Unusual rides draw tourists to West Bank
Nablus - When five Palestinian university students were casually exchanging ideas on how to revive local tourism in their scenic village of Sebastia near Nablus, the idea of showing people around on donkeys drew a laugh. However, few weeks later, the first outing of Donkey Tours was launched, much to the bemusement of the villagers.
“The idea initially started as a joke,” said Lutfi al-Azhari, one of the students. “We’re all university students, with backgrounds in engineering, interior design and veterinary medicine. None of us had a clue about donkeys much less than how to take care of them.”
The five friends sought the help of local farmers in selecting beasts suitable for riding, built stables for the animals on land belonging to the family of one of them and pooled their funds to buy donkeys for $140 each.
After a word-of-mouth marketing campaign and a Facebook page, the initiative began with three purposes: Encouraging local tourism to circumvent Jewish claims to the land, boycotting Israeli products and treating animals kindly, said Azhari.
“Now we have 15 donkeys and we’re planning to buy more,” he said. “We insisted on donkeys because of its status in rural Palestine as a mode of transport for the fellah (farmer).”
The friends said they are happy with how successful their idea turned out. Every Friday and Saturday they accommodate a steady stream of visitors. The tour charges about $20 per person, which includes transport from Nablus to Sebastia and back.
Sebastia, 15km north-west of Nablus, is known for being home to ancient ruins spanning the Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Canaanite eras. They include a colonnade, a basilica, a theatre, temples and ancient tombs.
Tourists can roam the entire area of Sebastia and are provided with historic details of the landmarks. They are educated on a range of issues including the history, culture and traditions of Palestine as well as the environment and animal rights.
The 6-hour ride starts at the village and moves along the narrow dirt road that was part of the Hijaz railroad built by the Ottomans for Muslim pilgrims travelling to the holy shrines in Mecca and Medina.
The riders amble through Wadi al-Shameh before reaching the remains of the Masoudiyeh train station, where they enjoy a brief water break and inspect the station, which was closed in 1916.
Tour guide Rauf Hammouri said: “Decades later, Masoudiyeh became one of the first places in the West Bank that the Jewish settlers attempted to colonise after the 1967 war.”
The tour dips to the emerald green wheat fields dotted with small yellow flowers and the occasional purple wild flower. Once the summer starts, the sea of green changes to gold as the wheat harvest nears.
The next stop is on a hill surrounded by olive and apricot trees, where guides cook lunch. Soon, the frying pan is bubbling with chopped tomatoes and garlic drizzled in olive oil, the aroma mixing with the fresh air.
On the opposite hill, the electric fences of the Shavei Shomron Jewish settlement can be seen. It was built on land expropriated from Sebastia in 1977. Palestinian villagers must apply for special Israeli permits to reach their land behind the fence during the olive harvest.
The tour makes its way back to the village centre, past the colonnade ruins, the ancient basilica and theatre and a church. The site is on an elevated area, where the West Bank hills stretch out across the landscape with Jenin further north, Tulkarem to the north-west and, beyond that, the sea, which is hidden from view.
The ancient site is classified under the Oslo Accords as Area C, under Israeli civil and military control. The Palestinian Authority is banned from renovating the site and the Sebastia villagers are all too aware of the possibility of being barred from their beloved ruins.
“Ariel University is trying to lay claim to ancient Roman ruins in Sebastia by pushing through a renovation plan,” Hammouri said. “If that goes ahead they will confiscate the area under the guise of conservation and allow only settlers to access it.”
The last leg of the tour is back to Wadi al-Shameh but riders are offered one last recline in the shade of almond trees with a cup of strong Arabic coffee.
The donkeys can now have a well-deserved rest.