The first three weeks in Palestine, I lived in Bethlehem (yes, the Bethlehem!). The place where so much biblical history took place!
It’s weird to think that it’s still a city to this day. A modern city with paved streets, honking cars and a giant separation wall running right by the centre. Bethlehem is in the West Bank and is now one of the cities where you can see the conflict between Israel and Palestine firsthand. That’s not to say it’s not also a charming city – it has cobblestone walkways and limestone houses that makes it easy to imagine what it must have been like in biblical times, like in the famous Star Street.
In the city centre, right across from the Mosque of Omar, you can find the Nativity Church where Jesus was born. You can even go down in the little crypt and touch the star that marks the exact place! But be warned, it’s often crowded and extremely hot down there! One time I got in just behind a group of tourists who were rubbing a bunch of scarfs and plastic bags all over the star. My guess is that they were going to sell it all later and make a nice profit! When I caught the eye of the Greek-Orthodox Priest supervising the crypt, he just shook his head and mumbled ‘not good.. not good..’. So clearly, even though it’s in the West Bank, it’s become a bit of a tourist trap.. Nevertheless, the birthplace of Jesus is of course a must-see when you are in Bethlehem. The square is worth a visit in itself as a harmonic symbol of co-existence. My favorite part of visiting the Nativity Church was actually just sitting in a cafè in the square outside, watching people and enjoying life with a cold beer! 😉
Be sure to make time to walk along the Separation Wall as well. The wall is filled with graffiti and even a Banksy or two – like the ‘Make Hummus Not Walls’ or ‘Peace Dove’-graffiti. It’s a powerful experience!
Anyone especially interested in the conflict should also make time to visit Aida Refugee Camp that borders on the Separation Wall, or at least walk along the wall on the outskirts of Aida (just not on a Friday!). I know this may seem a bit scary, but personally, I’ve never had a problem doing so.. The one time there had been a skirmish earlier in the day, we could feel the teargas from a distance and decided to walk along another part of the wall. A tip is to go to the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center, they’re actually located on the outskirts of Aida by the main road and they offer a number of tours in the area! Or you can even just pop in for a cup of Chai and take pictures from their roof, like we did 🙂
Finally, to really experience Bethlehem you need to make a trip through the Souk (marketplace). There’s such life there! The closer you get to the Nativity Church the more touristy the shops get, but if you walk the whole length you get to experience the hustle, bustle and haggling!
*If you have lots of time you may want to consider visiting Sheperd’s Field, Milk Grotto and Mar Saba Monastery, or eat at the beautiful Hosh Jasmin a short taxi ride away in Beit Jala.