Middle East Chronicles: Bethlehem

Nearly all travellers arrive via Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Since Bethlehem is administered by the Palestinian Authority, an Israeli military checkpoint stands on the road connecting the two locations. If entering from Jerusalem, one must pass through the “Rachel’s Crossing” Israeli checkpoint into Bethlehem. Although it is ordinary businees here, you actually have to flash your passport to an Israeli soldier (belonging to the army who’s occupying your country), place your bags into an x-ray machine, and then walk through a metal detector, much like airport security, to get into Bethlehem. The bad thing is that this is no airport. This is Palestinian land where Israeli colonizers make their way into another land violating all norms of international law.

As with all areas under Palestinian Authority control, Israeli law forbids Israeli citizens to enter unless they receive approval from the Israeli Civil Administration. Tourists are free to enter and exit the checkpoint to Bethlehem and back to Jerusalem as many times as he or she would like without any restrictions.

Bethlehem means “The House of Bread” in Hebrew, and “The House of Meat” in Arabic. However, it seems likely that both meanings have been retrofitted onto what was originally the House of Lachma, the Mesopotamian god of fertility. For centuries Bethlehem remained a small town in the shadow of mighty Jerusalem, and according to most estimates it had some 300 to 1000 inhabitants at the time of the event that gave Bethlehem its fame, namely the birth of Jesus. Somewhat surprisingly, aside from noting that the Nativity indeed took place there, the New Testament virtually ignores Bethlehem.

In the city itself, 40% of the population is Christian, while 60% is Muslim. Christians used to be a large majority but their numbers have declined throughout the 20th century. Although Arabic is the language of Bethlehem’s inhabitants, English, French and other languages are widely spoken and understood.

Although Bethlehem is a Palestinian town, it is also very tourist-orientated.Because of Bethlehem’s immense potential as a tourism magnet, the Palestinian Authority maintains a constant tourist police presence in the city. For example, if escalations in violence are occurring in Southern Israel and the Gaza Strip, this does not mean that trips to other Palestinian cities such as Bethlehem should be seen as unsafe Bethlehem is a safe place to visit for tourists to visit and tourist numbers are increasing to this hidden gem of the Holy Land.

The Church of the Nativity is the top attraction in Bethlehem, a veritable citadel built fortress-like on top of the cave where Jesus was allegedly born to Mary. It is one of the oldest churches in the world. The actual alleged site of Jesus’ birth, is located in an cave in the church (the original Manger where Jesus was born was a cave, not a shed, as popularily depicted).

There is a star marking the exact location of Jesus’ birth in the cave. The original Manger with the star marking Jesus’ birth site is called the Grotto of the Nativity, and is accessible from inside the church.The amazing thing about this grotto is a painting where Virgin Mary is breast feeding Jesus. Something I had never seen before. I mean, it’s the first time I see the painted breasts of one of the most religious figures of man history.

We take a quick stroll around the main square and walk back to out cab to reach our next destination. One of the symbols of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Hebron.

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