The Israeli tour guide course is long, intense and covers a huge amount of information. However, it can’t possibly cover everything, so there are still parts of the country for me to explore, and I take great pleasure in doing so!
A reasonably important one is the area of the Yehudiya Nature Reserve in the Golan Heights. There are many trails here and unusually for Israel all of them have water all year around, which is great when you are looking to cool off in the heat of the summer.
With a friend arriving who has a passion for hiking, it was a great excuse to get up north to the reserve. I picked him up from Ben Gurion Airport at 6.45am and just two hours later we were slapping on our sun cream as we prepared to hike around the upper part of the Zavitan stream, a particularly popular trail that I shall definitely need to know for the future.
As we set off, we were somewhat unimpressed by the lack of shade (with the sun already beginning to reach high temperatures. However, we soon began to reach some pleasant little creeks which provided some respite.
Continuing further, we hit the real attraction, a series of pools surrounded by basalt columns that are in various stages of erosion. The columns, caused by physical forces at work in the cooling of lava when the basalt was formed, exist in quite a few parts of the Golan, most famously at the ‘Hexagon Pool’, a little north west of us in the Yehudiya Reserve.
The site was crowded although we still found some space for a quick dip, and then continued down-stream where we found a smaller but undisturbed pool which was much more peaceful and to my mind rather more beautiful.
Continuing down the trail led us to a lovely view of a waterfall, although no doubt it is much more impressive after the winter rains. It was possible to descend down to the waterfall and bathe in the pool into which it plunged (probably less appealing after the winter rains!) and there were plenty of people taking advantage of this opportunity to cool off.
All in all, a very pleasant option for a short hike in the Golan, while incorporating some opportunities to cool off in the stream. I am sure I will be back in Yehudiya before long to explore some of the other trails, including the water hike!
As I mentioned last week, the oral exam, the final stage in the qualification process to become a licensed tour guide in Israel, is a pretty grueling experience. I was reasonably fortunate with the questions thank goodness. The ones that I can remember are below, in case it is of interest!
Questions on my itinerary:
What is unusual about the synagogue in Zippori? Why is it built like that? What does this tell us about Zippori in the Byzantine period?
What were the reasons for the blossoming of Tzfat in the 16th century?
Names of personalities in Tzfat – provide the name of the books they wrote and describe the books:
– Josef Caro
– The Holy Ari
– Chaim Vittal
– [some more whose names escape me]
Who wrote Lecha Dodi?
Tell me about Alexander Zaid.
What is Bar Giora?
How do you do a check-in at a hotel?
What is a rooming list? What sort of information is on it?
At check-in, a tourist complains that they had requested a single room and have not received one. What do you do?
What are the borders of the Golan? What type of rock can you find there?
How was the Golan formed?
Where else can you find basalt in Israel?
Is there any advance procedure you need to do in order to visit the Hermon with tourists?
I will give you years and you will tell me who was in control of the Hermon: 1950, 1969, 1975.
What happened on the Hermon in the Six Day and Yom Kippur Wars?
Give two reasons for the importance of the Hermon for Israel.
You are driving from the north to Jerusalem through the Jordan Valley. Tell me about the following sites:
– Qasr el Yahud
– The Inn of the Good Samaritan
Explain areas A, B & C
Give me an itinerary for a day of Islamic religion, history and culture in Jerusalem
Give me an itinerary for a day of Catholic sites in Jerusalem
Give me an itinterary for a day of Jewish sites in Jerusalem – dedicate the morning to ancient and religious sites; the afternoon to the modern period.
Describe the first Jewish neighbourhoods to be built outside the Old City walls of Jerusalem: names, order and characteristics.
Give me an itinerary for a day themed around Herod, without visiting Jerusalem
You are standing at the top of Herodion. What do you see (that is connected with the site)?
From what period is the synagogue at Herodion?
Is there a difference between Maresha and Beit Guvrin? What do you see at Maresha?
You are standing at the grave of David Ben Gurion. What valley do you see?
Tell me about David Ben Gurion.
I say a word and you tell me a place in Israel where you can go to see/talk about this topic:
– Science & technology
Name a viewpoint over the Gaza strip
How do you explain the current security situation to the tourists? Why are rockets being fired at Israel?
What happened yesterday in the Jewish calendar (it was Rosh Chodesh Av)?
What is this period in the Jewish calendar called?
A group in Jerusalem wants to visit sites where you can see physical signs of the destruction of the First and Second Temples. Where would you take them?
Now that I have passed my exams, I decided that it was time to give the website a refresh, moving it from a focus on the blog to being more appropriate as a page for people to come to when searching for a tour guide. The blog is still here and I shall continue to update it while I explore the country (there are always new places to see and discover) but I have created a new landing page, updated the about section (including the details of my guiding philosophy) and have included a series of testimonials that I have received from previous participants in my tours.
The new design also automatically adapts to different size screens (for example a laptop vs a telephone) and in general looks a lot cleaner.
I hope that you like the new site and would welcome any comments and feedback!
The tour guide Oral Exam. I can’t remember pressure like this. I definitely felt under pressure for my university finals; for my A-levels and GCSEs, but there was something different about this exam. It was worse even than the written exam I took back in June.
There is something about written exams. You can strategise; it is as much about technique as anything else. Making sure one finishes on time. Maybe one can avoid studying all the material and still be able to answer effectively.
The oral exam offers nowhere to hide. Sitting in front of you are four qualified and experienced tour guides, one of whom is also an travel agent, and you have only 30 minutes to impress them. And not just with your knowledge – they are testing you on your ability to be interesting and engaging, eye contact, posture, intonation etc.
The exam begins with you giving them a printed sheet of a tour itinerary that you have planned; then you have a chance to present for about 5 minutes one of the places you will visit on the tour, as if you are guiding them. So far, so good – you can prepare this and hopefully get off to a good start.
Then starts the fun. They begin to ask you questions on what you have just guided, then the day you have planned, and then the questioning broadens to cover potentially absolutely anything. You need to know the geology, geography, flaura and fauna of the whole country. Add to that the entire history from the day you are being examined (some questions are on current affairs) until prehistoric times; all the different sites including the history of their walls and water sources….it gets very tough.
On top was a sense of added pressure. It is possible to retake the exam, but only in 6 months’ time. So, if I failed, I would be unemployable for a minimum of six months. And after nearly two years as a student (with some part time work here and there), it would be helpful to work towards a more positive trend in the bank account.
I was not helped by the current security situation in Israel. After a few days of quiet in Tel Aviv, Hamas decided to fire a rocket in our direction. Not only that; it was at 2.30am – the first time we have had to wake up and head for the protected space in our pyjamas. With the extra nerves of the exam, I did not have the best night’s sleep.
I arrived at the Ministry of Tourism and briefly enjoyed the lovely view of Jerusalem from the balcony on the top floor, next to the examination room. My course coordinator was waiting, and helped keep me calm during what seemed to be the interminable wait to get in the exam room.
I entered, exchanged pleasantries, and began my pre-prepared piece on the mosaic floor of the ancient synagogue of Zippori. So far, so good. Then came the questions, which at some point soon I will publish in a separate post (at least what I can remember – there were many!). The beginning was ok, with a slightly rocky section as one of the examiners decided to quiz me on various of the lesser known kabbalists (he was soon taken off this route by the other examiners). I was then able to get into my stride.
I was reasonably fortunate with the questions to be honest. By now nearly all of my course-mates had taken their exams, and in the collaborative spirit that accompanied us throughout our stuides, they had been sharing with the group the sort of things they had been asked, in order to help us prepare.
Apart from a few exceptions, most of our group had received challenging but reasonable questions, and for me it was the same. Nothing too horrid, fortunately. And then it was all over. Time for that very nervous wait for the results, although fortunately, unlike the written exam, where we were waiting three weeks to hear, this was all over much more quickly.
By lunch time, I had received a text message from my course coordinator, containing a single, delightful word: ‘avarta‘ (you have passed).
I cannot describe my elation! Someone passing me in the street was so intrigued that he asked what had happened, before congratulating me also.
I concluded my morning in Jerusalem by taking my long suffering wife (who has loyally allowed me to practice on her, and has spent hours firing questions from past exams at me when she would rather be doing a million other things) for a light lunch. Walking into the cafe, whom did we bump into but the hadrachic legends Steve Israel and Jeremy Leigh, who had taught me 12 years previously when I was a student on the Machon L’Madrichei Chul (Institute for Youth Leaders from Abroad) programme.
This remarkable coincidence seemed somehow appropriate; a closure to a loop that began on the Machon, continued with various voluntary positions I held as a student and my sabbatical role at FZY, diverged for a while with a very enjoyable 5 years at P&G, before returning to this world of hadracha.
Now that the hard work of the studies has been concluded, it is time to find some employment. Now is not the best timing – the current security situation has been severly detrimental to the tourist industry. Fortunately I am not really available to work for a while – but bookings from November onwards are now open – be in touch!
Most of you will be aware of the current situation in Israel, which is far from easy. Still, we feel the need to keep calm and carry on (to borrow a cliche) as best as we can. Last week I took a couple of friends on a trip up to the north of the country, and we made a lunch time stop at the famous Mifgash Golani falafel restaurant in Afula.
While the falafel is tasty, this place is more famous for the falafel acrobatics performed by the staff. It really is remarkably impressive. One of our group, a talented young film maker by the name of Yaakov Leibovitch, captured the moment in this delightful film. Hopefully it can provide a few moments of welcome distraction.
Having written last week about Part A of the written exam I sat back in June, I am now posting Part B – the really long and challenging part of the exam. Here are the instructions and the options I receieved:
LICENSING EXAMINATION – TOUR GUIDE COURSE Part B – Total of 70 Points
Time allotment for this section of the examination: three hours
Permitted reference tools:
• Non-electronic Dictionary (which provides the translation of the word only, without explanation)
• Touring Map at 1:250,000 only (cannot use a map that includes additional information)
This question is divided into two sections:
Section A (total 40 points):
You must build an itinerary in the tables provided.
Please fill in the relevant information in the table cells only!
All activities during the two days of the tour will be guided personally by you. For example, if a group visits a site which normally provides a local guide, you must specify the subjects to cover and provide the guiding.
Each day of the tour ends upon arrival at dinner at 19.00.
Available for the trip :
1 ) Bus with no limit on distance it can travel
2 ) Unlimited budget
3 ) Up to two attractions (e.g. visit to a winery or theme park)
4 ) Full board )
5 ) Accommodation at Hostels / Field Schools / Country Lodging / hotels at all levels – your choice. The lodgings should match the group.
6 ) You should assume that your trip takes place in a time of no security concerns so you can include sites in the West Bank.
7 ) All tours take place in May. They begin on Monday at 8:00 after breakfast and ending on Tuesday at 19:00 before dinner.
8 ) At least 80% of the tour program must be related to the topic.
Section B (total 30 points) :
You must choose one point from the itinerary and expand on it. You should not exceed the one page provided for this purpose.
The expansion point must be made at a site not from the bus.
Viewpoints will be disqualified .
The expansion point must be connected with the main topic of the group (eg archaeology students who want to visit archaeological sites in the country – the expansion point must be related to archaeology, even if you have incorporated into the itinerary other sites and subjects).
Choose one of the following three groups and plan a tour for it.
Group No. 1 A group of students from a theological institute abroad interested in synagogues of the Jewish settlement in the northern part of the Land of Israel, from the Second Temple period to the present.
The tour departs from Katsrin on Monday at 8.00 and ends at a hotel in Akko on Tuesday at 19.00. Please note:
The southern limit of the tour is the Jezreel Valley (including the Jezreel Valley)
The tour must include synagogues from at least three different historical periods
The tour must include a half-day in the Golan Heights (no more and no less) and a half-day in Tsfat (no more and no less)
The expansion point must be related to the tour theme
Group No. 2 A group of French pilgrims interested in a pilgrimage tour in the footsteps of Crusaders in the Land of Israel, from Caesarea to Jerusalem. The tour departs from Caesarea on Monday at 8.00 and ends in Jerusalem on Tuesday at 19.00. Please note:
The northern limit of the tour is from Caesarea to the east and it should not deviate farther north. There are no other geographic limits.
The tour must include three Crusader sites outside of Jerusalem
The tour in Jerusalem should be a half-day (no more and no less)
The expansion point must be related to the tour theme
Group No. 3 A group of Israeli tourists interested in human heritage throughout history in southern Israel. The tour leaves Ashdod on Monday at 8.00 and ends at a hotel in Mitspe Ramon on Tuesday at 19.00. Please note:
The northern limit of the tour is the Ashdod line and east of it and it should not deviate farther north. The southern limit is the Mitspe Ramon line and the tour should not deviate further south.
The first day of the tour will cover the area between Ashdod and Be’er Sheva. The second day will be from Be’er Sheva to Mitspe Ramon.
The tour must include sites from at least three different periods.
The expansion point must be related to the tour theme.
Many readers of this blog, and friends, have asked me about the details of the examination to become a tour guide.
The exams are held twice a year by the Ministry of Tourism, and are in two parts.
First is the written exam, taken by hundreds of candidates simultaneously in Jerusalem’s International Convention Centre. The written exam itself consists of two parts. Part A is a series of 50 multiple choice questions testing your knowledge of history, geology, geography, flora, fauna, religion, politics and culture, and lasts for one hour. It is worth 30% of the exam. After a short lunch break, you return for Part B, a grueling three hour marathon where you have to build an itinerary for one of three groups, fill in a table with details of timings, logistical points (payments, toilets, advance reservations etc) and the outline of your guiding. A whopping 20% of the marks for the exam are awarded for an ‘elaborated point’ in this section – you choose one part of one site in your itinerary and write a full page of A4 with exactly the text as you would guide it. For Part B, you are allowed to bring in a map of Israel, but the rest has to come from your memory.
Assuming you hit the 65% pass mark (and many don’t) in the written exam, you are then invited to a 30 minute oral exam in the Ministry of Tourism offices. More on that to come!
Having now taken (and passed – hurrah!!) the written exam, I feel happy to share some details of what I went through. For now, I have uploaded Part A of the written exam (the multiple choice) I took for you to test yourselves and see whether you might be able to qualify as a tour guide in Israel! If you are interested in Part B (the itinerary), keep an eye on the blog and I shall post it next week.
[please note: all the spellings have been copied from the test I was given – I took the exam in English and the translation from the original Hebrew as not always the best!]
Time limit: 0
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LICENSING EXAMINATION – TOUR GUIDE COURSE
Part A: Knowledge Questions – Total of 30 Points
Time allotment for this section: 1 hour Auxiliary material: non-electronic dictionary only.
Please select and answer no more than 45 [although in this online version you will have to answer all of them I am afraid!] of the 50 multiple-choice questions below. Select the most correct answer. Each correct answer is worth 0.66 points.
You have already completed the quiz before. Hence you can not start it again.
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0 of 50 questions answered correctly
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Wow – an incredible result! Are you a licensed guide?
A very solid performance! Keep it up in Part B of the exam and you are well on the way to getting your licence!
Not bad for a beginner! Keep it up in Part B of the exam and you are well on the way to getting your licence!
65% is the pass rate and you are making it through by the skin of your teeth. Get a solid result in Part B and hopefully you will get your licence!
Not really good enough…65% is the pass rate. Maybe you can get a great result in Part B and still pull through?
Back to the drawing board I’m afraid!
Question 1 of 50
Ruhama was established:
Question 2 of 50
With which region in Israel is modern olive oil production associated?
Question 3 of 50
A desalination plant connected to the national system is located in:
Question 4 of 50
On which type of rock is Tel Aviv built?
Question 5 of 50
Which of the following can be found in the desert?
Question 6 of 50
Tristram’s grackle (tristramit) can be seen at:
Question 7 of 50
Where can we show tourists evidence of volcanic activity?
Question 8 of 50
The camel’s major adaptations to the desert are:
Question 9 of 50
The ‘Egyptian Gate’ is associated with the journey of:
Question 10 of 50
According to the Bible (Old Testament) which of the following prophets was active at the time of Sennacherib’s march?
Question 11 of 50
The flat ’round structure’ at Tel Megiddo is usually associated with:
Question 12 of 50
Indisputable evidence for Biblical names was found at the archaeological excavations at:
Question 13 of 50
Alexander the Great captured the Land of Israel from the:
Question 14 of 50
Where can tourists see a remnant of the aqueduct that transported water to the Temple Mount?
Question 15 of 50
For which emperor was Caesarea named?
Question 16 of 50
One of the main reasons Masada was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site was:
Question 17 of 50
Who is believed to have been buried in Beit She’arim?
Question 18 of 50
There is a hypothesis that the Church of the Sepulcher was built on the spot where there formerly stood a temple to:
Question 19 of 50
Where can remains of Umayyad palaces be found?
Question 20 of 50
In which compound were the Maria Grande and Maria Latina churches located in [sic]?
Question 21 of 50
Remains of Crusader fortresses built along the coastal plain can be seen at:
Question 22 of 50
The decisive battle between the Mamluks and the Mongols took place in:
Question 23 of 50
During which period was the institution of the waqf established?
NB: this question was disputed – it may have been before the Mamluks.
Question 24 of 50
With which aliyah was the beginning of modern Jewish settlement in the Yizre’el and Harod valleys primarily associated with?
The answer to this question was disputed as Merchavia was founded in 1911 in the Second Aliyah period – the question emphasises the ‘beginning’ of settlement. However most agree that it is ‘primarily’ associated with the Third Aliyah
Question 25 of 50
The following settlement was included in the Arab state according to the UN resolution of November 29:
Question 26 of 50
Lova Eliav’s name is associated with establishing settlements in:
Question 27 of 50
Where is the closing ceremony of the Holocaust Remembrance Day held?
Question 28 of 50
Which of the following paratroopers from the Yishuv in the Land of Israel fought against the Nazis in Europe?
Question 29 of 50
The obelisk in Ashdod was erected:
Question 30 of 50
The monument next to the Locomotive enclosure in Be’er Sheva was erected in memory of the:
Question 31 of 50
Tel Shilo is located:
Question 32 of 50
What is an ‘optional tour’?
Question 33 of 50
The following tourist sites are free of charge:
Question 34 of 50
According to Jewish tradition, the walls of Jerusalem were breached on the:
Question 35 of 50
The eruv wire is associated with the:
Question 36 of 50
Which sacraments to Protestants have?
Question 37 of 50
The following sites in the Church of the Sepulcher that are not part of the 14 Stations:
Question 38 of 50
A feature specific to the Orthodox Church:
Question 39 of 50
In Muslim tradition El-Hader is a figure associated with:
Question 40 of 50
Eid al-Fitr is a festival commemorating:
Question 41 of 50
What is the subject of the ‘Prawer Plan’?
Question 42 of 50
Which of the following is associated with the tradition of Mount Precipice?
Question 43 of 50
Which of the following mountains is the highest?
Question 44 of 50
The Elazar HaKappar inscription was found at:
Question 45 of 50
Biriya was established by a group affiliated with the:
Question 46 of 50
The monument in memory of Ethiopian Jews who died trying to reach Israel is located on:
Question 47 of 50
The Nachum Gutman Museum is located in:
Question 48 of 50
Which of the following was produced from the Dead Sea in ancient times:
Question 49 of 50
During which period is the name Haifa first mentioned?
Question 50 of 50
The origin of the ‘Kisui Sands’ is probably?
NB: this question was very controversial – arguably none of the answers is really correct! Still, the most correct answer is the first one.
NB: this question was very controversial – arguably none of the answers is really correct! Still, the most correct answer is the first one.
I hate exams. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who claims to enjoy them, but I hate them with a passion. It’s not the actual exams I hate; rather it is the preparation. The mind-numbing boredom of revision, the stress and tension. Doing the exam is normally fine – I enter, deal with what is in front of me and exit. But I don’t like the build-up. For this reason, when I graduated, I promised myself that I would never again sit another exam.
So much for that promise. I have probably sat more exams and tests during this tour guiding course than I did throughout my time at university! As I mentioned in my post about what we learn in the classroom, we learn a huge amount of subjects. At the end of each subject, whether a historical period or a type of architecture, we face an exam. And if we fail the exam, we need to keep taking it until we pass, or we will not be allowed to sit the mid-term, or indeed the final exam.
Speaking of which, there are of course the mid-term and the final exams. At the moment I am just talking about exams that are within the School of Tourism, where I was studying. No national exams yet. The Ministry of Tourism has a rule that in order to be able to sit its final exams as a tour guide, you need to have passed a mid-term and also a final exam in your college.
Our mid-term was held, appropriately, just over half-way through the course. The written paper consisted of a series of multiple choice questions. The oral involved facing a panel of three very experienced tour guides, answering any questions they may throw at you.
The stress for the mid-term was high; as you can imagine there was a vast amount of information to absorb. Although there was a possibility to retake it, and eventually everyone passed.
Then, at the end of the course, came the final exams. These are an exact replica of what we were to face in the national Ministry of Tourism exams.
First, came the written exam. It is built in two parts. In Part A there are a series of multiple choice questions (which are far from easy). Part B, three hours long, involves you choosing from a list of three groups and having to build a two day itinerary, within quite tight restrictions in terms of geography or sites to visit. After building the itinerary, you need to fill in the main points of your guiding, together with logistical points (toilets, lunch, payment for sites etc). And then there is the ‘expansion point’, one page of A4 where you choose a site on your itinerary and write a full page of your guiding, exactly as you would deliver it to the tourists. It is tough, gruelling, and many people do not manage to even finish it in the time given.
Quite a few of my classmates sadly did not pass this final written exam, so were unable to take the real, national exams in Jerusalem.
After the written exam, comes the oral, which we take after sitting the national written exam. Here, you have to submit a day itinerary for a group of your choice and choose one part of the tour on which to give a 10 minute presentation to the examiners. After this, they can ask you anything they like for 20 minutes. Anything. Assuming you pass this one, you are allowed to take the national oral exam.
With all this, perhaps you can understand why the pass-rates for the course are so low!
Although this blog has been focused on the field trips I have been going on over the past year and a half on my guiding course, I have made only limited reference to the large amount of time we spent in the classroom.
Many people have asked me what we study on the course, so I thought I would explain a little for the avid readers!
In addition to our weekly field trips (leaving Tel Aviv at 6.30am and returning anywhere between 7-9pm) we had class twice a week: Tuesday evenings from 5.30-8.45pm and Friday mornings from 8am-2pm. The Friday morning class was a real killer – Thursday night is a big night out in Israel and Friday is the main day off to do various fun activities (on Saturday many things are closed because of the Sabbath). So the course severely curtailed my social life!
While we used our time in the field to mainly concentrate on the sites we were visiting and the actual things we were seeing, our classroom time was used to give us general background on key topics. Most people realise that to be a guide you need to have a good understanding of history in Israel, but they still don’t realise what that entails.
History goes a long way back here, including the earliest human remains in the world. In addition to the sheer amount of the period of time to study, there is also the fact that this is a country that has been invaded by a large amount of civilisations. There are the Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Persians, the Babylonians, the Israelites, the Greeks, the Romans, the various Arab dynasties, the Crusaders, the Mongols, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, the British and of course the modern Israeli state. It is not just enough to know what these great empires did here; in many cases we had to study some broader background about their activities outside of Israel to understand some of the events that took place here.
Of course in addition we needed to understand the cultures of these different societies – their values, their art and architectural styles, their religions, their laws. As a large part of the history here is based on archaeological finds and research, we also had a crash course in basic archaeology.
Apart from the history, we also had to understand the geography, geology and geomorphology of Israel, which again in many cases is connected to the broader region, and is also remarkably complex for a country of such a small size. This led onto understanding the natural phenomena here – the climate and weather patterns, the different types of flora and fauna (again highly varied).
Moving onto the people living in Israel today, we had to study in reasonable depth the three main religions of the country: Judaism, Islam and Christianity; additionally we had to study and understand several minor religions or ethnic groups found here: the Druze, the Bahai, the Circassians, the Bedouin.
We also needed to understand contemporary Israel. We had classes on the Israeli economy and political system; the water issues and the Israeli-Arab conflict. Which of course led to plenty of lively debate.
An element of the course was more practical. We had a few classes on the methodology of guiding, a class on topography and map reading, and a first-aid course. We also had a class with a tour agent which was more focused on the logistics of planning and running a trip.
I very much enjoyed the studies, but also found them very challenging. There is a huge amount of information to absorb, across a wide range of academic disciplines. In many ways, the course (combined with the field trips) was harder than my degree!
Still, I now feel that I have a very good basis from which to hopefully launch my guiding career. And I am sure that I will continue to learn even more over the coming years.
Last week, I made my first visit to Bethlehem. We don’t go there on the tour guide course, as Bethlehem is part of what is known as Area A of the West Bank, i.e. under full Palestinian control, and Israeli tour guides are not allowed to guide there without special permission from the Palestinian Authority, which is only granted for a short and limited time in any event.
I was surprised quite how close it was to Jerusalem – I was aware that it was close – but in fact our journey seemed more like driving into a Jerusalem suburb than a new city. In ancient times of course it would have been further from the Old City of Jerusalem to the Old City of Bethlehem, but not a great deal more.
We were met at the border by a Palestinian Christian guide, who led us towards the Church of the Nativity, originally constructed by St Helena, who also was responsible for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. As with the church in Jerusalem, it is divided, this time between Greek Orthodox and Armenian groups. The Catholics do not run part of the church but do have a sizeable area at the back.
Refurbishment work was taking place in the main basilica but it was possible to get some idea of the impressive nature of the church and also to see down to some remains of an original Byzantine mosaic.
After waiting what seemed to be an interminably long time, we were able to descend into the crypt, which is believed to house the site of Jesus’ birth (marked by a star) and where his crib would have been situated. The theft of the star was actually the pretext for the Crimean War in the mid-19th century; it was cause for reflection that 150 odd years later the Crimea was again in turmoil, although for different reasons.
Our time in Bethlehem was brief, but it was interesting to have this insight into this holy city, and to have the opportunity to see its main holy site. Although we do not visit it on the course, we are taught about what we should expect to see there (also in Jericho), so as to be able to answer any questions from tourists who have visited or about to do so. Still, nothing beats seeing it for oneself!