Trips to a number of West Bank destinations are fairly easy to arrange through a variety of travel channels while touring Israel. Given the number of holy Christian sites in the region, there is daily a steady stream of visitors that sustain a significant percentage of West Bank’s GDP. My trip itinerary included half a day in Bethlehem, with the main justification of visiting a World Heritage site therein but also with a desire to take a peek at the Palestinian Territories in general.
An American of Jewish ancestry is bound to feel quite a bit of unease at setting foot on Palestinian-controlled land. I dealt with that by hiring a local Palestinian guide who escorted me everywhere and drove me around from one place to another. The corollary to that arrangement was that I had to cross the border at Checkpoint 300 to the south of Jerusalem on my own, which may have been my most uncomfortable moment of the entire two-weeks trip. Early in the morning, nobody crosses from the Israeli side; there are actually no controls whatsoever going towards the Palestinian side. I went through the full-height metallic turnstile and found myself in a long corridor with flickering lights of the kind you may see in a suspense movie; there is always an unforetold grave danger that awaits the sole passerby at the end of such passage. The corridor must be no longer than fifty meters but it felt like good couple of hundred. My heart rate was definitely getting to the levels of agitation that I very rarely experience. And then I reached a door and emerged onto a bustling square, to be immediately surrounded by taxi drivers offering their services. Who knew that being surrounded by potential hostiles may be a relative comfort!
I jest about hostiles, of course. Palestinians who find themselves in contact with foreign tourists are invariably friendly. With a tinge of Middle Eastern pushiness – of the kind that you find in any shuk – but friendly nonetheless.
Well, let’s get on with the visuals. My guide first drove me to an elevated viewpoint near the Herodion National Park to take a look at the landscapes of the West Bank.
Although we are not in the city of Bethlehem here, we are within the Bethlehem Governorate, one of the 11 such administrative districts in the West Bank.
The next stop on our tour was Shepherd’s Field in Beit Sahour area. Getting there involved entering Zone A – the designation of full Palestinian control. A huge sign at the entry point warned us that we were crossing into an area in which anyone carrying an Israeli passport would be at risk. The roadblock there was unmanned and not in operation, but we saw a solitary Israeli soldier monitoring the road from an elevated position a few hundred yards away. My guide suggested that it would not be a wise idea to stop by and take photographs there and I did not have the camera sufficiently ready to take shots through the windshield.
Shepherd’s Field is the site of Annunciation to the shepherds and thus one of the holiest Christian sites in Palestine. For a secular visitor, it is interesting mainly for the cave chapels of the monastic establishment dating back to the 5th century.
There are also archaeological excavations related to the same monastery.
The chapel, also known as the Sanctuary Gloria in Excelsis Deo, is in the shape of a nomadic tent and was built in 1953.
From a terrace at the Shepherd’s Field, a view towards a West Bank Israeli settlement of Har Homa, or Homat Shmuel.
And now we are in the center of the town of Bethlehem.
My main target for this entire excursion was the Church of Nativity, which is inscribed as a World Heritage site on the basis of marking the birthplace of the founder of one of the major world religions. The current building on this site dates from the 6th century and is considered the oldest Christian church in continuous daily use. Just as other holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, it is administered jointly by several denominations according to the Status Quo, in this case, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian.
The fragments of the floor mosaics have survived from the original church on this site, built in 339 CE.
A cave under the nave of the Basilica is considered to be the actual location where Jesus was born. I profited from having a local licensed guide by being allowed to enter the cave on the “exit” side, thus bypassing the endless line of pilgrims who wait a couple of hours in line to be able to get on their knees and kiss the marked point on the floor. I, of course, only observed.
There are other caves that are part of the overall complex, clearly very recently refurbished.
The Catholic chapel of Saint Catherine is also a fairly young addition to the Nativity complex, built in 1882.
You can see the outline of the erstwhile grand entrance to the Basilica. The present door is rather tiny, on purpose, so that the people entering the holy place would do so already bent at the waist.
After leaving the church, I spent a bit of time walking around central Bethlehem, including visiting the local market, sitting down for shawarma at my guide’s favorite eatery, getting a coffee at another establishment, all the meanwhile discussing the life in the Palestinian Territories.
Here is the main and oft-depicted square of Bethlehem, called Manger.
The opposite view from up the street.
And a couple of side street fragments.
From the rooftop terrace of one of the restaurants, I also took a few pictures of the surroundings. Southern Jerusalem is in the background of the last one.
My frame of reference for comparison remains too small, but I suspect looking at these views and not knowing that they were taken in the Palestinian Territories, not many people would correctly identify the place. Maybe the topography could give it away, but aside from signs above shops – which are not abundantly present in these perspectives – I did not find anything that would definitively mark them as taken in Palestine. Maybe, the modern blocks of the settlements in the distance…
My overall tour with the guide was scheduled to last for four hours, but we covered everything that I wanted to cover in slightly over three. I was happy to get a bit of extra time for what I was planning to accomplish that day. As an aside, my guide Ramsi was nothing short of excellent, so if you need a recommendation, feel free to reach out.
The reverse crossing through Checkpoint 300 was a lot less nerve-wracking. There were other people crossing in the same direction and there were actual border controls; a lovely Israeli border guard did not take my passport and only cared to see the entrance card that I had received upon arrival at the airport earlier in the week, and treated me to a welcoming smile as I produced that.