(Note – This is NOT a paid review; the author took all tours anonymously)
Last year I spent two weeks traveling across Israel and the West Bank. For the most part I planned and travelled on my own. But with so many places to see (even considering how relatively small Israel is), I did participate in several day tours. There are a number of very reputable companies that organize tours to sites all over Israel. However, there are few that go to the West Bank, especially outside of Bethlehem. Since the West Bank had some of my prime destinations, I needed a tour company that handled these well.
At the recommendation of the front desk at my hotel, I decided to look into Abraham Tours. First a little background. Abraham runs three youth hostels in Israel: In Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Nazareth. The hostel in Jerusalem has an excellent location just off of Davidka Square, a fifteen minute walk to the Old City. Most Abraham Tours depart from this location. While I did not stay at this hostel, it seemed well organized, appointed and secure.
The hostel had a tour booking desk that was staffed most of the day (I do not recall the exact hours). While all tours could be booked at the Abraham website, I personally prefer doing things in person when possible. I worked with two different people on two different days, both very enthusiastic and helpful. (note – do not try to book a tour the same day as the tour; if there are people already being helped or waiting, it can take a while; and don’t wait until the last minute).
I started by looking into their West Bank tours, as they had the widest selection of any tour company, at least that I found. Skipping the multi-day tours and Bethlehem (I did the latter on my own), I focused on two destinations that I doubt I would have done without a tour.
The first was the “Hebron Dual Narrative Tour” (note – this tour is done by public transportation, not a private tour bus). I took this tour primarily to see the Tomb of the Patriarchs, believed to be the site where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are buried (it is one of the only tours I found that goes to this unbelievably sacred site). I was definitely not disappointed by my visit to this shrine, which for The Complete Pilgrim was a top five bucket list item.
But the full-day tour was much more than just the shrine. Offered in two parts, two different guides led the tour: one to the Jewish side of the city, one to the Palestinian side. These offered dual narratives (thus the tour name) concerning the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially as it pertains to Hebron, an historic flashpoint of the conflict. While there was a lot of history, there was also some politics (which I admit I wasn’t so personally interested in). That said most people on the tour were very engaged.
My overall thought on this tour was that it was well organized and fascinating in its content. If you want to spend a day learning about the strife between Israel and Palestine in the West Bank, this excellent tour is an absolute must. Additionally, if you want to see the Tomb of the Patriarchs and not go on your own, this tour will get the job done and then some. However, if all you want to see is the shrine, then you might wish to seek an alternative. I would love to see Abraham offer a tour that combined Hebron with a stop in Herodion and/or Bethlehem.
The second West Bank tour I booked through Abraham was their Nablus and Jenin Tour. Of all of the places I went on my trip, there was none where I was more nervous about than Nablus. And by the time I was done, there were few places I was more delighted with. This tour, one of the very few that goes deep into the heartland of ancient Israel, was one of the most memorable of my entire trip.
The main destination was the city of Nablus, with several stops. One of these was the Samaritan neighborhood located on the top of Mt. Gerizim. This community, one of the oldest in the world, is what remains of the ancient Northern Kingdom of Israel. At the feet of the mountain is a trio of Biblical sites that few westerners are daring enough to seek out. One is the archaeological site of Shechem, a city that dates back to the days of the Patriarchs. According to the Bible, Levi and Simeon, sons of Jacob, killed all of the people here sometime around the 17th century BC.
Also in Nablus is a Greek Orthodox Church which stands on the site of Jacob’s Well (of new Testament fame). Finally, and most importantly, is the Tomb of Joseph. This burial site, supposedly established after the Israelites brought his body back from Egypt, is often closed to visitors. However, kudos to our tour guide who talked the guards into giving us three minutes to go inside and pay our respects. (note – if you book this trip, try to find out in advance if the tomb will be open).
The final stop of the tour was the city of Jenin, which is far enough north to be close to Nazareth on the Israeli side. There we took a brief tour of a United Nations refugee camp, which has been home to Palestinian refugees for generations. Don’t be surprised if a swarm of children come to investigate you. Overall this was one of the best day trips I have ever taken, and well worth the money. If you’re nervous about the West Bank, don’t be. Abraham did a great job with this one.
With these experiences under my belt, I felt comfortable enough to entrust Abraham with two additional tours. One was to Masada, and the other was an overnight trip to Petra in Jordan. First a quick word about Masada. There are a lot of companies that offer similar day trips that stop at the oasis at Ein Gedi, the fortress at Masada and the Dead Sea for a float. While I cannot compare these tours, only having taken the one, I can report that the Abraham tour was more than satisfactory. The price was competitive, the tour guide friendly and knowledgeable, and there was plenty of time allocated at each location.
While the Nablus tour was one of the highlights of my trip, the overnight visit to Petra was THE highlight. This was one of the most memorable tours I have ever taken. Again, while similar tours are offered by other companies, I cannot make a comparison, but the one organized by Abraham was just spectacular. I really wish I had had time for the two night tour which included Wadi Rum and other places in Jordan. Well, it gives me an excuse to go back.
Almost every time I have ever travelled, there is usually at least one place that I go that takes me completely by surprise. In this case it was the Roman ruins at Jerash. I was prepared for how much I would like Petra, but had no idea how much I would love Jerash. The ruins were breathtaking, the best I have ever seen anywhere. This was followed by a brief stop in Amman to view the Great Mosque, before arriving at a Bedouin camp for dinner and the overnight stay.
For those who don’t like to camp, do not let this deter you. This was absolutely first class, with really good food and very friendly hosts. The tents were comfortable (it was in fact the best night’s sleep I had on the entire trip). Be warned that there is no electricity after hours, just a campfire for light. Bring a flashlight.
Petra, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, was everything I expected it to be. The tour guide did a great job of explaining the history of the city as well as our sightseeing options. For the record, I did make the climb to the top of the cliff that overlooks the city. 700 steps. Yeah baby! Perfect weather helped to make it a perfect day. If I had one complaint, I really could have used a few more hours to wander around.
The bus ride to and from Israel drives tantalizingly close to two other places I really wanted to see: the great crusader castle at Karak, and Mt. Nebo, where Moses looked out over the promised land. Alas, the tour did not include these. (note to Abraham Tours – add an extra day and offer these sites!!!!)
So, the final verdict on Abraham Tours? An enthusiastic endorsement, at least for the tours I took. Looking back I probably would have done Hebron independently, but mostly because I had very limited time and would have rather only spent a few hours at the shrine and not an entire day. If you’re on the fence about Nablus, do it. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
On a final note, on my last day in Israel, I had to make a last minute booking to stay in Tel Aviv the day before my flight. I wound up staying at the Abraham Hostel there. As far as hostels go, it was very good. The one in Jerusalem seemed great as well, though I did not stay there myself. I believe most young people, and adventurous older people, will find the Abraham Hostel/Tour combination to be worthwhile.