“Little Damascus”: Nablus City, West Bank

May 9, 2005

Israeli destruction in Nablus Old City from 2002
© Isabelle Humphries

Click to enlarge photo

Labeled “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.

Since 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.

Nablus 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.

A Brief History

Israeli destruction of ancient soap factory, Nablus Old City
© Isabelle Humphries

Click to enlarge photo

Today’s 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.

Strategically 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.

With an abundant water supply and fruitful soil, Nablus has always been a key prize for invading armies.

In 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.

Salahuddin’s 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.

Wandering 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.

20th Century

Israeli shelling cutting through buildings in Nablus Old City market
© Isabelle Humphries

Click to enlarge photo

In 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.

In 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 Gulf region.

On 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.

(For further historical details, see the Web sites of Municipality of Nablus and An-Najah University)

Living in Nablus Today

In April 2002, seven members of the same family died beneath the rubble of their home.

The 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

City 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).

The people of Nablus have been under military siege throughout the Israeli repression of the Intifada, with closure and curfew lasting into hundreds of days.

Memorial poster for young resident of Nablus Old City killed by Israeli army
© Isabelle Humphries

Click 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 home.

While 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.

In 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.

The 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.

Nablus city from surrounding hills, rubble in the foreground
© Isabelle Humphries

Click to enlarge photo

How 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 spirits.


Further Reading on Nablus History

Doumani, Beshara, Rediscovering Palestine: Merchants and Peasants in Jabal Nablus, 1700-1900, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995).

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