A visit of historical sites in and around Bethlehem:  The Herodion, Mar Saba Monastery and the Church of the Nativity.

If you want to get around in the West Bank you can take public transportation or hire one of many taxis.  For the four of us, taxi was definitely the sensible thing to do.  Faris drove us around since Walid, the body builder, my taxi driver from last time was not available.  Unfortunately, Faris’s English was limited and a conversation about life in the disputed areas therefore was not possible.

The Herodion is one of the pleasure-and-escape palaces King Herod built for himself 2000 years ago, a few kilometers outside of Bethlehem.  Nothing much is left of its former glory.  But columns, walls, and two towers give you an idea of the layout and the size of the palace. The mountain plateau which sticks out of the flat valley allows a wonderful panoramic view all the way back to Jerusalem and miles into the countryside.  Sparse vegetation, mainly olive trees, and loosely arranged villages are typical.  Herod must have liked the spot since he chose it as his burial place.  His tomb was only discovered in 2007 by an archaeologist who had been looking for the grave since 1972!  If that is not dedication, I don’t know what is.

Beneath the palace is a multi-storied system of tunnels which was dug during the Bar Kochba revolt, about 100 years after Herod’s death.  It was a welcome escape from the heat to descend into the tunnels, and a lot of exercise to climb up again…  We all feel our legs!

Mar Saba, or Saba Monastery is situated in one of the sparsest areas I have seen anywhere in Israel.  Much of the landscape here is desert and full of rocks, but there is some vegetation, not near the Saba Monastery.  There is a small river that has carved an impressive canyon into the landscape and supports a green strip of a few feet left and right of its path.  But the monastery is way up high in the desolate mountain, clinging to the cliff so that it is almost invisible as you approach.  Only two towers stick out in the landscape.

The monastery goes back to the 5th century and to this day, 25 monks are active there.  They are a mix of different ages and denominations:  Armenian, Coptic, Greek and Russian Orthodox, and others are present.  Only men are allowed to visit, women have to make do with a view from the “woman’s tower” which was built to house female travelers.  But the monastery was closed, so all of us had to make do with the women’s view.  It was limited, but impressive nonetheless.   By following some channels which had been built along the mountain side to catch rain water, we also got a good view into the canyon.

It got really hot around here and by the time we reached the Church of the Nativity, we could only think:  Cappuccino, water, food; first things first!  The church had to wait for us.

If you recall, this was the site of an ugly 40 day hostage crisis in 2002 involving 200 PLO and Hamas terrorists holding 40 clerics and nuns at gun point.  Strangely enough, some people blamed Israel for the incident but then, Israel is the typical scapegoat no matter what happens in this region…  Walid, my first taxi driver in Bethlehem, pointed out how bad this incident was for the Palestinians living in Bethlehem.  They had been good neighbors with their fellow Christians for as long as they could remember, but radicals from the Palestinian refugee camps in town and elsewhere had chosen Bethlehem as the place for their actions and it fell back on all of the Arab Muslims in town. This was the first time I heard of a Palestinian refugee camp in Palestine!  Huh?  I thought they were only in Syria, Jordan, or Lebanon? No, they are right here in the West Bank; three of them in Bethlehem.  Something is wrong with this picture and if I can I will investigate this a bit more.  From Walid I got a clear dose of dislike for the Palestinians in the camp, who according to him don’t work much, don’t have to pay taxes, and get aid and medical care as handouts from international sources.  Palestinians disliking Palestinians?  I thought only Lebanese, Syrians, or Jordanians disliked Palestinians?  This is so much more twisted than I could have ever imagined!  It was also the first time that a Palestinian told me that the wall was not so bad.  Walid regretted the fact that the Palestinians cannot keep their terrorists in check on their own.  But he held it against the Israelis that there is collective punishment.  The same sentiment was conveyed to me by a shopkeeper in Jerusalem.

Either way, after our visit of the Old Church of the Nativity, the oldest continuously operated Christian church anywhere – in use since its 326 dedication by Constantine — and the new church dedicated to St. Catherine, we walked through the old Arabic Souq.   There we got a delicious falafel in a newly opened historic restaurant, and headed back to the checkpoint.  As it happened, we walked through a beautiful neighborhood and then, by coincidence through one of the refugee camps.  There were no walls, no check points, and no barriers.  But the neighborhood instantly changed its outward face:  from the impression of wealth and prosperity to an impression of desolation and tension.  There was dirt everywhere, small alleys replaced the wide road, and political graffiti adorned every wall.  It was the camp, without doubt.  I wonder how the camp population feels about their “free” brethren right next to them.

The border crossing was uneventful.  The Bethlehem checkpoint lived up to its reputation of being the most laid-back check point in the entire West Bank.  The single visible female guard on duty was busy talking on her cell phone and hardly looked up when we held out our passports.  Even the Palestinian in front of us got this treatment.  What a contrast to Ramallah.

Once again, we saw a lot and have a lot to digest.  If you could peek into our living room in the evening you would see a consistent and quite amusing picture:  Three of the four of us are typing away at our notebook computers and Maria is texting on her Blackberry.   In between we have political and other discussions and at times we even all agree.  And when we start to fall asleep over our notebooks, then it’s time to go to bed.

Good night!

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  1. The use of the term “refugee camp” is really only a propaganda term. A camp implies something like tents or barracks, but these are just slum neighborhoods, not camps. In a sense they are more like ghettos because the residents are not permitted to move away, as far as I know. The same is true of Lebanon where the Palestinian Arabs are not permitted to become citizens or in an way integrate into Lebanese life. I am not sure about Syria. Jordan is quite different. Most of the population of Jordan is Palestinian Arab, as opposed to the ruling family which is Hashemite. The Jordanians are, in fact, “Palestinians”. Many people think that Jordan ought to be considered a “Palestinian” state. To my knowledge, there are no “refugee camps” in Jordan.

    Before the war of 1967, there was no such people as “Palestinians”. This was term invented for propaganda purposes under Soviet tutelage in order to reframe the conflict in a way more favorable to the Arabs. Previously, it had been called the “Arab-Israeli” conflict, and that made Israel look like the victim. Calling it the “Palestinian-Israeli” conflict makes it look like the Palestinian Arabs are the victims. In fact, we are dealing neither with a “Palestinian-Israel” conflict, nor an “Arab-Israeli” conflict. The conflict is an Islamic war on the Jews — nothing more, nothing less. One glance at the Hamas Charter will convince you of the truth of this. Additional evidence is the fact that Israel’s deadliest enemy is not Arab at all, but Persian. And, then there is the enmity of the Lebanese Arabs (Hezbollah), and the fact that all 56 Moslem-majority countries refuse to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. About 5/8 of the Moslem world is NOT Arab.