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(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Lamb blood is splattered all over the doorway of what was once a church as if someone had just dropped a leaky garbage bag filled with guts from the heavens.
“The local people continue to follow Old Testament practices. They sacrifice unto God,” explains Maria Khoury as she leads me through the ruins of the Byzantine-era St. George Church on the outskirts of her Palestinian village, Taybeh.
“This is blood here,” she says, pointing to the big red patch at the entry way. “Sometimes we might not have a sacrifice for six months and maybe in one week we might have three,” she adds. “It’s a cultural tradition. It has nothing to do anymore with religion.”
It’s a hot summer day in the Holy Land and we’re in search of the so-called “Sufi Trail,” which we are told links the Arab villages of the central West Bank. Even with the help of two tour guides, we never quite identify the trail’s entire route, but it doesn’t matter. We enjoy an enticing melange of historical sites and scenery straight out of the Bible.
The Sufi Trail is part of the Palestinian Authority’s campaign to get visitors to expand their itineraries beyond the traditional stops of Bethlehem, Jericho and Ramallah and to promote rural tourism. The aim is to create jobs for the villagers while giving tourists a unique experience.
“We feel that there are enough resources and capacities, which are not actually utilized but which are abundant in rural Palestine and we can easily package it,” says Raed Saadeh, the chairman of the Rozana Association, which promotes heritage and cultural strengthening events for the Palestinians.
“We have organized something that we call the Sufi trails. Our intention is not the religious part of the trail but the cultural,” Saadeh told The Media Line. “We identify a number of Sufi monuments and Byzantine churches, mosaics, Roman garrisons, prehistoric caves and we design activities around them and villages in the vicinity.”
Our first stop is Taybeh, a picturesque Christian mountain village on the eastern side of the ridge Judean mountains about 15 kilometers (nine miles) northeast of Jerusalem. And while it’s the dead of summer, it’s still Christmas in Taybeh. This we know because a huge banner across the road reading “MERRY X-MAS” welcomes us and no one seems to have taken down the other holiday decorations.
Jesus visited this village, known in biblical times as Ofra or Ephraim, on his way to the Mount of Temptation. But today it’s best known for its ... beer.
“I believe that Jesus Christ made Taybeh famous in the old days and I made it in the new days. Now it’s Taybeh on the map. Taybeh became famous,” says Nadim Khoury, co-founder of the Taybeh Brewing Company.
Khoury is well known in these parts. Born in a stone house here, he followed the path of many of his fellow Taybeh residents and sought his fortune abroad. Educated in the US, he got hooked on making homemade beer while working in a liquor store in Boston. He was swept up in the peace fever after Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo accords in 1993 and like a prodigal son, returned to his village.
Together with his brother David, now the mayor, Khoury set up the Taybeh brewery. From 500 liters in 1995, today they produce 600,000 liters exported far and wide, but mostly in the West Bank and Israel.
To help us find the Sufi trail, we are joined by two young guides, Salma and Waffa, students at nearby Birzeit University.
“We finished our tour guide course two weeks ago," Salma says. "You are our first client."
The pair came prepared with little fact sheets on the various villages we drive through.
“This is Deir Jarir. There are 3,800 Muslims in this village. That is Tel A’sur, you see, over there with the Israeli army antennas. That is the highest point in the Ramallah region,” says Salma.
The route takes us to Ein Yabrud, known for its ancient trees. In fact, one of the largest ancient olive trees I’d ever seen was right in the middle of the high road, asphalt encircling it.
We arrive at Birzeit for their annual heritage fair, where local handicrafts are sold in stalls in the renovated old quarter. The highlight is a reenactment of a traditional wedding. Old women in embroidered dresses gather around a smiling bride singing and clapping while the groom is carried to the ceremony on the shoulders of his relatives and friends.
"This is how my grandmother got married,” says one young woman. “Today, the young people just do a party in a big hall. They so much want to adopt the Western ways that they’ve forgotten their heritage.”
Last year saw a record two million tourists visit the Palestinian Authority, although Tourism Ministry expects that this year it will be about 15% fewer.