Have you ever wondered what the little town of Bethlehem looks like today? Have you ever thought about celebrating Christmas in the Holy Land? In 2008 I did exactly that and spent my Christmas in Bethlehem. It sounds almost mythical when I retell the story and certainly was a wonderfully unique experience. In a society where the 25th December has turned into our most commercialised holiday and everything is geared towards decorating the tree, buying presents and eating a lot of food, it was rather nice to be where it all began and celebrate Christmas in a purely traditional setting. I'm not really religious but even so, being in a town with an abundance of history and biblical significance was surreal. It will be a day I remember forever. I was also lucky enough to be at the Midnight Mass celebration at the Church of the Nativity, near to the exact spot where Jesus is believed to have been born. I stood there with hundreds of other visitors listening to the speech of Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the State of Palestine, in a church so beautiful and atmospheric it makes me smile just thinking about it. As the clocks struck at midnight it all felt like a dream.
|Inside the church at Midnight Mass|
The ceremony in the church had followed a wonderful day of celebrations in Manger Square (shown below), still the main square in Bethlehem right in front of the Church of the Nativity. The square holds the amazing Peace Center, a cultural hub full of tourist information, a museum, gallery and shop. In the square there was a choir, carol singers, dancers, tourists, religious groups and entire families of all ages coming to celebrate. Stalls nearby were selling Christmas ornaments, religious symbols, lights and toys and occasional whiffs of shisha or felafel drifted over from the various food stands around the square. We sipped 'Meramiyeh' (sage tea) and soaked up the joyful atmosphere in the square. Everything was vibrant and happy. Lights and decorations were hung up high around the square and the whole town was lit up. A day of peace where the whole town had come together and celebrate.
Facts about Bethlehem
- Bethlehem is located in the West Bank in the occupied Palestinian territories. For some people, the word 'Palestinian' conjures up images of terrorism, suicide bombers and a war-torn country. Bethlehem is in Palestine yet the two words don't seem to get reported in the same sentence. If I tell someone I have visited ‘Palestine’, they usually look at me with surprise and disbelief. I’ve even been told I was crazy to have gone there. Whereas, if I simply mention Bethlehem no-one bats an eyelid and it’s often met with positivity. The fact is most people aren’t aware that Bethlehem is in the West Bank and certain terrorist stereotypes in tabloid media have had an impact on how people view Palestinians, without ever meeting a Palestinian or visiting the region!
|Map of Bethlehem. Image source: United Nations OCHA oPt.|
The dotted green line shows the 1949 West Bank boundary.
Today though the 'Separation Wall' cuts deep inside the original boundary.
- There is a huge Separation Wall around Bethlehem and the rest of the West Bank which means for most Palestinians it is impossible to cross into Israel including the town of Jerusalem. The Israeli government started building the wall in 2000, as a 'security barrier against terrorism’. The wall is 8 meters high in some places. In the photo below that’s me against the wall! The building of the wall has cut through private Palestinian villages, olive tree orchards and private land all of which has been destroyed. The wall was meant to be a temporary measure not a permanent feature!
|Spot me at the 'Separation Wall'|
- Due to the Separation Wall, to travel in and out of Bethlehem and other towns in the West Bank you need to go through Israeli checkpoints. I have nothing good to say about these places. You have to go through a secure checkpoint like you would do at an airport except you have an intimidating Israeli soldier or two pointing a huge rifle at you. I've seen Palestinians humiliated, shouted at and verbally abused at these check points. They have a horrible atmosphere and sadly some Palestinians have to cross these checkpoints twice every single day because their jobs are on the other side of the wall. And these are deemed the 'lucky' ones because they are allowed to leave the West Bank.
- The Pope visited Bethlehem including a section of the Separation Wall in 2014.
- The majority of Bethlehem’s 25,000 population is no longer Christian but Muslim. Christians and Muslims live side by side as friends in the town and have done for hundreds of years!
- I should also add that before the building of the wall, many Israelis and Palestinians were also friends.
- It's not strange to see Muslims in the Church of Nativity just like it is to see Muslims or Hindus in churches in India. In fact, in Bethlehem the church holds a strong religious significance for both Christians and Muslims.
- The exact spot believed to be the birthplace of Jesus is underneath the alter in the Church of Nativity and is marked with a fourteen-point silver star in the Church of Nativity (shown above).
- In 2002, the Church of Nativity was under siege by the Israel Defense Forces who occupied Bethlehem. Palestinians along with monks had fled to the church to seek refuge. After 39 days, the siege ended with nine Palestinians being killed in the conflict.
- Dheisheh refugee camp, where I worked, has a predominately Muslim population. The camp dates back to 1949 and its original inhabitants were those who had escaped persecution during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.
- Dheisheh is one of three refugee camps located in the Bethlehem area. In the West Bank there are a total of 19 refugee camps accounting for 775,000 refugees. Globally there are more than five million Palestinian refugees.
|With my friend Suhaila inside Dhiesheh refugee camp's library. Suhaila was born at Dheisheh and still lives there today.|
- I lived next to a Palestinian family in a beautiful traditional stone house that once overlooked one of the only remaining forests in the West Bank. Today, there is one of the biggest illegal Israeli settlements in its place, built on Palestinian land.
- Most Palestinians living in the West Bank can no longer travel outside the area. Many Palestinians lost their jobs simply because they are no longer allowed to cross the wall. They also lost neighbours, family members and friends who happen to be on the other side of the wall. The wall was not built on the registered green line (as shown on the map above) but instead cuts deep inside West Bank territory.
- Likewise, Israelis are forbidden to enter the West Bank including Bethlehem.
- The rest of the West Bank is divided into completed areas which makes travel within the region incredibly complicated and much more time-consuming than it once was.
- The historic main road leading from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, once a busy hub, was lined with souvenir shops, hotels, restaurants and cafes. The building of the Separation Wall cut the road in two and as you can guess this has had detrimental effect on businesses. Most went bust and those that do remain make a pittance of what they used to.
- It was recorded that 2 million tourists visited Bethlehem in 2013 however only a small percentage actually stay in Bethlehem and experience all the town has to offer. Instead they come into Bethlehem from Jerusalem in large groups on tour coaches run by private Israeli businesses, visit the church, have a quick look around and leave!
I've only touched briefly on these things but if you are interested in learning more about the region I have some recommendations below. With any article relating to Palestine there is always some kind of criticism, it is inevitable. It seems you can't support Palestine without being this and that. So I wanted to add I've visited Israel/Palestine four times now and have travelled throughout the West Bank & Israel as well the surrounding region. I have Palestinian friends and also have a couple of close Israeli friends, both who I've spoken to in the last week. There are always two sides to every story but not everything is shown in the news and here in the UK we are often shown very biased reports. At the end of 2008, just two days after spending the lovely Christmas in Manger Square, the Gaza War broke out, also known at the Gaza Massacre. Sadly, the war resulted in over 1500 Palestinian deaths, many of which were children as well as 13 Israeli death (4 caused by friendly fire). No-one in Bethlehem or the West Bank was directly affected since Gaza is 45 miles away yet it had a huge effect on the mood of people. I watched live TV coming out from Gaza, images that you'd never see here in the UK because of our strict censorship laws, and I am still haunted by some of those horrific images, the true realities of war. Despite this I'd still say go to the West Bank. If you're thinking about visiting Bethlehem or the surrounding region here are my tips for making the most of your visit.
My Tips for Travelling to Bethlehem
- Research as much as possible before you go. Read travel guides, history books, blog posts, newspaper articles from a variety of sources, read tripadvisor reviews and watch films.
- Stay in a hotel in Bethlehem rather than Jerusalem (although do the latter too). Whatever you do, don't visit for a quick half day. There are many lovely and affordable hotels in Bethlehem. If you plan to visit at Christmas book well in advance.
- Stay with a Palestinian family. If you want to get to know the locals why not stay with a Palestinian family? I'm happy to put you in touch with families I know (please email me).
- Visit all the amazing sites in Bethlehem
- Talk to the locals! Palestinians are some of the warmest & hospitable people I've ever met.
- Sample the delicious food around town. There are many fantastic restaurants and cafes around town. If shisha is your thing, try that too!
- There are two ways to travel to Bethlehem, either via Tel Aviv airport or via Jordan. I have done both and would say Tel Aviv is the cheapest and quickest option.
- For foreign travel advice keep an eye on the FCO travel guidance for Bethlehem and the wider area.
- If you're interested in the refugee situation you can visit one of the camp's. There are guided tours in Dheisheh and you can arrange these once arriving in Bethlehem.
- Get involved in an activity. There are tours depending on wherever your cultural, historical, political or artistic interests are! Olive picking is also a popular tourist activity.
- I recommend reading Palestinian Walks and The Bradt Travel Guide on Palestine
- I recommend watching The Promise, Paradise Now and Open Bethlehem
- Have a look at these websites before you go: TripAdvisor, Holy Land Trust and Palestine Solidarity Campaign
At a time when prejudices against refugees and immigrants seem to be at their highest here in the UK, with a lot of hate and fear in the world, I'm hoping this blog post will give an idea about what it's like in the region and inspire some to travel to Bethlehem, either at Christmas or anytime throughout the year!
All words and opinions in this post are my own. Do not use photographs or content used on this blog without permission.
If you have a particular question you'd like to ask please do comment below or contact me at: email@example.com I’d be happy to help.
Have you been to Bethlehem? If not, would you like to visit one day? Would love to hear your thoughts.