It’s no great secret that millions of pilgrims and tourists come to Bethlehem every year to see the Church of the Nativity. That’s the way it should be, and the people of Bethlehem are very proud that Kineesa Al-Mahed, the Church of the Nativity as we call it in Arabic, is one of the most visited places of worship in the world…as it should be. God willing, people will continue to come to the Church, especially now that that the recent renovations have restored it with great success. (You can read my earlier blog to learn more about this). But there is far, far more to Bethlehem than just the Church of the Nativity, and making your most of the trip there should be one of the highlights of your visit to the Holy Land.
Bethlehem may not be a large city, but it is densely populated, with a well-preserved historic center that is accessible, safe, and easy to explore. The first place to visit after the Church of the Nativity is the Milk Grotto, which tradition holds is where the Virgin Mary first nursed the infant Jesus. It is located behind the Nativity Church via a narrow street, and offers a peaceful moment of contemplation on the Christmas story. Back out into the street, one can walk around the plaza of Manger Square, check the large model of Bethlehem located in the Peace Center, take a look at the Mosque of Omar, the principle Mosque of Bethlehem, and then try a falafel sandwich at the famous Afteem Restaurant just off the plaza. For those more adventurous individuals that want to experience an Arab market, they can visit the Green Market in the Old City, or pop into any number of souvenir shops in the area.
Bethlehem is a living Christian city, and thanks to centuries of Christian monastic orders and missionary work, there is an abundance of monasteries, convents, and churches throughout the city. The Christmas Lutheran Church is known for its unique conical tower, and is also a unique combination of historic German Lutheran and masterful Arab stonemasonry from the 19th century. The Carmelite convent, located on a hilltop to the immediate south of the Church of the Nativity, has become an increasingly visited site due to it being the center of veneration of Saint Mariam of Jesus Crucified Baouardy, who was canonized by Pope Francis in 2015. The Wells of King David, also located in the Old City, helps visitors recall the story of King David and his conquest of the city from the Philistines in chapter 23 of the second book of Samuel in the Bible. Visitors can also go through the Al-Zarrarah arch, the famed ancient entrance of the city of Bethlehem along Star Street, and spend some time taking in the view of the Judean Hills as they face east towards Jordan. Another historical treasure of the city is The Olive Press Museum, also called Badd Jackaman, which offers a unique insight into the cultural heritage of Bethlehem and its strong connection to the tradition of olive harvesting and olive oil in our cuisine.
Back towards Jerusalem in the northern end of town, a stop to tour the Banksy Museum at The Walled-Off Hotel and view the graffiti on the Israeli-built Wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem can be a sobering experience, but also a powerful and informative one. Even amidst this hardship, the Christian spirit of Bethlehem is still present at the Emmanuelle Convent, which has kept a painting of the Virgin Mary on a portion of the wall next to their beautiful monastery and its peaceful gardens.
Those with a full day to use can also make plans to visit the neighboring villages of Beit Sahour, place of the Shepherds Fields, Beit Jala, home to Saint Nicholas in the Holy Land, and even consider some hiking tours in places such as Battir and Artas. In the coming blogs, I will go into greater detail of each of these sites, but for the moment, I hope that I have made it clear that even if all my clients do is simply visit Bethlehem, there is more than enough to do besides a tour of Nativity Church. As a Bethlehemite, I may be biased, but I truly believe my community and its tradition of hospitality and friendliness towards our pilgrims and visitors makes for an experience in of itself.
Ahlan wa sahlan…peace and welcome…and visit Bethlehem!