My Journey to Bethlehem - Travel #68
Dear friends, let me take you on a very special journey to Bethlehem, the biblical birthplace of Jesus Christ. Bethlehem is located in Palestine and is a major pilgrimage destination. Bethlehem is on the Palestinian and Israeli border, notorious for its history of war and on-going disagreements. Throughout the centuries, Bethlehem has changed from being on Israeli soil to Palestinian soil and back again numerous times. Even though the border between these two countries might be one of the most hostile on the planet. Bethlehem itself, was pretty calm and is relatively safe. I, myself am not Jewish, however, my mother's grandfather was a Jewish man named Joseph who was born in Israel. This trip for my mother was incredibly important. Our journey began when the ship we were travelling on docked in Haifa, Israel. Haifa is a stunning city in northern Israel. It was built in tiers extending from the Mediterranean sea all the way to the tip of Mount Carmel. We were fortunate to spend a day dedicated to exploring the immaculately groomed gardens of Haifa. Funnily enough, we did not realize that Bethlehem was in Palestine until we arrived in Israel. We just assumed that it was in Israel. Crossing a very hostile border is daunting and not for the faint of heart.
To find me, look for my chihuahua's face
As soon as we docked in Haifa, we caught a taxi from the port and asked to travel to Bethlehem. There was no shortage of willing drivers. The cruise ships bring in a lot of income for the local people. The drive took a little over 2 hours. It was wonderful hearing stories from the taxi driver. He had a strong opinion on the 708 kilometer/440 mile concrete and barb-wire wall dividing Israel's and Palestine's west bank. He wants the wall knocked down and for the centuries long war to end. If only everyone could set aside their different beliefs and get along. The world would be a much more peaceful place. I hate to think of the amount of lives that would of been saved by stopping wars in the name of religion.
The 2 hour drive was fascinating, there were long stretches' of nothing but dirt and then all of a sudden massive skyscrapers. The contrast is remarkable. About half-way through our drive, we passed the modern city of Tel-Aviv, a major tourist hotspot for a cascade of reasons. In 1909, the founder of Tel Aviv, Gush Dan , proclaimed it would become the “New York of the Middle East”. Now, he wasn't far off with that prediction, it certainly has become a major technology hub. Israel claims Tel-Aviv as the "start-up" capital of the world.
As we got closer to the border, the sheer magnitude of the wall blew me away. It has to be one of the most intimidating structures that I've ever come across. This is where things get a little complicated. We just assumed that our taxi driver could take us over the border. This however, is not the case. Once we arrived at the border check point, it was heavily guarded by armed Israeli soldiers and our driver stopped the taxi. He explained to us that women and men cannot cross the border the same way and that his taxi (having an Israeli number plate) was not allowed across. He explained that men, so my two brothers had to walk across the border. Women, my mother and I, had to cross in an "unmarked" car that had a Palestinian number plate. I had to admit, I was afraid. My mother is a very strong and brave woman and wasn't at all phased. I, on the other hand, was panicking internally. I hated seeing my older brother Wayne walk away from us pushing my younger brother Scott, who is wheelchair bound away from us and towards heavily armed soldiers. Little did I know, crossing from Israel to Palestine was the easy part. Crossing back later that day was terrifying.
Israeli/Palestine West Bank wall
My mother and I were delighted when we were reunited with Wayne and Scott. I have to admit that for me personally, the beauty of Bethlehem, the gorgeous limestone buildings, were out-shadowed by the barb-wire that adorned the top of them and their bullet ridden walls. As much as I enjoyed admiring the stunning ancient architecture, there was an unsettled feeling in my gut. The only settling aspect of this part of our journey was that I was with my family. My mother, very brave and always true to herself, proudly wore her star of David around her neck. Even though we were told that many tourists visit Bethlehem, from our point of view, we were the only western visitors that day. There definitely were many straying eyes.
Finally, after roaming the square for about 20 minutes we were standing in front of the Church of Nativity. The birthplace of Jesus. One of the most magical aspects of our visit was that we were visiting the week before Christmas. We were getting to actually see the real nativity scene. People have been coming to this church since at least 2 AD to pay respects to the believed birthplace of Jesus. The Church of Nativity isn't just home to the Christian pilgrimage. The church itself also includes Latin, Greek Orthodox, Jewish, Franciscan and Armenian convents, bell towers, and an underground pilgrimage route. It is meant to be a symbol of peace, hope and love. Considering it is located on one of the most fought over bits of soil on earth, it is in remarkably good condition.
Outside the Church of the Nativity
Inside the Church of Nativity, it is beautifully decorated with ancient lamps and hanging tapestry. The aroma of frankincense and myrrh fill your senses as the atmosphere captivates. In the middle of this cozy church, lies a 14 pointed star. The star of Bethlehem. The significance of the 14 points on the star is to represent the 3 sets of 14 generations in the genealogy of Jesus Christ. In the beginning, 14 from Abraham to David, followed by 14 from David to the Babylonian captivity and finally 14 more to Jesus Christ. It is said that the star was placed in the exact spot in which Jesus was born. Regardless of which religion you follow, if any, this is a pretty fascinating place. In December of 2020, we were lucky enough to witness the great conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. This created the wonderfully bright phenomenon of the Bethlehem star. This same conjunction is believed to have occurred the very night that the 3 wise men used it as a guide. This natural phenomenon is a once in a lifetime occurrence so I really hope you got to enjoy it.
Star of Bethlehem
Once we had all touched the star of Bethlehem in the Church of Nativity, we wanted to head back to Jerusalem in Israel. We made our way to the border, once there, again we were separated. My brothers had to cross on foot and my mother and I had to go by unmarked car. Both of my brothers crossed back into Israel without any hassles. My mother and I however, experienced a challenging time. We patiently waited in a long line of unmarked vehicles. I was already anxious as the Israeli soldiers guarding the border were armed with semi-automatic machine guns. When our car pulled up to the border checkpoint, the soldiers asked our driver a few questions in Hebrew. We couldn't understand what was being said, however, we could tell that the conversation was getting heated. After raising their voices at our driver, one of the Israeli soldiers opened the back door where my mother was seated and pressed his gun into her leg. At this point, I was the most terrified I had ever been in my entire life. My mother on the other hand, was as cool as a cucumber. She told the solider to put away his gun and that he was not going to harm us. She showed him her star of David that was around her neck and only then did he remove his gun and close the car door. After that, we were waived through. As soon as the car started moving away from the checkpoint, I burst into tears and hugged my mum. That whole process felt so stressful and I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who may get frightened easily.
Once we were safely passed the checkpoint, the driver in the unmarked car dropped us off with our original driver. To our delight, both my brothers were just around the corner. Our driver then took us to his favourite local Israeli restaurant and we enjoyed a delicious meal. There's nothing like a hearty meal to settle any leftover anxiety in the tummy. Before taking us back to the port in Haifa, we stopped off at the Mount of Olives. The Mount of Olives is a mountain ridge that lies in the east of Jerusalem's Old City. Named after its olive groves that once completely covered its slopes. Today, the Mount of Olives provides both a scenic lookout over Jerusalem and serves as a prestigious Jewish cemetery. While my mother and I were admiring the view and my brothers were in the bathroom. A gentleman offered my mother 4 horses and 10 chickens to buy me. Luckily for me, my mother thinks I'm worth at least 5 more chickens. As soon as my brothers were out of the bathroom, we headed onto our next destination.
Mount of Olives
Our driver took us to a local antiques shop rather than a generic souvenir vendor. The shop was located just off an open plaza and down a little alleyway. It was filled with exquisite wares from all across the middle east or the "holy land" as the locals say. The shop owner was extremely hospitable and served us some traditional tea and tasty desserts. I do believe that the only factor stopping us from buying out the shop was that we had to board a ship. We walked away with a beautiful silver chalice and plate. It now sits with pride of place in our family home.
Our final stop for the day was to visit the famous Wailing Wall. The Wailing Wall is located in the Old City of Jerusalem. It serves as a place of pilgrimage and prayer that is sacred to the Jewish people. The wall is the only remaining fragment of the Temple Mount. The Temple Mount was the first site of the Temple of Jerusalem and its significance is held to be uniquely holy by the ancient Jews. The name Wailing Wall comes from the wailing sound of prayer. The prayer rules have been put in place by an Orthodox Rabbi. Rules which dictate that men and women worship separately at the wall. Men are permitted to say their prayers out loud whilst women are not. Women have to use a Torah scroll or wrap themselves in a prayer shawl instead. My mother and I stepped forward to the women's side of the wall and my brothers went to the men's side. We all said a prayer each and touched the wall before heading back to the taxi. I have seen documentaries on the Wailing Wall before but actually being there and taking in the atmosphere is quite spectacular. My journey to Bethlehem was definitely an experience. My younger brother Scott fell asleep on me on the taxi ride back to Haifa.
The Wailing Wall
I hope you have enjoyed my blog on my journey to Bethlehem, thank you for reading, I look forward to sharing more adventures with you, until next time, Vegoutt Everybody!