Places to visit in Bethlehem!

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.

entrance-from-star-street
Entrance from 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 🙂

http://www.alaslah.org/tours/

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.

I moved to the Middle East?!

Yes, I did! And you wouldn’t be the first person to call me crazy for doing so!

‘Why would anyone move to the Middle East with all that’s going on right now?’ you might ask yourself. And not in a million years did I think that I would be the person to do exactly that. Turns out, I am. I lived in Ramallah in the Palestinian Territories for the most part of the last half-year. And it was amazing!

I come from a small village isolated in between the mountains in cold Norway, it’s a long way from there to the sandy, bible-like landscape you find in the West Bank. To say that it was a fresh change of scenery would be an enormous understatement! More like ‘leave everything you know how works in your world, and try to understand a completely different way of life’-type experience.

But, of course, before I got that far there were so many things to consider. Would it be safe? Exactly how far is it from Syria? Would Israel even let me in to the Palestinian Territories, or would I be turned down at the border? Safe to say, me and my sister, who I travelled with, had a couple of long and intense phone calls while looking at the map and discussing all our concerns. I remember my sister saying she envisioned us being taken hostages and kneeling with black bags over our faces. Not a very encouraging image.

map middle east
Map of the Middle East. The red dot marking where I lived 🙂

Despite all our worries, we did decide it would be relatively safe for us to travel. I think what westerners often forget is that there is a day-to-day life in all places, and not just what we so infamously see on the news all the time. And of course, the dangers of for instance Syria and Iraq, would not be an issue for us. We were not going to go near any of those borders, and were going to live in a (kinda) different part of the region. Even then, the war in Gaza the summer of 2014 and the general athmosphere of a militarily occupied territory naturally made us nervous.

When we got to the Ben Gurion-airport in Israel, the first thing we had to ‘overcome’ was the Israeli border control. We didn’t have anything to hide and neither of us has ever done anything illegal in our lives, but still we were very nervous. We had heard about so many nightmare encounters with the Israeli border control – especially when they know you are going to the Palestinian territories. Therefore, we were not surprised when the guard straight up told us ‘You are going to die. They will kill you, because they do not like foreign people and other religions.’ I can only assume the guard was either trying to scare us from visiting and seeing how people in the West Bank live under occupation, or that he spoke out of prejudice and ignorance. Either way, this was our first meeting with the reality of the occupation, and I have to say, his prophecy of doom could not be farther from the truth.

After a bunch of questions about our background, hobbies, occupation and future plans, we had to prove our intentions regarding our visit with a written invitation from the Danish House in Palestine. Still the guard had to make a call before admitting us.

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Finally, we arrived in Palestine after months of waiting and planning! If you want to read about what my stay in Palestine was like and what we worked with there, stay tuned and follow 🙂 I will soon write more posts about my Palestinian adventure, and even share some videos!