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!