By Dee Dee McNeil
The breeze was balmy and the sky clear and we disembarked from our cruise ship to begin our tour to the Bethlehem a city built on 21 hills.
“We are going to experience today the impossible to the possible,” our tour guide proclaimed. “If you think you can see all of Jerusalem and Bethlehem in one day; impossible! Jerusalem alone would take at least three days.”
“We are leaving the Port of Ashdod here,” he said as his finger outlined the coastal spot on the Mediterranean Sea where our ship was docked. “And we are going to travel up and follow the path that Jesus walked. We’re going up to Bethlehem.” He spoke with a heavy Yiddish accent and I had to pay attention to understand.
The city of Ashdod, with a population of 200,000 people, is a stone’s throw from the border of Egypt and one of Israel’s most important commercial ports. We were headed inland to Jerusalem, which is recognized by only two countries—Guatemala and El Salvador—as the controversial capital of Israel. Bethlehem is located on the Southeastern outskirts of the city and is controlled by the Palestinian National Authority.
“Up ahead, there is a very small check point. Because we are now entering a Palestinian area”, our tour guide explained as the traffic suddenly slowed ahead of us. “In 2000, it was completely open and free; but no more because of terrorist activity.”
Graffiti sprayed on the walls next to the checkpoint screamed out protest and liberation slogans.
Of course, I was eager to see the site believed to be the original birthplace of Jesus Christ in 530 A.D. at the Church of the Nativity, but I was shocked when our tour bus was boarded by Israeli soldiers at the check point between the Israeli and Palestinian sides of this country.
After finally arriving in Bethlehem, we were immediately accosted by street vendors selling fez hats and purses, jewelry, Arabian headdresses and more. Undeterred, I waded into the fray and bought a black and white checkered headdress with the black rope that secures it to your head.
“Five Shekels,” one shouts. Another whispered in my ear “For you, four Shekels.”
The streets of Bethlehem are steep, narrow, and lined with shops and packed with tourists. Though I wore comfortable walking shoes, the cobblestone streets were tricky to navigate. On this day the tiny town of Bethlehem (it’s population is around 30,000) was forced to accommodate nearly 50,000 people.
Women were instructed to cover their shoulders and heads before entering the church. Photos were permitted inside, unlike at the checkpoint where we were warned we would be arrested if we took photos of the Israeli border patrol guards.
This church is divided into three Christian sects. The Greek Orthodox sect is the strongest. Their priests wear long black robes and fez-like black hats and are bearded and very stern looking.
There are plenty of paintings depicting Jesus as a Black man on the church walls, while others depict him as Latino or a blond-haired European.
Only about one-third of Bethlehem’s population remains Christian and less than two percent of Christians live in the overall Palestinian territories.
Bethlehem is amazing and a place I would recommend to anyone looking to walk in the paths where Jesus once walked.