Palestine Weekender: A Weekend in Bethlehem

From some of the holiest places on earth to majestic historical and natural sites, there’s plenty to see and do in Bethlehem over a weekend!

Day 1: Visiting the Holiest places on Earth:

Give yourself plenty of time to take in Bethlehem’s world renowned religious sites. Start your day by visiting the Church of the Nativity, the oldest church in the Holy Land still in use, touring the Basilica, the Grotto and the adjacent St. Catherine’s Church. Located just southeast of the Basilica, is the Milk Grotto, which is according to tradition, is the place where Mother Mary nursed baby Jesus while hiding from Herod’s soldiers before fleeing to Egypt. It is an irregular Grotto hewn out of soft white rock. It is believed that some drops of Mary’s milk trickled, turning the rock white.

Right across the Manger Square, the vast esplanade in front of the Church of the Nativity, you will find the Mosque of Omar. The mosque was built in honour of the second Caliph, Omar Ibn al-Khattab, a companion of the Prophet Mohammed and his father-in-law, he entered Bethlehem after taking Jerusalem and prayed in the southern aisle of the Basilica of the Nativity. However, he guaranteed that the Basilica would remain a Christian place of worship in the Pact of Omar, which stipulated that Muslims would be allowed to pray here only individually and which prohibited calling for prayer (al-Adan) from the church walls.

After that you can enjoy free time touring the manger Square, shopping or taking a break at one of the many surrounding restaurants and cafes.

In the afternoon you can stroll down to nearby Beit Sahour town renowned for the Shepherds’ Field, the spot where angels appeared to a group of shepherds “keeping watch over their flock” and announced the birth of Jesus. There are two points of interest here: a Franciscan chapel, and a Greek Orthodox Church that was built over a cave in the fifth century. While in the town, be sure to ask about the Beit Sahour Municipality Folklore Museum and visit the Virgin Mary’s Well and Chapel, known locally as Beer Al Seeda.

Day 2: Exploring the old town and the Bethlehemites:  

Begin your day by exploring the Old City Streets walking along Star Street and Al-Madbasseh Street with their abundance of shops, cafes, and cultural centers. In the core of the Old City you will find the Green Market (Old Souq) existed since 1929 on the square opposite the Syrian Orthodox Church. Tradesmen and farmers from the Bethlehem area and even Hebron come here to sell their fresh produce. This picturesque spot was renovated in 1999 as part of the Bethlehem 2000 project.

Take in one of the many museums and cultural heritage centers in the city. Visit a folklore museum and see a noteworthy collection of costumes, household items, and artifacts portraying Palestinian daily life and customs. Here are some of the Museums and Cultural Centers:

Al Bad Museum: this 18th century olive press at al-Najajra Street is now a museum exhibiting the traditional olive pressing system (Al-Bad) for olive oil production used as early times as early centuries AD and is a reminder of the all-importance of the olive tree in the life of Bethlehem and of Palestine as a whole.

Just off Manger Street you will find Baituna Al Talhami Museum (Arab Women’s Union Museum). This is a typical Bethlehem house exhibiting folkloric and ethnographic objects. In this museum you will find recreated a diwan (a traditional living room) and displays of traditional clothing, jewelry, old photos, and personal items from the British Mandate era. A tour of the museum offers a taste of the gracious refinement Palestinian families enjoyed in the pre-1948 era.

Located in the ground floor of the historical Salesian convent (walkable distance from the Nativity Church), the International Nativity Museum of Bethlehem is the house of one of the richest and valuable collections of cribs in the Holy Land. The Museum has a collection of over 200 Nativity representations of different styles and dimensions. The variety of the cribs exposed, originating from all around the world, creates a rhapsody of customs, liturgy and rituality from all continents and ethnic groups.

At the northern entry to Bethlehem, the Palestinian Heritage Center has a small museum (one may try on traditional Palestinian clothing), and a gift shop with extremely beautiful embroidery work, among other products. The proprietress, who is an embroidery expert, will gladly present her collection.

Day 3: “Bethlehem is a little town, yet it is rich in its surroundings!”

It is advisable on that day to hire a car or take a taxi…

You can start your day from the hilly town of Beit Jala. Approximately two kilometers west of Bethlehem, Beit Jala is a town set among olive groves and vineyards with stunning stonemasonry and a spectacular view of Jerusalem. One of the most important sights that you should visit in Beit Jala is the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, established in 1925 and named for the patron saint of Beit Jala. Afterwards, drive to the nearby Cremisan Monastery and sample the famous wines produced by the Salesian monks.

From there, head southwards towards St. George’s Church – Al-Khader, which was built in 1600 AD and rebuilt in 1912. The pilgrimage is in honor of Saint George (in Arabic al-Khader), the soldier monk who slew the dragon; he is venerated for being able to ward off the evil eye. Islamic tradition has it that he left his native Lydda, where he was born, and settled here in this village which bears his name. Muslims and Christians come together annually on this day to celebrate their common protector, to whom many different blessings are attributed. Saint George is also the patron saint of farmers, travelers and the mentally sick.

Few kilometers east hidden among very tall pine trees in a small valley, Solomon’s Pools consist of three huge rectangular reservoirs of stone and masonry that can hold 160.000 cubic meters of water. Although tradition attributes these to King Solomon, the pools almost certainly date from the time of Herod, and may have been conceived by Pontius Pilate. In the past, the reservoirs collected spring and rainwater and pumped it to Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

Qalat al-Burak, an Ottoman fortress dating back to the 17th century is located near the pools. The fortress was built to protect Solomon’s Pools water source.

From the Pools you can run into Artas village set in a valley which represents a fine example of the fertility of Palestinian valleys. Its ideal landscape calls to mind the paradise lost, said to have been King Solomon’s garden, which was said to have inspired The Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon, in the Old Testament “A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse. A spring shut up, a fountain sealed. Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits;” (Song of Solomon 4:12-13). The name Artas, more recent, is derived from the Latin hortus, or “garden”. Nowadays, the Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Garden and the Convent Hortus Conclusus symbolically associate the image of Mary with her virginity and fertility.

Located just above the mosque, is The Artas Folklore Centre which was created to preserve the local rural heritage and contributes to the preservation of customs and traditional practices, by producing documents on Palestinian culture and collecting archives. The Palestinian Ethnographic Centre (museum) is a fascinating part of the project. It is responsible for several old houses, recently renovated, on a site inhabited for thousands of years. In addition to a tour of the homes and museum, the Centre will also serve a traditional Palestinian meal and organize an evening with folk music and dancing (for a minimum of 10 people).

6km southeast of Bethlehem, you will gaze upon a hill shaped like a truncated cone known as Herodion or Al Furdes in Arabic. On top of the hill, a fortress was built by King Herod for his wife in 37 BC and includes the remains of a huge palace. The palace contained luxurious, round walled buildings, fortified chambers, and baths and terraced gardens. Fort Herodion hill dominates the landscape and offers an impressive view of the Dead Sea.

To the north of Herodion is St. Theodosius Monastery built by Theodosius in 500 AD. The monastery is located east of the historic village of Ubediyyeh 12km east of Bethlehem. A white-walled cave marks the burial site of St. Theodosius. Tradition has it that the wise men rested here after God warned them in a dream that they should not return to Herod.

A drive east of about 2 kilometers down a winding road will take you to the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Mar Saba. Built into a cliff, it has a spectacular view overlooking the gorge of the Kidron Valley and was part of the grand tour of Palestine during the 19th century. The founder, St. Saba, came from Cappadocia in the fifth century. There are legends about St. Saba having lived in a cave with a lion for many years. St. Saba died at age 94, and his corpse is still preserved in the Church at the monastery. The monastery has 110 rooms, though today there are only a few monks residing in it. The monks are friendly and hospitable, but long-established tradition prevents the entry of women, who must enjoy the scenery from outside.

Indulgence

Local Souvenir Shops: Be sure to visit some of the city’s celebrated souvenir shops. Buy unique handcrafted souvenirs made locally from olive wood, mother-of-pearl, and traditional Palestinian embroidery.

Cuisine: Treat yourself to Bethlehem’s legendary cuisine by sampling a wide variety of local delicacies like hummus, falafel, grilled lamb and assorted mezzas. Enjoy an evening in one of the city’s exquisite restaurants featuring folk dancing and singing.

Optional:

Hiking and Nature Tours: Take a hiking tour in the Bethlehem wilderness or a casual walk through the nearby countryside.

For more information and directions one can visit one of the two information centers located on Manger Square – the Bethlehem Peace Center and the Visitor Information Center

Posted on September 19, 2011, in Uncategorized, What to Do, Where to Stay. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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