Stories of visits to Palestine are as diverse as their tellers’ reasons for visiting the desert, rocky mountains, bustling cities, or religious sites of the country’s landscape.
Tourists, travellers, volunteers or teachers, pilgrims, researchers, and explorers visit Palestine each year, and plot innumerable paths through this geographical heart of the three dominant monotheistic religions.
Here, we’ll provide the tools to plot the co-ordinates of your own narrative in Palestine, by first outlining the basic facts about the country.
Ruled over by empires from the Byzantines to the Romans and Ottomans, and invaded by forces from the Crusaders to the Mamluks, Palestine’s history is rich and long.
Historical sites are as diverse as underwater archeological scuba diving in Haifa, to the the domes and semi domes of Ottoman architecture in Hebron’s Old City, and Nablus’ C1st ruins. The winding alleyways of eclectic Jericho, meanwhile, one of the oldest inhabited cities on earth, offer fragments of a dozen bygone eras at every turn.
The setting of the three books at the core of the main eschatological religions, Palestine is first and foremost overflowing with religious sites. Significant, ancient places of worship can be found throughout the length of the country, from Jerusalem’s ancient Byzantine Dome of the Rock and the ancient West (Wailing) Wall, to the site of Christ’s birth or Crucifixion South of the city, in Bethlehem.
For Christians visiting the country for religious purposes, Bethlehem is the heart of the trip. The city is home to the Church of the Nativity, said to have been founded on the spot where Christ was born. For Christmas holiday visitors, the city abounds with religious celebrations including an annual Midnight mass, and concerts played by orchestras from around the world.
A visit to Jerusalem, the location of christ’s Crucifixion, is a must if your purpose is religious devotion. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is said to have been built over Golgotha. The building also contains a Greek Orthodox chapel on the site where the cross was erected, where visitors are able to reach down and touch the rock of Calvary. Not far from the Church is the Via Dolorosa, where visitors can walk in Christ’s footsteps to the site of Golgotha, and join a ceremonial procession at Easter time.
The ancient city of Hebron, which has recently enjoyed a renaissance (thanks to the work of the HRC, Hebron Rehabilitation Committee) is a must see for visitors keen to experience sites significant to the three monotheistic religions.
Abraham (Ibrahimi) is the oldest mosque in the city of Hebron, and is vital to the three religions. The structure’s significance lies in the subterranean chambers of the Cave of Machpelah where, buried beneath the mosque, are said to lie Abraham, Sarah, and the matriarchs and patriarchs.
The central site for Muslim visitors meanwhile, is without doubt the Al-Aqsa mosque, located in the Old city of Jerusalem, as well as the golden topped Dome of the Rock, located in the Temple Mount compound of the City.
Sit back, relax, and tuck in:
There are also plenty of places to sit, eat and relax in Palestine. Jericho offers a plethora of eateries and cocktail bars, resorts and hotels. Bordering Jericho, on the coast of the Dead Sea, visitors enjoy the opportunity to float in the sea’s famously salty water, or benefit from the famous minerals in the sticky grey mud at the sea shore. Innumerable spas dot the coastline, characterised by botanical gardens and swimming pools, sulphur plunge pools.
Just North of the Dead Sea, in the ancient city of Nablus, are two unmissable opportunities for relaxation, namely, the two oldest Turkish baths (Hamams) in Palestine, the Al-Shifa Hamaam, built in 1624, and the C19th Al Hana hamaam.
Palestinian cuisine meanwhile, is a tasty mix of the various cuisines of the Levantine region in which Palestine is located. Falafel sandwich stands and cafes, courtesy of Lebanese influence, are a ubiquitous feature of cities and towns, and Jewish pastry shops line the streets.
Dishes specific to Palestine, however, are the key to the country’s culture, and to the hearts of visitors. Musakhan is the most popular Palestinian dish, comprised of wood roasted chicken with fried onions, sumac, allspice, safron and scattered with pine nuts, served with yellow rice and a sauce of green beans and tomato. Even after an assortment of tabouleh and flatbread to start, you’ll want to make room for dessert, especially if it comes in the form of ‘kn’afeh’. These crispy, sweet, salty and usually huge melted cheese filled phyllo dough parcels doused in sugar syrup are a local, and unmissable speciality.
Volunteer in Palestine
Local and international NGOs, institutions and educational centres are keen to welcome international volunteers who want to live and work in Palestine.
There are innumerable voluntary and internship positions available in the West Bank, whether your interest is aid work at one of the many long-established refugee camps, journalism with a local English language newspaper, helping out with the olive harvest, or teaching English and conducting workshops with children and young adults.
Volunteering in Palestine is a great way to participate in the ongoing development of the Palestinian community in the West Bank, and also to boost personal skills and experience.
Individual voluntary positions often offer participants a wide variety of experiences, and organisations are commonly keen to hear from volunteers about any particular skills they can offer, from employability skills training, to academic writing.
Participating in local educational and social events and activities is a great way for young volunteers to boost their communication skills, confidence and sense of independence, as well as to learn about the culture and everyday life of Palestinians.
Hebron’s Excellence Center has hosted over 150 internationals from twenty seven countries, and has established a reputation for quality language teaching both in English for locals, and for internationals in Fusha and Palestinian dialect.
The centre offers opportunities for volunteers and interns to teach classes in English language at the centre, conduct workshops at local universities and schools, and participate in community activities organised by the Centre. Volunteering programmes include several hours of Arabic classes per week, and participants in the programme are offered the opportunity to live with a loca host family.
Study Arabic in Palestine
Studying Arabic in a country of native speakers is without a doubt the most efficient, and fun way to learn. Practicing Arabic with locals is a great way not only to learn the language faster, and develop friendships along the way, but also to develop an in depth understanding of the culture.
Excellence Centre offers intensive classes in both MSA and Ameia (local dialect) from native speakers, offering individuals opportunity to cater lessons to their needs, choosing their own hours, topics, and providing opportunity for local trips.
For those interested in learning dialect, Levantine dialect, a form of which is used in Palestine, is widely considered the easiest and most useful, due to the similarity of pronunciation and vocabulary to formal Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), or Fusha. Knowledge of Palestinian dialect is widely transferrable to other Arabic dialects, and to understanding of MSA used in Arab media and religious texts.