Lots of tourists go to Palestine, but I’d estimate a vast majority of them do it in a rush from Jerusalem to Bethlehem just to see the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square. (Bethlehem is just over the wall that separates Israel and Palestine, about six miles away.)
They then return directly to Israel without spending a single shekel in restaurants or hotels in the West Bank. Obviously, there’s much more to experience in this country.
While the region’s hardscrabble vibe may be a bit too edgy for some Americans, it’s amazing how after a couple of days in Palestine, you feel right at home. Walking through the wall from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, all you need is your passport.
Palestine uses Israeli currency. Just cross the border and haggle with the taxis … and after spending about $5 and 10 minutes, you’re looking at the spot where Jesus is thought to have been born.
If there were no border or traffic to deal with, you could bicycle from the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 15 minutes.
If you come, you’ll find that Bethlehem is no longer just the “little town” of Christmas carol fame. It’s a leading Palestinian city — the city sprawls and is almost indiscernible from greater Jerusalem. It’s not a pretty town; most homes and businesses stand behind security walls and fences.
But Bethlehem has a special energy and a very cool Arabic vibe, especially in the early evening. The Arab market is colorful. And the skyline is a commotion of crescents and crosses — a reminder that the town, while almost totally Arab, remains a mix of Muslims and Christians.
Not all Arabs are Muslims, a fact that surprises some. When meeting an Arab Christian, many Western tourists ask when the family converted.
The answer is usually, “About 2,000 years ago, back when Jesus’ disciples were doing missionary work around here.”
Another surprise is on Bethlehem’s main square. For more than a hundred years, the Mosque of Omar has shared Manger Square with the Church of the Nativity.
Jesus and Mary are both a big deal for Muslims. I had a joyous interview with an imam after filming a prayer service in his mosque.
He explained, “Bethlehem is holy for Muslims, as well as Christians. For Muslims, Jesus is a major prophet. We also revere Mother Mary. In fact, an entire chapter in the Quran is named for her.”
We sat cross-legged on the carpet of his mosque for an interview. I asked him to let me hear how he talks to God (but in English) and his prayer literally brought me to tears. As we hugged, I could feel the pull of Islam.
Across the square in the Church of the Nativity, Christian pilgrims waited to touch, kiss and pray upon the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born.
Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.
© 2014 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.