HIGH in the hills of the northern West Bank, it is olive-harvest season, and families are setting up camp at the edge of their village in their ancestral olive groves. There is a sense of excitement as young and old gather for the day’s work and feasting — they call out to us, as our group wends its way up the valley.
The early-morning skies are clear.We spot raptors gliding on the thermals. Later in the day, hyrax (rock badgers) peer at us before scuttling up a cliff face. Our guide, Anwar, is an expert on the region’s flora and wildlife, from the carob tree — under whose ample canopy we take our tea break — to edible plants and migrating birds.
At the end of our second day’s journey — 20 km through villages, olive terraces, and fertile fields of capsicum and herbs — we arrive to a warm welcome of sweet mint tea and pastries from the family in whose home we will stay tonight.
I am the only Kiwi in this group, all of whom love the great outdoors and an opportunity for an energising tramp in the bush or mountains. But this is most certainly a tramp with a difference: we are on the Nativity Trail, walking 140 km in ten days, on a journey that takes in Nazareth, Mount Tabor, Nablus, and Jericho, on the way to Bethlehem.We encounter villages and valleys, verdant hillsides and desert, churches, monasteries, and mosques — as well as Israeli checkpoints and the Separation Wall — en route to the city of Jesus’s birth.
James GeshwilerThe view to Jericho, the world’s oldest inhabited and lowest-lying city (258m below sea level), from Wadi Qelt
THERE has been a renewed interest among Palestinians in hiking and establishing trails across this stunningly diverse landscape, a range of hills between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan, inhabited for more than 5000 years. This trail was originally devised, almost 20 years ago, by the Alternative Tourism Group (ATG), as a project to celebrate the second millennium since Christ’s birth.
Whether it was the route taken by the Holy Family is not the point. ATG is part of a network of NGOs committed to “pilgrimages for transformation”, turning from mass tourism to a more human-orientated approach, seeking to break down negative stereotypes of Palestinians, and helping to boost Palestinian tourism. This, and several other grass-roots initiatives, including the Abraham Path, have been developed as a way of inviting Western Christians to “come and see”.
Pilgrims have poured into the Holy Land since the earliest centuries. Traditionally, they stayed with, worshipped with, and were guided by local people. The Nativity Trail seeks to recreate the link in guides, accommodation, and worship. It attracts both spiritual and secular travellers.
istock The Swiss-built cable-car which carries pilgrims over Jericho to the monastery on the Mount of Temptation
ON DAY one, after a walking tour of Nazareth, we travel up Mount Tabor, on through the al Jalameh checkpoint, to the city of Jenin. Here, in the “watermelon capital” of Palestine, we get an opportunity to visit the Freedom Theatre, and hear about their acclaimed work with children from the refugee camp near by.
Walking into Zababdeh on day two, we are heartened by the welcome, and I’m invited by Saleem, the priest of the Episcopal Church, to don an alb and concelebrate at the Sunday eucharist. Later that day, our host, the Melkite priest Fr Firas, and his family tell us about enterprises that bring the village together, such as sewing, and olive oil and soap-production projects for women.
His message is about reconciliation. “Our calling is to try to give people hope, because living in Palestine can feel like a big prison. We need you to be friends to both sides in this conflict: you should try to build bridges and not walls,” he says.
Among the three families we stay with along the way — one of whom lives in the narrow alleys of a cramped refugee camp, dating from 1949 — education is a priority. Young women and men speak with pride about the courses that they are taking at Palestinian universities, and the qualifications and work they hope to achieve.
On day four, in the bustling city of Nablus, we visit the attractive Orthodox church, built over Jacob’s Well, and encounter the tiny Samaritan community overlooking the city on Mount Gerizim. At Sebastiya near by are the remains of Herod’s palace, and, reputedly, St John the Baptist’s tomb. There is a chance to steam off the day’s exertions in the hammam (Turkish bath) in the old city, and tuck into slices of freshly baked dessert knafeh: a Palestinian favourite.
On day seven, we hike down the peaceful Wadi Auja, descending between sheer limestone cliffs from 300m to 30m below sea-level in Jericho — an oasis in the Judaean desert — until we make the final morning’s ascent, on day ten, via two ancient monasteries, to the Shepherds’ Fields at Beit Sahour. We officially finish the trail as we kneel to pray in the Church of the Nativity, in Manger Square, Bethlehem.
James GeshwilerMar Saba, one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world, dating to 483, built into the cliff face of the Kidron Valley. The monastery contains the cell and tomb of the eighth-century monk John of Damascus
CIVILISATION after civilisation has left its layer of history in the region, and each has brought its own system, architecture, and politics. Even in Jericho, the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth, there is evidence of 21st-century influence: a Swiss cable-car carries pilgrims to the top of the Mount of Temptation, and money from Moscow has built a very Russian-looking museum in Medvedev Street.
Most days, we walk between six to nine hours. Away from the towns, there is plenty of time for silence and reflection — the landscape and vistas we encounter invite it. And, each night, our small group of travellers debrief and tell their stories.
Amid the beauty and peace of the trail, and new insights and discoveries, the impact of the region’s politics and conflicts is never far from the surface. Our hosts talk about challenging economic and travel restrictions, and, in one village, about fear of harassment from Israeli settlers near by, who have burned and destroyed olive trees. Yet at no time during our ten days do we feel unsafe.
Neither do we go hungry. Palestinian hospitality is second to none. Our ATG guides, Ghattas, Anwar, and Nedal, all first-aid trained, know the landscape, the people, and the history well.
Whether you are curious to learn from other cultures, a nature lover, or seeking a spiritual journey, the Nativity Trail has plenty to offer. But the last item on the ATG’s list of “Things to bring” is, perhaps, the most important: “Come with an open heart and mind.”
Canon Simon Winn is Precentor of St Paul’s Cathedral, Wellington, New Zealand, and a former graduate student of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The Alternative Tourism Group is running two Nativity Trail trips in 2019: 21 March-1 April and 20 September-1 October. The cost is £1050, including accommodation, food, guides, and support vehicle. You should be physically fit, with an experience of hiking. Large packs are transported to the destination, and pilgrims walk with a day-pack for up to eight hours per day. All participants need to book their own flight to Tel Aviv, and take a bus or share a taxi to Nazareth, to meet for the first night of the Nativity Trail. For more information on the ten-day journey and the shorter Abraham Path visit http://atg.ps/programs.