Jabal-Nablus, a Page from Palestine’s History

By Hasan Afif El-Hasan

Prior to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank, the ancient City of Nablus had been a Palestinian principal trade and manufacturing center for centuries. Nablus natural beauty captured the imagination of visitors throughout recorded history. With its twenty gushing springs, fruit gardens, public fountains and mosques courtyards, Nablus City, embedded in a valley between two steep mountains, Jerzeem and Eibal, was described by Shams al-Din al-Ansari back in the fourteenth century as “a palace in a garden”.

After visiting Nablus in 1881, the English clergyman and renowned traveler Henry Baker Tristram described the city as “its beauty can hardly be exaggerated…Clusters of white-roofed houses nestling in the bosom of a mass of trees, olive, palm, orange, apricot, and many another varying the carpet with every shade of green…..Everything fresh, green, and picturesque with verdure, shade and water everywhere”.

The British Reverend John Mills, visited Palestine twice in the 1850’s and published a geography book, “Palestina”. He wrote about the Palestinians of Nablus as “most proud of it [their City], and [they] think there is no place in the world equal to it.” John Mills was impressed by the mutual respect and harmony among the town’s communities, Muslim majority, the Christian and the Samaritan minorities. The Samaritans consider one of Nablus two mountains, Mt. Jerzeem, their spiritual center.

Nablus City has always been a farmers-town or as Professor Beshara Doumani described it as “a very large village” where the cycles of business activities are at peak during the agriculture production seasons. The City has been the anchor for hundreds of villages in the hills, the valleys and the plains that stretch from Jenin in the north to the hills of Ramallah and al-Bireh in the south. As a geographic and population unit, Nablus and its hinterland has been known as Jabal-Nablus. The “Jabal” in Jabal-Nablus literally means “mountain”, but in this context it suggests tough, enduring, regionally based merchant-farmer society actively involved in the productive capacity of the land. The farmers of Jabal-Nablus learnt over the millennia to exploit every geographical feature of their land. The flat land has been sown with grain and planted with vegetables and legumes; hills have been terraced and planted with trees; and the high stony land has been utilized for grazing cows, lambs and goats. The popularity of the Nabulsi cheese in the families’ pantries and the sweet pastry shops is matched only by the French cheese in Europe or the mozzarella cheese in the US pizza eateries.  

The land is famous for its plentiful olive for pickling and oil, table grape and raisin, different kinds of fig fruit and sweet dry fig, hazel nuts, apricot, pomegranate, grain, tobacco, watermelon, cotton, summer vegetables and the famous wild thyme. The olive tree has been the symbol of Palestinian nationalism and economic independence since thousands of years when the Palestinians lived off the land and before they became refugees or dependent on the hand outs of foreign donors.

During the olive harvest season in autumn of every year, the villagers’ families get busy collecting the olive from the groves that cover the slopes in a festival atmosphere. Olive oil mills are the center of the next level of activities. Quality and price of the olive becomes the talk of the farmers, the merchants, the money lenders and the consumers in town. Tons of olive oil are being transported from the villages, sold for consumption, deposited daily in the soap factories underground wells or exported to Syria, Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula and Egypt. The farmers spend the olive-oil money buying clothes, shoes, rice, sugar, coffee, cooking utensils, work tools and other items and payoff loans. The olive season is the time when many eligible young people and the young in heart tie the knot buying wedding clothes, gifts, gold and wedding candy. Good olive season is a happy time for the cloth merchants, the tailors, the goldsmith craftsmen and perfume businesses.

The Palestinian farmers proved they had nothing to fear from free trade when the free trade Anglo-Turkish commercial Convention was signed in 1838. Professor Beshara Doumani wrote that in the nineteenth century, “large agricultural surpluses were generated as Palestinian wheat, barley, sesame, olive oil, soap and cotton were sold on the world market. Exports exceeded the imports of European machine-manufactured goods.”  

The olive oil-based soap industry of Nablus expanded significantly beyond the local market in the nineteenth century, exporting a variety of the product to many Middle East countries. Huge soap-factories were built and a class of rich industrial families was created.

Jabal-Nablus also has another name, “Jabal-al-nar” which literally means “the mountain of fire” because its inhabitants played leading roles in fighting invaders through history since the periods of the Egyptian pharaohs.  In recent history, they lived up to their reputation when they fought against the invading Egyptian forces in 1834; they rebelled against the British rule in 1936-39; The first armed uprising against the British was led by Sheikh Izeddin al-Qassam who set his headquarters in the wooded hills of Ya’bad village; and the Palestinians of Jabal-Nablus led the intifada against the Israeli occupation in 1987-88.

In 1799, when Napoleon Bonaparte landed in Cairo and was planning to invade Palestine that was part of the Ottoman Empire, Shaikh Yousuf Jarrar of Jenin, a member of a local prominent family and a Turkish official appointee wrote a poem in which he exhorted leading families of Jabal-Nablus to get their men ready to repel the French once they landed in Palestine:
House of Tuqan, draw your swords,
And mount your precious saddles.
House of Nimr, you mighty tigers,
Straighten your courageous lines.
Muhammmed Uthman, mobilize your men,
Mobilize the heroes from all directions.
Ahmad al-Qasim, you bold lion,
Prow of the advancing lines. 

The Palestinian Yusuf Diya, was elected to the Ottoman Parliament in 1877 and later on became a professor of Arabic in Vienna. He was described by an American diplomat as “the finest orator and ablest debater in the chamber [the Ottoman Parliament].” Diya communicated with Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, in 1899 via the Chief Rabbi in France, telling Herzl, “Palestine was heavily populated by non-Jews…[and asked] By what right do the Jews demand it for themselves?” The colonialist Great Britain granted the Jews a homeland in Palestine. Britain Foreign Minister Arthur James Balfour submitted “Balfour Declaration” in a letter to Lord Rothschild in 1917 that became the basis for creating the State of Israel and disrupting the Palestinians’ life that survived thousands of years.  

– Hasan Afif El-Hasan is a political analyst. His latest book, Is The Two-State Solution Already Dead? (Algora Publishing, New York), now available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. He was born in Beit-Eiba, a small village near Nablus. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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