Thursday, October 23, 2014

Sabastiya: Tourists and Bulldozers

Site of John the Baptist imprisonment
Again I return to Sabastiya.  This time it is autumn, and I am bringing my traveling companions to see the place that I have told them is my favourite spot in Palestine.  Ahmad Kayed, a spokesperson for the village and someone I know from previous visits to Sabastiya, greets us warmly and starts our tour with a visit to the mosque/church built on the site where John the Baptist was beheaded.  This is the first time I have been inside the building – in the basement cell where legend has it John the Baptist was imprisoned – and seen the hole through which he was fed.  The church was built in the 4th Century; it later became a mosque which, Kayed says, is what saved it from destruction in later centuries.

He then leads us across the street to a quiet, tree-lined park, where we sit and converse over coffee and tea.  Kayed tells the rest of the group a bit of Sabastiya’s recent history, and tells us of his work to bring tourism to the town.  He gives us a tour of the new Sabastiya Guest House ( and invites us to return for a stay.

A short uphill walk takes us to the archeological site, the ancient city of Sabastiya, which was once the capitol of Samaria.  The Romans were in this area in the first century – and left columns from an ancient temple, an amphitheater and a first century church.  When showing us the amphitheater, a cavernous space that once seated 7,000 people, Kayed told us that the week before Israeli bulldozers had been at the site, moving stones inside the ruins.  We speculated on the reason for the bulldozers – surely they wouldn’t destroy a site of such importance!  A wire enclosure now surrounded the amphitheater, where a year earlier I had freely climbed. 

The Roman Coliseum in Ancient Sabastiya
On up the hill we climbed to the top of the site, where we were treated to a panoramic view of the surrounding area.  Agricultural land (much accessible only with difficulty because of agricultural checkpoints), Palestinian villages and the settlement of Shave Shomron, whose sewage had caused such damage last year (see “Sebastiya, Settlers and Sewage” – March 26, 2013 and “Sabastiya – A Happy Ending,” April 7, 2013) and whose settlers had later burned the community’s olive trees (see “A(nother) Sad Story from Sebastiya – June 30, 2013).
The camel waits for tourists who do not come

After all of the exercise, we were ready for a good lunch and Ahmed did not disappoint.  He took us to Holy Land Sun Restaurant, located near the parking area for the ruins, where we enjoyed a delicious lunch of makloubeh and Middle Eastern salads.   We talked about how the Occupation has decimated tourism in the West Bank, particularly in the north, where it is more difficult to access the sites.  Kayed told us that in 1965, Sabastiya was the most visited tourist site in the Middle East, surpassing even the Pyramids of Egypt.  Now, in spite of a USAID contribution to “improve tourism infrastructure,” as well as contributions from the German government, tourists are few and far between, and the few restaurants and souvenir shops left stand empty most of the time.
Sunrise over Sabastiya (photo by Amhad Kayed)
My traveling companions were very impressed with Sabastiya – and with Kayed – and all promised to return, and to tell their friends.  And I will continue to bring my friends there.  There is much more to see in the West Bank than Bethlehem! 

1 comment:

  1. It was good to meet you the other day when you visited Sabastiya. We hope you enjoyed your time with us and look forward to seeing you again maybe!