The West Bank’s northern population hub is also one that has seen some of the roughest action, given the stringent resistance to Israeli occupation that simmers here. With much damage and destruction wrought since 2000, keep a careful eye on the climate for tourists. But an opportunity to go should be relished.
Situated in and around a lush spring valley between Mt Gerizim (Jarzim in Arabic) and rocky Mt Ebal, Nablus became a significant exporter of olive oil, cotton, soap and carob. Best known contemporarily for its olive-oil soap factories, olive wood carving and warm chewy goat-cheese pastry (kunafeh), Nablus is layered with millennia of plunder and glory. After the tribes of Israel split 12 ways, Shechem was declared by one faction as the capital of all ancient Israel and held on through inter-tribal conflict and external threat for nearly two centuries. Today’s Tel Balata (a tel is an ancient mound created by centuries of urban rebuilding) memorialises that event.
After the Assyrian conquest, forced population shifts increased the rate of intermarriage of Gentiles with the remaining Israelites of Samaria (a departure from Orthodox Jewish practice). John Hyrcanus, a Jewish leader from the south, destroyed the city of Shechem and the rival temple on Mt Gerizim. Later, the Romans obliterated what remained of Shechem and set up the ‘new city’ Neapolis (Nablus) in AD 70. Buildings are still in use that date back six centuries and earlier. Repair to these has been slow after air and land invasion. Curfews forbid all movement outside of buildings. The longest of these was from July to mid- October 2002, during which time the curfew was lifted for only 79 hours of provision- shopping and movement in the streets.
The northern West Bank is still referred to by some Old Testament purists as Samaria, from which term ‘Samaritan’ is derived. Among the most fascinating elements of the Nablus area is the Samaritan community and their relationship to Mt Gerizim since the 2nd millennium BC. With fewer than 700 people today, including some in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, they pose no challenge to greater Jewry. But in earlier times, their racial impurity made them outcast, among Jews who did not intermarry with Gentiles. The worst insult Jesus could sling was to compare a Samaritan favourably to the Jewish elites of the day.