top of page

Bethlehem on the West Bank is a city of antiquity, once inhabited by the Canaanites, with tombs dating back to 3000 years; the earliest known mention of it was in 1350–1330 BCE. The Hebrew bible identifies it as the city of David (1040-970 BCE), where he was crowned as the King of Israel, and the New Testament identifies it as the birth place of Jesus. Its name means House of Bread in Hebrew and House of Meat in Arabic. 














Bethlehem is an hour or so away by bus (but less than 10 km) from the Old City. On the way there, we didn't know which way to look, the harsh beauty of the countryside took our breath away. The city, just like Jerusalem, seems to grow out of the mountains, being one with its surroundings. As it is administered by the Palestinian Authority, a passport is needed to cross the checkpoint.  

The bus stop was only a kilometre or so from the centre of Bethlehem, but we didn't know that. Taxis vied for our attention, all assuming that we had come to see the Church of the Nativity, offering to take us there for a few shekels. We didn't know what we wanted to see, and walked away from their din trying to make a decision, when Ayoub appeared.  He spoke good English and offered to give us a mini tour of Bethlehem.         Ayoub is a passionate man, he didn't just want to show us the city, but to show us the plight of the Palestinian people, his people. We were lucky to have him as our guide.














                                                                  He first took us to the huge, 9m long, 1 tonne sculpture of a key, a                                                                                 symbol of the Palestinians who had to leave their homes when Israel                                                                           became a state in 1948, and then again in 1967 during the 6 day war. The                                                                   fleeing Palestinians took their house keys with them in the hope of                                                                               returning home soon – 50-70 years on most of them still live in camps,                                                                       but  they symbolically pass on the keys to their former homes from one                                                                       generation to the next. Maybe  one day…? At the time there were more                                                                       than one million  refugees  altogether, now  their number is closer to 5                                                                         million. 

            The key to Palestine


Further on was the Wall or Barrier that had been built to separate the  Palestinians from the Israelis.  The purpose of the 700 metre long wall was to stop the Palestinian attacks on Israel. After long sections of it were built, the suicide attacks decreased, there were many fewer Israeli deaths. But standing there at the wall, all we could feel was the anger and the pain of the Palestinian people embedded in the concrete. Kati started to cry and Ayoub kept on repeating, 'Don't cry, Kati, please don't cry!' And soon all three of us were wiping our tears away. I wasn't just crying for the Palestinians who have been exiled from their homes, or for the Israelis, whose loved ones were exploded in random attacks on buses, schools, or in their homes.  I was weeping because we, humans, find it so difficult to accept others different from us, cannot live in peace alongside each other.

















                                                  <------                                                          ------>

                                                             The Palestinian wall     Wall art in Banksie's 

                                                             3m+ with barbed            Hotel









Our next stop was the Gallery at the Walled off Hotel, established by Banksie, the graffiti artist.  We saw an exhibition by Palestinian artists – more pain.










                                                                                                        Painting by Anisa Ashkar

At the main square we said goodbye to our guide and made our own way to the Church of Nativity, which stands in the centre of the city over the cave where Jesus is thought to have been born. The church was built by St Helena, mother of Constantine, in 339 – she was a busy woman!  It burnt down a couple of hundred years later, then was rebuilt.  This second church is still standing.  











                                                                Main square, Bethlehem













           Main entrance to the                                   Church of Nativity                                         Door of humility exit

             Church of Nativity                                                                                                          to the Church of Nativity                                                                                                                                                                                          

You gain access to the church through a door too small to enter, so you need to bend down: the door of humility.  Inside, the church is cavernous; it was covered with scaffolding due to major renovations. On the podium, 'call and answer' chanting was going on in Ancient Greek and Arabic. (At least that's what I heard the priest say when I asked him, but I wonder if he meant Aramaic). The various priests and their attendants paraded in many different types of robes.














Images from inside the Church of Nativity



The queue to see the 'manger' was on the right.  Large groups of pilgrims gathered here with their own guides, speaking many languages, restless and eager, many spoke loudly while mindlessly taking photos, not being bothered by the service going on at the time.  After an hour or so, we started to move.  When we got to this holiest of spots, the likely birthplace of Jesus, many of the pilgrims felt quite overwhelmed and shoved and elbowed each other and us, jostling to get even closer.  I just about finished focusing my camera on the alcove, when one large man stood in front of me. As he bent down his trousers rode down too, exposing much of his buttocks. Mooning for Jesus???  So eager to kiss the ground on which Jesus stood, the pilgrims seemed to forget all about his teachings, like doing unto others and loving neighbours, not to mention basic respect.










The exact spot (once a manger) where Jesus is thought to have been born



The Chapel of the Milk Grotto is only a few minutes from the church.  Unlike the latter, it was only built quite recently towards the end of the 19th century, but it was on the site of an early Byzantine church.  Part of the original mosaic floor is still there.  


It's a limestone cave whose name derives from the story that while nursing Jesus a "drop of milk" of the Virgin Mary fell on the floor of the cave and changed its colour to white. King Herod the Great, ruler of Judea, ordered the the execution of all young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem so as to avoid the loss of his throne to a newborn King of the Jews. Joseph and Mary on their way to fleeing to Egypt with the baby Jesus, stopped at these caves. Whatever the story, it is a lovely grotto - in fact it's three interconnecting caves enticing you to go and explore, see what's around the next bend. At the time of our visit, there were only a few other people there, and I found it an interesting and peaceful experience.


The Chapel of the Milk






Inside the Chapel of the Milk Grotto












In 1950, Bethlehem and the surrounding villages were 86 percent Christian, but by 2016, the Christian population dropped to just 12 percent. 

                 Street views of Bethlehem 

At the end of the day, we caught the last bus back to Jerusalem.

To be continued: Jerusalem, new city


bottom of page