Despite the barbed wire and concrete of the West Bank Barrier, a day trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem proved to be a very memorable, historically intriguing, excursion.


For many people, visiting the West Bank is probably low on the bucket list. With Israel / Palestine relations tricky to say the least, the West Bank is an area often avoided by tourists. But with travel restrictions lifted for some time now, a Jerusalem to Bethlehem day trip is a great way to immerse yourself in some historically fascinating sites. The compact size of the area makes it easy to explore several top-notch attractions including the birthplace of Jesus.

The West Bank forms the bulk of the Palestinian territories, separated from Israel by the West Bank Barrier. The barrier consists of three concrete walls, stacks of barbed wire, two outer fences, an anti-vehicle ditch and an exclusion barrier for intrusion tracking. For the Israeli’s it’s a security barrier against terrorism; for the Palestinian’s it’s a segregation wall. For tourists on a Jerusalem to Bethlehem day trip, it’s far from a warm cosy welcome.

A WARM PALESTINIAN WELCOME ON OUR JERUSALEM TO BETHLEHEM DAY TRIP

But once you make your way through the concrete walls and barbed wire, the welcome from locals is far removed from the first impressions the wall creates. After waiting in traffic for our chance to pass – clinging to our passports – our arrival into the West Bank was incredibly warm. Palestinians are a very friendly bunch. Regularly shouting “welcome” to day-trippers and offering food, drink, trinkets and tours, it’s hard to believe you’ve just travelled through such an aggressive barrier.

For our day trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, we organised a tour from the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. While we normally like to travel independently, using a tour guide to help navigate the wall crossing made the whole day stress free. Prices start from around US$70 per person for a half day tour.

The tour included some iconic biblical sites. From shepherds watching their flock by night to a secret underground hideout for Mary and Joseph. But the real highlight of a day trip to Bethlehem is the quirky, chaotic, atmospheric mess that is the birthplace of Jesus.

SHEPHERD’S FIELD CHURCH

South east of Bethlehem, in fields fit for a shepherd watching his flock by night, is the Shepherd’s Field Church. The modern church was built by the Franciscan’s in 1954. It sits above the site of an ancient cave where the shepherds were resting when the angel appeared before them to announce the birth of Christ.

The church is attached to the ruins of other earlier churches and is topped with a white dome structure. The overall appearance is designed to resemble a shepherd’s tent. In addition to the church, you’ll also find a Byzantine cave. The cave is a natural rock shelter and has been partially enclosed to form a small chapel. The ceiling is black from the fires of inhabitants – possibly genuine shepherds – who have used this cave over the centuries.

The grounds around the cave and churches are a nice place to stroll around with rolling hills all around you. While it’s not a sight that left us clutching for the camera, seeing the separation wall pierce the otherwise tranquil rolling landscape left us with a stronger appreciation for what conflict can do to a beautiful part of the world.


Shepherd’s Field Church /8:00 – 18:00 Mon-Sat; 8:00 – 11:45 & 14:00-17:30 Sun (summer); 8:00 – 17:00 Mon-Sat; 8:00 – 11:45 & 12:00-16:30 Sun (summer).

CHAPEL OF THE MILK GROTTO

Next stop on our Jerusalem to Bethlehem day trip was the Chapel of the Milk Grotto, a centre of pilgrimage for Catholics since it was rebuilt over a 5th century Byzantine church in 1872. For believers, it’s the location where Mary and Joseph found refuge on their way to Egypt to escape the slaughter of the innocents.

The grotto is shaped out of soft white rock and carved into interesting shapes. Tradition says that a drop of Mary’s milk fell on the stone, causing the grotto to turn white. Thanks to the association with Mary and her milk, the grotto is said to aid couples who are having trouble conceiving a child.

Today, pilgrims can take home tiny packets of white powder from the grotto, and if they drink the powder mixed with milk for the next 40 days they’ll conceive a child. The church claims to have letters from parents which provide “tangible evidence to the miracle. The letters are the testimony.”

Magical milk and conception powers aside, the grotto is a beautiful spot to visit. Like many sites in Israel, the Milk Grotto is also visited by Muslims as Mary is venerated as the most important and righteous woman in Islam. The milky white caves of the Milk Grotto are often visited by Catholics and Muslims standing side by side looking for conception assistance. A nice contrast to the separation the West Bank Barrier tries to create.


Chapel of the Milk Grotto /8:00 – 18:00 (summer); 08:00 – 17:00 (winter).

CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY

Originally commissioned in 326 CE by Emperor Constantine, the Church of the Nativity has the impressive reputation of being the longest-running church in the world. Like many sites in Israel, it’s jointly administered by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Apostolic and Syriac Orthodox Churches. With demarcation down to which church owns which candlestick, Palestinian police are often called in to settle brawls.

The church holds special religious significance for Christians as the location of the birthplace of Jesus. The exact spot is in the Grotto of the Nativity, a small and dingy cave under the main altar, that could do with a good dust. A 14-point star proudly marks the spot of Jesus’s birth, which is laid into marble and surrounded by 15 silver lamps representing the Christian communities who each own some of the lamps.

As you descend the stairs to the Grotto of Nativity, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re heading down to an underground mob pit, rather than site worshipped as the birthplace of Christ. It’s a dark and dingy staircase leading to a small damp cave, adorned with the gaudy trinkets of various Christian denominations. As it’s a prime location for pilgrims, the grotto is often packed to the rafters with the faithful itching to get close to the 14-point silver star. To us, it felt a bit more like shoppers elbowing each other out of the way to get their hands on a bargain, rather than one of the most sacred sites in Christianity and the highlight of our Jerusalem to Bethlehem day trip.


Church of the Nativity /6:30 – 19:30 (summer); 5:30 – 18:00 (winter). The Grotto of Nativity is closed on Sunday mornings.

ST CATHERINE’S CHURCH

If you continue through the maze of tunnels under the Church of the Nativity, you pop up in the significantly different, St Catherine’s Church. This marks the location where Christ appeared to the Egyptian Catherine. A church was first recorded here from the 15th century, however, traces of the 5th-century monastery are also visible.

Thanks to a generous donation from the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1881, the church was significantly expanded and redesigned into the impressive gothic structure you see today. It sits in stark contrasts to the cave-like dwelling of the Church of the Nativity.

As the favoured destination in Bethlehem marking the birthplace of Christ, the input of European money is obvious as you walk around this ornate building. A colourful modern stain glass window was added in 2000, and the main altar was expanded and relocated in 2013. With this latest addition, it was possible to squeeze in more of the faithful for the annual Christmas Eve mass which is broadcast around the globe.

St Catherine’s Church and the Church of the Nativity are classic examples of the difference between European sites of worship and their original counterparts. A theme we covered in greater detail in Christian Sites in Israel: The Power of Religion and Empire.


St Catherine’s Church /6:00 – 19:00 (summer); 5:30 – 18:00 (winter).

Our Jerusalem to Bethlehem day trip was full of welcoming locals, interesting sights and a stress-free cruise past the blight on the landscape that is the separation wall. The one thing we missed including in this article was the considerable amount of Banksy art on show. We suggest you pick a tour that covers his art, as well as the excellent religious sites.

MORE READING

Equal as fascinating in Israel was our tour of the Jewish sites in Jerusalem which tell the history of the Jewish people. For more history related writing, have a look at our history & people ROAM page.

Two Traveling Texans

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A day trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to explore the West Bank.

A day trip from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to explore the West Bank.

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