After working as a reporter in Cairo, Theodore May wanted to know more about the history, culture, and people of the Middle East. So he decided to explore it, and use one of history’s conquerors as his guide. For eight months he’ll be following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, tracing the 2,000-mile path Alexander forged through the modern Middle East. Theo will be writing about his experiences for The Global Post, and you can be follow him on Twitter at @Theodore_May. He’ll be contributing glimpses from his journeys here at Intelligent Travel.
The bus ride alone was worth the trip. Winding through the hills north of Ramallah, in the West Bank, we passed Palestinian towns and farm fields. We meandered through Israeli military outposts, and saw orderly Israeli settlements perched on hilltops.
An hour later, we arrived in Nablus.
I must admit, I asked a lot of security-related questions when my hosts in Ramallah suggested I visit Nablus on my one free day in the West Bank. Recollections of violence from the last intifada dancing through my head, it took several assurances before I became convinced the trip would be safe.
But like so many Westerners, my worries were outdated. While Nablus does have a tradition of fierce resistance to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the city has become a tourist friendly spot. And, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman recently wrote, it’s quickly becoming a financial hub in Palestine.
Set in a narrow patch of flat land between dramatic mountains, the West Bank’s largest city is centered around a bustling old market.
Several friends had told me that Nablus is most known for its fabulous knafeh (“It’s the best in the Middle East!” one friend told me), a syrupy pastry that adorns dessert tables throughout the Middle East. [Read more about the knafeh here.]
My first order of business, therefore, was to find the best knafeh in town. I wanted to try some, and I thought it would make a fitting thank you gift for my hosts in Ramallah.
After I’d entered the old city, I stopped a person on the street, explaining to them that I’d heard about Nablus’ famous knafeh and wanted the best in the city. “Helowiat Al-Aqsa,” he replied without hesitation. “Helowiat” means “sweets,” and “Al-Aqsa” is the name of the holiest mosque in Jerusalem. I asked two other people minutes later and received the same reply.
After a brief walk, I entered the back alley joint, and, without having to order, the waiter at the front gruffly tossed a plate of knafeh into my hands. It’s the kind of dessert that’s so sweet it makes your lips pucker. But it was, indeed, delicious. Taken with having a foreigner in their midst, the staff forced plate upon plate of different kinds of knafeh on me. At a certain point, I told them I could eat no more, worrying momentarily about my blood sugar level.
I continued to explore the old city–spice shops on one side, lamb carcasses hanging from meat hooks on the other. Despite the fact that few tourists head up to Nablus, nobody in the market tried to lure me into their store (a common practice in the old cities of Jerusalem, Damascus, and Cairo).
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When I had had my fill, I hired a taxi and asked the driver to take me up one of the mountains to see the city. From the high ground I marveled at the densely packed city that had been witness to so many triumphs and tragedies of history.
On my way out of town by bus a few hours later, we passed through an Israeli military checkpoint. A soldier flagged us down and asked, in Arabic, for everyone’s IDs. After a cursory review of paperwork, he sent us on our way, and my fellow passengers chuckled at the distinctly Israeli accent of the soldier’s Arabic. It served as a reminder that even as Nablus has passed from its darkest days, the political issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are still knocking at its door.
Follow along with Theo’s journey at Global Post, and on Twitter @Theodore_May.
Photo: Theo May