Unusual rides draw tourists to West Bank

Sunday 05/11/2017
Donkey Tours riders are seen in Sebastia near Nablus. (Linah Alsaafin)

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.