Arriving in the small West Bank town of Aboud, with zero expectations about what we might find, I was unaware that I was about to be charmed by this historically rich Christian town.
It might surprise you to hear that despite being called the Holy Land on account of Jesus’ birth, life and death in these parts, there are alarmingly few Christians still living in Palestine. In fact, it’s estimated that Palestinian Christians make up less than 2% of the West Bank and less than 1% of the population of Jerusalem and Gaza. In 2017, it was estimated that there were only 47,000 Palestinian Christians left in the Holy Land with most having emigrated abroad due to the variety of religious, political, social and economic challenges they face.
We had been given the phone number of a man called Victor to call when we arrived and the smartly dressed gentleman who arrived turned out to be no less than the Mayor of Aboud. Victor proudly told us that Aboud held the third oldest church after the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (330 CE) and the Holy Sepulchre (335 CE) in Jerusalem, he also noted the Church in Burqin as part of this original set.
The story is that St Helena (mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine who allowed Christianity to be practiced freely after the year 313 CE) travelled to the Holy Land in the year 324 in search of the Holy Sepulchre (Jesus’ tomb). On her journey, she sought to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, doing good deeds and founding several churches on holy sites along the way. Aboud was one such place where Jesus was said to have passed through and St Helena founded the first of many churches here.
Victor disappeared into the house opposite the church to collect the key from the family entrusted with the honour of holding it. We had already been introduced to several generations of the family as they inquisitively eyed us up the moment we had strolled into their street. The village had a relaxed yet dignified vibe. Faded murals of Jesus and other biblical scenes were tasteful instead of tatty.
The key that arrived was a true relic made of solid metal, around 15 cm long, and was not the sort of thing you casually carried in your pocket. Victor opened the doors of the Church of the Virgin Mary and we stepped inside the beautiful space. It was clear there had been lots of investment in maintaining and restoring the church over the years and this had achieved the difficult balance of celebrating the original features while maintaining vibrant colours and a rich, cosy feel. It almost felt luxurious without being decadent.
The parishioners are particularly proud of an ancient tile in Aramaic script which is still visible within the Church today. It’s discovery in the 20th century had added weight to the evidence that the church pre-dated Crusader times, as had previously been believed. Many of the ancient stone columns are thought to be original and great care has been taken to bolster them in a way that still allows them to take pride of place in the structure of the Church today.
The population of Aboud is around 2200 today and half of the village is Christian, and the other half is Muslim. Victor told us that it was a peaceful union between these religions. The tour of the Holy riches of Aboud continued, and we moved on to see the site of St Barbara’s monastery. From these hills, on the outskirts of Aboud, the skyscrapers of Tel Aviv and the glint of the ocean behind are clearly visible giving a strange perspective on land and identity.
The story of St Barbara is more elaborate than the site itself. The legend goes that Barbara lived in the 3rd Century and was imprisoned by her father in a tower to protect her from outside influences. Despite this, she declared herself a Christian (still considered new and controversial at the time) and her father tried to kill her. She escaped from the tower, deploying a series of miracles, and took refuge in a small cave near Aboud. He caught up with her,and beheaded her with his own hands only to be struck by lightning and killed himself.
Since that day Barbara became known as Saint Barbara or the Great Martyr Barbara and she is celebrated in many countries on 4 December. In Aboud, her day of remembrance is 17 December and Victor emphatically invited us to join the crowd this year.
You can enter the small caves where Barbara hid but you’ll need a tour guide to bring the site to life. The gates looked like they languished largely closed despite the new approach road built recently with foreign investment. Victor didn’t miss a trick in highlighting the number of important sites that ‘needed a project’ and even pre-covid I doubted that Aboud featured on many tourist itineraries despite being charming and historically rich. Passing another locked gate, Victor told us that a new guest house would open soon. ‘It’s nearly finished’ and ‘I will call you when it opens’ he said, as we hoped it would see the light of day.
It was a hot day and our unofficial impromptu tour ended at the Zarqa spring at the far end of Wadi Limone, a well-known hiking hotspot. Despite being November already, the day was hot, and several families picnicked by the Spring as the kids splashed the cool water and dangled their heads in to drink the water.
Victor had gone above the call of duty to show us the best of Aboud and it was disarmingly charming. Driving out we stopped at a local shop to buy some olive oil and the family were quick to tell us how tough life was for Christians and how everyone left or was pushed out. It was a good reminder that what many Palestinians needed wasn’t another guest house, or a paved road for tour buses to swoop in and out on, but a protected homeland with the human rights that come with equality.