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The Old City of Jerusalem feels like such a secret city, an ancient labyrinth of twisting alleyways and vaulted stairways, convents, mosques, soaring limestone walls including of course the largest of them all, the Western Wall. Then, emerging from a deserted, silent passage, you suddenly find yourself pushing through a crowded souq overflowing with rugs, jewellery, trinkets – mini Aladdins’ Caves of anything and everything to do with the world’s three monotheisms: Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Jerusalem_Old City_steps


This cutural heartland is where these religions have intermingled and clashed for centuries – as described in an earlier post I wrote here  Their so-called ‘co-habitation’ creaks on, though for how much longer?

The crack of a gunshot rang out, then another. Both came from across the valley where I was picking olives with Palestinian farmers, one of 30 British volunteers working in small groups as protective presence. The reason for the shot? The constant aggression from Israeli occupiers endured by the West Bank (Palestinian occupied territory) peaks during the harvest, the high point of the year for Palestinians. I’ve volunteered before and written blogs about aspects of the experience here and here (for other posts, enter Palestine in the search box on my home page). But this year proved to be very different.

So, did she or didn’t she? Some locals maintain that Salome’s legendary erotic dance with the head of John the Baptist took place in Sebastiya, in Palestine. Whether it did or didn’t is besides the point, because today’s Sebastiya is one of those little jewels of history that you feel privileged to discover. Where else can you sip coffee in a garden café, using a Roman capital as a table, and look across at a Crusader cathedral converted into a mosque? Or roam through extensive Greek and Roman ruins with not another tourist in sight?


I recently spent two weeks in the West Bank, aka Palestine, helping with the annual olive harvest. It was enlightening, fun – but also depressing. Six years ago I did the same thing when there were more checkpoints, but fewer attacks on Palestinian farmers by Israeli settlers. Now, according to UN figures, attacks have quadrupled, peaking earlier this year to unprecedented levels of vandalism and theft.


When I unpacked my bag the other day, wafts of za’atar enveloped me. No surprise really, as that’s the ubiquitous herbal mix (wild thyme, sesame, sumac & salt) sprinkled by Palestinians on tomatoes or used as a dip with flat-bread and unctuous green olive-oil. When cooking myself it was just too tempting to dip into a packet to flavour anything vegetal. Here’s a huge basin of it…

Palestinian za'atar in market