Jenin, the City of the Sleeping Beauty

The northernmost city in the West Bank, Jenin is home to religious sites, a bustling souq, a unique performing-arts scene and the Arab-American University, but its isolation has traditionally left it off the tourist trail. That’s starting to change, due to the opening of the Jalameh (Gilboa) Border Crossing, just 10km south of Afula, allowing easier access for travelers from Nazareth and Haifa. Map.

Painting of Jenin by David Roberts, 1839
Painting of Jenin by David Roberts, 1839

What’s so special about Jenin is that it’s a real Palestinian city without being any tourist trap. The prices are cheap, you still can repair your shoes while you wait for 10 shekels, you can drink the original coffee, the people in Jenin and on the streets are friendly for tourists and very much welcome you in their nice, a bit dusty city.

Jenin
Jenin

And it’s busy there! Reason is the market and that’s special.On the image above, the man drove my wooden shopping cart. That’s right. When you enter the market, there are several men with a narrow cart offering their services for you. That means that everything you buy, the man will handle it.

Jenin
Jenin

He will follow you with his shopping cart and you can do whatever you want, hands free. The price for this service in the market is NIS 5. If you want him to follow you throughout the city center, he charges you NIS 20. The man has a large family at home and he really needs the income. Nice man.

Jenin
Jenin

Back to the market, there is the normal vegetable market, the meat market and the second-hand-type-of-market in a way. Visit and you will see. And then there are so many see there, not normal.

Some Israelis today are visiting Jenin to do their shoppings for the week and that means paying about NIS 300 (instead of NIS 1,400 in Israel).

Jenin
Jenin

Masjid Jenin al-Kabir & Downtown
With its unmissable green roof, Masjid Jenin al-Kabir (Jenin Great Mosque), was built in 1566 on the orders of Fatima Khatun, then wife of the Governor of Damascus. Cross the street and enter a dense network of alleys that form the Old City, today largely occupied by furniture makers, barbers and machinists. Two blocks south of the mosque is King Talal St, which leads to Jerusalem Sq, the main bus station and the Jenin Cinema. It’s fun to wander into the souq, North of King Talal St, which is absolutely bursting with activity.

Freedom Theater (04-250 3345; http://www.thefreedomtheatre.org; h9am-4pm daily)
This world-renowned theater group has persevered in the face of difficult circumstances since it was founded in 2006. Its founder, Juliano Mar Khamis, was assassinated in 2011 by masked gunners outside the theater building in the heart of Jenin’s refugee camp and his killer has never been identified. The Palestinian film-makers, actors, photographers and directors who have moved through the theater have also had to put up with significant Israeli restrictions on movement. Despite this, the Freedom Theater holds regular performances in both Arabic and  English, and foreign visitors are always warmly received whether there is a show on or not.

Greek Orthodox Church of St George
Located in Burqi’in village, this church was built upon the site where it is believed Jesus healed 10 lepers (Luke 17: 11–19). It’s said to be one of the world’s oldest surviving churches (dating to the 4th or 5th century CE) and contains the cave that sheltered the lepers. Service taxis (3NIS) go here from a station about 300m west of the Masjid Jenin. The church is often locked but the caretaker family should be able to unlock the gates for you. In front of the church a shaft has been uncovered that leads to another cave where early Christians took shelter from the Romans. Ask if you can climb down the ladder to have a nose inside.

Canaan Fair Trade (04-243 1991; http://www.canaanfairtrade.com; 8am-5pm Sat-Thu)
Located 2km beyond Burqi’in, this newly built olive-oil factory practices fair-trade policy with its olive farmers. A tour of the factory (40NIS) includes a free bottle of  olive oil and if you want to get to know the olive farmers, they can set you up with a home stay. A good time to visit is the first Friday of November, when the factory holds its annual harvest festival rooms and a nice kitchen for cooking communal meals. Breakfast is an extra 10NIS. The English-speaking manager is a font of information on the area. It’s opposite the central bus station.

North Gate Hotel (04-243 5700; http://www.northgate-hotel.com; Palestine St; s/d 200/300NIS)
The high-end option in Jenin, North Gate has a pool and clean, modern rooms but its location, a 20- minute walk from the Old City and amidst half a dozen unfinished apartment buildings, counts against it. It is one of only a handful of mid range options in the city. Breakfast and WiFi are included in the room rate.

Awtar (Cinema Circle; dishes 20-60NIS; h8am-midnight)
Head up to Awtar’s spacious roof garden for a choice of Arabic and Western dishes under the stars. Even on cool evenings, the terrace is packed with groups of men and women drinking, eating and chatting over shisha. Downstairs, the restaurant has bay windows overlooking the street and serves Arab staples as well as pizza, burgers and enormous salads.

Information

Jenin Tourism Office (h10am-2pm Sat-Thu)
Don’t be put off by the rather ramshackle tower block that houses this excellent tourism center, opened in 2013 with the aid of funding from the Spanish government. The center has a number of fascinating rooms, which include a timeline of Jenin’s history from 7000 BCE to 2002, touch-screen photography exhibitions and examples of handicrafts. English-speaking staff are a wealth of  advice on what to do in Jenin and the surrounding area.

Transport

There are frequent buses during the day to/from Nablus for 10NIS. From the north (Nazareth or Haifa), it’s possible to take a direct share taxi from Nazareth or Afula to Jenin, passing through the Jalameh border crossing (open daily, 8am to 5pm). Expect a long delay if you cross with your own car.


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