Nablus conjures up many images in the minds of those who know this city well.
For some, this “Little Damascus” is defined by its urban landscape, the labyrinthine maze of winding covered alleyways covered in posters of martyrs who died in defense of the nation. For others, Nablus is about steaming hot plates of fresh knaffeh, the taste of the gooey cheese and dough reaching your tongue through your nostrils long before you can even take your first bite. There are the old Turkish saunas, the ancient soap factories, towering minarets and clock towers, khans and souqs, and the massive courtyard homes built atop each other with centuries dividing the different layers of construction.
But behind every image that comes to mind, in the background of every scene of life in Nablus, there are the hills, the mountains that limit the city on both sides and create the impression of hundreds of buildings running up and up and further up along the hillsides in a desperate bid to flee the valley below. Because the two hills directly face each other and the city is built narrowly between them, every street and alleyway in Nablus has a dramatic slope view, a constant reminder of both how great and how limited is the ability of human civilization to alter the physical landscape that surrounds it.
Precisely for this reason, wandering these hills at day and at night is an unforgettable part of any visit to Nablus. The winding roads curve and swerve as they make their way up and along the hills, revealing dramatically different views and perspectives along the way. Deep down below, the Old City looks crushed together, a massive dazzling assemblage of brown and white and yellow and green interrupted only occasionally by the minarets and inner courtyards of the traditional houses. As your eyes move further out, you see the clean straight lines of the British colonial planning, the golden stone color of the first mansions to be built outside of the Old City and the wider streets around them hoping to bring more green (and eventually more gray) into the urban fabric. Beyond, in every direction beyond, the landscape becomes a chaotic mix of white and green and yellow and black, tall, cheap apartment blocks erected in mass on every tiny available plot of land not too steep to build, each one crowned by dozens of black water tanks and separated by the patches of Earth that refused to give in to the needs of engineers and planners.
The city stretches as far as the eye can see, spilling out into the larger flatlands just beyond the narrow valley. In Bethlehem, you find yourself confronted at every turn by the view of Jordan across the Dead Sea in the distance. In Ramallah, meanwhile, it is the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv and the glimmering Mediterranean beyond that tempts you, reminders of the world beyond and below. And in Jenin, you cannot get away from the panorama of farmland stretching toward Nazareth that reminds you of the arbitrary and senseless violence and separation of the last 70 years.
But in Nablus, you see only Nablus, and it seems the city is a world unto its own.
After all, the Samaritans believe that the House of God is located atop the southern hill, and the richest man in Palestine thought the site worthy enough that he constructed his own neo-Romanesque monstrosity atop it. Nablus is Nablus, the city’s geography seems to stress, and when you are here your mind should only be here. And when you’re walking these hills, climbing the tiny staircases and silently calculating how to jump from one height to another, even with the gunfire from the weddings, funerals, and clashes of the refugee camps providing an uneasy soundtrack, it really does feel like the higher you climb, the closer you get to Heaven, or whatever is out there beyond.
But for now, in every direction, you can see only Nablus, beautiful Nablus.
by Alex Shams
Alex Shams is an Iranian-American journalist who has been based in Bethlehem for the last two years. He is also an editor-in-chief of Ajam Media Collective (AjamMC.com), a site focused on culture and society across Iran, the Caucasus, and Central Asia.