Christmas is a big holiday of the year for even non-Christians. Every year, people often choose to stay at home and gather under a pine tree or go to local churches. But if you have a chance to visit Palestine, why don’t you try to join the flow of pilgrims to Jesus’s birthplace at Christmas?
The town of Bethlehem in the West Bank, some six miles south of Jerusalem, is revered by millions as the birthplace of Jesus. According to the New Testament account of the apostle Matthew, Joseph and Mary were living in Bethlehem in the southern region of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth and later moved to Nazareth in the northern Galilee region. The ancient city of Bethlehem is one of the ancient landmarks that dates back over 3,000 years. Currently, Bethlehem is in the West Bank territory of the Jordan River, which has been the autonomous Palestinian government since 1995, but Israel retains control over people entering and leaving Bethlehem. Although Israelis are restricted from visiting Bethlehem, foreign tourists are still allowed in and out to visit, and can even sleep in the city.
Tourism is the main job in Bethlehem. Unlike other Palestinian localities before 2000, the majority of the working population did not work in Israel. More than 25% of the population work directly or indirectly in the tourism industry. Bethlehem’s tourism income accounts for about 65% of the city’s economy and 11% of all of Palestine.
The city center is Manger Square, where hundreds to thousands of parishioners flock here on Christmas Eve. Everyday, this place also attracts thousands of tourists.
Near Manger Square is the Church of Nativity. Seen from distance, the church is like a fortress built of white stone – characteristic of the Middle East. The church was first built in AD 327. Due to its cultural history, this church has great religious significance for both Christian and Muslim beliefs. The Church has been recognized as a World Cultural Heritage.
Below the church is the Holy Crypt, which is considered the place where Jesus was born. This area is always crowded with tourists, people waiting in line for their turn. Inside the cave, about 10 square meters wide, where Jesus was born is marked with a silver star on a marble background, lighted up by
lamps and candles. Tourists coming here are respectfully praying in the sacred space. Most Christians in the world want at least once in their life to come here on a pilgrimage.
Nearby is the Milk Grotto, according to legend, a drop of Mary’s blood falls to the floor of the cave and whitens the stone. Many believe that a visit here aids fertility. Therefore, the small five meter 10 meter cave is a favorite pilgrimage destination for women having difficulty conceiving.
To Bethlehem, you should go along the famous “West Bank Separating Wall”, separating the land between Palestine and Israel, decorated with unique graffiti.
Despite living in a conflict area for decades, the Palestinians are gentle and friendly with tourists. Foreign tourists always feel peaceful and relaxing when walking on the streets of Bethlehem.
There are over 30 hotels in Bethlehem. The Jacir Palace Hotel, built in 1910 near the church, is one of the oldest and most successful hotels. In 2000 the hotel was closed due to the violence of the second Intifada, but reopened in 2005.