Israel 2010- Day 5- The West Bank (Hebron, Mar Saba & Bethlehem)

I met day five of my trip with much nervous anticipation. Using a tour guide I’d heard about on The Amateur Traveler Podcast (the podcast that had inspired so much of this trip), I was going to take a tour of three sites in the West Bank, the Palestinian occupied territories just to the South and East of Jerusalem. My guide, Sam, met me at the Jaffa Gate a little before 9 A.M. and we headed out of Jerusalem in Sam’s personal car. I’d wondered what it would be like exiting Israel proper, but the checkpoint turned out to be very uneventful. Sam obviously knew the soldiers manning the checkpoint, all we did was slow down and give a wave and we were off into the baking Judean Desert. 

Our first stop was at the Mar Saba Monastery. My original plan, as suggested by Sam, was to visit Herodium, King Herod’s mountain-like fortress, and Bethlehem. This is what he did with most of the people he took to the Southern part of the West Bank. After doing a lot of reading, I’d agreed to pay more to be able to visit Hebron and Mar Saba. It was hard to find information about visiting Mar Saba, and reading what I had been able to find, it was clear that having a private driver was the only reasonable way to be able make it out there.

It wasn’t the readings about Mar Saba that had peaked my interest, it had been the dramatic photographs of the monastery, clinging dramatically to the cliff side bordering the Kidron Valley. The site, which is reported to be resting place of the bones of St. Saba, the reclusive monk who first established the monastery in 483 A.D. As advertised, it is an incredible sight, seeing those building perched in such away that it looks like they are hanging right from the cliff side. Unfortunately for me, the monk who we encountered at the entrance was one Sam had some experience, and as he had predicted, we were denied entry to the actual monastery. The excuse that we were given was that the monk who gave the tours was resting at the time. I was disappointed to not see the inside, but I was still glad to have visited.

We headed Southward toward Hebron, passing Herodium on the way. I had yet to travel the countryside of Israel, but I could tell just from my experience in Jerusalem, that the West Bank was different than what I would see. It was obvious that the people here were much poorer and engaged in much more traditional lifestyles than most Israelis. Even though they were in one of the longest periods of peace in recent memory, the tourist infrastructure, outside of Bethlehem, was almost non-existent.

We reached Hebron shortly before 11 A.M., and headed straight for the Tomb of the Patriarchs. The drive through Hebron was quite an experience. It looked a lot like what I would expect the rest of the Middle East to look like. As I would learn in the following weeks, it resembled the rest of Israel very little.

I considered myself very lucky to be visiting Hebron at all. Five years earlier, when my parents visited Israel, they almost weren’t able to visit Bethlehem- the thought of going to Hebron was out of the question. Few places are as contentious as Hebron, even in a divided country like Israel. The Tomb of the Patriarchs that I was visiting had itself been the sight of a massacre, when, in 1994 a settler from a nearby Israeli settlement opened fire on a crowd of worshiping Muslims, killing 29 and wounding scores more. Since then, the building has been divided, with both Muslims and Jews having a viewpoints at which to see the centopaths of Abraham and Sarah. 

Abraham’s Centopath

We first visited the Muslim side, which is ornate and beautifully decorated. I was particularily impressed with the lavish rugs. The Muslim side contained the centopaths of Issac and Rebecca.

I then visited the Jewish side, which seemed to be more of an after thought, mostly a courtyard and area for studying the Torah, as well as the centopaths of Jacob and Leah. Both sides has the type of security I had expected to see in such a contested site. 

Entrance to Refugee Camp outside Bethlehem

Heading north toward Bethlehem, I was able to see more of what I had expected to see while visiting the Palestinian Territories- large, fenced in areas- both refugee camps for the displaces Palestinians, as well as heavily guarded Jewish settlements, which the Palestinians and much of the international community consider to be illegal. The more hardline Jews see these as essential, while many see them as a direct provocation and the biggest roadblock to a lasting peace.  

Our next stop was at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. As expected, the crowds here were enormous and very diverse. I counted at least 10 different languages being spoken just in the courtyard leading in to the church. The Church itself was very old, and had much the same feel that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem did, a very old, very holy & venerated place. 

The main attraction is, of course, the Grotto of the Nativity, said to be built on the spot Jesus was born. The line to view the grotto was long, but Sam used his connections to take us down the back way. It was touching to watch the reactions of the people as they approached the silver star below the altar, marking the precise location of Jesus’ birth. Many bet and kissed it, other burst into tears, and almost all said a prayer while viewing it. The magnitude of the sight was simply overwhelming for me.

Next door to the Church of the Nativity is the modern Gothic Church of St. Catherine, which is a beautiful Roman Catholic Church, as well as the place where most of the Christmas services that are show on TV around the world from Bethlehem are broadcast. The church is also home to some impressive artwork, stained glass and the famous Bas-Relief of the Tree of Jesse. 

The grotto below the church is a memorial to the spot where St. Jerome first translated the Bible into English.

Our final stop of the day was a short distance outside Bethlehem, The Shepherd’s Fields. This is the site where the magnitude of angles appeared to the shepherds and announced the birth of Jesus. It is quite a touristy place now, which makes it hard to get a real feel of what that night must have been like. There is a chapel, which is light and airy, and contains paintings of the biblical telling of the story. 

The site is also an impressive archeological site, which is lost a bit in the tourist aura of the grounds. 
The overlook did offer a view of the electrified fence that separates Israel from the Palestinian Territories. Sam explained to me how the fence, placed where it was in the middle of the field, separated some Palestinian herders from the fields they needed to use to graze their flocks.

I enjoyed my tour. Sam was an amazingly knowledgeable guide, who I would recommend to anyone. I can’t imagine having been to Israel and not seeing what is on the other side of the fence.

I’ll leave you with a video if Mar Saba.

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