Since moving to Jerusalem in February we have visited Bethlehem a couple of times (I had already visited the city in my other trips to Israel and Palestine, but for Matteo this was the first time). It is really quick and easy to get there from Jerusalem and we think it is worth it for various reasons.
Most tourists visit Bethlehem for religion: it is one of the Holy sites of Christianity, for it is said that Jesus was born there. But this shouldn’t be the only reason to travel to this little town. A tour of Bethlehem should also include the understanding of the political, social and economical situation of its inhabitans. We will not deal with this point in detail, since we don’t feel entitled to do so, but we do believe that everybody visiting Israel and Palestine should try to understand the complex history and the difficult day-to-day life of these places.
Here we will just give you a simple “guide” to travel there and some tips on what to see.
Entering Bethlehem is regulated by the Israeli Security Forces, thus going there will always involve passing a checkpoint or a roadblock, so of course remeber your passport! (Israeli citizens cannot enter the city)
Bus number 21 from Damascus Gate in Jerusalem (8NIS) takes you directly to the city center of modern Bethlehem (passing through the town of Beit Jalla and the checkpoint close to this).
As you step off the bus you’ll find yourself at a big cross. If you follow the uphill (just slightly) road on your left, Pope Paule VI st., you’ll arrive directly in a vibrant road full of people and shops, that leads to the Old Market of Bethlehem and then to Manger Square, the city center. The Old Market is very pretty, full of nice buildings and delicious restaurants and cafes. We suggest you to go Al-Sufara’ Restaurant, just behind the Omar Mosque: they have a great falafel and they are very kind and willing to talk and explain the current situation of the city.
On Manger Square two religious buildings face each other: the Omar Mosque and the Nativity Church. Visitors can enter the mosque at specific hours (with modest clothes): from 12:00 until 01:00 pm and from 05:00 until 7:00 pm. The building is nicer on the outside than on the inside, but we had the honour of quite a special visit: the retired muezzin (that I believe is still the keeper-guardian of the mosque) chanted for us the call to prayer (adhan). I heard the adhan several times, not only here, but also in other muslim countries, however sitting in front of this old man, listening to his incredible voice singing in one of the langugages I love most, is just another story: even the memory gives me goose bumps!
On the opposite side of the square there is the Nativity Church. Unluckily it is now udergoing restorarion, but you can still see the wooden altar with its huge lamps and incense burners and have a peek of the gorgeous original floor mosaic. At the left of the altar there is the entrance to the Grotto of the Nativity, in which a 14-pointed silver star indicates the spot where Jesus is said to have been born (as you see from our picture we were in the middle of a huge group of tourists from India).
There are many other sites to see, especially interesting and directed to Christian visitors, just like the Milk Grotto a few minutes’ walk from the central square.
Once completed the tour of the city center we decided to take a different road to go back to Jerusalem: this time we would pass the Checkpoint 300. Along the 3 km that lead to the checkpoint, you walk for half of the way near to the Israeli separation wall. The wall has been used as a canvas, as a form of protest. It is almost completely covered with graffiti, some are of artisits such as Bansky, others are of common people that struggle every day because of the wall. [There is a Bansky Shop that sells reproductions of the artist’s pieces and Moodi Abdalla also offers tours of the wall and the refugees camps of Bethlehem].
Once you get to the checkpoint you pass different types of controls: first metal detector and passport to exit Palestine, then you walk in between the to sections of the wall, and then again passport control to enter Israel. All is under Israeli control. As international tourist you shouldn’t have big problems, sometimes they ask the reason of your visit. Once at the Israeli side you just wait for a sherut or bus for Damascus Gate (again 8NIS).
I said that we weren’t going to touch political or social aspects of the lives of the inhabitants of Bethlehem, but I do want to try to describe some of the feelings I had. The 8 meters’ wall basically sorrounds the city: it is so close to the houses that you feel almost soffocated. While walking in the street of the city and talking to people the only things that came into my mind were questions: How can kids grow strong and healthy, physically and psicologically, in such a situation? How can a mother not worry every single day of her child’s faith? How can a man not feel helpless? How can people still smile?