Christian pilgrims have been visiting Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity for centuries as the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Next to the bible, numerous popular Nativity plays and Christmas songs made Bethlehem famous around the world. A fascinating historical town full of contradictions and controversy, which should be on your to do list when visiting the nearby area, especially if you like street art!
The many wooden carved Christmas stalls sold at the local souvenir shops remind us of the town that Bethlehem once was. Back in the day, fertile Bethlehem flourished as supplier of fresh water, almonds and olives for nearby Jerusalem. Bethlehem is located at no more than 10 km from Jerusalem. Nowadays, located in the West Bank in Palestina, Bethlehem is hostage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with a brick wall and barbwire as undeniable piece of evidence.
No real-life signs of Christmas card worthy landscapes nor shepherds here. Bethlehem town anno 2019 breathes an Arab atmosphere. Women wearing headscarfs and abayas, Islamic call to prayer echoes from the minaret speakers of the mosque at Manger Sq, Palestinian shops and sales men on Children Street. Welcome to the West Bank. Welcome to Palestine!
Church of Nativity
The tiny entrance door of this church is only 1.20m high. At first, I thought this is because people were actually that short at the time when the Church of the Nativity was build. Apparently, the entrance was lowered to stop looters from driving their carts in. Besides, it makes people bow when entering the church, a sign of respect.
The Church of the Nativity is the oldest complete church in Christianity. Over its long history, surviving earthquakes, fires, theft, water leaks, neglection, etc. the church got in such poor shape it made it to the top 100 of most endangered monuments worldwide. UNESCO daringly listed the Church of the Nativity as the first World Heritage Site located in Palestine.
Palestine theoretically consists of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. For now, UN lists Palestine as a non-member observer state, not a country.
As the main tourist attraction of Bethlehem, the Church of the Nativity receives thousands and thousands of visitors per month. Inside it can get quite crowded, and this was in November! The church was actually built over the cave that is the biblical birthplace of Jesus Christ. Those who want to see the actual Grotto of Nativity will need to be patient and stand in line inside the church, possibly for an hour or so. No skip-the-line here!
Israeli West Bank Barrier
The Israeli West Bank Barrier is probably the most controversial wall around the world. The state of Israel decided to build this wall as a security barrier against terrorism in 2000. Whereas the International Court of Justice in The Hague, The Netherlands, ruled that the barrier is illegal, should be pulled down and Palestinians should be compensated for the damage it has caused. Palestinians feel the wall is a form of racial segregation and refer to apartheid in South Africa. The street art on the wall tells a real-life story that is filled with anger and sadness.
Sure, the wall is somehow photogenic and worth seeing, guilty as charged! But here is also something that the smartphones and cameras do not capture: the tensed atmosphere radiating from the local Palestinians. Tourists walk along the wall, smiling and laughing, taking selfies, admiring the political flavored, demonstrative street art nailed down on concrete. At the local Wall Mart shop, tourists can buy their own spray paint to add something “fun” to the wall. A step too far?
Referred to some as ‘occupation tourism’, making a tourist attraction out of daily suppressed reality, called for action by local Palestinians, spraying over and adding subjective text to existing street art on the wall. “We don’t have the privilege of writing on the wall, and then going home and never having to see this wall again. We are forced to see it every day” one of the pissed off locals told Al Jazeera. Fair enough.
Banksy in Bethlehem
This may be a reason why we could not find ‘Girl Frisking Soldier’ by Banksy, while others say it is located inside a shop next to the Bethlehem Museum that is not always open? We did find the ‘Armored Dove’ and many Banksy copycats. The ‘Make Hummus Not Walls’ is one of the most popular pieces of street art in the Israeli West Bank Barrier area, much too coloful to be a Banksy. Banksy’s original ‘Flower Thrower’ is on the other side of the town (see map below), about 1 hour walk. Banksy’s ‘Angel Sprinkling Hearts’ is between the Church of the Nativity and the ‘Flow Thrower’.
Banksy is an anonymous graffiti artist and political activist who satires oppression in Palestine, hypocrisy in politics and capitalist greed in London since the early 1990s.
You will run into local taxi drivers offering to take you to the real Banksy pieces of street art, which are not always easy to find on your own, however taxi drivers tend to ask ridiculous prices. Either negotiate a fair price or walk yourself. Banksy’s ‘Angel Sprinkling Hearts’ is a bit far out so you may want to get a taxi there anyway. Always make sure the taxi driver puts on the meter or agree on a fixed price before getting in. Unfortunately, taxi apps like Uber and Gett do not work in Bethlehem.
Where to stay in Bethlehem
Most travelers visit Bethlehem as a (half) day trip from Jerusalem, but for those who wish to spend the night in Bethlehem, The Walled Off Hotel is a unique place to consider. Located right next to the separation wall, the hotel offers a unique experience including tailor-made rooms, decorated by the world’s finest artists. The art installations inside the hotel lobby are accessible for free to people who do not necessarily stay at the hotel.
For Jerusalem accommodation, please see my earlier article Jerusalem: 10 things to see in the Old City for a cultural journey.
How to get to Bethlehem
Bethlehem is easy to reach by bus from Jerusalem Old City. Take bus 231 from either:
- the bus stop down at parking lot at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, or
- the bus stop down at the road at Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem.
Get off the bus at Bab El-Zakak/Beit Jala Road junction and either:
- Walk to the street art around the Walled Off Hotel via Hebron Road (15 min), or
- Walk to the Church of the Nativity via Children St (20 min)
Most logical is to visit the wall first and then the church, but up to you!
You cannot use your Rav Kav Card for this particular bus ride between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Pay the driver 7 NIS cash per single ride (November 2019). The ride takes about half an hour. The bus goes about 2-3 times per day, see Google Maps.
Push the red button on the bus to clarify to the driver that you want to get off. When you turn on your location option, you can see on Google Maps where you are with the bus at that moment, even if your internet is not working (if ‘location’ is switched on in your smartphone settings), so you know when to push the bus button in time.
Getting back to Jerusalem
The bus back to Jerusalem is from the same junction. Check in advance when the last bus goes; better not miss it! From the Church of the Nativity back to the bus stop, I suggest to walk via Children Street, which is full of local shops and people. If you go back from Bethlehem end of the afternoon, the ride may take three times as long due to traffic jams on the way to Jerusalem (1.5 hours).
Make sure you bring your passport and Israeli customs paper when going to Bethlehem. At the border checkpoint the locals got off the bus, the tourists stayed inside the bus, two officials in army clothes entered the bus and checked all passports before we could continue back to Jerusalem. The check did not take long, maybe 5-10 min, it was the traffic jam to Jerusalem that made us miss seeing the sunset at Israel Museum. Bummer!
Plan your visit to Bethlehem Sunday to Thursday, not Friday or Saturday due to Shabbat and avoid national holidays due to lack of public transportation.
Maybe not the most beautiful photos but this is what daily life in Bethlehem’s Children St looks-like
Another easy and interesting way to visit Bethlehem is by guided half-day tour. Should you have the time, you may want to see more of the West Bank and Palestine than Bethlehem alone, such as Jericho, Ramallah, Hebron, Nablus and/or Battir. An organized, guided tour is the safest and most convenient way to visit those places. Be careful and avoid getting into situations where locals seek out conflict.
For more information of getting around Israel and Jerusalem, see my earlier article Jerusalem: 10 things to see in the Old City for a cultural journey.
This mobile friendly map includes most things mentioned in this article and is smartphone friendly. You can use it easily via Google Maps. Click on the top left icon to open the menu. You can (un)select categories/areas to customize the map to your needs. Via Google Drive you can copy it to your folder of My Google Maps.
A special thanks to Gina from Germany for taking some of these photos and spontaneously joining me on this journey to Bethlehem!
Get the best falafel, baked fresh right in front of your nose, at Abu Dawod on a corner of Manger Square. Awesome street food!
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I hope this article was helpful and interesting for you. Have you ever been to Israel? Do you like Banksy’s work? Did you see any Banksy yourself? Please feel free to leave a comment or question below.
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