Touring Palestine

By Felicity Cobbing

“You’re going where? – Isn’t that a bit dangerous?” is a common response when I tell people I am off to Palestine, taking a holiday tour to the West Bank. Of course the region isn’t known for its peace and tranquillity, especially this year, which has seen some all-too familiar scenes of violence erupting once more. But tourists and other visitors are very safe here. The region’s reputation for hospitality is deservedly legendary, and Palestine is no exception. And the country is about so much more than the ongoing conflict and the headlines this generates.

Every year, I lead an archaeological and historical tour to Palestine on behalf of Martin Randall Travel in London, and Laila Tours in Bethlehem. Together with the tour manager, who this year was the utterly fabulous Heather Millican, we introduce a collection of complete strangers to this complex and fascinating corner of the world in a way that is hopefully a lot of fun as well as thought-provoking. The itinerary takes in archaeological and religious sites in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Jericho, Hebron, and Samaria, and gives those on the tour an opportunity to see a part of the world usually only experienced by many of us in the West through dismal news reports.

The Dome of the Rock reflected in al Aksa

This year, a group of ten of us arrived in Palestine in the midst of the worst trouble the region has seen for a while, and though we were always perfectly safe and enjoyed the best of Palestinian hospitality, we were all very aware of the events unfolding around us. We were accompanied as always by our local guide, Dr. Hisham Khatib, and our coach driver George. I have got to know Hisham over several tours now, and I am always glad to have him with us. He is a friend, a gentleman and a scholar, and impresses everyone with his courtesy and knowledge. George was a new friend, but I was very glad to have him negotiating our path around the roads of Palestine, avoiding the worst of the road-blocks and finding alternative routes to our destinations. We also had the benefit of several local experts, who brought their unique knowledge to our visits of their sites.

Our guide, Hisham, and his mother in their home in the Old City, Jerusalem.

Our guide, Hisham, and his mother in their home in the Old City, Jerusalem.

Shimon Gibson and Hamdan Taha introduced us to the fabulous archaeology and history of sites in Jerusalem and at Tell as-Sultan (ancient Jericho) respectively, whilst the ever-enthusiastic Silvia Krapikow showed us round the Rockefeller Museum and archives, and Rachel Lev introduced us to the wonderful archival collections of the American Colony, a gem of a collection that surprised us all. Laila Slemiah who runs the women’s cooperative in Hebron impressed us all with her courage and determination to make a life for herself, her children and to support other women and their families through her work.

Rachel Lev, America Colony archives

Priest Hosni Cohen, the little brother of the High Priest and elder of the Samaritan community on Mount Gerizim very graciously introduced us to the unique perspective of the Samaritans, helped brilliantly by Ghalia Cohen and Marwa Mohammed who translated some of the more existential concepts into English. With one phone for Israel and another for Palestine, and three – yes three – passports (Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian), Priest Cohen transcends political barriers to go where he pleases, taking the teachings of Samaritan scripture with him. Organised tour holidays are not to everyone’s taste, but there is no doubt in my mind that they provide more of an opportunity to get under the skin of a country than is possible for an independent traveller, at least for a first relatively short visit. It’s also a wonderful way to make new friends, and I am sure I will be seeing quite a lot of some of those I got to know round at the PEF – something I anticipate with great pleasure!

Priest Hosni Cohen at the Samaritan Museum, Mount Gerizim.

Priest Hosni Cohen at the Samaritan Museum, Mount Gerizim.

Palestine is a part of the world of which I am very fond. I love the people, the history, the culture and the landscape: for such a tiny part of the world it packs a seriously powerful punch. It has been the theatre for some of the most important milestones of human history from the Neolithic revolution ten thousand years ago which saw the development of farming to the invention of the alphabet, and the emergence of the three great Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Hopefully, when I take the tour again this time next year, the political situation will have improved, and the next group of travellers will see a region full of hope and talent getting the chance to fulfil some of its potential.