After an amazing experience that I had from visiting the Western Wall that morning, I’m pretty sure the rest of the day will go along. An itinerary has been set by Mr. Dani who arranged for us today to visit Bethlehem in the West Bank territory (Palestine). The itinerary in Bethlehem was to visit the birthplace of Jesus in the Church of Nativity, which is our main reason to be here.
Bethlehem as a Palestinian city with the population of 25,000 people, located just about 10 km south of Jerusalem. A city which the economy is primarily driven by tourism. Most of the citizens are working in tourism-related business such as tour guide, souvenir shop, making handicraft souvenirs for tourists, etc.
Although now Bethlehem is a Muslim majority, is still home to significant Palestinian Christian community. During Christmas, a lot of Christian make pilgrimage coming to the Church of Nativity, which is the peak for their tourism-driven economy.
Bethlehem First Impression
After we’re finished at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, we’re going straight to Bethlehem. Only this time, Mr. Dani will not come with us. Apparently, he told us that we’re gonna have an exchange for half a day for the local guide from Palestine, Mr. Khaled.
The reason is pretty clear. Because we’re entering a Palestinian city and it’s a tourism-driven economy as I mentioned earlier. Most of them working in tourism, in this case, Mr. Khaled as a tour guide. So I think it’s some sort of a deal between Israel and Palestine, as long as both sides are okay with that. Everybody happy.
Shortly, Mr. Dani got off the bus, we drove off and pick Mr. Khaled up. Mr. Khaled did his introduction fast and he’s a funny guy, speak Indonesian fluently. After a short intro about himself and Bethlehem, here we are walking down the street in Bethlehem after Mr. Abraham parked the bus in some tourist bus parking area. (I passed a KFC in that small building, though. Kinda miss junk food, y’know :))
Yep, there is a Starbucks cafe too. But it’s not that Starbucks Starbucks, it’s Stars & Bucks. It’s quite funny, though. Seems they get a lot of attention from tourists, wonder if Starbucks know about this or even bother to do something with it. 🙂
Church of Nativity
So here we are, a short 5 minutes walk from the bus park to the Church of Nativity. It’s noticeably a tourist area, you will see crowds, people trying to sell you souvenirs and stuff, groups with their local guide, some taking a group photo with the Church as the background which we did also (and of course pay for the printed version).
This church is a significant place for Christian as a major holy site, believed to be the birthplace of Jesus as it is written in the gospel of Matthews and Luke. Although there is a dispute that what’s written in Matthew indicates that Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth and then moved to Bethlehem, while in Luke, Jesus was born in Bethlehem while they were in town for a special census.
The Door of Humility
*Sorry for the blurred image, it’s actually a screenshot from a footage I shot for the church documentation purpose, I didn’t have the chance to take a photo of it.
The first thing you will see is the Door of Humility, which created in the Ottoman empire. The doorway was reduced from the earlier Crusader doorway. The purpose is to prevent carts get inside and sometimes to force even important visitors to dismount from their horse to enter this holy place. Christian pilgrims believed that this is the door to remind us to humble ourselves as we enter His holy place.
A Major Renovation
The Church of Nativity is going under major renovation since 2015 due to the damage from water leaks. It is the first Palestinian site listed as one of the World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2012 and placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
Although overwhelmingly Muslim, Palestinians consider the church a national treasure and one of their most visited tourist sites. President Mahmoud Abbas has been actively involved in the project, which is led by Ziad al-Bandak.
The basilica was placed as one of 100 endangered sites by the World Monuments Fund. As quoted :
The present state of the church is worrying. Many roof timbers are rotting, and have not been replaced since the 19th century. The rainwater that seeps into the building not only accelerates the rotting of the wood and damages the structural integrity of the building, but also damages the 12th-century wall mosaics and paintings.
The influx of water also means that there is an ever-present chance of an electrical fire. If another earthquake were to occur on the scale of the one of 1834, the result would most likely be catastrophic.
It is hoped that the listing will encourage its preservation, including getting the three custodians of the church – the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, and the Franciscan order – to work together, which has not happened for hundreds of years. The Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority would also have to work together to protect it.
The Grotto of Nativity
The main thing pilgrims see in this church is the Grotto of Nativity. A small place built in a cave where there’s a silver star as a mark of Jesus birthplace. There’s also a manger inside the grotto where pilgrims usually pray. It really is a small place, we even had to wait quite a while before we can get in one by one. Inside the grotto, I barely can see what is inside because there were too many people and we barely can move.
That picture above is a screenshot from a footage I took, I cannot take any photo because we have to be quick inside. People are waiting outside to go down, so a lot of tour guides were like, “Hurry…. Hurry… Please take a turn… Please leave and let other people come in…”. Sighh…..
Church of St. Catherine
We’re leaving the grotto as fast as we could, what a way to enjoy pilgrim. Exit the grotto and we’re going north to the door where leads to the Catholic church of St. Catherine.
The church is said to be built on the site of Christ’s appearance to St. Catherine of Alexandria and his prediction of her martyrdom. First recorded in the 15th century and may incorporate the chapter house of the 12th-century Crusader monastery that stood on the site. St. Catherine’s Church was enlarged in 1881 with funds from the Emperor of Austria.
The church looks really nice and feels peaceful here. The modern basilica has three aisles. To the north and west is the active Franciscan monastery. This place is where the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem celebrates midnight mass on Christmas eve. There’s an offering box right before the exit where I put money in. There’s always an offering or donation boxes for every pilgrim sites or churches we visited, you can just slip in money inside.
We’re moving to our next stop located at the east of Bethlehem, the Shepherds’ Field. Located at the most Christian village in Bethlehem, Beit Sahour. This place is known as the place where the Shepherds rest and saw the Star of Nativity, the sign that leads them to see baby Jesus.
There are two rival locations for the exact site, one run by the Greek Orthodox and the other by the Franciscans. Both have been excavated, also there have been churches and monasteries on both sites since the 4th century or earlier. So yeah, like I said many times in my pilgrim trip series, there are many places that have more than one possible site to happened. So we’re getting used to it with “this is the best possible location…”.
Although this place is pretty small but it has a lovely design. It has five apses that mimic the structure of a nomadic tent in gray. The words of the angel to the shepherds in gold. With the statues of angles on the roof. Under the church is a large cave. An image depicting the birth of Jesus can be seen in the place.
Lunch in Bethlehem
After a while looking around and be done with it, we’re going to our lunch. Mr. Khaled brought us to this one famous restaurant that serves Chinese food. I think most Christian pilgrims from Indonesia brought here. Or maybe all Asian pilgrims? Judging by the photos from their facebook photo, Tachi Chinese Restaurant.
The street we’re going through to reach the restaurant is really not a friendly one for a bus. We literally stuck not moving for almost 15 minutes, this is due to the narrow street, parked car at the side of the road, and two ways traffic. We’re forced to get off the bus from across the street and then walk. But here’s where I found this mural art of Leila Khaled.
Leila Khaled, a Palestinian woman who’s now a member of Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PLFP). She’s known as a Palestinian hero for her bravery hijacking a plane in 1969, the first woman ever. She’s an atheist and now live in Amman, Jordan. More about her story can be found here.
I saw a lot of murals drawn on the wall all along the street. The wall which built by Israeli to separate the west bank for a security reason against terrorism, but called a racial segregation or apartheid wall due to the isolation it caused for the Palestinian. I found an interesting video about what’s happening here, the latest issue, watch the video below. You can also check out this post where I embed some videos for Israel-Palestine conflict.
Shopping Souvenirs From Bethlehem
Once we’re done with our lunch, Mr. Khaled took us to our last stop, which is shopping. I forgot the name of the store, but it seems pretty famous and pretty big store since a lot of tourists actually shopping here. I got myself some little souvenir. Price range varies from as cheap as $1 up to hundreds. They sell jewelry too. I do know for sure that the store is at the manger street.
As per usual, they will gather you first and then entertain you with some jokes, introduction, and free gifts for those who can answer their questions. This shop is really good for price and items available. You can try to explore more shops in manger street.
It’s been an amazing short visit to the west bank area such as Bethlehem. I’ve seen a glimpse of the story about conflicts been around for years. But I prefer to see the beauty of Palestine from a foreign perspective. This is the city which deserves more exposure to the world. I guess this is where I will end this part. Until next post, thanks for reading!
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Of course, you better not forget to get a travel insurance when traveling to the middle east.
*This is the map itinerary for my visit to Bethlehem.