Hebron is an oft-overlooked tour destination of Palestine. While an oft-overlooked tour destination in Palestine, it is one that never ceases to be of interest to those that love history, archaeology, and Palestinian culture. Let us now journey to this city, known in Arabic as Al-Khalil, meaning, “The Friend of God.”
The city of Hebron lies directly south of Bethlehem, linked by geography through the Judean Hills, and also by a tradition of being a city of pilgrimage. It is, however, a very different city altogether. Hebron district covers the southern quarter of the West Bank and is significant in terms of economic, financial historic and cultural importance to Palestine. As with Bethlehem, the city of Hebron is built around a center of pilgrimage, in this case, the mosque of Abraham, also known as the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Jewish tradition. This highly contested place of worship for both Jews and Muslims may be best known as a flashpoint in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but with basic precautions, a guided tour is both possible and rewarding to those who wish to undertake it.
The Market “Al-Souq”
After a 45 minute drive from Bethlehem to Hebron, the visitors will disembark from their vehicles and walk on foot through the Old City, usually walking through the entrance of the market area, known by its Arabic name, souq. Merchants selling everything from spices and meat products to imported Chinese goods call out the value of their wares from their tables and stalls to the passers-by, as locals browse, drink tea, and head about their daily business. Now a contested city due to the presence of Israeli settlers and a large Israeli military garrison, visitors must pass through military checkpoints to enter the plaza of the mosque as well as the mosque itself, albeit with minimal difficulty and inconvenience.
The Mosque of Abraham
The mosque of Abraham is an impressive structure. Built by King Herod the Great in the decades before the birth of Christ over the cave-tombs of Old Testament figures Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob and Leah, it has since been a Byzantine church, a mosque, a Crusader church, a mosque, and now, at present, both a mosque and a synagogue. There are two carefully-guarded entrances for Muslim and Jewish worshippers, who are divided by the thick stone walls and extensive site security. On the Muslim side, visitors can tour the mosque and see the stone cenotaphs of the Patriarchs, the impressive, ornate centuries-old minbar (where the imam, or preacher, of the mosque, will give sermons) and see the long-forbidden entrance to the caves. While a tense place at times, visitors will note that local Palestinians are very hospitable to foreigners and eager to share the history of the city.
The Russian Orthodox Church
Another place of pilgrimage in Hebron district is of a very different sort altogether. A visit to the Russian Orthodox monastery of the Holy Trinity, and the ancient remnants of Al-Balouta, the millennia-old oak tree that tradition holds is the site where the Patriarch Abraham provided hospitality to visiting angels, is one of the many lesser-known historical gems of the West Bank. Located to the north of the city, the plot of land where the oak resides was purchased by the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in the 19th century, while the church itself was completed in 1907. The monastery bears the distinction of being both the only functioning church in Hebron district as well as the southernmost church in the West Bank. While the monastery primarily functions as a place of pilgrimage for Russian Orthodox Christians, the oak, now protected by a protective fence to ensure pilgrims do not carry away bits of the bark and wood, still fascinates pilgrims and secular tourists alike.
Traditional Crafts of Hebron
No stop to Hebron would be complete without a tour of at least of the traditional ceramic and glassware factories of the city. Once renowned for their quality throughout the Middle East and beyond, these traditional crafts continue until the present day. Visitors to any one of the several factories can watch the artisans at work and try their hand at bargaining for handcrafted pottery, ceramic tile-work, and glassware.
Noisy, crowded, and a bit of an adventure, a tour of Hebron makes for a daylong adventure that challenges, excites, and broadens the Palestine experience as few other destinations in the country will.