The reason for my trip to Israel was my desire to take part in a desert safari. I was planning on a superb four-day jeep journey across the Judean Desert. Unfortunately, due to army jurisdiction this was impossible. Permissions are mandatory and as a rule they are easily obtainable in advance – that was the scenario in my case but the cancellation occurred on the day of the trip and even though I had seen Masada already, I must admit I was disappointed. Oh well, some other time.
As I was in the mood for something adventurous and it was just before Christmas I thought Bethlehem would be the perfect choice. Since the city, which is believed to be the place of Jesus’ birth, is administrated by the Palestinian Authority, an Israeli military checkpoint stands there as a border between the two countries.
There are no bigger problems with crossing this quasi-border to Bethlehem except for transportation logistics. I had to take a taxi from Jerusalem to ‘Rachel’s Crossing’ and after going through the airport procedure I was quickly on the other side catching a taxi to the Church of the Nativity – one of the most important Christian Holy Places, if not the holiest. One of the oldest churches in the world is impressive with its pink limestone columns and splendid Constantinian mosaic floor.
The Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem is crowded with crying and praying pilgrims and tourists. For some it seems to be a very emotional place to be. After admiring every crack and recess and listening to some carols sung by a Polish choir outside the church where the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve takes place. I took off for a ride out of the city to see Solomon’s Pools in the Artas Valley, writing down in my journal that the next time I would like to come here for some hiking. It’s a very beautiful and picturesque area with an old Italian Convent.
Visiting Rachel’s Tomb is impossible nowadays on this side and I find out that it’s only feasible on a special tour from Jerusalem. The Old City is a great place to stroll around but after having seen so many great Arab cities before I take a walk to see Kind David’s Wells. Bethlehem is very important to the Jewish as it is believed to be the birthplace and hometown of David, King of Israel… therefore, it seems very strange that Jewish people actually cannot visit here.
Banksy in Bethlehem
For some it may be surprising but I didn’t feel endangered or intimidated here. Even when I went on a ride to the city centre or when I was strolling along a wall to finally see the ‘screams for freedom’ – graffiti on both sides of the Wall, and Banksy’s famous works.
Being here just before Christmas allowed me to see all the holidays decorations and lights, but I couldn’t properly get in the mood while wearing only a t-shirt and sunglasses.
While having my favourite tea with nana mint in one of the shops and observing the daily life of the people here, I was chatted up by a Palestinian man, a Christian apparently, who told me about the Monastery of St. George in Al Khader village just next to Bethlehem, so the next day I made my stop there on the way back to Jerusalem. I was blown away by the mural paintings and by how well preserved it is.
The monastery is said to hold the relics of a saint that possess healing powers, especially for mental illness – this place was even used as a mental hospital in the 19th century, but the thing I wonder about is: How could this man back in Bethlehem possibly have known that was what I needed?!?