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Whilst I was in Israel, Israel and Palestine were being shown heavily on the news from the current unrest and before arriving into Jerusalem I thought I wouldn’t be able to visit Bethlehem on a day trip from Jerusalem, something I had planned to do and really wanted to do.
As it happens, as usual the media was exaggerating (because at least on the border of Palestine where Bethlehem is there was no trouble) so I booked a half day tour to Bethlehem from Jerusalem with Abraham Tours for 190 ILS/ £30.00.
I got picked up at 8:30am and we drove the very short 5 miles to Bethlehem. On the way we had to cross the Palestine border and saw the ‘separation barrier’ wall which separates Israel and Palestine and having seen this in the news it was quite interesting to see.
We got dropped off at the bottom of Star Street which is the street Mary and Joseph were said to have walked and first things first- as our guide pointed out the ‘little town of Bethlehem’ is no longer a little town and is instead a city!
Thesecond thing I noticed was not only that all the doors were painted a gorgeous turquoise colour but that all these doors were shut. I asked if it was because it was early and the guide said that once upon a time these were all open for tourists but in the last 15 years Bethlehem has seen a huge drop in tourism, notably for 8 years between 2000-2008 where no tourists visited Bethlehem at all which I believe was from an issue between Israel and Palestine and the people in Jerusalem stopped selling tours there, luckily for the locals its back on the increase and tourism to Bethlehem is now more popular.
For tours to Bethlehem and other areas in Israel have a look at these options:
After continuing up Star Street we reached Manger Square which was a lot busier with tour groups and souvenir shops. With a big Russian Tour group behind us which we didn’t want to get in front of us we made our way to the famous Church of the Nativity which I was told is 1500 years old and therefore the oldest Church in the world! Inside they were doing restoration work which was a bit of a shame but the upstairs of the church is not what we were here to see..
We were there to view the cave in which Baby Jesus is said to have been born and then put into the Manger. This ‘cave’ currently sits under the church and this is when your imagination comes into key as of course the church itself was not built then.
We had to wait a good 40 minutes before entering and luckily our guide managed to push us all the way to the front skipping past at least 50-60 people.
For a very religious sight it was a bit crazy and personally had I been a Christian and really looking forward to this moment I would have been a little disappointed I think.
Once we were able to enter into the cave there was lots of pushing and guides shouting at their group and our group and we were told to get into lines of 2 and then we could kneel down onto the star where Baby Jesus was born, I didn’t kneel down, partly because I just felt I didn’t want to and need to and secondly it was so hectic I didn’t see the point. I managed to get a quick photo and then move over to where the Manger had been, by at which point another group were coming down the stairs and pushing us out the way and then we headed up the stairs on the other side.
The guide later told me that Pilgrimages to Bethlehem are still very popular so I guess and hope that the people who come here to see it properly get more time in the cave to really appreciate it and rather than being rushed through like we were.
Our next stop was a Shrine called the ‘Milk Grotto’. According to tradition Mary and Joseph stopped in this cave while Mary nursed baby Jesus and a drop of Mary’s milk fell upon the stone and turned it white. It is common for people from all over the world to visit this Shrine and touch the white chalk like stone as they believe it helps with fertility (its safe to say I did not touch the stone)!
Our final stop was to view of the Shepherds Field. This area has now been built on but it is definitely a major part in the Christian story because this is where the Angel visited the Shepherds to tell them of the arrival of Baby Jesus.
We learnt a lot about this at school and I’ve seen plenty of nativity plays which includes this scene but what surprised me most is that this area is very dry and desert like and not the lush green grass like I had always imaged but of course this could have been different back then! Anyway we also got a pretty good view of the surrounding area from here too.
I really enjoyed this trip to Bethlehem from Jerusalem, it was short and sweet as I was back in Jerusalem Old City by 12:30 but I’m glad I went and now I can also say I’ve been into Palestine!