Adventure Travel Week
Book: Walking Palestine: 25 Journeys into the West Bank by Stefan Szepesi
What do you really know about Palestine? I’m betting for most of us that’s not much beyond the headlines of conflict over borders with Israel. In this ‘year of the Arab Spring,’ I wrote a series of reviews of books about Arab countries in the Mid-East and in northern Africa, which started with the linked article. I never happened upon just the right book for Palestine. Belatedly, I’m remedying that oversight with a book about a different kind of walking tour.
Personally, I have traveled in Israel, and peered over the border into Palestine, but I admit that I would never have considered the West Bank in Palestine as a place for a leisurely stroll. And I had no idea of the stunning scenery, or the ancient sites from biblical times, through Roman, Crusaders, and other waves of invaders. But once I followed the maps and looked at the photos in this book, I understood that the pictures of conflict we see are of the narrow band along contested borders and Jewish settlements. Beyond the ugly walls and gates and armed soldiers, there are towns and villages and farms, wadis and hills worth visiting.
At A Traveler’s Library, we rarely talk about guidebooks, because we’re dedicated to discussions of the kind of literature and literary non-fiction that entertains while it informs, rather than the go-there, do-that, here’s-what-it-costs kind of practical guidebooks that are also essential to travelers. So why am I swerving off my trodden path to talk about this guide to walking tours? Because Walking Palestine, 25 Journeys into the West Bank, is one of the most captivating and informative guide books I have ever seen. (And because I love the books of Interlink Books and want to encourage you to explore their on-line store, I’m linking to them rather than to my Amazon affiliate account.)
While authors of guidebooks are frequently anonymous to the reader, this book came about because of a very dedicated walker and author, with attributes that give us tons of extra value. Stefan Szepesi walked for enjoyment when he lived in Jerusalem from 2006 to 2010, when he is not working as an economist and consultant to diplomats, including Tony Blair. His background guarantees a deep knowledge of the political situation and history of the area. Although he is back in his native Rotterdam, he continues to return to Palestine.
Naturally, writing about Palestine will be controversial. Neither side will be happy with the presentation of facts. For instance, in an otherwise balanced article pointing out the difficulty of “teetering on that line”, one website sympathetic to Palestine says in its most vitriolic paragraph:
However, there are aspects of this book that many Palestine solidarity campaigners are going to find difficult to swallow. The first clue is the endorsement on the back cover from “the Right Honorable Tony Blair,” a war criminal masquerading as a peace envoy, who has failed to stand up to Israeli settlement-building and other abuses of human rights and international law.
During the time that Szepesi lived and walked in that area, more diplomats and even leisure tourists began to explore the possibilities of walking in Palestine as some areas became easier to access. Even though the Palestinians generally still do not view walking as a pastime, a few tourist facilities are opening, hiking clubs have formed and some trails now sport markers.
However, it IS Palestine, and that makes a simple walk an adventure. At the beginning of a section on safety, Szepesi says:
Walking is not a risk-free activity anywhere and neither of course is walking in an area of conflict. While the walks in this book deliberately avoid areas that have served as flash points for tensions in the past, it is important to be aware of the overall security context…where all of the trails described in this book are located, the conflict has transitioned form a surge in Israeli-Palestinian violence in the early 2000s…to a conflict of low intensity.
Of course the areas of conflict in the West Bank seem to shift unpredictably, and every walker is going to have to decide for herself how low the intensity of conflict should be to make her comfortable walking there. While most guidebooks have useful lists of “do’s” and “don’ts”, not many culminate as this one does with “Don’t walk with any type of firearms.”
One location particularly attracted my attention with its promise of rare tourists and:
…impressive ruins (that) include a Roman theater, basilica and forum, a Byzantine church, a Herodian temple, Hellenistic defence towers, a cathedral-turned-mosque and buildings from Ottoman and Crusader times, among others.
This collection of attractions in Sebastia, that includes a street of columns through the middle of town–the remains of Roman construction, would draw millions of tourists each year were it located just about anywhere except Palestine.
This chapter (chapter four) is organized like all the rest, so I will use it as an example. A one-page summary describes the attractions of the area, followed by a map showing the trails. The first of 3 trails on this map is described in general terms, with details listed in a sidebar–
- Sebastia-Maqam and Bayzeed-Sebastia;
- grade-Moderate; surface: dirt road and single track; minor paved;
- Marked (or not) In this case planned;
- Distance and duration 11.8 km/7.3 miles; 4-5.5 hrs;
- Elevation change 550m ascent/55p m descent;
- Start Coordinates N32 16.622 E35 11.617.
Then the author gives detailed descriptions of the trail by small hunks, including very specific instructions for route finding and notes on interesting things to watch for. These trail description pages are liberally illustrated with beautiful color photographs. When there is a particularly interesting historical or cultural note, a page or section printed on yellow paper interrupts the straight hiking directions. For instance, this trail follows an old railroad track, whose history deserves a page of description, since it was built by the Ottomans, meant to go from Nablus to Damascus, and destroyed by Lawrence of Arabia.
We read descriptions of two more trails in the Sebastia area, and then get a section with local logistical information–how to get there, where to find guides, where to park, eat and sleep, and additional sites to see or festivals to attend. This is also where you learn about other sources of information.
At the end of the book you find a helpful glossary of terms and a short Arab vocabulary. Throughout the book, the Arab script for place names is included in case you’re looking for signs and they don’t appear in English.
Honestly, I could not think of another thing to include in this book, with the exception of an index. I came away with a new appreciation for the value of Palestine to the traveler, as well as much more knowledge of the people and the country than I have from shocking headlines and pictures of the Wall.
If your interest in the Palestine and Israeli area principally focuses on following religious figures, here are some suggestions.
- According to one article on the web, Szepesi now works for Abraham’s Path, an organization he mentions in the book.
- And then there’s the Jesus Trail. The Jesus Trail provides 65 km of Biblical trail, with 220 km of additional trails connecting to sites, villages and cities connected with early Christianity.
- Or check The Alternative Tourism Group, who also help organize a Nativity Trail from Nazareth to Bethlehem–160 km, about 11 days.
Tell me, would you consider going on a hike in Palestine? What’s your comfort level? What would attract you, or repel you?
Disclaimers: This book was provided by the publisher for review, but the opinions are my own. The photos come from Flickr and are used with a Creative Commons license.