O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Sadly, today the reason why the little town of Bethlehem lies so still is because it is encapsulated in Israel’s West Bank, a place where many tourists don’t travel. The town of Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, used to be a very popular destination, especially for religious pilgrimages. Now it is more of a ghost town, though Bethlehem is working hard to increase tourism once again. For us, our visit to Bethlehem included the biblically significant attractions of Bethlehem related to it being Jesus’ birthplace as well as its more contemporary sites including the wall that divides Bethlehem from the rest of Israel and the modern street art that covers that wall and other surfaces of Bethlehem, including works of the famous graffiti artist Banksy.
Despite Bethlehem’s close proximity to Jerusalem (the distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem is just over four miles), it might as well be a world away. Located in the West Bank, Bethlehem is under the administration of the Palestinian Authority. Israeli passport holders are not allowed into Bethlehem without special permissions. Residents of Bethlehem are not allowed into Israel, including neighboring Jerusalem, without special permissions. Fortunately, tourists are free to enter Bethlehem without restrictions as long as they have their passport and Israeli-issued tourist visa. While the division between Israel and Palestine usually suggests a division between Jews and Muslims, in the case of Bethlehem, another community affected by its segregation is the Christian community, as Bethlehem is the location of one of the largest Arab Christian communities in the Middle East.
Today, visitors to Bethlehem usually only stay a few hours, as we did on our Bethlehem Tour with Abraham Tours. Unfortunately, that’s not quite enough to bring Bethlehem back to the busy town it once was, but it is a start. Our tour of Bethlehem started on Star Street, which used to be a heavily traveled pilgrimage road from the 4th century through the 20th century and had been lined with stores which have been closed since 2000. Star Street was the road Joseph and the pregnant Mary followed when they came to Bethlehem, the town of David, to register for the census. Star Street is also the road the three wise men traveled when they followed the star that led them to the manger where baby Jesus was laid.
We also followed Star Street through Manger Square to the Church of the Nativity. The Church of the Nativity was commissioned by St. Helena, Constantine’s mother, around 326 AD, and is one of the oldest churches in the world. Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity was built to enshrine the grotto of the nativity, the location where Jesus was born and where Jesus was laid in the manger.
The Church of the Nativity immediately alerts visitors that they are entering something very special with the Door of Humility. The entrance to the church is a very short, narrow door which forces visitors to bow, a symbol of humility, when entering. The door wasn’t always so small, as you can see the archway from the previous larger doorway.
Before looking at anything else in the church, we headed to the grotto of the nativity, which is located underneath the altar. That’s because it is important to beat the crowds. We were visiting in February, which is winter and the off-season (I have no idea why since the weather is so pleasant), so the line was not too bad, but it can take two to three hours just to see the grotto of the nativity in the high-season.
There are two important points of interest in the grotto of the nativity. The first is a 14-point silver star on the floor that marks the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born. Visitors reach into the center of the star to touch the ground Jesus first touched in human form.
Just across from Jesus’ birthplace is the Chapel of the Manger which protects the famous manger. This little chapel is the only part of the church which belongs to the Roman Catholics. The rest belongs to Orthodox Christians. While the majority of the cave’s walls have been covered, the rock just above the manger is original.
While you’re waiting to see the manger and Jesus’ birthplace, notice the long hallway which used to be the entrance and exit because it was the actual entrance into the cave.
The Church of the Nativity is currently undergoing restoration, so much of what makes it beautiful is covered in scaffolding, but there are still bits and pieces that are visible. Above the grotto of the nativity is the main altar which belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church. Typical of Greek Orthodox altars, this one is covered in icons.
The nave also holds some treasures. A couple feet below the current floor lies the floor mosaic from the original basilica, protected by a raised floor and trap doors. The 44 columns, many of which are also original, are covered in paintings of saints, Mary, and baby Jesus from the days of the Crusaders. The walls display the remains of colorful mosaics from the 12th century.
Next door to the Church of the Nativity is the Church of St. Catherine, a Roman Catholic Church. The first church was built around the 15th century, but the current version is from 1881. Stairs in the church lead underground to more caves.
Another must-see attraction in Bethlehem is the Milk Grotto. This is yet another cave or grotto protected by a church. The story here is that Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus hid in this cave during the Slaughter of the Innocents, when the infants of Bethlehem were massacred. Mary was nursing Jesus when a drop of milk fell to the ground, turning the cave white. Women who had difficulty getting pregnant would visit the Milk Grotto, scrape some of the soft white rock from the walls, and mix it into their drinking water. Many children are believed to have been conceived as a result of the ingestion of Milk Grotto powder. Now there is just a small portion of the original chalky rock available to be touched, as most of it has been covered.
Bethlehem has another site to be seen that isn’t so ancient, and that is the very large wall that separates it from Israel. Bethlehem’s wall is only a partial wall. Some say its purpose was to stop attacks on Israel. Some say it was a land grab. It’s an attraction for tourists because it provides a bit of a reality check and some poignant graffiti.
The most famous of Bethlehem’s graffiti art is that of the UK artist Banksy. As we were on a short tour of Bethlehem, we couldn’t go on a hunt for all of Banksy’s art in Bethlehem, where he has been prolific, but we were able to see a couple including the ironic dove of peace holding an olive branch and wearing a bulletproof jacket with a target on its chest.
Just days after our visit to Bethlehem we learned that Banksy opened a hotel in Bethlehem, The Walled Off Hotel (kind of sounds like The Waldorf) featuring “the worst view of any hotel in the world.” The 10-room hotel provides a close-up view of the Bethlehem wall. Banksy is a big supporter of Palestine, and Bethlehem in particular, and hopes this hotel will help draw tourism to Bethlehem and bring money to its economy.
A visit to Bethlehem is an easy foray into a land that many are scared of, the West Bank, despite the guards making sure Israelis don’t enter and that off-putting wall. Even if you are not a Christian or not religious, visiting the sites where Jesus spent the first days of his life are sure to be moving, whether on a spiritual level or a historical one. Most importantly, by visiting Bethlehem, you can be a small part of making this once popular destination popular again.
Thank you to Abraham Tours and Abraham Hostels for hosting our trip to Israel and making this post possible. As always all opinions are our own.