Being devout Christians, we knew we wanted to visit Bethlehem to see for ourselves the place of Christ’s birth. Bethlehem is only a few miles from Jerusalem, but is in the West Bank, under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority. From my research, there were a few options for visiting Bethlehem:
- Drive our Israeli rental car to the parking lot near the gate between Israel and the West Bank, walk across the border, and hail a taxi to take us to Manger Square.
- Drive our car to the parking lot, walk across the border, and meet a local Palestinian guide to take us around Bethlehem in his car.
- Take a bus or taxi or rental car from the Arab side of Jerusalem all the way into Bethlehem, then fend from there.
- Pay too much for an organized half-day tour of Bethlehem that picks us up from our hotel in Jerusalem and drops us back off in Jerusalem at the end of the tour.
We are not typically tour people. We sight see at a different pace than most people, and those that have paid for a tour probably don’t like the disruptions caused by our kids. We did take a tour of the City of David, but that was because that’s the only way to get into Hezekiah’s tunnel. Well, this was another one of those “tour is the best option” times. I did not want to worry about our safety and the logistics of crossing a heavily guarded border on our own. I did not want to worry about hailing taxis and communicating (most people in Bethlehem speak Arabic, not English). We did try hiring a local guide, but he was not available. So, with a little over 24 hours before our desired visit, we booked a tour with Bein Harim tours. It was not the cheapest option, but it was one of a few tour companies that operated tours on Saturday.
Right on time, a van picked us up in front of our hotel. I naively thought that the few other people who were in our van were the only ones going to Bethlehem. I was wrong. Our van picked up a few more people, and then drove to a drop-off point, where everyone was assigned a bus/van number for their respective tour. It was really convenient to be picked up at our hotel, but we spent over a half an hour at the common drop-off point waiting for our bus to Bethlehem. If we were alone, this would not have been such a big deal, but trying to wrangle and entertain children, it was a bit of a pain. Finally, we started the short drive to Bethlehem. Our tour director was Israeli, and took the opportunity on the bus ride to tell us a little about the history of the city of Bethlehem. Our first stop was the Shepherd’s fields, which were actually downhill from the city of Bethlehem. Like many other areas of Israel, Bethlehem was much more hilly than I imagined, and the city was way up on top of a hill!
We visited the Roman Catholic church and surrounding area associated with angels announcing the birth of baby Jesus to the shepherds. This site has ruins of churches and altars dating back before 400 A.D., so they are fairly certain that this is the actual place where these events took place. A modern church with beautiful depictions of the story of the shepherds and baby Jesus decorated the walls of the tent-shaped church.
Our tour guide in Bethlehem was a Palestinian Christian who knew English, Spanish, Arabic and Hebrew. He was a super cool guy, entertaining, and patient with our kids. We had a few Spanish speakers on our tour, so he gave the tour in both English and Spanish. He pointed out the city of Bethlehem- up on a hill above us, and explained how the shepherds followed the new star to the manger. It was so neat to be standing there and seeing these places in person!
Along with the modern church were a few caves, or grottoes that had been turned into little chapels. These caves would have served as protection from the elements for the shepherds, perhaps not THE shepherds from the Christmas story, but shepherds lived here at some point.
Like many other Christian holy sites in Israel, there were ruins of past churches being excavated. A viewing platform was available to take a closer look. I love the juxtaposition in the picture below of the ruins with the modern multi-story apartment buildings in the background. This it the view looking back toward Jerusalem.
The next stop on our tour was a large gift shop run by Christian Palestinians (at least that’s what they told us). There were so many cool items, but I traveled to Bethlehem hoping to snag an one-of-a-kind olive wood nativity set. I wanted there to be movable pieces so my boys could help set it up, and I wanted it large enough to be a centerpiece of our Christmas decorating. After agonizing between several sets, we ended up with a large set that played Christmas hymns, had movable pieces, and I’m so excited to use it one day, when we have a house. The sales ladies in the store were helpful, but hovering. They claimed to only be able to give a 20% discount off of list price, but they threw in a hand carved Christmas ornament as well. For me, this set was priceless, and I think we ended up leaving several hundred dollars lighter. There are tours with other companies that don’t stop at a gift shop, but I wanted to stop and get a nativity set, so I was not opposed to it this time.
After spending ample time at the gift shop, we were ushered into smaller vans that took us up to the Milk Grotto, then on to the Church of the Nativity. The Milk Grotto is a pure white limestone cave. The traditional story is that when Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt with baby Jesus, that Mary stopped in this cave to breastfeed Jesus, and a drop of milk fell to the ground and turned the entire cave white. A Catholic chapel was built over the grotto in 1872, on the ruins of an earlier Byzantine-era church. Infertile couples and those needing healing come to the grotto in search of healing and fertility help. An icon in the grotto shows Mary breastfeeding Jesus, which is pretty unique, I’d say! Yay for breastfeeding!
Upstairs from the Milk Grotto was a courtyard, cemetery, and the main chapel of the church. There was also a small exhibit with remains of the Byzantine church, including a piece of mosaic floor. The view from the top floor of the Milk Grotto over the rolling hills of Judea was awesome!
Finally, we headed from the Milk Grotto to the Basilica of the Nativity on foot. The Church of the Nativity is the only UNESCO World Heritage site in Palestinian territory, and is also designated a “World Heritage Site in Danger” because of the decay of the building. The church is shared by four Christian sects: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Apostolic and Syrian Orthodox churches. A large renovation project is underway to preserve this edifice, despite difficulties getting the churches, and Palestine and Israel to work together. First built by Constantine and his mother Helena in 327 A.D., this church has changed hands and had many renovations over the years. It sustained major damage in earthquakes in the 1830s, and was renovated after that. The Greek Orthodox section, where the entrance to the Grotto of the Nativity is located, was under renovation, so we did not get to see many of the wall decorations. The line for the grotto was not too long (so we thought), so our tour group got in the line almost immediately.
Let’s take a break and talk about my boys. Aside from a teenager, our four and one-year-olds were the only kids on the tour. I understand, most people who want to go to Bethlehem aren’t traveling in Israel with young children. We’re weird. The boys had done a fantastic job all day. We dragged them from our hotel to the meeting point, to the shepherd’s fields to the gift shop to the Milk Grotto, so this was our fifth stop of the day before lunch. They were hungry, thirsty, tired, and completely done being rational human beings, and it wasn’t even 1:00 pm! It was out of the question to try to get them to stand in a long line that was moving impossibly slowly toward the Grotto of the Nativity. They were creaming, crying, beating each other up, trying to wrestle, etc. Owen even tripped and fell against a carved lectern and had a small cut above his eye that bruised terribly and starting bleeding. Yikes! However, we came to Bethlehem to see the Grotto of the Nativity. I wanted to see where baby Jesus was born. So did Landon, somewhere deep down inside of himself. I did not think it was appropriate for the kids to have a snack inside the church, so we went out a side door of the church into a small paved area and ate some food and decompressed for a few minutes. Thankfully, our tour group mates let us back in line once they were getting closer to the actual grotto. Owen was super tired and fussy. Come to find out, he was teething! He chomped on my sunglasses and broke them while we were waiting in line.
Tradition states that after finding all of the inns full in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary found a cave for shelter, and there Mary delivered Jesus. Constantine and Helena found said cave, and made a church on it. The exact spot where Jesus was born is marked with a silver star, and the place where He was laid in a manger is marked by another altar across the hallway of the cave.
The Grotto of the Nativity is located down a flight of steep and short stairs. Traffic flow through the grotto is not great, and in fact, on our tour website it gave the disclaimer that the tour may not stop at the Grotto depending on the wait time, because it would mess up the the rest of the tour. I think we waited for over an hour, with the last 20 minutes or so inching toward the steep stairs. It was all we could do to keep Landon and Owen from getting trampled, especially when a Chinese tour group came up behind us and started pushing everyone down the stairs. The other tour guides kept yelling, “WAIT, CHINA!”, but they almost could not help themselves. It was stressful and sweaty and claustrophobic as we were packed in like sardines into this narrow doorway. I thought this was a cool camera effect with the light highlighting the doorway down into the cave where Jesus was born.
As I was standing there, thinking about what I was going to see down in the Grotto, and trying to not fall over while holding a squirming, tired toddler and keeping track of a four-year-old that was a little freaked out by the crowd, I thought of this painting by Brian Kershisnik. Some of his works were in the BYU Museum of Art, and I studied one for a project back in undergrad. I love in the painting how the angels are all crowded around, squishing in, wanting to get a glimpse of the newly-born Christ child. This is how I felt in the press of the crowd going down into the Grotto. Even though it was uncomfortable, it was neat that so many were so desperate to see where Jesus was born!
It was such a relief to get down into the grotto, finally! Amazingly, it was not very crowded down there! We were able to approach each significant place without too much trouble and take a few moments. The room was actually quite big down there, and surprisingly not filled to the brim with people. I think traffic flow could be improved, but there was no admission fee, so I’m sure there is not really much incentive to make it more efficient. Anyway, I was kind of stressed out from our harrowing ordeal to get down into the grotto, and in full-on mommy mode. Well, Landon saw some other people kneeling and touching the silver star where Jesus was born. I said, “Don’t touch that, Landon!” and our sweet tour guide (who has kids Landon and Owen’s ages) said, “No, please, it’s OK, he is welcome to touch the star, many people do!” So Landon very tenderly knelt down and touched the star. Just looking at the picture gives me goosebumps. We had studied Jesus’ life and prepared for this tour, and he knew the significance of where we were and what we were seeing.
Phew! After we got through the Grotto of the Nativity, I didn’t care what happened next. We stopped by a nice nativity scene in a courtyard on the way out, and were picked up down the street from the church by the small vans (big buses can’t get very close to the church because the roads are too narrow). We had a yummy traditional Palestinian lunch, and then boarded the bus to return to Jerusalem. Although we had only paid for a half-day tour of Bethlehem, we did not get back to Jerusalem until after 2:00 pm. I’m not sure if we were the only ones that had booked the half-day tour, but it seemed everyone else on the bus were going on to Jericho for the second part of the tour before being dropped off in Jerusalem. We considered staying on and exploring Jericho, but decided the boys could not handle any more. The bus dropped us off just around the corner from our hotel!
Talking with our Israeli and Palestinian guides, they gave us some interesting insights into the political issues facing this region. They both commented that most people on both sides (Israel and Palestine) want a one-state solution, but that the surrounding Arab countries would basically count that as losing, since the Gaza Strip was formerly occupied by Egypt and the West Bank by Jordan. I hope that Israel and Palestine can come to a peaceful resolution, but I’m not super optimistic. Also, our Israeli guide randomly asked us if we were at the Western Wall the day before. When we answered affirmatively, he said that he was right behind Austin at the Western Wall, and heard the security guard tell him to put Owen in the metal detector. I thought it was a crazy coincidence that he saw us there!
I would highly recommend Bein Harim tours. They were so kind, helpful and patient with my kiddos. For our family, the peace of mind of not having to plan logistics for the day and the crossing into Palestine was worth the price of the tour. Some may think that Bethlehem is not a safe place to visit, but we did not feel unsafe during our visit there. The people we associated with were friendly, and there were tons of tourists. The Christian holy sites of Bethlehem are a major tourist draw and economy booster for Palestine. So, if you’re in Israel, make sure to head down to Bethlehem!