Al-Ahram Weekly Online   5 - 11 January 2006
Issue No. 776
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Anne Gwynne

Holy land blues

Sabastiya, writes Anne Gwynne* : 10,000 years of history perish while the Quartet talk of a non-existent peace

On the eve of Jesus Christ's birth, I watched a film on Roman remains in what was once western Palestine but is now Israel. I shared in the presenter's excitement at seeing things unseen for centuries in Jerusalem and elsewhere. But I could not help thinking, with great sadness, of another city on green hills within Jerusalem's City Walls, built by Alexander the Great: Sabastiya, just 60km north of Jerusalem was, after all, much more important, richer and more beautiful in its day.

Click to view caption
A Palestinian child holding his mother's hand walks past a graffiti, in the West Bank, depicting Santa Claus embracing a child that holds the Iraqi and Palestinian flags

The site of the most extensive archaeological remains in Palestine, it holds treasures from five successive cultures dating back 10,000 years (Canaanite, Hellenic, Herodian, Roman and Byzantine), the very cultures that gave us everything we now consider "civilisation", from writing and mathematics to city states and political systems, sedentary agriculture and oceanography. A compact jewel, it is unspoiled and archaeologically unexplored, a treasure just waiting to be shown to the world. Several times in recent years I had seen it either from a distance or fleetingly as I sped through in an ambulance of the UPMRC (now the Palestinian Medical Relief Committees), alongside senior driver Feras Al-Bakri, dodging the Hummers and tanks. For, along with the surrounding villages, Sabastiya had been "closed" for more than five years. When in June 2005, we heard that Sabastiya was "open" -- I happened to have family visiting -- Feras hired a serviis (mini-bus) for his family and mine, and, arriving by a circuitous but scenic route over the mountains -- made possible only because the Albaddaan Spa north of Nablus had been removed -- the nine of us walked, talked and consumed lakes of iced water as we explored the ancient wonder. It was all temporary as we suspected: no sooner had we got used to the notion of travelling to Jenin by car, for instance, than the five-week hiatus was over; all the roads and villages were closed again on the pretext of security.

Sabastiya sits on a horseshoe, its toe clip facing east, with a "modern" Palestinian village inside sloping down to the vale linking Nablus and Jenin. Arriving mid-morning beneath the walls of the Roman Citadel, built appropriately on a hilltop, the nine of us made speedy work of the picnic provided by Suha, Feras's wife, its centre-piece a bowl of fatta, the most delicious breakfast known to mankind. Feras disappeared into the fruit-laden trees, returning with armfuls. From the ramparts the ancient city's superb location was clear: it lay on the intersection of the two great caravan routes, North-South, from Galilee to Jerusalem and East- West, from the Jordan Valley to the Palestinian Coast. Looking down on the village, we flicked through the old Palestinian Association for Cultural Exchange guide to the city -- itself almost ancient, its origins lost in the mists of time -- noting how the text ironically apologises for Sabastiya's "late start" in this land of great antiquity, that it "did not gain political importance until 876 BC". The citadel is predated by a Hellenistic Acropolis whose steep steps are still intact. Below it stand the ruins of the Basilica and the Temple of Augustus, as well as small shops, tombs and churches. A walk of some 2km, whether right or left, will bring you to the city walls, built under Alexander the Great with a huge watchtower at each end. Walking south, it is necessary to be under cover of trees to stay out of sight of Shafi Shamron settlers, who will shoot at anything that moves with legal impunity. Looking over the walls to the olive groves of the five Palestinian villages forming a semi- circle alongside the outer edge of the horseshow -- Burqa, Beit Imrin, Nisf Jubeil, Inisiniya, and Annaqqura -- we lamented the fact that every dunnum of this land is occupied by settles, with 80 per cent of the villages' population without work and subject to arbitrary killing, arrest and humiliation.

Long before Israel blocked the roads -- with mounds, moats or wire -- Sabastiya was a busy tourist attraction, drawing in 15-20 coach-loads from across Palestine and numerous private cars from all over the region. That is why the village has all the customary tourist facilities -- hotels, restaurants, bazaars, parks and immaculate public lavatories -- made all the more attractive by Palestinian hospitality. For five and half years now, each one of these businesses has been closed down. Stopping to photograph the elegant Holy Land Restaurant , we were invited by the owner to have lunch with his family -- a pleasure we had to decline in view of the necessity of heading back before dark, when sudden closures and checkpoint hassles are less likely. What we did have time for were Roman ruins, built over earlier buildings out of their stone: the longest colonnaded road in existence (some 600 columns on each side), an amphitheatre, a spacious forum, basilica, acropolis, walkways, paved roads... It was here that John the Baptist was incarcerated in Herod's dungeons and eventually beheaded on Salome's whim; his headless body lies in Al-Nabi Yehya Mosque, near by, the head having been taken to the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus. Stone steps and curves of stepped seating overlook lintel-strewn carved blocks that once topped the columns. These are of two sizes: finer, shorter ones that supported porticos, cloisters and verandahs; and tall, massive ones that held up the roofs. And this is what's left of a large quantity of stone, much of which has been used for modern building, especially recently, for over the last five years the Israeli army has killed more than 4,500 people, wounded in excess of 60,000 and destroyed over 70,000 buildings. Sabastiya has been "closed" so that nothing can move in or out other than what can be carried on the back of a man or a donkey. And the population is without income. No wonder, then, that the local population should make use of readily available material, whether or not it is of archaeological value. Other than such inevitable (mis)use, deterioration results from neglect and Israeli fire; monuments have even been used for target practice.

On our way back from the walls to the village we had to run for it, dodging a marauding Hummer from one of the surrounding colonies evacuated of everyone except the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF). Stepping through the nearest fortified door, we found ourselves in a wonderland -- a restaurant on several floors with cool pergolas under spreading vines and shady walks among fruit trees -- pomegranate, orange, lime and lemon, olive, fig, almond... Of course the restaurateur would not hear of us leaving without dinner, and there in the family's roof-garden we shared a memorable meal cooked on charcoal where we sat. We learned that the family had lost sons to death and prison, suffered humiliation, arrest, injury and access to healthcare, education and work. We were the first visitors in five years, and they received us with a level-headed endurance -- dignity and humour -- they had, amazingly, managed to retain. Lahm (meat) and kofta kebabs, as well as vegetable kebabs bursting with flavour, consumed with hot bread fresh from the thabboun (clay-oven), together with hummus, baba ghannouj, and labnah in a pool of the zesty olive oil, made for an aesthetic experience. Then came baskets of local fruit followed with an endless supply of qahweh -- delicious Arabic coffee -- accompanied by narghilah, a bubbling background to absorbing conversation until our serviis arrived and we bid our generous hosts farewell. Until Sabastiya is "open" again, neither a reunion nor an archaeological expedition can ever be envisaged. Israeli historians in the film I saw were rewriting the history of previously Palestinian cities in Galilee, now officially "historically Jewish"; they happen to lie in the right place, after all. Sabastiya has much Jewish history of its own, but because it remains in the wrong place, it is being wiped off the slate of history.

* The writer is an elected member of the International Federation of Journalists and the National Union of Journalists (UK), writing from occupied Nablus where she has worked with the UPMRC.

The essence of sovereignty

THE CLOSURE of Sabastiya is but an example of Israeli policy in the occupied territories, the periodic -- and often arbitrary -- lockdown being the pretext for taking over land, dispossessing its rightful owners of their property down to the last dunnum and in so doing forcing them to leave; such, indeed, is the most extensive, systematic effort at ethnic cleansing undertaken in modern times. So far, the Palestinians get by by sharing; but one day there will be nothing more left to share and then the Israeli plan will be complete. Another example of the policy of ethnic cleansing is complicating life, investing it with as many obstacles and humiliations as are at the disposal of the occupier. The ambulance round trip from Nablus to Sabastiya used to take a whole day, leading me to assume that the distance between them was huge. The morning when we undertook the trip, 6 June, I discovered that Sabastiya is in fact only 10km away from Nablus's city centre, six from Beit Iba. What is presented to the world as security measures is in fact a systematic dislocation of normal life, with people unable to travel 6km for medical treatment and thereby deprived also of education, work opportunities and the right to socialise with their families. As I write, some six months after the visit, every road in northern Palestine is closed and ambulances, when they are allowed to pass at all, are subjected to a two-hour wait at road blocks, their drivers subjected to outrageous humiliations -- forced to lick the boots of IOF soldiers, to bark or strip -- in order to obtain help for the sick. Feras was injured for the ninth time since I have known him, shot in the back of the head by a rubber-coated bullet on 20 December. The IOF object to any Palestinian travel on principle, often treating it as an offence than can result in immediate death. And under such conditions, the state of Sabastiya -- an essential part of the Fertile Crescent that gave birth to civilisation thousands of years ago -- is truly deplorable. Indeed I cannot begin to count the number of times I have been told that the Holy Land belongs to all humanity for all time, that everyone is welcome to it, be they Muslim, Christian or Jewish. Ask a Palestinian farmer how old the trees are and he will likely reply along those lines: "I don't know exactly, but one of my grandfathers was sitting at the shade of one of them when Adam walked by." Israelis should be reminded that Sabastiya is not theirs to close, any more than any square-metre of Palestine is theirs to despoil, for Israel is "a belligerent occupier" by international law, while Palestinians, by the same token, should have, vis-à-vis this land "the very essence of sovereignty".

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