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Tags - bethlehem
Many tourists are apprehensive about visiting West Bank cities like Bethlehem, that lie in Area A - meaning they are under Palestinian control. As a journalist and tour guide who frequents Bethlehem - as well as other cities under the control of the Palestinian Authority including Ramallah, Hebron and Jericho - let me assure your impression that the West Bank is as lawless as the Wild West is simply mistaken. For tourists and pilgrims interested in history, religion, hiking, or simple - meeting the people, the West Bank is an absolute must. Politics aside, what you will see here is a country in formation containing scores of biblical and New Testament sites, not to mention friendly people and fair prices.
Just six miles south of Jerusalem and separated by a concrete wall, Bethlehem represents a completely different cultural, historic, and religious narrative than that of Jerusalem - Israel's biggest city. The contrast between the two almost adjoining cities, one with a population of 40,000 and the other with 20 times that number, is startling.
Plaza outside of the church of the Nativity, Bethlehem Photo credit: Travelujah
Even from a distance, it's easy to identify the minarets and church steeples that symbolically struggle for control of the skyline of Bethlehem. Today the great majority of Bethlehem's residents, as elsewhere in the West Bank, are Muslim. But for Christians the world over, the city is synonymous with the birth of Jesus, and the many shrines that celebrate that event. Here one encounters the Church of the Nativity, the oldest church in the country erected in the 4th century, built over the grotto where Christian tradition holds Jesus was born.
Getting Here & Around
The birthplace of Jesus is a mere 10 minutes' drive south from Jerusalem. Although Bethlehem is located within the Palestinian Territories, tourists with a foreign passport will have no difficulty visiting here. Israeli's too can gain access, but they need to register for permission to enter with the local civil administration. While security may seem daunting at the fortified border terminal constructed in 2005, one need only flash the cover of your passport to be whisked through. Taxis are waiting on the other side of the frontier. Make sure to haggle on the price before getting setting off. It's worth taking a moment to study the political graffiti on the PA side of the security wall.
Graffiti -On the Palestinian side of the Security Wall Photo credit: Travelujah
There are numerous options for getting to the check point, including Egged buses, Arab buses from the Damascus Gate, taxis and tour buses. Car rental companies in East Jerusalem provide insurance coverage for both Israel and the West Bank.
A good place to begin your tour is the Tourist Information Office at the Peace Center in Manger Square, tel 02/276-6677, www.visit-palestine.com.
Allow at least an hour for a visit to the Church of the Nativity, the adjoining Church of St. Catherine and Manger Square. While most Westerners associate Christmas with December 25, the holy day is also celebrated here on January 7, 2012 by Orthodox Christians, and on January 18, 2012 by Armenians. All three dates - and the preceding Christmas Eve, are well worth spending in Bethlehem.
As well, Bethlehem is the site of the Tomb of Rachel - the only one of the biblical Patriarchs and Matriarchs not buried in Hebron 20 minutes drive to the south. Rachel's Tomb today lies in Israeli-controlled Palestinian territory, enclosed by the West Bank separation wall that divides the area.
The historic white dome is now hidden behind the ugly renovations. Despite the security wall, the area is safe for travel and was opened to private cars in 2008. The Bible relates that the matriarch Rachel, second and favorite wife of Jacob, died in childbirth on the outskirts of Bethlehem, "and Jacob set up a pillar upon her grave" (Genesis 35:19-20).
There is no vestige of Jacob's original pillar, but the velvet-draped cenotaph inside the building has been hallowed by observant Jews for centuries as the site of Rachel's tomb. People come to pray here for good health, fertility, and a safe birth. Some pilgrims wind a red thread seven times around the tomb, and give away snippets of it as talismans to cure all ills. Note men and women are segregated here and have different entrances.
Rachel is venerated by Islam as well. Next to the tomb is a Muslim cemetery, reflecting the Middle Eastern tradition that it is a special privilege to be buried near a great personage.
Also worth visiting is the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Sahur - traditionally identified with the biblical story of Ruth the Moabite, daughter-in-law of Naomi, who "gleaned in the field" of Boaz, Naomi's kinsman. Boaz eventually "took Ruth and she became his wife" (Ruth 4:13). The same fields are identified by Christian tradition as those where shepherds "keeping watch over their flock by night" received word of the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (Luke 2).
Further afield one can visit the Mar Saba monastery perched on a cliff in Wadi Kelt, and Herodian - the desert fortress where King Herod the Great built his mausoleum. If already this close to Jericho, you can also try to squeeze in a visit to Qasr El Yahud, the original baptismal site on the Jordan River where it is believed that John the Baptist baptised Jesus.
Qasr El Yahud baptismal site Photo credit: Travelujah
Need a Break?
Ka'bar restaurant, on a street with no name near the Beit Jala Municipality building immediately to the west of Bethlehem, is the proverbial hole in the wall where the cognoscenti come to enjoy scrumptious grilled chicken. Ka'bar, located in the gentrified center of Beit Jala - Bethlehem's twin city, offers no menu. The restaurant only serves chicken BBQed on charcoals on the outside grill. The set menu includes five salads including an excellent home-made hummus, a hot chili sauce, and the restaurant's signature dip: garlic and olive oil whipped into a mayonnaise-like dip for your chicken.
Palestinian specialty - Masekham (Chicken on pita with sumac, grilled onions and pine nuts Photo credit: Travelujah
Desserts, like the menu, are non-existent here. You can end your meal with coffee or mint tea.
You may wish to continue to the nearby Cremisan Monastery, built in 1885 on the ruins of a 7th century Byzantine monastery. Though the Cremisan Cellars were established nearly 125 years ago, new equipment was introduced in 1997 making the Cotes de Cremisan wines among the best in the West Bank. http://www.cremisan.org/
At the opposite end of the spectrum from Ka'bar is the five-star Jacir Palace InterContinental Hotel on the Jerusalem Hebron Road - which is a fantasy out of Scheherazade and a Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Originally built as a family mansion in 1910, the elegant building re-opened as hotel in 2005. Today it includes 11 food and beverage outlets for every taste including the Baidar Restaurant - offering an all day international buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner with garden views; and the Rozana Terrace, set against the charming view of the Judean Hills and specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine. Drinks, hukkah pipes and live entertainment complete the venue. The Riwaq Courtyard, Al Makan Bar, Zaitouneh Restaurant, Wine Cellar, Abu Nawas Bar and Kheyam Bar complete the array of dining experiences - and range of prices.
02 276-6777, http://www.ichotelsgroup.com/intercontinental/en/gb/locations/overview/bethlehem
The West Bank
The West Bank is that part of the onetime British Mandate of Palestine, west of the Jordan River, that was occupied by the Kingdom of Transjordan in its war with the nascent State of Israel in 1948 and annexed shortly afterward. That country then changed its name to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan to reflect its new geo-political reality. The territory was lost to Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. Jordan's King Hussein subsequently abandoned his claim to the biblical heartland. Following the Oslo Accords in 1993, much of the West Bank has been turned over to the Palestinian Authority. In Israel itself, the region is often referred to as "the territories," "over the Green Line" (a term denoting the 1949 armistice line between the West Bank and Israel), or by its biblical names Yehuda (or Judea, the area south of Jerusalem), and Shomron (or Samaria, the much larger area north of Jerusalem).
The West Bank is a kidney-shape area, a bit larger than the U.S. state of Delaware and almost half the size of Northern Ireland. The large majority of the approximately two million Arabs is Muslim, with the Christian minority living mostly in the greater Bethlehem area and Ramallah, and a tiny community of Samaritans living in Nablus and on Mount Gerizim.
While the Oslo Accords promised peace and final status discussions, a comprehensive agreement has proven elusive due to seemingly irreconcilable differences on the thorny issues of land, refugees, and Jerusalem. In 2000 the simmering crisis exploded with lethal ferocity as young Palestinians took to the streets in riots known as the Second Intifada. In 2005, Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip and four remote settlements in northern Samaria.
In addition to the two million Arabs in the West Bank, half a million Israelis also live there in hundreds of small settlements and a number of major cities. Although the cities and bigger towns are really suburbs of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, other settlements were set up by nationalist Israelis who see the region as an integral and inalienable part of their biblical homeland. They consider the almost miraculous "homecoming" of 1967 as a first rumble of the messianic age. With its prime location---within 14 km (9 mi) of the Mediterranean Sea---and its mountain heights---dominating Israel's main population centers---the West Bank has a strategic value that has convinced even many moderate Israelis that it would be folly to relinquish it to potentially hostile Arab control. A person's attitude toward the questions of continuing settlement in the West Bank and the ultimate status of the region is an important touchstone of political affiliation in Israel. The country remains completely divided on these issues.
Sidebar - Who runs What - Area A, B, C in the West Bank
According to OSLO II 1995 Interim agreement, the Palestinian territory was divided into areas A, B, and C. In Area A the Palestinian Authority has complete autonomy over administrative and security issues and Israelis are not permitted to travel here without permission. Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jericho are all in area A. Within Area B the Palestinian Authority has control over civil responsibilities only; while in Area C, Israel has full control over the area. Area C represents the majority of the West Bank area.
To view a map of the West Bank and the areas of A, B, and C click here.
Still not convinced that Bethlehem is worth a visit?
Feel free to contact me at GilZohar@rogers.com and I'd be happy to take you on a memorable tour.
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Gil Zohar is originally from Canada and lives in Jerusalem. He is a journalist and licensed tour guide and blogs regularly on off the path experiences on Travelujah.