My last trip abroad before Covid hit was another Christmas spent in the Middle East, using East Jerusalem as our base, we travelled around Israel and Palestine both independently and with guided tours.
Our first trip was a full day booked with Abraham tours, leaving by the old Jaffa gates of Jerusalem. It wasn’t long before the separation wall came into view, with evidence of recent tension and fighting becoming apparent, with abandoned buildings and barbed wire taking over the view from the well paved roads and souvenir shops. Once we had officially passed into Palestine, our guide jumped on board, as he wasn’t allowed into Jerusalem without paperwork, our first experience of the many restrictions facing the people of this torn land.
We alighted the coach on arrival into Ramallah, a place I had only really heard of via news reports I am sad to say, but now is a bustling, busy city. The main business and cultural capital of Palestine, full of coffee shops, offices, and people rushing past to get to their next destination, all the while I was still very aware of the concrete wall that now surrounded us.
Although Ramallah is a predominantly an Islamic city, historically it was Christian, and so being a few days before December 25th, it was no surprise to see a Christmas tree erected in the centre of the city. We had time to explore around Al Manara Sq and saw the infamous Star and Bucks, as well as many Palestinian flags proudly flying in the cool winter sunshine.
Our next stop was just outside the city centre, to the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat’s mausoleum. A temporary resting place, Arafat actually wanted to be buried in East Jerusalem, but of course like the rest of the Palestinians, alive or not, he’s not allowed to cross beyond the separation wall. The area comprises quite a minimalist, simple white building of glass and stone, with water on three sides and although not visible, there’s an underground rail track, ready to take him to his final resting place at some point in the probably far distant future.
Jericho is one of the oldest continually inhabited places in the world, and was about an hours drive, through the Judean desert from Ramallah. The sign that welcomes you to the oldest part of the city, states that there has been a settlement here for around 10,000 years, making it an incredibly important site where historians can learn about the first group of humans that settled in a one place and made the move away from being nomadic hunters.
As well as being the oldest, it is also the lowest city in the world as it is situated so close to the Dead Sea, so it’s no surprise this place should be on everyone’s itinerary who visits this area. Our tour avoided the more modern centre, concentrating on the excavated ruins of the ancient city, including Hishams Palace, one of the Desert Castles found across the Middle East. It really was other worldly wandering around the dusty, sandy walled remains, with the Judean mountains towering in the background, it really felt a special place, even if I couldn’t quite comprehend how it must have looked all those thousands of years ago.
As lunchtime was approaching we headed down to the River Jordan, which also acts as the border with Jordan itself, and the previous year we had been on the other side as we spent Christmas in Amman. As the people on our tour excitedly visited the baptism site of Jesus and looked on as pilgrims got blessed in the river, mother and I grabbed a drink, found some shade and investigated the souvenir shop, There were a lot of soldiers on this side of the river border and lots of religious tourists in white robes queuing up to go in the river, I remember it feeling much more peaceful and calmer on the Jordanian side, but I’m happy I got to experience it from both countries.
One of the things I loved about travelling in this part of the world was the incredible history, literally everywhere you went. For example, the countryside views surrounding the cafe where we stopped for lunch was said to be where the story of the 3 Wise Men took place, as in was in the adjacent fields where they saw the Star of Bethlehem in the clear night sky as they hiked on their way to Jerusalem.
Our final stop on this particular tour was back close to the ‘border’ and a place that must have changed beyond all recognition from biblical times, Bethlehem. It’s a place swarming with pilgrims just like Jerusalem is and if you have any passing interest in history, then this place must be on your to do list. The main draw is the Church of the Nativity, Jesus was born in a grotto on this spot and the church itself was built over the top, and as a result it’s one of the holiest spots for the Christian religion. It’s such an important site to the Christian community, but because the religion itself is split into many different denominations, this church is one of a handful of buildings shared between different Christian communities, with the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Catholics all sharing various parts together.
As it was only a few days from December 25th, the church was decorated and packed full of pilgrims from all over the world, often wearing T-shirts with their particular church logo’s on, all of them queuing up to see the exact spot where Jesus was born.
Although I love a religious building of any kind, I don’t class myself a follower of any, plus we didn’t have time on the tour to queue for what would have been probably an hour for a quick 20 second peek at the site of his birth inside the dark grotto. But our tour guide took us ’round the back’ down into the cave to explore from the other side, so I feel we still got the same experience, but with less crowds anyway.
The church itself was quite plain, with the exception of Christmas baubles and ornate incense burners hanging from above, red limestone pillars along the sides and various fresco’s partly uncovered on the walls, but of course, the decor isn’t why you visit. There is another church just off to the side, actually sharing a wall with the Nativity Church, called Church of St Catherine of Alexandria and it is here where the televised service from Bethlehem is filmed every year. After visiting both churches, we had a brief explore around Nativity Square where a large Christmas tree had been erected, and the whole area was in the midst of getting ready for the crowds of worshippers who would be visiting on Christmas Eve, so we planned to return later on our trip at our leisure.
Before returning to Jerusalem, we had a walk along part of the separation wall, which is only a short distance from the heart of Bethlehem. Graffiti from famous international artists cover large swathes of the wall and we successfully spotted a few Bankys’, all the while being aware of the imposing watch towers looming overhead.
It was then back to the bus for our return to Jerusalem, but for an introduction to Palestine and the region as a whole, it was outstanding, it was an experience I feel incredibly privileged to have had and the memories will stay with me forever.
We were to return a few days later, venturing back past the wall under our own steam, for a completely different adventure . . . .