Bethlehem is located in the West Bank of Palestine. The name West Bank refers to a geographical location, as this area is situated on the west side of the Jordan River. Bethlehem is the cradle of Christianity. It was founded in 338 and is one of the oldest cities in the world. The proper name of the city is Beit Lechem, which in translation from Hebrew means House of Bread or House of Meat in Arabic.
Despite numerous tensions and political uncertainty, the city is visited every year by millions of tourists and pilgrims who want to see Christ’s birthplace. It is located in the so-called Gortto of the Nativity in the underground of the Basilica of the Nativity.
The Basilica of the Nativity is the oldest church in the Holy Land, and at the same time one of the oldest in the world, some parts of it date back to 327. The exact birthplace of Christ is marked with a silver star, placed on white marble.
Nearby the Basilica you can visit the St. Catarine’s Church, this is where the solemn mass on Christmas Eve is broadcasted every year.
Right next to Basilica there’s also the Mosque of Omar, the oldest one in the city.
Now Bethlehem is mainly Muslim city. Getting off the bus driving from the centre of Jerusalem, I had no doubt that I arrived to Arab country. The road to the Basilica of the Lord’s Birth was full of stalls and bargaining people, in one word there was a specific vibe typical of these countries.
However, since the old times Bethlehem has been a place of stormy history. During World War I, the city was taken over by the British. It was until 1948 when Jordan took control ofit during the Arab-Israel war. Then as a result of the six-day war in 1967, came Israel but in 1995 under the Oslo Peace Accord Agreement, the city was transferred to Palestinian National Authority. However, this did not end the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. On September 28th 2000 the uprising of Palestinians called the second intifada or the Al-Aqsa intifada broke out. Palestinians saw the second intifada as an independence movement, meanwhile for Israelis it was a terrorist fight. A number of terrorist attacks forced Israel to start in 2002 the construction of a buffer zone, a system of barriers separating Israel from the Palestinian Authority.
After completing the security barrier separating Israel from Palestine was 700 km long 450 miles. It was additionally secured with electrical cables under voltage and equipped with motion sensors. As a result of its construction, Israel annexed some of the areas belonging to the Palestinian Authority. Fragments of the barrier can still be seen in Bethlehem.
In 2006 Bethlehem was visited by Banksy, a popular anonymous street art artist. He painted numerous murals that decorate the separation wall.
However, Banksy didn’t just leave murals here because in 2017 he also opened a hotel. Setting up a hotel in a tourist place like Bethlehem would be nothing surprising if it weren’t for its location.
The hotel is proud of the worst view of all hotels in the world and through its windows you can actually see the separation wall and the former checkpoint at most. The hotel was initially supposed to serve as a temporary exhibition, while its popularity exceeded Banksy’s wildest expectations.
Although the hotel has increased Bethlehem’s popularity, there are numerous voices of criticism that this is a typical example of war tourism that is based on human tragedy. Banksy’s defenders on the other hand say the hotel raises tourist awareness about the history and reality of life in Palestine.
Where to eat?
Being in Bethlehem it’s worth trying some excellent local food. I recommend the Afteem bar located next to Omar Mosque. This place is famous for its delicious falafel and hummus.
Bethlehem – transport
From Jerusalem to Bethlehem, it’s most convenient to get by bus 231 from the bus stop located in front of Damascus Gate. The stop is located in a large parking lot. Bus runs from 6 am to 21 pm, ticket for 5 NIS (data from 2019) can be bought directly from the driver. Although Bethlehem is about 10 km from Jerusalem, the trip takes almost an hour and the final stop is here. To go to Bethlehem or more specifically to return you need a passport because on the way back the bus passes through the checkpoint. During a drive through checkpoint it is forbidden to take photos.