On the West Bank Sufi Trail

A new trail offers visitors a look at little-known spiritual sites associated with Sufism, or Islamic mysticism.

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For most tourists, iconic religious landmarks like the Dome of the Rock, the Western Wall and the Church of the Nativity are an important part of any visit to the Holy Land. Now a new trail offers visitors a look at little-known spiritual sites associated with Sufism, or Islamic mysticism.

The Sufi Trail is less than an hour from Jerusalem, in the central West Bank, amid vast expanses of olive tree terraces, forests and rocky hills. The trail showcases sanctuaries and shrines marking the burial sites of Sufi spiritual leaders. In an era of rising Islamic fundamentalism, the trail also provides a glimpse of a moderate strain of Islam while preserving the history of a millennium-old tradition that is rapidly fading from local memory.

The trail was launched by Rozana, an association dedicated to the promotion of agri-tourism, and architectural and cultural preservation in the Palestinian Territories. The trail starts at Rozana's headquarters in the village of Birzeit near Ramallah, overlooking green hills and gray rock slopes, and stretches for a few kilometers to the white, blue and red-domed Sufi sanctuaries perched on hilltops and nestled in the woods.

The origins of Sufism date back to the beginning of Islam. Its adherents yearned to establish a direct relationship with God. The pathway to the divine took several forms including music, poetry and reaching a state of ecstasy through a whirling dance ritual. (In English, the term "whirling Dervish" is sometimes used as a metaphor to describe spinning or a whirlwind of activity).

Sanctuaries were erected in the Holy Land upon the death of Sufi mystics who lived an ascetic life, wandering, fasting and praying in solitude. Their existence was influenced both by the example of Christian hermits and the Hindu religion, said Muhsin Yusuf, who teaches Muslim History at Birzeit University.

From the Middle Ages to the 19th century, Sufism spread throughout the Muslim world. Sufi mystics inspired devotion and pilgrimages. People attributed special powers to the mystics and considered them capable of communicating with God. The faithful flocked to the shrines and prayed for miracles ranging from healing to fertility to a successful harvest, said Yusuf.

But with the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I and the influence of European culture in the Holy Land, Sufism was pushed aside.

"In the 19th century, with the advent of modernity, people started to look at them as strange, their practices started to be considered backward, irrational, their rituals strange," said Itzchak Weismann, who teaches Islam at Haifa University's Middle East department and heads its Jewish-Arab Center.

In the 20th century, Sufi leaders were among the Palestinian religious elite displaced by the founding of Israel in 1948, Weismann said. Some Sufis remain in the West Bank and Gaza today, but unlike more radical Muslims, the Sufis are open to interfaith dialogue, Weismann added.

Both Weismann and Yusuf stressed that other Muslims, especially in the modern fundamentalist era, do not accept Sufism as a legitimate strain of Islam.

Rozana Chairman Raed Saadeh says the group's "interest is not to revive Sufism. Our interest is to expose a certain area, a certain period of history that was rich in Palestine."

The once-famous Sufi sanctuaries are almost unknown to younger generations today. "I chose to do the Sufi trail today because I believe it's really important to know our history, our villages' history and heritage," said Shahd Farraj, a 19-year-old religious Muslim woman who lives in Ramallah.

Tourists can choose from three different paths, each named after Sufi mystics with stops at four to six sanctuaries. The tours take a half-day of walking, hiking and riding a bus. The countryside and small Palestinian villages line the paths connecting the shrines.

The facades of the sanctuaries remain intact and in good condition, but Sufi saints' bodies are no longer inside, having been smuggled away by looters. Some shrines have been restored, like the al-Qatrawani, a 16th-century building erected on top of a previous Byzantine monastery, its history shrouded in mystery of two intertwined folk stories. A local tradition says it was dedicated to a Muslim holy man, Sheikh Ahmad al-Qatrawani, from the village of Qatra near Gaza. A parallel Christian legend attributes the name al-Qatrawani to Saint Catherine of Alexandria.

A small hike is required to reach the blue-domed Nabi Ghaith sanctuary atop a peaceful pine forest, built for Sufi mystic Sheikh Ghaith. A shrine honoring a pre-Islamic Arab prophet in the village of Nabi Saleh displays a painting-like view of the surrounding countryside, though the town is better known for weekly protests against a barrier Israel built nearby.

Mysteriously hidden by oak tree branches is the site of al-Assirah, which hosts the ruins of an old mosque and, although not a proper Sufi shrine, is a gem of the Sufi Trail.

Between 500 and 700 people walk the trail each year. Saadeh says the trail appeals to foreigners and locals alike, as well as expatriates who are from elsewhere but now live in the region. "We try to target one percent of the tourism that enters Bethlehem every year," he explained.

In this Saturday, October 6, 2012 photo, tourists visit a Sufi shrine as they explore a section of the Sufi Trail in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh. Credit: AP
In this Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012 photo, tourists gather at a Sufi shrine during their tour of Sufi shrines in the West Bank village of Nabi Saleh near Ramallah. Credit: Associated Press