JERUSALEM —The sun lowers in the sky as I follow my guide, Khatib, up a set of well-worn stairs which lead to a rooftop he declares has the best view of this storied land. Three lines of blood red script hand-painted on a pale limestone wall catches my eye. It reads, “God is Love” in three languages: English, Arabic and Hebrew.
Overlooking the old city of Jerusalem, the early evening light hits the golden dome of Al-Aqsa Mosque in such a way that it glows, illuminating one of the holiest sites in Islam where the prophet Mohammad is believed to have made his journey to Heaven. Just in front, Jewish pilgrims pray at the Western Wall on the Temple Mount, bowing and tucking small paper prayers into the cracks of the more than 2,000-year-old limestone structure; it’s what remains of the retaining wall of the Second Temple, also known in Islam as the Buraq Wall. In the distance stands The Mount of Olives, a mountain range to the east of Jerusalem where Christians believe Jesus ascended to Heaven, which is also the site of the oldest Jewish cemetery dating back to biblical times and where Jews believe their messiah will come.
Khatib is right about the view. From way up here, Jerusalem, the birthplace of the world’s three major religions, feels tranquil, although it’s one of the most contested capitals on Earth with a long, tangled history of oppression and colonization. Each of the sites framed in golden light before me are major points of contention.
My time in Jerusalem is not long, nor is it my final destination. I’m scheduled to hike the Palestinian Heritage Trail with the guidance of Siraj Center. Navigating the border crossing from Jordan (where I was prior) to Palestine and Israel can be notoriously difficult so we budget ample time for the crossing, which still leaves me a little time to explore Jerusalem.
IN THE MORNING as I pass through the Damascus Gate, a waft of freshly baked bread fills the air. A huge trolley stacked with layers of intricately braided Challah and Kaak bread (sesame rounds that look like giant bagels) rushes by my left side. The cart is so wide it seems it will barely fit through the narrow cobblestone alleyways. But of course, it does; they’ve been used to transport goods here for centuries.
I dash through the vibrant, rustic markets of the Muslim Quarter, breathe in historically holy aromas of frankincense and myrrh which burn throughout the souk, and sink my teeth into freshly fried falafel. I wander the polished Jewish Quarter and walk down the Via Dolorosa to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the route the Bible says Jesus followed as he carried the cross to where he was crucified, buried and then resurrected in the Christian Quarter. The Armenian Quarter is private. Each quarter has a distinct personality; all have a strong military presence. Israel, after all, has been illegally occupying East Jerusalem and the West Bank since 1967.Palestinian Heritage Trail
The Palestinian Heritage Trail is a long-distance hiking route which runs 330-kilometres through the West Bank and includes a spur trail to East Jerusalem. The full 21-day thru-hike passes 50 villages, immersing travellers in the local culture with homestays and Bedouin camps. Visitors can also opt to do day-hikes or sections. Some parts are rugged and rural, others run through larger cities, beginning in Jenin in the north, then snaking through the high desert wilderness to Hebron in the south.
Over the next few days, I walk, bike and ride in overland vehicles and pick-up trucks to various sections of the trail with a small group of travellers.
WEST BANK, PALESTINE — We start the trail in Nablus, once the centre of the Palestinian resistance during the second intifada. These days it’s a bustling market town, but it’s Friday afternoon, the Islamic day of rest, and most shops and stalls are closed. There are relics of the resistance everywhere. Stone walls are marked with bullet holes and posters of young martyrs are faded but still visible. As we wander through the city, we learn how to make kunafe, a staple Middle Eastern dessert that originates here in Nablus, made with goat cheese, pistachios and rose-infused syrup. We visit Break Mill, a small shop filled with colourful bags of every spice imaginable from saffron to Gaza thyme. It’s a sensory overload as the smell of nuts, herbs and coffee intermingles in the tiny shop. Olive oil soaps that have been made here for more than 800 years are stacked high, wittily labelled “peace of soap.” In the back room, surrounded by Ottoman war relics, we sip on cardamom-infused coffee.
Nablus was once an oasis of natural springs and the city prospered because of it. While wandering the cobblestone streets I notice a beautiful old well with Arabic words painted above. They translate to: “This well provides water for all citizens,” alongside the name of the donor. Water is no longer a right here; it’s a privilege. On this day, the well is dry and the people of Nablus are cut off from their natural water source. Their supply is purchased, delivered and transferred to tanks on their rooftops, usually once a week, by the Israeli military.
In the late afternoon, we make our way to Sebastia. The sun is still hot as local families enjoy leisurely walks, a favourite pastime. Yellow and white daisies speckle the grassy hills. Believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the West Bank, Sebastia was established in the Iron Age (around 876 BC). Originally named Samaria, it was then given its second name, Sebaste, in 30 BC by the Roman leader Herod the Great. It is most famous for its archaeological sites, including intact Roman columns, a church, and John the Baptist’s tomb—according to history, he was beheaded here.
This part of the West Bank is a highly contested area because of the opportunity for tourism the archaeological site offers. As part of the Oslo Accords, the occupied West Bank was divided into three areas: Area A (under Palestinian control), Area B (under joint Palestinian-Israeli control) and Area C (under Israeli control). Sebastia was designated as Area B (joint control) and has many ruins and relics, including beautiful mosaics and stone columns from the Roman Empire. Instead of allowing Palestinians to preserve and maintain the site, Israel doesn't allow any work to be done, stalling archaeological excavations, leaving the site—once ruled by Roman conquerors, Crusaders and Ottomans—in shambles. Worse yet, the site is unsecured and opportunists freely steal precious artifacts. As I walk through the ruins, next to an errant baby camel and some local kids, beneath our feet dirty sections of a once-pristine mosaic tile floor are unearthed. Pieces of the hand-cut tiles are strewn across the site, alongside trash.
Rami | Alicia-Rae Light
Within moments of stepping back onto the trail, a family stops to welcome me to Palestine and asks where I am visiting from. As we walk together, 15-year-old Rami Barakat asks to see a picture of where I live so I produce a photo of Vancouver on my phone, showing him the mountains, forest, and ocean.
“I hate this wall,” he says as we walk, alongside his family, “because it prevents me from ever going to the sea. The wall was laid before I was born,” he adds, referring to the Israeli West Bank Barrier, known to Palestinians as the “apartheid wall.” We stroll by ruins of a church with crumbling stone walls that date to the Samaritans and Crusaders. Large trees provide shade and the smell of orange blossoms fill the air. We’re called over by picnicking families to share a cup of mint tea and to snack on fresh dates.
We travel further along the trail overlooking the valley and surrounding villages across to Jericho. Atop the hill are two poles with Palestinian flags blowing in the wind.
“Here we have a daily show,” remarks Zaid Azhari, our guide from Sebastia and the owner of small cafe in the village, Santarosa. “Every day the locals put up two Palestinian flags and every evening armed Israelis come into the village to take them down, sometimes along with the entire poles. Or to replace them with their flags. Every morning, on repeat, the local kids put up new Palestinian flags.”
At the bottom of the hill, there’s a pile of rusty flag poles.
Late that evening we arrive in total darkness at Taybeh Golden Hotel in Ramallah, weary from the day. I turn on the shower, letting the water run for a generous moment before hopping in for a rinse. I crave the long kind of shower that typically follows a sunbaked day of trail hiking. I forget, momentarily, where I am and then quickly end the flow of precious water.
Located below our hotel is Palestine’s first boutique winery, aptly named Taybeh Winery, which translates to both “delicious” and “kind” in Arabic. Over a glass of Bitouni, an indigenous grape, owner Maria Khoury explains the complexities of winemaking in Palestine. Without water, there’s no wine, not to mention the complications of moving goods across Israeli checkpoints and producing alcohol in a Muslim-majority country. This is one of the last remaining all-Christian communities in The West Bank. There is a brewery, too: Taybeh Beer, where a non-alcoholic option is brewed for their Muslim neighbours.
In the morning when the sun rises, I draw back my bedroom curtain for a look. The scene outside is hardly one of popular imagination when it comes to Palestine’s West Bank. Thousands of olive trees shimmer in a golden hue that the morning sun casts over Taybeh’s green, terraced hills. The light is exquisite. Birds chirp and swirl outside my window, darting in and out of the trees below. These olive trees, I’m told, have been here since Roman times and are treated like family, thanks to the prosperity they bring through olive oil. They’re also a marker of the occupation. Israeli settlers are frequently witnessed sawing off branches and burning the coveted trees prior to the October harvest.
Palestinian rights to movement are severely restricted but the trails in the West Bank are somewhat of an escape, giving locals a feeling of freedom, even momentarily. Although the Israeli military is out of sight, the illegal settlements are visible on the surrounding hillsides. Today, we start the trail in Ein Samia, just north of Jerusalem, adjacent to the illegal settlement of Kokhav HaShahar. The occupation of West Bank has deepened over the years as Israel steadily builds housing and installs its citizens, an action that is in direct contravention of international humanitarian law.
The valley ahead is full of steep, rocky slopes carpeted in thousands of wildflowers—yellow buttercups, white crown daisies and purple cyclamen—that, at times, reach my hips. Every so often I spy a red Palestinian poppy standing tall. The path, no wider than a foot, gradually winds upwards into the mountains. Akoub—an edible, thistle-like plant—has spilled over parts of the trail and at times, stings me through my leggings.
Although the Palestinian Heritage Trail opened in 2014 (originally called Masar Ibrahim Al-Khalil), it feels like we’re blazing a trail. Not because we’re the first ones here, but because parts are still being formalized. Our guides, Nidal and Anwar, thankfully know the way, occasionally stopping to point out ancient ruins, a lone Mediterranean tortoise and black calla lilies which are commonly used in the Middle East as an herbal remedy to fight cancer.
The thin path narrows further and suddenly I’m scrambling over boulders on a ridge. Turning the corner, I hear collar bells. Hundreds of sheep barrel down the slope. Two female Bedouin shepherds lead the herd, alongside dogs and donkeys. I smile at a shepherd taking a break in the shade of a large Palestinian oak. With a toothy grin, she gestures for me to take the reins of her donkey. We laugh together as I grab the ropes and pet the donkey. We’re on an ancient shepherding route after all, as old as the stones of Jerusalem, notes Nidal.
As we reach the valley floor there’s a faint sound of rushing water and soon there are small waterfalls everywhere. We’ve reached Al-Ajua, which translates to “the meandering one,” where dozens of families are hosting picnics. Once again, they invite us to join them. Full-grown men howl with laughter as they push one other into the stream while their wives sit at the water’s edge and children search for tadpoles.
We break for lunch at a Bedouin camp just outside of Jericho where we’re welcomed into a rustic tent. Atop colourful, handwoven camel-hair rugs lay tin platters of chicken, fattoush salad and rice. Famished, we thrust our hands into the stacks of still-warm saj bread and lather them with heaping spoonfuls of dense hummus topped with aromatic za’atar. After lunch, Mohammad, a cheeky six-year-old, shows me how he wrangles his sheep, whipping their bottoms with a stick.
Later, under the dark Judean Desert sky, we use flashlights to make our way to the Sea Level Bedouin Camp. The “amenities” are rudimentary: our hosts have lived here since 1948 using solar panels for light, gas and fire for cooking, and water is poured down makeshift “flush” toilets. As we pile into the main tent for the night, we learn that part of Bedouin culture is accepting guests anywhere, anytime. It’s hospitality that I’m grateful to receive in this unforgiving landscape. We share a meal of traditional Zarb–the Bedouin answer to barbeque—with chicken and vegetables slow-cooked in an underground pit, we dance a little and then listen to stories about life here. This includes eviction notices and the frequent demolition of the camp. And yet, they persist. Once my head hits the pillow, all I hear is the sound of the fire crackling, crickets chirping and dogs barking.
Our final stop, Bethlehem, is best known for its sites of religious significance—and deservedly so—but the apartheid wall that runs through the city cuts like a knife, leaving behind a scar. Local activists, including Moodi Abdallah who owns a shop facing the barrier, have covered the wall in artwork and Banksy famously set up his hotel, The Walled Off Hotel, directly overlooking it. It’s what he’s dubbed “The hotel with the worst view in the world.”
Inside the hotel, I wander through the art gallery. I fixate on a painting by Palestinian artist and activist Khaled Hourani. It depicts a young boy—about 15-years-old—leaping over the wall, arms spread as if he’s flying, blue skies above and a look of pure joy on his face. It reminds me of Rami and what he said while we walked together in Sebastia. His profound words are not unlike the ones echoed by so many Palestinians and painted on the wall outside the hotel: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”
One of the most beautiful Arabic words I learn along the trail is Inshallah—a saying meaning “God willing.” The reality is politics and the division in the region can not and should not be ignored—it’s part of daily life here. So, Inshallah this path travelled by foot forces us to slow down and honour the journey more than the destination. The trail is transformative, and has the power to connect people across religions, culture and economic boundaries.
When You Go
How to get to The West Bank
There are no civilian airports in the West Bank and Israeli border authorities control all routes in, so reaching the Palestinian Heritage Trail requires planning and patience.
Travellers must fly into Amman, Jordan and arrange a transfer or take public transportation into The West Bank. Special note: Even though Jordan shares a physical land border with Palestine, the border is operated by Israeli authorities.
The other option is to fly to Tel Aviv, Israel and drive to the West Bank.
Either way, be prepared to stop at the many Israeli military checkpoints as security is tight.
Guided travel in the West Bank
Independent travel in the West Bank is possible but we encourage travellers to confer with an experienced Palestinean tour operator. For trip planning, including one-day, two-day, one-week and full through-hike itineraries, we recommend Siraj Center. They can also assist with trip itineraries, planning, logistics and sightseeing.
Palestinian Heritage Trail
Spring and fall are the most comfortable months for hiking the Palestinian Heritage Trail. Find trail resources at phtrail.org. Full, guided thru-hikes run in March and November.