Palestinian Territory. West Bank. Words that might strike fear into many travelers' hearts will make others curious enough to jump at a chance to visit. Visiting Bethlehem is one of those must-dos for people on a “pilgrimage” to the Holy Land, but it’s a pilgrimage of another type as well: The city lies outside of Israeli authority.
Is it safe to travel to Bethlehem?
Be prepared, because as soon as your friends and family hear you are heading to Israel, they are going to bombard you with their concerns. You can thank the press for that; they will hype anything to get viewers and readers, because that translates into advertising dollars.
Here’s our advice: Don’t believe everything you hear. Instead, do your own research. You can start with travel forums, where people share their recent trip experiences. You will find that the reality is nothing like the propaganda the media has been spewing.
Another thing to keep in mind is that tourism dollars are a vital source of revenue to Palestine. So, relax. The Palestinian Authority are vigilant to any possible security issues.
Read our related article 10 Cool Facts about Bethlehem.
Entering Bethlehem from Jerusalem on a day trip
While Israelis are forbidden to cross the border, there are no restrictions for other tourists and no visa is required. They will ask you to show your passport, which will take mere moments. Your passage into Palestinian territory should go smoothly, unless you take photos of the checkpoint. That’s a strict no-no.
Once within the West Bank, all security is handled by the Palestinian Authorities and so you will see soldiers in uniform. You’ll see them carrying guns, but just as they do in Israel, it’s for your protection. They are there to keep the peace.
TIP: Remember that the Gaza Strip and the West Bank are two distinct areas and are nowhere near each other. The high-risk Gaza Strip lies along the Mediterranean coastline, but Bethlehem is located in the West Bank, which borders Jordan.
How to get to Bethlehem
Most people travel to Bethlehem (Palestine), on a day trip from Jerusalem (Israel). While it’s easy to do on your own, it’s even easier to take a day trip, as we did. Here’s what we can tell you: Bring your passport, because everyone has to pass through a guarded checkpoint.
Tip: A private guide will answer your questions and point out things you might miss on your own. You can take a half-day guided tour of Bethlehem … or combine your tour with nearby Jericho for a full-day trip.
There will be no doubt when you've arrived at the Israel-Palestine border, because you’ll be face-to-face with a looming 8 foot concrete wall, decorated in political graffiti and lined with watch towers, cameras and barbed wire. This is an Israeli-run checkpoint and it is a very visual reminder of the difficult political situation both sides are in. Our guide told us that one of the main reasons it was built was to protect drivers from snipers.
Although it is best known as being the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth, the town of Bethlehem is also famous as the traditional burial site of patriarch Jacob’s beloved wife, Rachel. Jacob is beloved by all Peoples of the Book, so all wanted access to Rachel’s tomb.
This created a big problem when the high security wall was built to divide Palestine and Israel. Ultimately, they planned the border so that Israelis could still have access to Rachel's tomb. The wall detours for a few blocks so that the tomb is on the Israeli side.
Arab food for lunch
Bethlehem is actually called Bet Lechem. Translated, its name means “House of Bread” (Hebrew) or “House of Meat” (Arabic), so it was rather fitting that we arrived in Bethlehem just in time for lunch. We ate at a place called Palms Café, walking through a bakery with trays of mouth-watering local pastries on our way out the back door, then down to the basement for our lunch.
Our hosts offered us typical Middle Eastern foods for lunch – falafel, meat skewers, or barbecued chicken. Here’s what you need to know: In the Middle East, they don't just put out bread before a meal, they put out a spread!
The tradition is to start the meal with a number of small salads and a basket of warm pita bread. Hummus, cole slaw, roasted eggplant, cucumber salad, Turkish salad, and red cabbage slaw … the hardest part was to leave room for the main meal!
As usual, Dan and I ordered different dishes and sampled each other's … as good as my kebabs were, his smoky chicken was even better. At the end of the meal, we got a chance to sample the falafel and were amazed at the light texture. It was fried to just the right amount of golden-brown deliciousness, too.
Just when we thought we couldn’t eat another bite, they served dessert – cardamom-scented Turkish coffee and a bite-sized bit of baklava. Baklava is the region’s traditional dessert, made of flaky phyllo pastry, walnuts, honey and fresh dates. Oh. My. Goodness. What a brilliant marketing move, as we’ll pass through their store on the way out….
Bethlehem's famous Church of the Nativity
We lugged our full tummies back onto our tour bus and soon were standing at Manger Square, where the Church of the Nativity stands. This is where faithful Christians gather every Christmas Eve to commemorate the birth of the Messiah.
Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest churches in the world. It was built above the cave where, according to the Bible, Jesus Christ was born to Joseph and Mary Christ.
Not really. I just wanted to see if you were paying attention. ?
Wait a minute … Jesus was born in a cave?
I know what you’re thinking: Nowhere in the Bible does it say Jesus was born in a cave. Mary “laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7).
Here’s the thing: Some sources say the Greek can also mean, “she laid him in a manger because they had no space in the room.” So Jesus could easily have been born in a quiet back section of an overflowing one-room house.
Interestingly, both Justin Martyr and the Protoevangelium of James say Jesus was born in a cave. Biblical archaeologists don’t have a problem with this, as many houses in the area are still built in front of caves. The cave part would have been used for storage and stabling animals – hence the cave-manger connection.
History of the Church of the Nativity
Here’s a timeline of the church’s early history:
- 135 AD – Roman Emperor Hadrian had the Christian site converted into a worship place for Adonis, the Greek god of beauty and desire.
- 160 AD – Justin Martyr identified a specific grotto as Jesus' birthplace.
- 326 AD – Helena, mother of Roman emperor Constantine, had a church built on the spot in 339 AD.
- It was destroyed by fire during Samaritan revolts in the mid-500s.
- 530 AD – Emperor Justinian destroyed the church so he could build the much larger church that remains today, using the same foundation
A 14-point silver star was embedded in white marble in the grotto to mark the exact spot where Jesus was actually born.
I have no idea why they chose to give the star 14 points, but it probably has some esoteric significance. I also don't know how they could be sure of the precise location that Mary gave birth, 500 years after the fact. But that's what they claim, anyway.
In any case, alhough the Church of the Nativity has seen renovations and additions it's still basically the same structure. Thus, it has been designated a World Heritage Site and is protected by UNESCO.
Interesting fact: St. Jerome lived and worked in Bethlehem, and he was buried in a cave beneath the Church of the Nativity.
Inside the Church of the Nativity
Because it's so central to the Christian faith, many churches have coveted Church of the Nativity. Governments too; the building was used as the primary coronation church for crusader kings until the 12th century. When the silver star was stolen in 1847, it brought everything to a head and caused a war. It took an actual political treaty to finally settle the disagreement.
Today, the church is controlled jointly by three Christian denominations – Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic. Each church controls a different part of the basilica, but all have access to the grotto.
In the Grotto of the Nativity
We descended the stairs to the grotto, where throngs of tourists waited on queue to enter the Grotto of the Nativity and kneel at the altar there.
Rather than lose precious time on the queue, we took an alternate route to a different part of the grotto. “The star is on the other side of this wall,” our guide told us. “This is the closest you can get without actually being in the room.”
The grotto under St Catherine’s Church, which is used by the Roman Catholics, is much more low key. Simple and sedate. This is where you’ll want to come if you prefer to worship in quiet prayer and reflection.
O little town of Bethlehem …
The Christmas song may ring in your head, but with nearly 30,000 inhabitants, Bethlehem isn't such a little town anymore.
We walked the few blocks back to the bus, passing a Starbucks and a shop with an inflatable Santa. Yep, it’s all about the tourists. Kids played in the side streets while locals called out to us as we passed, “Two minutes. Come visit my shop for just two minutes.”
The town's known for its beautiful olive wood carvings, so we made one last stop at a Christian-owned gift shop, so others could buy souvenirs and food and snacks for Shabbat the next day. Personally, I thought the best deal was definitely on the corner, where a guy was selling liter bottles of water for $1 … and he took U.S. dollars as well as Israeli shekels.
“What is life like for a Christian who lives in Palestinian territory?” we asked our Christian guide. We wanted the perspective of a non-Muslim/non-Jew who lives in the territory. She began by telling us that Bethlehem is inhabited by one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
Then she continued, “Due to social pressure, Muslims will only patronize Muslim businesses, so the small Christian population must rely on income from tourists and others.” No wonder the number of Christians still living in Bethlehem has shrunk dramatically in recent years. I’d probably emigrate, too.