I’m sure most of you have heard of Bethlehem. Well, that’s where I went today. The trip is only a short one from Jerusalem – maybe 20 minutes and 3 1/2 Shekels – but the security once you get there is tantamount to entering a different country.
For those who don’t know, Bethlehem is part of the “West Bank” area which covers most of the major religiously significant areas bordering Jordan. It is currently under Israeli rule/control, though is classed as a separate state in some ways. Postage stamps, for instance, bought here are only valid here – “outside”, you must purchase Israeli ones.
The entire area – and it’s not much less than half of the landmass of Israel – is literally fenced and walled off. Checkpoints are stationed around it and people are required to show ID passes and paperwork to get through. As a foreigner, this amounts to flashing a passport. To a Palestinian (one from within the West Bank) it seems they have to apply for permission to be able to leave the area and travel.
The size of the wall when you see it is astounding. At a guess I’d say it’s around 12m tall and gun towers are visible. The inner surfaces are covered in graffiti. Within the walls, police patrol with loaded guns which is different from Jerusalem where they’re allowed to walk around with battered, unloaded rifles.
After I progressed through the cavernous and sparsely-populate checkpoint, I followed a series of caged walkways around and through the wall to an area heaving with taxis. Of course, they all started yelling that the distance to town was five kilometers or something, and in fairness I did know it was a little bit of a stroll. There are buses, but I’m not sure where they go from.
One of the taxi drivers admitted they were getting no trade right now, and I can believe it. I see the buses heading to Bethlehem every day and they’re rarely more than a third full – and not everyone goes to the end of the line. As such, they were desperate for business so I got a very fair price on the ride in, but had to rebuff the driver as he incessantly tried to convince me I wanted a guide to take me around all the sights. In fairness, some of the major ones are as far as 9 miles out of Bethlehem itself.
He dropped me off at the Church of the Nativity which is apparently built over the site of the original barn and manger. As with a lot of churches, it’s shared by a handful of different denominations. There are several entrances, but the main one is actually tiny. Over the years – mainly early on – it was reduced in size to prevent invaders riding in on horseback.
The main hall you walk into is obviously very old with stained pillars holding up the impressive wooden roof. At the front is a fairly ornate altar decorated with lamps and chandeliers, though it’s not as “showy” as some similar places I’ve seen. Off to the side is a doorway leading down to the Grotto.
This area was quite busy when I descended, with a tour group of (I think) Spaniards ooh-ing and aah-ing in a lot more respect than I confess to being able to muster. A baby had been placed in the location of the original manger. The poor sod was there for ages to the point where I thought that maybe he was a permanent prop until his mother picked him up and dropped him at the spot of Jesus’ birth a couple of meters away. Up till now, the entire tour group had been crawling on all fours and kissing the metal-marked spot. As the child was brought forward, the crowd started to sing (in Spanish… or maybe it was Italian, I don’t know) and the whole scene took on a very bizarre and macabre feel. I felt like I was watching The Omen part ten or something. It’s hard to explain but the whole thing really creeped me out so I walked up the stairs and left them to it.
Walking around the rest of the church it was obvious how many wings have been added as the time’s gone on. Different styles are visible, and some areas are simply just so much newer you couldn’t mistake them for part of the original building. There’s a lovely garden in a courtyard, a monastery, some doors added as a celebration of the Pope’s visit in 2000 and a really nice statue of St George slaying the dragon. I nipped back around to the Grotto now that the scary people had left and got some better pictures, including some of a fascinating leather (I think) “tapestry” covering the walls.
My stomach was making warning sounds, so I picked up some postcards and settled down for an overpriced shawarma (a falafel with chicken, basically). Those of you who normally get cards should have them soon, complete with Bethlehem postmark!
By now it was after 2pm and the Milk Grotto had reopened after it’s long lunch break. This is the site where Mary hid with Jesus before they fled over the border to Egypt. It’s named after some white stone in the floor, apparently created when some of Mary’s milk spilled on it. The section of floor is roped off, but presumably accessible should anyone need a handy miracle, for which the floor has been attributed over the years.
It’s a very small chapel to look around and after taking a few photos, I begin to walk back to Manger Square to locate a taxi. I didn’t even get that far when a guy walking the other direction asked if I needed on and walked me to his cousin’s cab. Another ten Shekels and I was back at the checkpoint. I had a brief argument with a small boy who was so adamant that I wanted his 5-Shekel chewing gum that he was trying to force it into my pockets as a “free gift” before asking me for money. Eventually, thankfully, he gave up and I got back through security and back onto my bus to Jerusalem.
Oh, last night I caught up with Noa again and was taken out for Yemenite food in a place next door to meat burger. Interesting… they do two types of pastry, bith slightly sweet. One looks like a fig roll, the other a pancake. They’re slightly sweet and eaten with a fresh tomato sauce dip and a side salad. Not bad and the price was good. But still not as fulfilling as a Meat Burger!