The Christmas is coming. One week before it is very hard to find a person, who wouldn’t succomb to the temtation of playing the Christmas hits at least once. Shortly, each radio station will be dominated by the carols and naturally, we will start to hum them. Has anyone tried to visualize how the place where it all started looks like? I haven’t. However, lately, I had the opportunity to see it with my own eyes. Some facts really surprised me – take a look at the story below.
Bethlehem is the town with the majority of Muslim people located in the West Bank in the State of Palestine, barely 10km from Jerusalem. For many years the city has been the witness and victim of constant conflicts between Israel, Palestine and in the past also Jordan. Nowadays, this 25 thousand people town is under the Israeli control, while this territory is simply occupied. Every excursion to Bethlehem or any other Palestinian city from Jerusalem has to begin from the specially designated Palestinian Bus Station. It is placed in the Arabic district of the city, close to the walls of the old town. One part of the station operates mini buses, and the second the normal ones. If your destination is Bethlehem you have to take the bus no 231.
At the border to the West Bank, there were no controls. Through Bethlehem, there goes one main road. Next to it, the inconspicuous sign informs where is the bus stop. After getting off the bus, I was surrounded by intrusive taxi drivers offering a lift to the basilica for 10 shekels (2.5 dollars). I did not use it, but it seems that many people can be persuaded. Contrary to expectations, there are no signs indicating how rich this place on foot. I checked on the map that the church is located on Manger Square, which is about 20 minutes away from the bus stop. Initially, the town did not look friendly. The road leads through the noisy bazaar, full of street vendors. However, during the way up, the atmosphere is changing and the subsequent streets become more and more calm. When I got lost, in comparison to intrusive taxi drivers, the pleasant student took me to the place enjoying that he could help me.
From the hill, there is the best view on the city. The church does not make a big impression, especially that the renovation works was performed during my visit. Nearby, there is visible much higher Mosque of Omar, where traditionally muezzins are calling for prayer. In this place, you can clearly observe how the cultures mix with each other. More specifically, how the Islamic culture displaces the Christian one. There are several reasons. Firstly, the Muslim population has a much higher birth rate. Secondly, Jews and Muslims have rather a negative attitude towards Christians. It encourages these people to emigrate, what for them is much easier. An interesting custom is that the mayor of Bethlehem is always a Christian, but according to the steadily decreasing number of this religion followers, one may have doubts whether this custom will survive.
People from all over the world come here to see primarily one place – the cave, where according to tradition, Jesus was born. It is located under the main altar in the underground crypt. According to history, in the fourth century, it was found by the mother of Constantine the Great – Helena. Shortly afterwards, he founded the Church of the Nativity, which has survived to this day. Although I have not seen many tourists before, the queue to the crypt was very long and the waiting would take several hours. When I was close to the exit, not wanting to spend the whole day in a crowd, a Muslim man came up to me. He said that he works as a guide and can show me how to enter without queues! The Greek Orthodox Church takes care about the building and during the devotion, which take place every now and then, no one can stay under the altar. Visitors enter from the right side and go out from the left. However, the guide took me to the left side and asked the guard to let me go after the ceremony is finished. There were only a few people with me, so I recommend this way – you have a few peaceful minutes.
Sometimes even I can hardly believe what is happening to me and I feel that wherever I go, there’s someone waiting for me. This time I accidentally went into George’s shop and spent the time drinking beer and listening to the history of the surroundings. The whole Bethlehem make money from tourism, but apart from taxi drivers, I haven’t met anyone who would like to force me to buy something. Anyway, George was a marketing master and he mounted a speaker above the entrance. When he was presenting the knowledge of Polish hits by playing music on YouTube, it was also heard outside. After a while, I noticed from the street the distinctive voices of Polish grandmothers, and after a moment, the Polish pilgrimage came in, encouraged additionally by my invitation. Ladies thought that I am a shop assistant, so I eventually became one, while the owner was preparing the delicious juices from pomegranate. I ran out of words when he said that he is a couchsurfer (I will never be surprised again), and offered me accommodation in his family home. He is also the owner of a hostel (link). Moreover, he was a Palestinian Christian. Unfortunately, I had to refuse and go back to my host in Jerusalem – the Jewish atheist.
During the conversation, I got wind of the fact that in Bethlehem there is a graffiti made by Banksy – his street art usually contains a pacifist, anti-war message. So I decided to find it. No one could help me, the locals didn’t understand what I’m asking about. Suddenly, I found a trace of the ‘Banksy’s Shop ‘and I went in that direction thinking that there could be someone who will show me the way. I walked and walked, and unexpectedly I saw the wall. The eight-meter, concrete wall covered with graffiti and boards describing the stories of people who have experienced military occupation by Israel. Exactly this country built it 10 years ago. The place reminds the Berlin Wall and the Checkpoint 300, which is the entry point to the town brings to mind the Checkpoint Charlie. In this area, there are dozens of other blockages that impede life of Palestinians and isolate the inhabitants from the west.
The first graffiti, which I saw presents a soldier and a boy (pictured above). In the lower right corner there is Banksy’s signature, but in fact, it is not his work. The one, for which I was looking is painted on ordinary, residential building on a side street – a dove in the armor.
The sun was going down, it was a time to hit the road back. This time the bus was so crowded that I barely managed to squeeze inside. As we approached the border, all the residents of the Palestine went out to stand in a long queue and presented the documents authorizing them to entry Israel. Only a few percent of the Bethlehem citizens own them, what makes it impossible for many people to work in Jerusalem. The driver used that time to sell the tickets. The passports of tourists were checked inside. The whole procedure extended the way back nearly half an hour. I do not want to imagine what is happening in that place every morning.