priest and his assistants demanded we leave in a most agitated sort of a way as there was a church service, apparently. I said give me one minute, please. David backed me up when the priest lunged at me and David got in the middle. Sarah wondered what on earth had taken place: she called me a Viking.
I was outraged at this behaviour. David went to the tourist police, and so did some other people. Meanwhile, we were called up in front of the Patriarch. To save David any trouble I said that I took responsibility for the entire scenario and I would not leave. The Patriarch said “May God forgive you.”
Actually when you look closely at the video, what happened (and I only realised this later) was that we’d stumbled in on one of the assistants taking a photo of a young woman, his girlfriend I suppose, sitting down in the Altar of the Nativity. Which is obviously not the done thing and pretty darn casual in every way.
No wonder they didn’t want to be disturbed. And no wonder the guy makes a big fuss about how we are not supposed to be there while she scuttles off up the other stairway just as the priest comes in, holding candles and hardly noticing the girl pushing past him. So maybe it was just as well that we disturbed them! Anyhow, somehow, we were made to look like the villains in an improvised commotion that the priest then weighed into excitedly.
A Bethlehem Brawl: we walk in on a man photographing a woman sitting in the Altar of the Nativity
Later I would find out at the old St George’s Church in Burqin, near Jenin, that the priest we ran into in the Grotto assails people on a regular basis, with long cross in hand. How bizarre.
We went to Jericho, the city of the famous walls, from where the Monastery of the Temptation can be reached by cable car. The Monastery of the Temptation, recently done up like many of the West Bank’s tourist attractions, was built above the cave where Jesus was supposed to have been tempted in the wilderness. At 258 metres below sea level, Jericho is also the lowest city in the world.
You really begin to realise the number of Christians from African countries such as Ethiopia, Kenya and Nigeria for so many make pilgrimages to this part of the world.
We also visited the cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, another major religious site run by the Waqf. By tradition, religious Jews, Muslims and Christians all agree that the cave contains the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, as well as the matriarchs Sarah, Rebecca and Leah. Rachel is supposed to have been buried near Bethlehem, of course.
Hebrew midrash or commentaries also claim that Adam and Eve are interred in the Cave of the Patriarchs, which is important to all the faiths born in this region. The Cave, and Hebron, are jointly considered the fourth holiest place in Islam after Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.
Many such places have had houses of worship built over them since. The Cave of the Patriarchs is no exception. But what is really remarkable about the Cave of the Patriarchs is that the structure over the top is a fully intact Jewish temple from the time of Herod ‘the Great’, that is, from around the time of Christ.
This is the only old-time Jewish temple still standing in full. It is also one of the few intact examples of what is known as ‘Herodian’ architecture, which is rather blocky in form and almost looks like modern architecture even though it is two thousand years old. Herod the Great was an avid builder, which is how he came to be known as ‘the Great’ in spite of other shortcomings. The temple is also the oldest building in the world still to be serving its original purpose, that of a house of worship.
Having said that, for many centuries building served as a mosque, with Muslim minarets added. The mosque is called the Ibrahimi Mosque, after Abraham. For 700 years prior to the 1967 war, worshipers of the Jewish faith were not allowed past the seventh step of the staircase outside. After the conquest of the region by the Israeli army in the 1967 war, permission for Jews to worship inside the Ibrahimi Mosque, and as such inside the temple, was obtained.
Unfortunately, a series of attacks on Jewish worshipers then followed, resulting in a total of six deaths and a much larger number of injuries. These attacks were followed in their turn by an even worse massacre, committed by an Israeli settler named Baruch Goldstein, who shot dead 29 Muslim worshipers in 1994.
After the 1994 massacre, the edifice was formally divided into Muslim and Jewish sections with bulletproof glazing in between. On ten especially holy days in the Jewish calendar, Jews are allowed full access to the premises including the tombs of the patriarchs, some of which are otherwise off-limits to Jews for the rest of the year; while on those ten days Muslims are excluded.
In this video, David and I interview an official of the Ibrahimi Mosque.
Interview in the Ibrahimi Mosque, at the Cave of the Patriarchs
Although the city, with a population of over a quarter of a million, is overwhelmingly Arab, some of the land was taken for Jewish settlers. Some businesses have had to move. David’s brother said that he had Jewish settlers go into his shop, destroy things and take produce. The Israeli Army did nothing, he said. The Palestinian Authority has little authority or weapons in cases like this.
Interview with David in the Israeli-settled area of Hebron
Interview with bangle seller in Hebron, in which he talks about his commercial difficulties
Hebron is said to be the tensest city on the West Bank; thanks in part to Baruch Goldstein, no doubt.
An Interview with David’s Brother, in his Hebron Shop
David showed us around and came close to getting arrested. His passport was American but if they checked his passport he would have been detained, as Palestinians are given a stamp and have no automatic right of travel in Israel or Jewish-controlled zones of the West Bank. David’s wife who was Jewish and Spanish could not get Palestinian residency even after thirty years of marriage; and I met another man with the same problem. Yet Jews, defined as anyone with a Jewish mother, can come from anywhere around the world and be given residency in Israel, or the many settler villages going into the West Bank.
The heat was really bad by now and I was out of energy. On the way back to Jerusalem we visited Herod the Great’s Palace at Herodium, which was really much more of a ruin. David thought this was very worthwhile all the same.
An Israeli park officer was shot at this site in 1982, and someone leaves an offering of food for him there every day
David was a mine of information. He was a US citizen. He moved to the USA when he was in his mid twenties to get an education. He was invited by the Mormon church as he sold Mormon religious figurines as a boy in East Jerusalem. He was offered a scholarship: funnily enough the Israelis would not let him out of Palestine to study in Jordan. He has a US passport with a Palestinian ID in it, meaning he cannot easily go into any Israeli areas. He has six children. On top of her residency problems, his wife has to leave the country every three months. How ridiculous!
How do you prove how Jewish you are? With a genetic test? David said that people had done this, and the results showed little difference between Jews and many local Palestinians, who were perhaps the descendents of early Jews who had stayed put when the Jews were exiled, perhaps through converting to other religions.
David’s grandfather was a vet and horseman and lost everything in 1948: all his land his two houses. The family did not roll over and die. They moved to Bethelehem, bought land, and started again. David shares his current property, Al Buraq Arabians, with his brothers.
Al Buraq, or Al-Buraq, is the name of the spiritual horse that the Prophet Muhammad is held to have ridden on a mystical night journey into the heavens, during which the Prophet ranged between Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem’s Temple Mount (the Noble Sanctuary, in Islam). In Jerusalem, Al-Buraq was tied up outside the Western Wall, which is thus known as the Al-Buraq wall in Arabic. According to The Encyclopaedia of Islam the horse’s name Buraq means ‘Lightning’, with Al- mean the Lightning.
There is a representation of Muhammad’s night journey here, in a delightful miniature painted and gilded by a Persian artist known as Sultan Mohammed (not an actual Sultan) at around the time of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. The world itself seems to be represented as a mostly blue globe: a rather prescient vision!
Like much Islamic and Persian art of that era, Sultan Mohammed’s painting is done in a sensuous Chinese style that came to the Middle East via the Silk Road. In the painting, the golden flames are the equivalent of the Christian halo; the angels are much the same as the Christian ones including Jabreel (i.e., Gabriel); and, as usual in Islam, the face of the Prophet Muhammad is blanked out as being too sacred or idolatrous to depict.
This type of painting would normally have been retained for private worship at the time it was made, for fear of attracting the ire of more puritanical Muslims opposed to things deemed too gaudy or to certain other aspects of the composition. This was a major issue with Christian religious art at that time too. Many highly-decorated Mediaeval churches and cathedrals would be whitewashed come the Reformation, and it is possible that this austere influence spread across nominal religious and cultural boundaries, just as the Chinese influence did.
David spends what spare cash he has looking after horses for people who do not pay him. He is trying to raise $20,000 for an operating table for horses, as he is getting too old to be bending over all the time, as in this video.
David and his colleagues caring for a horse at Al Buraq Arabians
David believes that camp refugees get too much money from the international community and need to develop their own industries. He regards Palestine as his land, and that was why he decided to come back. However, I didn’t get to meet his wife Miriam, as she had just left on one of her periodic mandatory excursions and was using it accompany a couple of his children overseas. The oldest one is attending medical school in the USA.
David also regards Al-Fatah as corrupt and mentioned just how much Abbas and his sons own. On our travel he discussed the military A, B and C Zones, all violating the Oslo Accords. He showed me Palestinians who built houses on their land in the C Zone that the Israelis will not let them live on or build on; also land that cannot be sold as the Israelis will take it.
In David’s view — I couldn’t help thinking how ironically appropriate his name was — the Israeli giant just wanted to push them all into Jordan. Yet he is proud of who he is and is there to stay. He loved his country and wanted to show it to us. Why should he as a private citizen, lose his family estate all over again?
Then we went to the Mar Saba Monastery, in the Kidron Valley southeast of Jerusalem. It’s in the Judean Wilderness, next to an observation point where there is a view of the Dead Sea. This area really hasn’t changed much since Biblical times, and Mar Saba, founded by Cappadocian Greek Christians, has been in continuous use as a monastery since the 500s CE which is close to a record if not actually a record.
Women are not allowed in, save to a women’s tower at the highest point of the monastery. It’s very old-fashioned, and David told me one really interesting thing which was that this old-fashioned community of Christians believe that Jesus was born under a palm tree at the site of the monastery. Why that’s interesting is because it is the Qur’an, not the Bible, that claims Jesus was born under a palm tree somewhere in the wilderness. The Qur’an isn’t specific as to exactly where, so it could have been at Mar Saba.
The gospels that make up the Christian Bible, a book assembled by a committee some centuries after the era in which Jesus was supposed to be alive, claim that Jesus was born in a manger. But other texts that were left out, called the Apocrypha, or hidden gospels, contain the palm tree version. They also contain various other claims at variance with Jesus’s life as told in the Bible to the point that there is, indeed, one Apocryphal Gospel in which Jesus gets reprieved, marries Mary Magdalene, and the couple live happily ever after.
In the early days of Christianity, the Apocrypha circulated quite freely. It’s interesting that the palm tree version of Jesus’s birth seems to be the one in favour in this ancient monastery, as well as among the Muslims.
Today, the word apocryphal means unreliable. But, its original meaning was ‘hidden’, as in hidden away in a glass case. The apocrypha were hidden away as Christianity grew into a more organised undertaking with bishops and cardinals, supposedly because they were unreliable. But then again, that’s the official story . . .
After Mar Saba, Sarah and I we went to Ramallah, another famous place that’s not far from Jerusalem; only ten kilometres north of the city centre. We took a public taxi. David dropped us at the taxi stand. It only took twenty minutes to get there, and we stayed at a hostel which goes under the name Area D, a pun on the Israeli military carve-up of the West Bank into Area A, Area B and Area C. Like the fictitious District 9 of Cape Town, Area D doesn’t exist — except inside the hostel, which advertises itself under the slogan ‘cross your own borders’.
We walked around and went to the Dar Zahran Heritage Building. For 250 years it has served as the family home of the Zahran family. Dar Zahran means ‘Zahran House’ in Arabic.
Dar Zahran now serves as a guest chamber and place of residence of Zahran Jaghab, the son of the last Mukhtar, an Ottoman title meaning something like mayor, an office that fell into abeyance in the 1950s. It was a meeting place also for the town’s people. Zahran Jaghab had done up the old house and opened it as a cultural centre.
Zahran Jaghab is now my Facebook friend; his aunt, Yasmin Zahran, wrote several books about the early history of the Arabs before the coming of Islam, including the Septimus Severus, one of two Arab emperors of classical Rome, and Queen Zenobia of Palmyra, in today’s Syria.
Jaghab said that a lot of the Christians had left Palestine, and that just about all of them per cent had left Ramallah. Many of the local people in today’s Israel and Palestine had been Christian a hundred years ago, if not as high a percentage overall as in Lebanon. In Bethlehem, Nazareth (which is in Israel) and the Old City of Jerusalem, the majority had been Christian a hundred years ago, but this was now no longer the case.
Ever since the mid-nineteenth century, relentless upheavals and occasional persecution had encouraged the emigration of Christians, who were often among the more prosperous, middle-class and better-educated factions of the population, and thus more mobile and more likely to be frustrated by obstacles to economic development such as the relentless grinding poverty of the West Bank.
Many Christians had emigrated from Israel as well even though they did not face as many disadvantages as Israeli Muslim Arabs. In general, it was easy for them to integrate into the Lebanese Maronite communities that already existed in many cities overseas, such as Sydney, Australia.
The western parts of the West Bank are quite elevated and capture a significant amount of rainfall. Ramallah has more rainfall than London. Jaghab said that one of the reasons the Israelis occupy the West Bank is to control its water resources, including the so-called ‘Mountain Aquifer’ beneath it, which supplies Israel with about 60 per cent of its water. Extraction of this water contributes to the drying up of the Dead Sea, which is dropping by a metre a year.
Palestinians often have to get by on as little as 20 litres of drinkable water a day for domestic use, brought in by truck, and this can cost them up to a fifth of their income. Meanwhile the Israelis and West Bank Jewish settlers lead a Western developed-country lifestyle with piped water, of which they consume 270 to 460 litres a day per person, including the quantities required to fill swimming pools. The World Health Organisation minimum is 100 litres a day.
Jaghab was so disappointed in Ramallah. It was the de facto capital of the Palestinian Authority since 1993, and more foreign aid poured into Ramallah per head than anywhere else on earth, creating an artificial boom-town atmosphere. He said that 750 old buildings had been demolished. He could do nothing to save them. He was also trying to save the olive trees, and sell local art. He says its such a shame having so many bars in town, as well.
It is great what he’s doing to try and conserve the real Ramallah.
There was a brewery in a town called Taybeh. We went out there by a public bus and a small van, and got there just before it closed. Taybeh is the last Christian-majority village on the West Bank. The woman serving us said she lived overseas for five years but came back to Ramallah, as it is a family-run and family-owned business. She knew her stuff and provided most of Israel and Germany and other countries with these beers. She said that the Israelis were limiting her production with their water restrictions and cumbersome obstacles to distribution.
There were six different kinds of this beer, including a light beer, a white beer and a non-alcoholic beer.
The next day we decided to see the Yasser Arafat Mausoleum. The audios were three hours long, and I could only do one hour. The history of Yasser Arafat was remarkable, whatever his faults: a man who was a warrior turned international statesman, wanting his homeland back. He met with Castro, Clinton, and in the end negotiated the 1993 Oslo Accords with Israel, a peace agreement that resulted in Arafat receiving the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize along with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. Nothing much came of the Oslo Accords, unfortunately. Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Jewish fanatic in 1995.
Arafat, a previously healthy 75-year-old, suddenly fell ill with catastrophically low blood platelet counts in 2004, which meant that his blood would no longer clot, and died a few days later from a brain haemorrhage: a known complication of low platelet counts and one of the causes of death in a rat fed blood-thinning rat poison. A lot of people think Arafat was poisoned with something similar though not so easily identified, with or some kind short-lived radioactive poison that would have knocked out his bone marrow but left no trace unless detected at the time. Unfortunately, no autopsy was carried out on his body when he died. He was exhumed eight years later, but only inconclusive and possibly natural traces of anything that might have killed him were found.
Sometimes you wonder if war is a business linked to the production and export of weapons? Certainly, that’s a big business in Israel.
The museum showed Arafat’s bunker. Will Hamas, who are more radical, ultimately displace Arafat’s legacy?
Then we were off to Nablus, further north. There’s no beer brewed there.
We stayed in the old town at the Khan Alwakala Hotel, an amazing old caravanserai site restored so that it can serve as a hotel with aid from the European Union and UNESCO.
We went to an amazing soap shop. Nablus is a traditional soap making centre and once had thirty establishments make it. A kind of soap called Nablus soap, made from virgin olive oil, is a specialty of the town. and met Farwan. Because of a 1927 earthquake, but also because of the partition of Palestine in 1947, the industry declined and there are only two soap-makers in Nablus now.
The town has a recurrent Hamas presence and is often visited by the Israeli military. We met a guy called Farwan, whose brother had done prison time for trying to kill a Jewish person when he was fifteen (he regretted it later).
Farwan had been studying and working in the United States for seven years, where he did a degree in Politics, and held America’s coveted green card. He had been home for five months and was wanting to go back to the United States and start work. But he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, so it sounded like that wasn’t going to happen now.
Farwan’s mother hated wearing a scarf as it was hot, and she did not want her daughter to wear one. But the impression I got was that she was under pressure to wear one when out in public.
Anyhow about ten guys started shooting AK-47-type automatics in the air to celebrate the release of one of their friends from an Israeli prison. Like Farwan’s brother, this person had been locked up for some kind of security offence.
Forty per cent of all male Palestinians have been imprisoned or interned at some stage in their lives by the Israelis, not necessarily for serious offences. Palestinians are subject to Israeli military tribunals which can intern people without trial for as long as the tribunal sees fit.The conviction rate, if there is a trial, is over 99 per cent.
So, to celebrate a guy getting let out of prison must be an everyday occurrence in the Palestinian territories. We could smell the cordite fumes around the patio. I ran downstairs and spoke to Farwan’s mother.
The family kindly invited us out to their extended family house for the evening, and for a stroll to nearby Mt Gerizim where there is a Samaritan village, and also a Jewish one. The Samaritans are a biblical people who still survive today. They are close relatives of the Jews and have similar kosher food laws. We went for a midnight walk on the Jewish/Samaritan hill, and saw the Arab city below.
The Samaritans killed sheep and goats for a kosher feast. We saw them do it. There are only about 800 Samaritans left, and that is how they live. Apparently, they are bringing in women from Europe who have to convert. There was a barrier, as everywhere, to protect the Jewish and Samaritan quarters.
Farwan’s brother had built a house on the family land. There were about forty people visiting from all over the world: Palestinians from United States, Jordan, Hungary all home for the Summer. Many Palestinians and partners cannot get citizenship. But the population of the West Bank has greatly increased, all the same.
As I mentioned in my Jerusalem posting, the food was very cheap, and superb.
I went for a walk the next day, and asked locals what I should do. I had a terrific Turkish bath and spent the day chilling at the formerly ruined, now restored, Khan Alwakala Hotel . The Old town was just fantastic. I went out and had knefi, cheese in a honey-type sauce.
I met Osama, a guy who was born in Kuwait and became a refugee when Iraq invaded in 1990. He moved to Palestine after that and married a Palestinian woman.
We all went to Jenin refugee camp where Osama had spent some time. On the way to Jenin, we stopped off at Sebastia, where there is the reputed tomb of St John the Baptist (of his headless body, more precisely) under a ruined Christian cathedral, which had Hebrew graffiti on it.
We got to Jenin, a camp that had a theatre in the middle. “Resistance through art” was a theme, something we also saw at Aida.
Then we visited St George, the third oldest church in the world, in a village called Burqin some five kilometres past Jenin. Sarah lit a candle for her brother. It was an amazing church of the Greek Orthodox faith. They only have ten people in the congregation, but they still have mass every Sunday.
Osama was excellent. He knew everyone and asked the priests and imams if we could get in to any church or mosque or gave us a history; he was just as good to Sarah and myself as David.
We loved the West Bank. Once again, we saw a lot.
To come back to a point from my last blog, one of the things that really struck me in my travels was how much local people seemed to detest politicians!
And so, on to Tel Aviv. For I was now to spend a week in Israel. What new adventures would come my way there?
David Garbe can be contacted for farmstays and donations at Al Buraq Arabians, https://www.facebook.com/alburaqarabianspalestine/
(For more travel stories, check out my other posts on Medium, and my website, a-maverick.com.)