Damascus”: Nablus City, West Bank
“Little Damascus” by 10th-century scholar Al-Maqaddisi, Nablus has
been considered the jewel of the West Bank for centuries. Situated
between Mount Gerizim in the north and Mount Ebal to the south, the
largest city in the West Bank has a population of 150,000, with double
that in the governorate as a whole.
1948, Nablus has been home to thousands of refugees, a city that
includes three refugee camps within its boundaries. The majority of
citizens are Muslim, with a sizable Christian minority, and about 350
members of the Samaritan community.
has always been one of the main centers of Palestinian commerce and
tourism, featuring soap factories, Turkish baths, colorful bazaars, and
fruit and vegetable markets selling produce grown in this area rich in
spring water. The people of this ancient town have lived through many
different occupations, yet the current situation is having one of the
most devastating effects yet on the local economy and community.
Nablus exists on the site of one of the world’s oldest towns, Shechem,
first settled in 3000 BCE by Canaanites. Tel Balata, 3 km (1.9 mi.) east
from the center of Nablus, is the site of the biblical Shechem with
remains dating from 1650 – 1550 BCE. A Greek Orthodox convent today
guards the site believed to be the Prophet Jacob’s well, where
Christians believe that Jesus met the Samaritan woman. A small Samaritan
community still lives in Nablus, in the foothills of Mount Gerizim. The
Samaritans are an ancient religious community who follow the Torah but
differ on various fundamental points from modern Judaism. Politically,
however, the Samaritans are considered part of the Palestinian nation
and must not be confused with Jewish settlers. Samaritans are also
represented in the Palestinian National Authority. The small Arab
village of Sebastia, some 15 km (9 mi.) northwest of Nablus City marks
the place of the once important capital of Samaria.
situated at the center of a pass linking the Mediterranean coastal plain
with the Jordan Valley in the east, with an abundant water supply and
fruitful soil, Nablus has always been a key prize for invading armies.
In 72 BCE Titus settled his army in Shechem, calling it Flavia Neapolis
in honor of his father, the Roman Emperor Flavius. The new town was
bedecked with every civil feature for a new Roman city— theaters,
hippodromes, aqueducts, colonnaded streets, and a necropolis on the
slopes of Mount Ebal.
an abundant water supply and fruitful soil, Nablus has always
been a key prize for invading armies.
636 the former Roman city was conquered by the forces of Muslim Caliph `Umar.
The temples became mosques, and Arabic became the language of the people
of Nablus. Under the rule of the Islamic Empire, Nablus flourished,
important throughout the region for its rich markets. In 1099 the
Crusaders invaded and invested in their prize of Nablus, building
churches and a royal palace for Jerusalem queen Melisenda.
defeat of the Crusaders in 1187, in addition to the earthquake of 1202,
damaged many of the buildings, but a few Crusader ruins still remain. A
few generations later the town was reestablished to its former glory
under the Mamluks (1260-1516), becoming famous for its production of
sweet pastries, soap, and cotton.
around the Old City of Nablus today, you can see the Ottoman buildings
that still dominate the suq (many damaged in recent military attacks).
The Ottomans seized control of Nablus in 1516, deeming it the capital of
the sanjuk, the administrative district of the empire. Nablus
continued to flourish, and by 1882 there were over 30 working soap
factories exporting their products throughout the Middle East. Prominent
Nablus families grew in wealth and stature, building palaces and
mansions, some of which are still standing today.
shelling cutting through buildings in Nablus Old City market
to enlarge photo
1927, Nablus was once again hit by a devastating earthquake, damaging
many Old City buildings. The suburbs of Nablus expanded as Old City
residents who could afford it moved to build new homes on the outskirts.
Under the British Mandate (1917-1948), Nablus continued to maintain its
political importance to the Palestinian people, becoming a center for
the development of the nationalist movement and the heart of the
resistance against British occupation.
1948 Nablus came under Jordanian administration, and the city had to
cope with the influx of thousands of refugees flooding from areas
occupied by Israel. With the occupation of the West Bank in 1967, the
city came under Israeli control, and faced the demographic problem of
accommodating thousands more refugees. The economic crisis led many
Nablus citizens to leave in seek of work abroad, particularly in the
December 12, 1995, as part of the Oslo Accords, Nablus became Area A
under the control of the Palestinian Authority. Yet hopes of full
independence have not yet been realized, and since the beginning of the
uprising in September 2000, Nablus has borne some of the worst of
military closures, assaults, and curfews.
further historical details, see the Web sites of Municipality
of Nablus and An-Najah
in Nablus Today
April 2002, seven members of the same family died beneath the
rubble of their home.
Old City of Nablus is built at the bottom of Mount Gezarim, believed by
the Samaritans to be the site where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his
son Isaac. People gathered in this place owing to the rich water supply,
and today the Old
area has around 20,000 inhabitants. Mosques, soap factories, Turkish
baths, and old family mansions are dotted on the winding streets of the
ancient suq (market).
people of Nablus have been under military siege throughout the Israeli
repression of the Intifada, with closure and curfew lasting into
hundreds of days.
poster for young resident of Nablus Old City killed by Israeli army
to enlarge photo
While reports from Jenin were the focus of much of
the press about the Israeli West Bank attack code-named Operation
Defensive Shield in April 2002, Nablus, too, was severely hit,
particularly the Old City. In the 18-day siege, tens were killed and
hundreds injured. F-16 jets, helicopter gunships, and tanks caused
massive devastation to public and private property alike, including
schools, hospitals, clinics, and factories. In one particularly horrific
case, seven members of the same family died beneath the rubble of their
human suffering is, of course, the most important, extensive damage was
also caused to the buildings and cultural heritage of the Old City. Many
buildings were almost completely destroyed; serious damage was inflicted
on the 12th-century Al-Khadra Mosque, an 18th- century hammam (public
bath), and a number of soap factories. The Nablus Municipality has been
working with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and
international donors in order to set about restoring both public and
private facilities that were damaged in these incursions. However, they
face an uphill task. The project of rehabilitation of the Old City
originally began in the Oslo years, when people still hoped that times
ahead would bring peace and freedom from occupation. Since 1995, the
Municipality had been working to renew the infrastructure, repaint,
retile, and clean stonework in order to give the Old City a facelift.
Following the recent military assaults, the urgency has increased
tenfold, for safety and humanitarian, as well as cultural, reasons.
April 2002, Hoda Jaber was in her home with her elderly parents when the
invasion began. “I heard the explosions outside, and the bullets came
inside,” she explained. “I tried to hide with my parents in another
room, and then we escaped to a neighbor’s house.” Now there are only
pieces of broken furniture and an old photo hanging forlornly on the
wall. The building is not safe to live in, and Hoda and her parents are
staying with her brother’s family.
Old City is home to families at the lowest end of the economic scale,
making it all the more essential to restore living quarters. Hoda’s
home was next to the two soap factories of Kannan and Al-Nabulsi, now
crumbled to the ground. As part of a Canadian-funded
employment-generating programme, local workers will be paid to
reconstruct damaged buildings in the Old City, so people like Hoda and
her parents will hopefully be able to return home.
do the people of the Old City get the strength to carry on, when
military confrontation continues on a day-to-day basis? “We have
to,” says Hoda. “Occupation in Nablus has come and gone throughout
the ages. It is we, the ordinary people, who remain.” Restoration
efforts not only rebuild homes, but help repair lives and restore
Reading on Nablus History
Beshara, Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal
Nablus, 1700-1900, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).