Two years ago, for the third year of my History and Arabic undergraduate degree, I had to choose from one of four Arab cities for a year of study abroad. I chose Nablus in Palestine. I had an idea of what my trip might be like. From a distance, Palestine somehow still felt very familiar to me. Palestine was frequently in the news for starters, often at the centre of tensions within the Middle East. But also, as a Muslim, and as the daughter of a Christian mother, for me Palestine was very much at the centre of another type of world too.
It was just after dawn. Daylight was bleeding into the night sky as the moon began its slow descent into the horizon. Crowds of people quietly rushed through the narrow and winding market streets of the Old City, making their way to the Eid Prayer at Masjid al Aqsa (the Furthest Mosque). Worshipers were dressed in their finest attire and the smell of musk filled the air.
My friend took my hand and led me through the crowds up to a gate of the mosque, also known as al Haram al Sharif (the Noble Sanctuary). Inside, the courtyard was bursting with colour and noise. Families frantically searched for areas of shade where they could lay their prayer mats – it was summer and the sun would be beating down soon. Men and women rushed to the water fountains to perform ablution. The mosque cats scarpered at the sight of curious children with sticky hands. We walked up the stone stairway towards the golden dome of the Qubbat al Sakhrah (the Dome of the Rock), glistening in the incipient daylight, and found a spot just outside its doors. Old women rested their backs against the walls of the iconic structure and young children flew around offering sweets to the worshippers, hopping through gaps in between people’s legs. “God is the greatest”. The imam had started the Eid Prayer and the courtyard fell silent.
At the centre of Hebron’s busy market we stood in line to enter the Sanctuary of Abraham (upon him be peace). One by one we pushed through the revolving metal gates and handed over our passports to be checked. “British?” “Yes” “OK go.” Soldiers drove us toward the metal detectors as our coats and bags were being screened. To the right of us, within the grounds of the mosque, another checkpoint was being constructed.
Once we were all through, we made our way to the water fountains to perform ablution before climbing up the long, narrow steps into the great but troubled mosque. The only sounds we could hear now were the whispering of worshippers. At the end of the wide corridor, lined with grand columns and illuminated by hanging lanterns, was a small doorway.
Through the doorway was the mausoleum of Sarah, the wife of Abraham, upon them be peace. A window allowed us to see inside the mausoleum. Draped across Sarah’s tomb was a large, royal green cloth, richly embroidered with Quranic verses. Lights were hung up around the tomb, and flower petals dressed its floor. Another small doorway led us through to the main hall where the mausoleum of Ibrahim’s son, Ishaq, and his son’s wife, Rifaqah, lay, (upon them be peace). Worshipers gathered around their mausoleums, greeting the inhabitants and praying for them.
The embroidery was much simpler, however, and only one Quranic verse adorned it. This is the site that has been at the centre of decades of tension in the ancient city. A partition cuts Ibrahim’s mausoleum room in half. But the actual graves of Ibrahim and his family are deep below the ground.
A well-like opening in the floor of the mosque offers a glimpse into their resting place.
It was roughly 08:30am. We wandered down into the mountainous desert valley believed by some to be the “valley of the shadow of death” mentioned in Psalms 23. Tucked into the crevice of a mountain, an impressive, fifth century, sandy stone monastery revealed itself as the path curved. The Monastery of St. George, as we discovered it was, blended seamlessly into the setting making it a wondrous surprise for anyone who saw it. Deep in the valley, time appeared to be still.
The quaintest of stone houses that once belonged to monks and hermits were dotted around a now barren riverbed. Today palm, olive and cypress trees populate this riverbed, creating a dense, snaking oasis in the depth of Jericho’s arid desert. Arching over the oasis was a narrow bridge built to carry the faithful over the river and onto the path of the monastery. We were asked to cover our heads and wrap shawls around our waists before entering.
Inside, monks and the visiting nuns carried out their morning tasks – gardening, building, sweeping, feeding the cats and so on…they spoke sparingly.
In the main hall was a balcony overlooking the entire valley. The view was majestic. Looming mountains were visible as far as the eye could see. Remnants of old homes could be seen in their faces.
After resting for a while and filling up our water bottles we decided to wave goodbye to the monastery and continue with our hike. On the way out we bumped into a monk. I asked him “how long have you lived here?” He replied, “only God knows.”
It was sometime between the noon and late afternoon prayers. Aside from a few children kicking a football around, the courtyard of Masjid al Aqsa was empty. I sat with my back resting against the walls of the Qubbat al Sakhrah (the Dome of the Rock) reading Surat al Isra’ (the Night Journey).
Courtyard of the Dome of the Rock, Dome of the Rock
Entering Khalto’s house was a field day for the senses. The walls were beautifully decorated with Palestinian artwork. The garden on the balcony was overflowing and wild. The smell of lunch cooking in the oven wafted into the hallway. And Khalto’s warm embrace made you feel you were at home.
We spent most evenings at Khalto’s. Sometimes she would teach us Tajweed (Quranic elocution), sometimes we would be revising for our university exams with her and sometimes we would just be hanging out. Always we would feel loved.
Her real name was Kifah. Khalto means aunty in Arabic.