DIY Bethlehem: The Complete Guide
After visiting Jerusalem I decided to cross “the wall of shame” and go and see with my own eyes the interior of the West Bank, the area that makes up most of the historical region of Palestine and which, together with the Gaza Strip, forms the modern Palestinian territories. The barrier separating the West Bank from Israel consists of three concrete walls, piles of barbed wire, two external fences, an anti-vehicle ditch and an exclusion barrier for intrusion monitoring. For the Israelis this is a security barrier against terrorism but for the Palestinians it is a wall of segregation.
Bethlehem one of the symbolic places of these territories, is a picturesque hill town that dominates the Judean desert and the presence of the Church of the Nativity reminds us that, according to the evangelical tradition, Jesus was born in this place, although the streets that the Nazarene travel l ed here during his short life remain almost unknown.
Once you have passed the coldness of the concrete and barbed wire wall, the welcome from the locals warms your heart and annihilates all kinds of preconceptions created by the barrier. The Palestinians are a very friendly people and you don’t have to go far to meet them; in fact Bethlehem is not very far from Jerusalem and it is even possible to visit it in a single day. As it is now part of the Palestinian territories, many people only come here on an organized tour, but it is also possible to visit Bethlehem on your own.
WHICH CURRENCY TO USE IN BETHLEHEM?
The most popular currencies accepted in Bethlehem, especially by restaurants and souvenir shops that also accept major credit cards, are the Israeli shekel, the US dollar and the euro.
IS IT SAFE TO VISIT BETHLEHEM?
In my experience, yes. During my trip to Bethlehem, I never felt in danger at any time as there was a constant police presence near the main places of interest and the streets of the city were full of tourists who intertwined their passing with the daily life of local people.
Although my experience has been positive, I would like to advise you to take out travel insurance that covers the West Bank. You never know. You never know.
The reason why most people immediately associate Palestine with danger is certainly linked to the dramatic clashes with Israel; however, it should not be forgotten that the Palestinian territories are made up of two distinct regions: the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. The latter is the place where the most clashes occur and is located about 100 km south of Bethlehem.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO VISIT BETHLEHEM ON YOUR OWN?
Along the border, there are a lot of people addicted to the art of touting who will tell you at every step that you will need a guide to be able to go to Bethlehem. You won’t need it, as this is essentially a border crossing like any other in the world and you can cross the border on your own. You will be surprised how simple it is for one of the most controversial areas in the world! I went through it alone without relying on expensive tours and it was worth it.
DON’T FORGET YOUR PASSPORT!
Before going to Bethlehem, prepare your passport and your visa issued at the airport which you will have to present at customs as the checks here work exactly as in Jerusalem. Passport control, however, takes place when returning from Bethlehem to Jerusalem. Some people fear this frontier, but honestly there is nothing to worry about! Indeed, it is much easier than anywhere else in the world.
CARS RENTED IN ISRAEL ARE NOT ALLOWED
If you have rented a car in Israel, it is highly unlikely that you can use it to go to Palestine. As far as I know, no company or dealership allows this.
HOW TO GET TO BETHLEHEM FROM JERUSALEM
To reach the place of the Nativity from Jerusalem you have to get to the bus station outside the Damascus Gate and from there board the bus 231 (which also operates on Shabbat) which in half an hour will take you to the terminal which is about twenty minutes away. from the centre, at a cost of only 7 NIS. As I wrote earlier, remember to bring your passport with you. For the return I took the same bus from the same terminal. When I got to the stop, there were many taxi drivers willing to take me for a decidedly ex h orbitant amount, along the separation wall where there are Banksy’s graffiti. Well, it wasn’t necessary. Keep in mind that if at any time you cannot find the work of art in question, the locals will be able to point you in the right direction.
WHAT TO SEE IN BETHLEHEM
THE CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY
The Church of the Nativity is the most famous place in the city where Jesus is said to have been born and in 2012 it was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. It is one of the oldest churches in the world whose construction work began in 330 AD. on the initiative of Emperor Constantine. It was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries and the current complex is the result of the combination of two churches that make up the shell that encloses a crypt and the Grotto of the Nativity. An island of silence immersed in the centre of the busy sea of Bethlehem.
When I arrived near the entrance I thought I would find a large door, but I was wrong; I realized that the entrance to the church is a small narrow and low passage, called the Door of Humility, where it is necessary to bow down to enter. An action that reminds pilgrims to maintain a respectful attitude.
The interior of the basilica consists of five naves and in order to access the Grotto of the Nativity you have to go down a long dark and shabby staircase, very often full of people in line who hope that Christ can forgive them for thinking that they are heading towards a pit. underground, rather than towards the Salvatore’s cradle. At the end of the descent, we find ourselves in front of a small damp cave, adorned with the gaudy trinkets of various Christian denominations. In it you can see a 14-pointed silver star, which marks the exact place where Mary gave birth and the manger where the baby Jesus was placed, hidden behind an iron grate that makes it barely visible.
THE CHAPEL OF THE MILK GROTTO
A short distance from the Basilica is the Chapel of the Milk Grotto, a Christian pilgrimage site, built in 1872 on the remains of an ancient Byzantine church from the 5th century AD. For Catholics, this is the place where Mary and Joseph found refuge. on the way to Egypt to escape the slaughter of the innocents. Here, according to the evangelical tradition, while Mary was nursing Jesus, a drop of milk fell on a pink stone transforming it into a soft white rock which today has interesting sculpted shapes. Even today many women, both Christian and Muslim, go to the cave to ask the Virgin for help in solving fertility problems and raising healthy children.
THE ALLEYS OF THE OLD TOWN
After offering me a hot mint tea, a shopkeeper told me: “You haven’t seen Bethlehem, unless you wander around the old city!”. So I followed his valuable advice and immersed myself in the other side of Bethlehem, in its ancient core, away from the stalls full of tourist trinkets. It doesn’t take long to reach it: just leave Manager Square behind and start climbing the hill where the alleys of the old city branch off, among the smells and scents of the local market.
THE MURALES OF BANKSY
If you know Banksy, you will certainly know that, through his graffiti, the artist expresses his opinion on some issues, using comedy or playing with preconceptions.
The question of the territories of the West Bank, of course, is not an issue that leaves him insensitive. According to Banksy, the Palestinians are the victims of a persecutory regime and this condition is clearly visible on the dividing wall, where the British artist has created some works, to protest against the inhumane treatment of Palestinians:
- The incredible image of the girl who searches a soldierthat Banksy created in 2007 and who stands in front of the Intercontinental Bethlehem (Jacir Palace) Hotel, near the Gilo 300 checkpoint, which marks the border between Israel and Palestine.
- The dove of peace with a bulletproof vest and a target welcomes visitors to Bethlehem and Palestine. The irony is that the posters hide the bullet holes in the wall. The work is located outside the Palestine Heritage Center.
- The Flower Thrower, another iconic work by Banksy depicting a masked Palestinian throwing a bouquet of flowers. This masterpiece was made on a wall on the side of a garage on the main road to Beit Sahour in front of a Peugot / Citroën dealership.
THE DIVIDING WALL BETWEEN SEGREGATION AND PROTEST
It is impossible to talk about Bethlehem without mentioning the huge wall that, since 2002, Israel has begun to build along the edge of the Palestinian territory, causing a deep-seated sense of segregation in the life of the population on the eastern side.
This imposing structure full of fences and electronic doors, winds for about 730 km, cutting some roads and rising over the boundary/perimeter of sacred places, such as Rachel’s Tomb, located just 460 meters from the Israeli border. It hurt my heart to see this eight meter high separation wall with my own eyes, in front of which you feel small and helpless. But the barrier is not just this modern incarnation of the word ghetto; it is also the concrete canvas where, in addition to those of Banksy, many other artists, have created graffiti in support of Palestinian dissent. Among these it is worth mentioning two Italian artists, Jorit Agoch and Salvatore De Luise, arrested for vandalism after painting a huge mural of Palestinian activist Ahed Tamini, whose face has become a symbol of Palestinian resistance, after being imprisoned for having slapped an Israeli soldier. The two had their visas revoked, expelled from the country and banned from entering Israel for the next ten years.
Australian artist Lush Sux also made his voice heard. His large-scale work can be seen in various places. Targeting characters like Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, they are shown in satire often celebrating the wall. His Rick & Morty cartoons can also be seen and he even smeared one of the watchtowers like a huge pickle. In fact Sux claims that, while he was painting that particular piece, one of the guards urinated on him from the watchtower window. Walking along the wall you always have the feeling of being controlled and observed, like the Berliners during the 28 years in which they saw their city marked by the edge of the Iron Curtain.
IL WALLED OFF HOTEL
If you visit the wall, I recommend that you take a look at “the hotel with the worst view in the world”, the Walled Off hotel founded by Bansky in 2017. As soon as you walk through the door, you will feel like you are entering an early English pub. twentieth century adorned with objects and posters of political-social denunciation, such as a cat attached to the cage of a dove of peace, the piano playing without a musician, surveillance cameras, a part of the wall hung with a heart-shaped hole next to it a little girl with a veil playing. The hotel has only 10 rooms, but you can choose to stay in a dormitory or in a suite. I must warn you that, due to the presence of the wall, the rooms receive only 25 minutes of sunlight a day but inside you can enjoy it’s ‘one of a kind’ unique furniture : the works of art by the English artist. The hotel also has a museum inside and organizes excursions to visit a refugee camp, to better understand the social and political context in which one is immersed. The guide is very well prepared and explains the conflict and the construction of the wall from the Palestinian point of view. A story that gives you goosebumps. You will also have the opportunity to walk along the wall where you can see the turrets with Israeli soldiers inside, go through a cemetery and then arrive at the refugee camp. I found it a very touching experience that I recommend you try. The cost is 115 NIS.
THE AIDA REFUGEE CAMP
Thanks to the tour organized by the Walled Off Hotel, I visited the Aida refugee camp, established in 1950 and hosting refugees from 17 demolished Palestinian villages. This is one of 58 recognized refugee camps that were set up in Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza to accommodate Palestinian refugees in 1948. The creation of the State of Israel that year led to the forced removal of 750,000 Palestinians from their homes and the destruction of entire towns and villages. I didn’t know exactly what to expect. Until then I had only seen emergency refugee camps filled with UN tents on the various news, but Aida camp, with its permanent buildings, is more like a large, densely populated city than a refugee camp. Government authorities refuse to extend it , so local people are always adding new floors to existing buildings. There are currently about 5,000 people living here, but only about ten of these are those who set up the camp in 1948, as the first refugees.
Unemployment levels are high and tensions with Israeli forces and residents are on the agenda. The entrance to the camp is marked by a large door with the “key of return” on it to symbolize the hope of returning to one’s home one day. Beyond the door there are a series of dilapidated buildings with large tanks for collecting water; in fact, the water networks are in poor condition and water is supplied only two days a week.
A reflection came spontaneously: for me, who can travel around the world without obstacles, it was difficult to understand life within the borders of Palestine. The constant tensions, the frequent clashes and the awareness that many children have only known life within such a ghetto area are extremely difficult to understand. The streets are full of colours thanks to the street art, paintings and poems that sing to the desire to believe in a better future and that is what I wish with all my heart for these poor people.
WHERE TO SLEEP
- The Walled Off Hotel, if you can afford it, is definitely the coolest place to stay in Bethlehem! This hotel is located right next to the separation wall and its rooms are decorated with works by Banksy. This hotel is located right next to the separation wall and its rooms are decorated with works by Banksy.
- The Bethlehem City Hostel is a cozy hostel ideal for backpackers. The owners are a wealth of information for those interested in visiting Bethlehem away from the main tourist attractions!
- Dar Sitti Aziza, is a cozy bed and breakfast located in a traditional building, serving delicious breakfasts with a real family welcome.
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