Bethlehem is very close in distance to the wonderful but heavily disputed city of Jerusalem. Such convenient proximity made it perfect to plan a day trip here rather than needing to stay over and look for accommodation for the night. That said, did you know that Bethlehem is actually a Palestinian city located in the West Bank? I didn't.
This I came to realise makes a lot of holiday makers nervous which is partially why the hostel tour agency was booked out constantly. Such people are happy to be in Israel but they're not comfortable to enter a small section of Palestine. I guess we know where they stand politically.
Being completely impartial to the Arab/Israeli conflict, I was not unsettled by this but it would seem that a German chap I met at the hostel, really was. Then again, perhaps my previous two months in Arab territories made me less nervous despite being now in an even more volatile lands.
You see, the German and I had discussed visiting Bethlehem together by taking the bus (and not a tour) but because the day in question fell on a Holy Day here in Israel, the buses were not running. No problem as I quickly realised there would be Palestinian transportation departing from their bus station in East Jerusalem close to Damascus Gate.
To make a short story even shorter, the German man would not come with me to the bus station suggesting that he would be happy to go with the Israeli buses came back into service the following day. Needless to say we parted company for the day and instead I ventured on alone. I mean honestly....
Proof that a little ignorance and discriminatory reasoning is equally as dangerous as anything, right?
Bethlehem: famous for Jesus Christ and some other fella from the UK
Even the atheists amongst might be familiar with the name Bethlehem and how it's said to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Though I can't imagine for a minute (or an hour) that you'll guess who the second famous face is unless you are otherwise very well informed. That's ironic though as the public haven't actually seen his face!
Get this, it's only Banksy! For those that don't know the name 'Banksy', have a quick Google.
Yes folks, Banksy is famous in Bethlehem!?
Like you I was somewhat perplexed to learn that the faceless British graffiti artist home had ventured to Bethlehem some year back to deface/improve several walls.
But to match that surprise, I discovered that the first thing several taxi drivers asked me after I exited the bus was not whether I wanted to see Jesus' reported birthplace but instead to go and see Banksy's artwork! Now that's a comparison I never ever thought I'd bare witness too.
So Banksy's artwork combined with Jesus' birthplace brings no surprise to me to learn that tourism is the main economic source here in Bethlehem. That said, I contributed the very least a person could (ooops) so it must be everyone else's money they use to generate this statistic as it certainly won't be mine. What I mean by that is if you haven't already paid extortionate tour prices to visit here and see the same sights, when you get off the bus, the next obvious choice is to catch a taxi who will 'tour-guide' you to the local art work for probably not too hefty a charge. Besides, you have no way of knowing where the art work is, right?
An optimistic (but successful) Google search turned up a website where somebody had taken the time to show which paintings there were and where they were located! Result. So here's a couple of original pieces; one is protected with the glass, the other is not. That seems a little odd to me?
However on route to Banksy's artwork it wasn't long before I was confronted by some other jaw-dropping visions, and I don't mean of the divine or of the Banksy sense...
The Church of the Nativity
This was the big one then; the 'traditional birthplace of Jesus'. The Church of the Nativity itself was built on top of a holy area know as the Grotto; the site the Virgin Mary is said to have given birth to baby Jesus.
Now here's something tour companies won't tell you. You know, like if something you've paid to go and see is undergoing some serious renovation! How Christian of them...
That was indeed the case here of what is one of the oldest surviving churches in history. I mean pretty serious renovation that I don't see finishing any time soon. This almost immediately destroyed any deeper connection I'd hoped for whilst in the church was was quite disappointing. You know there's something un-divine when you're in such a holy place to have loud, intermittent drilling reaching your ears.
That said, the drilling had stopped by the time I'd reached 'the spot'. Yes folks, the spot. You see down a short flight of stairs and therefore slightly deeper underground was a small area, this was 'the Grotto' - the main focal point of this entire tourist attraction! It's here that a silver star on the floor marks the very spot where Christ is believed to have been born. The inscription reads, "Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ was born".
After a few minutes of taking all this in and absorbing the now very holy feeling surrounding me, I under went some mixed emotions. On one end of the scale I'd seen people come down here and start kissing the star and it was probably at this point a little ambivalence started to creep in.
I mean the actual spot Jesus was born... Really!? Now I'm no Bible basher so-to-speak but I'm pretty sure there will be plenty of ambiguity in the different gospels, the different testaments and wherever else. If they can't align on these things are we really meant to believe that we know the actual birthplace of Jesus.........!?
Now here's an un-revolutionary thought, wouldn't it be conveniently touristic and financially beneficial to have 'a spot'...!? I mean call me sceptical but comon....
Naturally I'm not going to be the first or last person to think this but hey, acceptance can be a blissful thing, right?
Whatever the reality, I had a nice day out here and achieved by myself the two things I'd set out to see so I would urge you to come and enjoy the same if you were staying in or around Jerusalem.
If you've stumbled upon this article from the WWW, please don't think that an expensive tour option is your only choice, especially if you are on a budget. Also do not be worried about walking around Palestinian occupied Bethlehem (or taking a bus) as it was really quite pleasant and so were its people.
If you're not religious and visiting Bethlehem and Jesus' reported place of birth does not interest you, (there's always gonna be one), don't worry as there's plenty of other 'scenery' that very close to Jerusalem itself will actually cause a similar reaction to much of a holy one. As in it will stop you dead in your tracks and you will look up high in the direction of the heavens...
Was this how you envisaged Bethlehem?
Signing out from the West Bank folks. See you on the other side as they, but quite literally in this instance.