330km, 21 days hiking from north to south of the West Bank territory in Palestine, the Masar Ibrahim Trail passes through 53 towns and villages, crosses the Judean desert, and includes sites of significance to the Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths.
The trail is quite new, with the first guided through-walk of the whole trail undertaken in 2016. In theory, it is possible to walk the trail on a self-guided basis, but in reality this is not practical for a couple of reasons. Firstly, parts of the trail pass through private farmland, and without a guide to show the way, it would be necessary to walk a longer, more boring route on the roads. Not very satisfying for the hiker. Secondly, and more importantly, large parts of the desert section in the middle have few trail markers. It would be easy and dangerous to get lost.
Walk Palestine organises two through-walks a year, one in March and one in November. It is possible to join the walk for any section – as long as you can get to the start point – so some walkers do, for example, one week of the hike.
On our hike, six walkers hiked the whole 330kms, and others joined us for different sections. Some locals even joined us for just a day.
Accommodation along the trail is mainly in homestays, where the host family provides traditional Palestinian home cooked food and a bed for the night. In the middle week of the walk, the trail runs through desert and we stayed three nights in Bedouin tent communities and one night in a mountain-side cave.
We decided to do this hike for the opportunity to see the desert landscape of Palestine, for the physical challenge of a long hike, and to just get out walking on a remote, little-used trail. The hike fulfilled all these objectives, but actually, the best aspect of it turned out to be the interaction with local people and the understanding we gained about how the separation of the West Bank territory from the Jewish section of the country, and the way in which Palestinians are treated by the apparatus of the Israeli state, has affected the lives of ordinary people.
We recognise that the region’s history and current situation are complex, and we won’t be making any political statements on the subject. But, we will say this. When nation states engage in repeated, flagrant breaches of United Nations resolutions, and the international community fails to take any meaningful action in response, it is the ordinary people on the ground who suffer.
Now, to the hike itself. We won’t give a detailed description of each day’s walk, but here’s a few of the highlights.
The hike begins from the village of Rumana, 17km northwest of the city of Jenin in the north of the West Bank. The first few days are mainly through agricultural lands, especially olive groves.
The first day ends in the town of Bur’qin where is to be found the Church of St George, also known as the Church of the Ten Lepers. According to the Gospel of St Luke, Jesus passed through a village and heard the cries of lepers who had been ostracised from the village and forced to live in a cave. He sent them to the priest, and by the time they arrived, they were cured. Only one returned to thank Jesus.
A cave in Bur’qin purported to be the one in this story became a site of pilgrimage and then a church was built over the cave in Byzantine times. It is variously reported as the oldest or third oldest church in the world.
In many of the villages, we were invited in to factories and small businesses to see food products being made. A bakery, an olive oil factory, a sweets manufacturer. No appointment, no payment, just a keenness for visitors to see their business.
In Sebastia, we visited Roman ruins and a Byzantine church built on what is believed by some to be the tomb of John the Baptist.
In some towns, we saw political graffiti. This wall mural in Sebastia references the principle, formulated by the UN in 1948 but rejected by Israel, that Palestinian refugees displaced by the 1948 Palestine War and the 1967 Six-Day War have a right to return, and a right to the property they or their forebears left behind or were forced to leave. Many displaced Palestinians still hold the actual keys to these properties, and others display keys in their new places as a symbol of their rights.
We ended Day 7 of the walk with a visit to one of Palestine’s two well-known craft breweries. Taybeh was established by a Palestinian family who established a brewery in Boston, and after years living in the USA, returned in the mid 1990s to open a brewery, and now also a winery here.
With typical Palestinian hospitality, even though we arrived after hours, the manager opened up and gave us a tour of the winery and a tasting of the beers.
On Day 8 we crossed into areas which have been home to Bedouins for centuries, and stayed the night in a tent in a Bedouin community. Sunset and sunrise over the desert were beautiful. And a special treat – hot chips with breakfast!!
On the topic of food, we have to mention Palestinian’s favourite family meal, muqlaba. Meaning ‘upside down’, it is a delicious combination of rice, chicken and vegetables – usually potato and cauliflower – slow cooked in an enormous pot and served communally by tipping the pot onto a serving plate. The most accomplished Palestinian cooks can achieve this without the muqlaba losing its shape, although the shape doesn’t last long once spoons start digging in.
It is great fuel for walking, and very tasty. We ate this many a night!
Next day we reached Jericho, the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth.
Built into the side of a mountain overlooking Jericho and the Jordan Valley is the Monastery of The Temptation. According to Christian tradition, this mountain is where Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, then faced the temptation of the Devil to reveal his divinity.
There are now only a few monks living in the monastery but it is a major destination for Eastern Orthodox pilgrims.
From Jericho, the trail passes the ruins of Herod’s Winter Palace and into Wadi Qelt, a scenic and beautiful canyon running between Jericho and Jerusalem. Hanging on the side of the canyon is the Monastery of St George of Choziba, established by monks in the 4th century seeking the desert experiences of John the Baptist.
Walking the wadi was exceptional, one of the best experiences of the walk.
High on the slopes we saw gazelles – too fast to photograph – and hyraxes, small furry mammals which look like, but are not related to, marmots.
And then when we climbed out, the landscape was equally breathtaking, literally so as we scaled to high points for panaroma views.
Over the next few days, there was more fabulous desert landscape, nights in Bedouin communities and one night in a cave.
The trail passes another masterpiece of Orthodox architecture, the Mar Saba Monastery, named after Saint Saba, on a cliff side overlooking the Kidron Valley, half way between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.
On Day 14 we arrived in Bethlehem. It felt crowded and touristic after days and days of walking in isolation. It is home to the Basilica of the Nativity, built on the site believed by Christians to be the birthplace of Jesus. Yes, the very spot.
Nearby is the Chapel of the Milk Grotto, a Catholic chapel erected in 1872 over a grotto of soft white rock which became a devotional site on the basis of a belief that the Holy Family rested here during their flight to Egypt and as Mary breast fed Jesus, a drop of milk fell on the stone and turned the rock white.
Purportedly, women who pray to Our Lady of the Milk, seeking to increase their milk supply or to conceive a child, have obtained results when the powdery white chalk from the cave is added to their food. Of course, you can buy it, specially packaged, from the Franciscan Monastery built over the cave, for just $10 per gram.
The throng of pushy devotees elbowing each other out of the way to get a selfie at the grotto made us appreciate the quiet of the desert even more.
Leaving Bethlehem we arrived at the village of Artas, where we visited the Convent of the Hortus Conclusus, which derives its name from the garden referred to in the Old Testament book, Song of Songs. It still has an impressive garden, despite only a few nuns still living here.
Further on, we also visited Solomon’s Pools, part of a complex water system built between around 100BCE and 30CE. The pools were fed by two aqueducts and several local springs and delivered water via other aqueducts, north to the city of Jerusalem and east to the desert fortress and town of Herodium.
The highlight of Week Three, though, was more walking through the desert, and through Wadi Jihar, a deep limestone canyon.
One morning we woke well before dawn and were driven by 4WD to a cliff top overlooking the Dead Sea to watch the sun rise over Jordan on the other side.
Outside Bani Naim we visited the hill from which Abraham is said to have met with his cousin, Lot before the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. A rock in a shrine here is said to bear his footprints and, er, there’s another set outside. Hot feet indeed.
In Hebron, we visited the Abraham Mosque, built over the Tombs of the Patriots, believed to be where Abraham and Sarah, and Isaac and Rebekah all lie.
The tombs are sacred to both the Jewish and Muslim faiths. Both faiths worshipped freely here until 1994 when an extremist American Jewish settler opened fire on Muslims praying in the mosque, killing 29 and injuring 125 others.
The massacre was widely condemned in Israel and by Jewish communities overseas, and Israeli’s then Prime Minister, Yitzak Rabin branded the perpetrator ‘a degenerate murderer’, yet he was lauded by some Jewish settlers in Hebron, who considered him a hero.
Sadly, as a result of the massacre, the complex was divided by a seperation wall, with Jews accessing from one side and Muslims from the other. It is in many ways a microcosm of Hebron, and even of Israel itself.
After Hebron, we were back to more fertile, agricultural land, passing through ancient farming terraces and pine forest.
We passed abandoned cave villages, and villages where former cave homes are still used for livestock and storage.
And then suddenly it seemed, it was all over. After three more days, we reached our end point, Beit Mirsim, a small community within sight of the Separation Wall which divides the West Bank from the rest of Israel.
We signed up for the physical challenge and the landscape, and found that the walk was so much more. There is no better way to gain an understanding of a place than to walk it.
Staying with local families gave us an insight into how people live. Staying in the Bedouin communities was a great experience. We have stayed in a Bedouin camp in Jordan, but it was specially erected for tourists. This was an opportunity to stay in an authentic, working Bedouin community. Not so picturesque and sanitised, but it was the real thing.
The trail is new and little used. This is great, in that you will not encounter big groups or clogging up on the trail. Not yet, anyway. As best we could ascertain, our group of six brought the number of people who have walked the entire trail without a break to a grand total of 11.
But being a new trail, it still has some teething problems. None insurmountable! It just means organisation is not as slick as walking elsewhere. Things run on ‘Palestine time’, communication difficulties can arise, and sometimes things change without a whole lot of explanation.
Like any long-distance trail, there are sections that are not that interesting, and some that are repetitive. Also, it isn’t all pretty. There’s a depressing amount of rubbish around some of the villages, although that’s no different to a lot of other poor communities around the world.
The middle section of the walk is the most scenic. If you have limited time, and walking in the desert wilderness is your priority, do Week Two. However, be aware that the walk is being tweaked each time, so the next through-walk, which is scheduled for March 2019, has a slightly different program, with rest days included, so it will be a little different from what we’ve described.
It is not a difficult or technical walk, well within the capability of people with a good level of fitness who are used to walking on rocky trails. Doing the whole walk gives you a broader range of experiences and an opportunity for true immersion, so if you have the time, we’d highly recommend it.