If Mary and Joseph were to arrive in Bethlehem late at night to find all the local hotels full in 2005, Jesus would more likely have been born in the corner of a stone building or plaza.
Manger Square is a tiled acre with no mangers and no animals in sight. The rest of the town is slogan-painted almost white stone. Off to one side of the square is the Church of the Nativity, entered by the so-called Door of Humility, which requires one to stoop low to enter. (The door was blocked off in the 16th-century to keep the Ottomans from riding their horses into the church.)
The place where Jesus is revered to have been born is a white marble grotto lit by 53 lamps.
Today, it isn't Ottoman conquerors, but the nine-metre wall being erected by Israel that causes grief in and around Bethlehem.
It's just eight kilometers north to Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives. And if you head further north to Nablus (the ancient site of Shechem), you follow pretty much what was the old Roman road to Nazareth — the one Jesus would have used on his journeys from home to Jerusalem.
On the way, rounding yet another tight bend in the road, bright blue plastic barrels amid verdant green are startling. Rusty old brown barrels come into focus, making it seem as if perhaps this particular stretch is a garbage dump. Then, all of a sudden, little branches reaching up out of the barrels can be seen. Aha! These are young olive trees being nurtured by Palestinian farmers.
Olives and lemons are among the most important crops for Palestinians.
For travellers who want to experience life in Palestine, one of the best ways is to arrange a trip trough Sabeel, a self-described "ecumenical grassroots liberation movement among Palestinian Christians."
Founded in 1992, Sabeel has played an important role in highlighting the difficulties Christians in Palestine have faced during the Israeli occupation. Less well known is their ability to put together travel programs for visitors. And while their literature sometimes lacks nuance, the guides they provide are well-balanced in their commentary and knowledge of the complex history and contemporary difficulties that exist between Israel and Palestinian Arabs.
Sabeel can also arrange for tourists to visit and even share a meal with a Palestinian family. Arab hospitality is famous and it's best to be on the hungry side before such an occasion.
For more information, contact [email protected].