Being two of the first tourists off the city bus and quick to push past the touts that had surrounded us, we led the charge up the hill to what everyone had come to see: the supposed birthplace of Jesus Christ. The street was already lively even at our early arrival on a Saturday morning. We passed women dressed in black abayas carrying big baskets, men opening their tourist shops that lined the well-trodden route and children selling fresh figs, that looked delicious and perfectly ripe.
Church of the Nativity
Our first stop was the Church of the Nativity, the most visited site in Bethlehem. Just off Manger Square, this church is the result of several makeovers. It was originally built in 326 AD, followed by a renovation in 530 AD.
The interior was redesigned during the Crusades and people of the Ottoman empire “redecorated” by stealing much of the marble. So what is left is a very mismatched building boasting bits of various styles from different eras. It was an unlikely mix of natural beauty with gorgeous old mosaic sections of the floor and beautiful wood painted columns, and gaudiness with embellishments of tacky Christmas ornaments and unsightly chandeliers.
We had arrived early and so were able to casually walk around without crowds swarming. We located the place Jesus is said to have been born in the far right back corner of the church down a few stairs and to the left. As we descended we heard chanting and eventually saw a Greek Orthodox priest holding incense, who motioned for us to stop and so we did. We stood and listened the the mass…and we stood…and stood. Our wait turned out to be over an hour but we felt so privileged to witness such an event, so we ignored the sweltering humidity and sore legs.
Our excitement of this experience quickly dispersed, however, because as soon as the mass was over, we were ushered out by some rather forceful guards so they could clean the area. I hurriedly snapped a photo of the birth location on my way out. We were assured that we could come back in once the cleaning had been completed. After we got back upstairs however, we continued to be pushed even further away. That’s when we saw the line that had formed while we were downstairs during the mass. It ran the entire length of the church and continued outside. There was no way we would get in that line to revisit the grotto. Instead, we moved on towards other holy sites of the area.
Blessings Gift Shop and The Olive Wood Factory
While walking to the Milk Grotto, a “free Bethlehem olive wood” sign to our right caught our attention and so we approached for a closer look. As we rummaged through for the perfect souvenir the very personable owner, Bassem, came and spoke to us, explaining that the free wood pieces with holes in them were remnants from making rosaries. He invited us into the factory and showed us a picture of his father, who had opened the Blessings Gift Shop back in 1925.
After telling us a bit of his shop and showing us the factory, Bassem invited us to go up to the rooftop of the shop for nice view of the town, which we did. Upon our descent we browsed the shop and were amazed at all the hand-made souvenirs, mostly Christian themed, Bassem had for sale. He declared that he was Roman Catholic and items such as wooden rosaries and crucifixes of various sizes confirmed this.
Bassem also was extremely helpful with information about Bethlehem and, giving us a map of the area, he recommended places to visit and eat, advising what a taxi should cost to each location. Check out the Blessings Gift Shop website for the story of three generations of olive wood carving, the eco-friendly method they use to get the wood and peruse their online store, where items can be shipped worldwide.
The Milk Grotto is an easily distinguishable combination of a church from the 4th century and a more modern Franciscan church built in 1872. This location is considered holy because Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus reportedly took refuge here during the Massacre of the Innocents before fleeing to Egypt. While the entrance to the Milk Grotto is clearly Franciscan, after walking down the steps into the cooler cave-like opening, it was easy to imagine a family hiding out here.
It is said that this church gets its name because a single drop of Mary’s breast milk, while feeding baby Jesus, fell to the ground turning the stone it landed on completely white. And so women from all over come to the Milk Grotto believing that a shaving from this stone will bring them increased fertility. Mindy and I were not exactly lining up for that one!
Omar Mosque: Where Mindy Became a Man
Not being able to visit the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem due to a month of Ramadan followed by a few days of Eid, we were determined to visit Bethlehem’s Omar Mosque. There was only one problem: neither of us had the necessary head scarf to enter. So we stood at the doorway and asked a man inside if he had head scarves for us so that we may visit the mosque. He quickly scurried up the stairs, came back down quickly and handed me the scarf, leaving Mindy’s head uncovered. It was clear that he thought Mindy was a man. So what should we do? Possibly embarrass the man and point out that Mindy was also a woman and thus needed a head scarf of her own or simply enter and hope we weren’t discovered. We chose the latter.
I felt adventurous entering a mosque with our “big secret”, but Mindy naturally felt a bit terrified of being “found out”. Little did Mindy know that I was about the make matters much worse. Our friendly escort talked to me asking the usual questions of where we were from and what we knew of Islam. Then, catching me off guard, he asked if Mindy was my “friend or husband” and without thinking I answered “husband” probably because that was the closest of the two options to what she actually was. But I knew I had sold her out as soon as the answer left my lips. I hoped that she wouldn’t speak, giving away her sex with her higher pitched voice. I also noticed that she had folded her arms across her chest.
After looking around and checking out the women’s place to pray, which ironically Mindy could not enter, we started to walk out. Would we make it all the way back downstairs again, past two men and out the door without being detected? We took each stair cautiously and after putting our shoes on again in the entrance way, I removed my borrowed head scarf and handed it to Mindy to give to the man on the stairs, which she did and with her lowest voice, said “Shookran” (“thank you” in Arabic). The man took the head covering and told us to have a nice day, not noticing a thing!
So that’s the story of how I had a husband for 7 minutes. It wasn’t that bad really but I was happy to have my wife back. 🙂
Lunch at Afteem Restaurant
We were on the lookout for Bethlehem’s best falafel, when we found Afteem and were definitely not disappointed. Not only did we treat ourselves to a 5 sheckel ($1.25US) falafel in a pita, but we also tried what the restaurant was known for – their hummus. Topped with high quality olive oil, the chick pea puree was served with a basket of warm pitas and pickled veggies. To wash it all down, we opted for a glass of lemon shake with mint.
Everything was scrumptious and we had assumed that the restaurant was completely vegan because we didn’t see a single person eating anything other than hummus. Apparently, though, schwarma is on the menu, but the stars of the restaurant are clearly chickpea based!
Israeli West Bank Barrier
Considered against the Geneva Convention and declared illegal by the United Nations, the Israeli West Bank Barrier, which will be about 700 km (430miles) in total length when it reaches completion, is very controversial. We walked along only a small section of it on our way to the Gila 300 checkpoint to return to Jerusalem. Seeing it up close is something to behold and is bound to spawn strong emotional responses and political discussion.
While the Israeli side of the barrier was bare, the Palestinian side boasted a combination of graffiti, angry messages directed towards Israel and its supporters, messages of hope and support from various groups from around the world, and short accounts of Israeli oppression told by Palestinian women. At one point the wall butts up against a nursery school, making the reality of this barrier in the daily life of Palestinians abundantly clear.
Gila 300: Israeli Checkpoint
Going into Palestine was non-eventful. In fact, it is easy to not even notice driving through the checkpoint. Returning to Israel, however, was another story all together. Mindy and I have crossed many borders during our travels and never have we been through so many turn styles, gates and metal detectors as we did leaving Palestine. We showed our passport a total a three times, pushed our way through “lines” and winded our way through several long hallways before being granted onto Israeli soil again.
But what did we have to complain about? Our journey was a breeze compared to what Palestinians had to go through. In addition to each station we experienced, they had to first get pre-approved for travel and give their fingerprints. They also seemed to be at the mercy of the 20-year old behind the bullet-proof glass who barely twitched a muscle when she allowed or disallowed people through the final checkpoint. To add to the irony of this whole process the hallways were decorated with tourism posters highlighting beautiful locations in Israel where one can vacation.
Getting There and Away
If you are planning a trip to the town of Bethlehem, you have a few options. The most popular is catching Arab bus 21 at the bus station just outside Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. A bus ticket will cost you 7NIS ($2US). These buses begin running as early as 6am, evening on the Sabbath and will leave when they are full. You shouldn’t have to wait long as Bethlehem is a popular destination. Another option is renting a car and driving, however keep in mind that once you cross into the West Bank all insurance coverage becomes null and void. Instead, for 20NIS ($5US) we parked our rental car in one of the parking lots near the Arab bus station and picked it up upon our return. Before leaving your car be sure to check that there isn’t a 3 hour parking limit.
You can not return the same way you arrived as the bus that drops you off will not pick you up again. Instead, the most common way of leaving Bethlehem is by walking along Manger Street and following the Israel Barrier to the Gilo 300 checkpoint, named after the nearby Gilo settlement. Once on the other side, there are taxis and bus number 24 waiting there for you. The ride back to the Arab bus station at Damascus Gate costs 5NIS ($1.5US) and again, it will leave when it is full.