There’s a quiet, terraced, Arab village outside of Bethlehem called Battir where water from a cold spring flows through an ancient water system to hydrate abundant olive trees and vegetables that have grown here for thousands of years.
Battir is off-limits to me for personal travel, as are many towns in the West Bank and the entirety of Gaza (as an employee of the U.S. Government), but recently, my section at work did a group bonding outing in Battir (work purposes + lots of security = okay for us government workers to visit) so I got to see the pretty and historic village.
I shouldn’t start this blog post this way, because I don’t want to scare anyone from visiting the West Bank. From what I saw of Battir, it’s quiet, beautiful, and has nice hiking trails and a few interesting historical sites and you should totally visit if you have some time in this area. (Say, tack it on after a visit to Bethlehem, which I can’t believe I haven’t blogged about yet).
But maybe I should back up. I know talking about the “West Bank” and “Gaza” may leave some readers confused if they’ve never visited. Even people who visit here are confused. Was that a checkpoint? Am I in Palestine or Israel? Before I moved to Jerusalem I’d heard of the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and Israel, but I didn’t understand, geographically, how they related to each other. More than a year-and-a-half later, I’ve learned a heck of a lot, but it’s still very confusing. Geographically, the “West” in West Bank means land West of the Jordan River. Politically, the West Bank refers to disputed land taken by Israel in 1967 that the Palestinians feel rightfully belongs to the state of Palestine. Some Israeli Jews refer to the West Bank by its Biblical name of Judea and Samaria to show that as far back as the Old Testament, their were Jews living there. And there are a growing number of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
You can drive from Bethlehem (West Bank), pass an Israeli checkpoint, drive through Jerusalem (considered by Israelis to be “Jerusalem, Israel” and to the capital of their country, while Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as theirs. Then you could enter Ramallah (the West Bank), drive north and pass a checkpoint back into Israel, then eventually enter Nablus (West Bank).
And Gaza, well that’s a is a 25-mile strip of land that touches Israel on two sides, the Mediterranean sea on one side, and Egypt at one end. If you live in Gaza you’re likely not going anywhere, chances are, because Israel and Egypt won’t allow you to leave.
So yeah, it’s confusing, it’s contentious, and it’s political, which often can overshadow that lots of the West Bank is beautiful rolling hills, olive trees, traditional foods, stone houses, and kind people. (And places like Ramallah are legit cities with culture, cafes, restaurants, bars, and businesses). I’m going to start featuring more posts about my visits to the West Bank – to places like Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, Beit Jala and Jericho, where maybe a few places I was able to travel to for work, like Ramallah, Nablus, Hebron, and Susiya.
First up, Battir, a few miles West of Bethlehem (West Bank), home to Roman-era tiered farm land and stone terraces, resplendent with olives trees and an old but surprisingly well-functioning water delivery system that is managed by Battir’s eight most prominent families. Israel wanted to build its separation wall through Battir, but in 2012, the town’s UNESCO heritage site status saved it from being spliced in two. A train to and from Tel Aviv shoots through a valley in Battir multiple times a day, and so the train track, in effect, acts as a barrier between Palestine and Israel, and you can tell because there’s an Israeli soldier parked on a hill above Battir who keeps close watch on the village.
On my visit to Battir, we walked some nice trails, checked out an old Roman bath (where a shepherd was, kind of hilariously, bathing his flock, and ate a yummy lunch that included Palestinian’s favorite dish, maklube, which mean’s upside down. (A rice, veggie, and usually meat dish thats cooked in a deep pot that is flipped over to serve).
According to Welcome to Palestine, there’s also a cute old city in Battir, several shrines, and a nature museum. You could also contact the NGO Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies, which organizes cultural tours, walks, and bike trips. Another great resource: The people at Marar Ibrahim Al Khalil, or the Abraham Path, a walking trail connecting Iraq, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. (Maybe skip the Iraq and Syria portions now). Anyways, Abraham Path organizes regular hikes in the region and could at least provide information and a guide to hike Battir. Also, the Environmental Education Center in nearby Beit Jala offers birdwatching and hiking trips that go through Battir.
And a few more photos because I kind of dropped the ball on taking photos during my visit:
Em in Jerusalem