The Dome of the Rock, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the Nativity Church: without doubt Palestine’s most famous landmarks and spiritual sites. For many tourists, they form the main attractions in the Holy Land. However, spirituality in Palestine runs deep. It’s not just in the churches and mosques but in the caves, the mosaic in the desert hills, and the traces of pre-monotheistic life that are everywhere, if you look. The three monotheistic religions have blossomed in this land: called the Holy Land for a reason. Temples, synagogues, churches, mosques – well preserved or now a ruin – there’s something around every corner. Here is a list of spiritual sites that are less well known, but absolutely worth your time when you are visiting Palestine.
- Hebron area
The area between Bethlehem and Hebron has always been of religious significance as both Bethlehem and Hebron are ancient towns with an incredibly layered history. Both places and the roads between them were important places for pagan worship, and later also became central to the monotheistic religions, old rituals flowing into newer ones. Some places exist until now, others are in ruins, covered by history. You can explore ancient sites in villages along the road from Bethlehem to Hebron that are off the beaten track. For example, an Byzantine church has been uncovered, which has the unique feature of a baptismal fond connected to a natural spring. Archaeologists have also been working on the ancient site of Mamre, associated with Abraham and long the site of pagan rituals and worship.
If you’d like to learn more, contact the Hebron France Association to arrange a tour of these sites. Link: http://hebron-france.org/en/
- Nabi Musa
According to Islamic sources, Moses (Musa in Arabic) is buried at Maqam El Nabi Musa, close to Jericho. The Jerusalem – Jericho road was one of the primary routes used by Muslims in the Mediterranean to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. The beautiful domed building which marks the mausoleum of Moses was located at what was the end of the first day’s walk from Jerusalem to Mecca. Originally, it was not revered as the site of Moses’ burial but rather a point where pilgrims were able to look across the Jordan Valley and catch a glimpse of Mount Nebo where, according to the Hebrew bible, the tomb of Moses was thought to be located. In 1269 a Mamluk sultan built a mall shrine here, which had become common after the Mamluks conquered towns and rural areas from Lebanon down to Hebron from the Crusaders. The shrines were usually dedicated to prophets or companions of Muhammad. At Nabi Musa, hostels for travellers were built adjacent to the shrine, and the hospice in its present form was built between 1470 and 1480. Gradually, the lookout point for Moses’ distant gravesite became confused with Moses’ tomb itself.
Sebastia has much to offer; archaeological treasures, quaint village life, beautiful countryside views. But one of the highlights is the Ba’al head displayed in the assumed tomb of John the Baptist, on the premises of the villages’ mosque which in a past life was a Crusader church dedicated to John the Baptist. Walking around ancient Sebastia, you’ll find a Roman era temple dedicated to the god August, but also an acropolis from the time of King Omri and King Ahab, Israelite kings mentioned in the Old Testament. Few places allow such candid insight into the layers and layers of worship, spirituality and organized religion over thousands of years.
Not far from Sebastia, you’ll find mount Gerizim, the holy mountain of the Samaritan people. The Samaritans have lived and worshipped in the Nablus area and on Mount Gerizim for thousands of years and although their numbers have dwindled significantly, there are now more Samaritans than a century ago. The Samaritans believe in one God, YHWH, the same God recognized by the Hebrew prophets. They believe that Mount Gerizim, not Jerusalem, is the sanctuary chosen by Israel’s God. They refer to themselves not as Jews but as Israelites and have always been part of the Nablus area society. Today the Samaritans live on Mount Gerizim but in the past, the Old City of Nablus was home to most. One of the most important ritual festivals is Passover, when the High Priest sacrifices up to forty sheep on the holy rock on the mountain. It is possible for visitors to be part of these Passover celebrations. The Samaritan community also has a small museum which is definitely worth a visit.
- Burqin Church
Although the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre are Palestine’s most famous churches, there is another ancient church not often on tourist itineraries. St. George’s Church in Burqin is a Byzantine-era Orthodox church in the town of Burqin, close to Jenin in the northern West Bank. The church is considered the third-oldest church and the fifth-oldest Christian holy place in the world. The church has been restored and rebuild many times throughout history and is still in use by the village’s small Orthodox Christian community. According to Christian tradition, Jesus passed through Burqin on his way from Jerusalem from Nazareth and while there he healed the lepers.
All throughout Palestine, especially in the countryside, you will encounter small stone domed buildings. These buildings are often maqams, tombs for Muslim saints. The maqams were considered highly significant to the field of biblical archaeology as their names were used in the 18th and 19th centuries to identify much of biblical geography. Often, the maqams are situated by ancient carob or oak trees or by a spring or water cistern, indicative of ancient worship practices adapted by the local population. Ali Qleibo, a Palestinian anthropologist, considers the maqams a testimony to Christian and Muslim Palestinians’ religious roots in ancient Semitic religions.
If you’d like to explore Palestine’s ancient countryside and its maqams, you can do so by going on a Sufi Trail hike. These trails have been set up by the Rozana Association and showcases some of Palestine’s most beautiful areas. Link: http://www.sufitrails.ps