Published: August 9th 2012August 6th 2012 The Holy Land
Birthplace of Christ
Two christians worship at the spot where Jesus was born
Said to be the most fought over real estate in history, just hearing the name of the Holy Land brings spiritual and exotic thoughts to the minds of people all around the world. It serves as the holiest place for all of the three Abrahamic religions, hence the name "The Holy Land", and has been fought over this for this reason, and political reasons, for thousands of years. As a Christian I'm very excited and feel blessed to get to visit this land and walk where Jesus walked. These hills were once shepherded by Jesus himself and this is where his teachings began. The land here has memories. The hills, the trees, the stones, and the seas. They have witnessed some of the most important events regarding the fate of mankind. And this land is not just considered holy to me and my faith, but it also serves as the holiest of places for Judaism and Islam as well. To make it even more interesting, I'm visiting during the month of Ramadan, the holiest month for muslims. Unfortunately, this means the Dome of the Rock/Temple of the Mount will be closed to everyone who is
not muslim, so I will have to see it up close another time.
This is where my next adventure begins. Specifically, in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christ. I'll start with my adventure crossing the border from Jordan into Israel and the West Bank.
The 6am sun greeted us as Laila, her dad, and I got in the car to go to Tabarbour bus station. Tabarbour is the biggest bus station in Amman and service taxis park there all day waiting to fill up with people headed to the King Hussein Allenby Bridge Crossing into Israel/Palestine.
After finding a cab, I parted ways with Laila and her dad and the taxi headed out of Amman. The border crossing is along the same route as the Dead Sea so I saw some familiar scenery, which was the enormous valleys and hills of Jordan.
When we got closer to the border the mountains and ravines gave way to farmland and rural villages. I watched out the window as 6-7 year old kids tended huge farm plots under the burning sun. More and more farms flew by my window
until finally there was a small break and I saw the checkpoint up ahead.
I crossed at the Allenby/King Hussein Bridge Crossing, which is very close to the city of Jericho - to give you an idea. The first checkpoint was under Jordanian control. After going through two question and answer sessions, I finally got onto the bus for foreigners (yes, there's a special bus for westerners/anyone not arab). I knew after the first guard that I was going to have problems. In earlier blogs I've talked about how I get mistaken for all different ethnicities or nationalities. This is the first time ever that it has caused me a problem! What is normally a gift to help me blend in, turned into a red flag for any Israeli guard. The Jordanian side was much more relaxed, but I was still asked the same question again and again, "no, where are you really from? ORIGINALLY?"
The bus ride was 4 dinars, which isn't too bad, but it only goes across a short area in between the Jordanian and Israeli checkpoints. The Israeli checkpoint is where I started having problems. The first girl, probably about
18 and serving her mandatory military service, really didn't want me to get through. Over and over the question "where are you really from?" I'm sure they thought it was a fake passport and I was trying to sneak into Palestine under the cover that I was American, because they asked me to pronounce my name 2-3 times.
When I finally convinced her I was American I got up to Israeli immigration - where the fun began. The normal questions, and then some. Who are you staying with? Where will you go? Why are you going? Why don't you want an Israeli stamp? Answers: an American Friend. Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Sightseeing I'm Christian (thought that would calm their nerves, but no). Because I have friends in Lebanon and Egypt that I may want to visit. Long, long, long story short, she didn't like this and didn't believe that I'm going back to Amman, didn't believe that I was flying back to the US in a week. Didn't believe anything. Luckily, I had my return ticket saved on my phone and yes, she forced me to show it. And then there was the same question again "where are
you from originally?" She even went as far as to ask "where's your other passport?" Anyways, after having me take a seat with the other red flag travelers, I finally made it through.
What's sad is that I didn't even have it as bad as Palestinians do. I wasn't detained for hours. I wasn't harrassed. So I actually feel lucky, but I thought the events throughout the process were interesting enough to write home about.
After the private taxis attempted to rip me off (there were no group taxis running to Bethlehem), I opted for a much cheaper bus ticket to the city of Jericho.
Me: Is this the bus to Jericho?
Israeli Ticket Salesman: Yes yes! 13 shekels.
Me: Ok, when does it leave?
Me: When does the bus leave from here to Jericho?
Israeli: Oh! Hella2!
I guess I shouldn't have been surprised, since the border crossing here is mostly used by arabs, but it turned out he spoke more arabic than english. That wasn't something I was expecting from Israelis. I shouldn't have come in with
There were no group buses to Bethlehem so I took a bus to Jericho and went through another checkpoint for entering the West Bank. This one was hassle free and the arab guards were more than friendly when they realized I speak arabic. In Jericho I found the Bethlehem bus (which was really a large van) and hopped on that for the rest of the trip.
Arrival in Bethlehem
I'm staying with a friend of mine in Beit Sahour, kind of a suburb of Bethelehem. One of the first things I noticed about the West Bank is that its much, much poorer than the Israeli side. Israel has also erected a security wall around Bethlehem so if your uncle lives right outside the wall, or you work right across the wall, you'll have to go through a security checkpoint every day that scans your bags and even fingerprints. Then you'll need special permission from Israel to leave the West Bank, which sometimes is granted, sometimes not. That's if you're Palestinian. If you're American all you have to do is put your bag on the scanner and flash the front of
your passport to get through. I'm not from here, but I can move from place to place faster - really doesn't seem fair to the families who have lived here for generations.
Since I've been here I've noticed many things that remind me of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany, but not in the way you would think. First thing I noticed was the similarities between the West Bank and the ghettos for Jews in the 1930's. Trade going into or out of the West Bank is restricted and supervised by Israel. All agriculture or infrastructure projects in the West Bank must first be approved by Israel, meaning a lot of them don't get approved. Palestinians need special permission to leave too. And now with the wall going up, the West Bank is starting to look more and more like the Jewish ghettos in Germany.
When I saw it, the security wall reminded me instantly of the Berlin Wall. High, security towers, and graffiti everywhere. Some of the graffiti is even semi-profession, just like the East Side Gallery when I visited Berlin last year. This wall is going up all around the West Bank to
keep people in (because there's no problem getting into the West Bank, only out). It's a horrible deterrent on every day business and every day life. Especially for families split up by the wall of farms and properties that the wall goes through (the wall is not built on the border of Israel and Palestine, its built a little ways in towards the West Bank, through Palestinian land).
My friend and I went shopping and walked around Beit Sahour, which I could compare to Amman, only the houses and businesses were a bit more rundown due to the economic situation in the West Bank and there were some much narrower, older looking streets.
Bethlehem is like a town/village. It's very small and everyone knows each other. My taxi drivers honk and wave at their friends as they pass them on the street. Its a small town with not so many people so you're bound to see someone you know.
We called my friends "taxi guy" who agreed to take me to the checkpoint so I could go to Jerusalem. But first I had him take me by the Church of Nativity
- the supposed birthplace of Christ. Just last month the church was voted a UNESCO World Heritage Site and became the first ever World Heritage Site in the Palestinian Authority.
The church was old looking from the outside. I hadn't really seen a church quite like it before, but upon entering it I saw its resemblance to european cathedrals - although not as fancy. It was more simple, which I liked. Inside were a tons elaborate decorations, lamps, and chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. There was also a small open floor area where there were different mosaics to view. Straight ahead there was a large painting of Christ as well, but the most important spot in the church was underground, down a staircase. After heading down the staircase you come into a short of shrine area and on the floor there is a 14 point star marking the spot that some Christians believe Jesus was born. People kneel down and kiss the star - feeling the Lord's presence in such an important place.
And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. And the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. "And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger. Luke 2: 9-12
After exiting the church through a doorway to the side I found my self in a small courtyard. There is a
small courtyard on the side of the church with a statue where some monks and other followers were reading their Bibles in the peace of the small garden.
West Bank Security Checkpoint
Afterwards Mohammad, the taxi driver, drove me to the security checkpoint where I had to walk across. I walked up to the Berlin Wall again and headed up a small ramp to the right, which led into the first checkpoint. Only one guard is working at one of the six stations and our things were put on a conveyer belt to be scanned. After making it through that you're briefly released outside and you walk to another building where a single guard is managing one of the six stations and is ready to ask your questions, unless you're American. The Palestinian man in front of me scanned his index finger, then pulled out his permission papers to show the guard. The guard had a few more questions for him, but then he was let through. I was able to wave the cover of my passport and get through with no problem. A friend of mine in Bethlehem said he even waved a blue
notebook once when he forgot his passport and he got through.
From there I took the #24 bus to Jerusalem, which takes about 45 mins depending on traffic. As we approached the Holy City I could see the sunlight reflecting off of the golden dome of the Dome of the Rock for a moment before going into a tunnell. We came back out of the tunnell right at the Old City Walls, which were much taller than I expected. The walls made it look like a fortress rather than a city. I walked up to its walls and stepped down the stairs to enter it for the first time.
There are more photos below