People were not very willing to give us information about regular public transport when we were trying to make our way to West Bank without booking a tourist tour. [West Bank is a territory east of Israel, bordering with Jordan, defined as illegally occupied Palestinian land.] Nevertheless, after following a vague instruction to walk down to the main street and wait for a bus, we magically got the right one. Bethlehem, here we come.
Getting in wasn’t very difficult. Being a part of the public transport, no-one really paid attention. We were meant to notice the ‘border’ on the way back. So we happily stepped out of the bus and roamed around. Our first place to visit was a regular Muslim mosque, just out of curiosity. We took off the shoes, I wrapped my hair, head, face and shoulders into a scarf and then we got separated. Women into a small room on the side with few books and a window. Men into the main hall, as I got to know afterwards, with a big green wall facing to the East and five timers ticking off for the prayers. A carpet on the floor was crossed by lines marking the spots for kneeling down. Here, in the small town, anyone can visit a mosque. They don’t mind what’s your original religion.
Just across the street, the Church of the Nativity covers all of the Manger Square. This is the site believed to be Jesus’s birthplace. There’s only a tiny door (1.2m high) on the left-hand side of the massive building. This has a reason, or two. Historically, it was to prevent the looters from driving their carts in. Religiously, it is only appropriate to bow down when you enter a place where God became a human. Once you’re in, the church opens up into a generous space with high ceilings and deep underground. Underneath the main altar, two staircases on either side lead into a crypt where the Grotto of the Nativity is placed. Meaning, the exact spot where Jesus was born, marked by the 14-pointed silver star. Behold, Christians. The church complex became the first Palestinian site to be listed in UNESCO, in 2012.
Bit further south, the Chapel of the Milk Grotto can be found. A small cave-like chapel is believed to serve as a refuge for the Holy family during the Massacre of the Innocents. A drop of the milk of the Virgin Mary fell upon the stone and turned it white while breastfeeding baby Jesus. The legend says, if a woman touches the stone, she will become pregnant in the upcoming year. Be careful, girls. And boys. There’s a way up the stairs with a nice rooftop view over the small town of Bethlehem.
It can easily become a nice one-day trip from Jerusalem. Unfortunately, it wasn’t enough for us, we longed for more. After a little struggle, we found a bus station, which is huge, to be honest, but underground. We walked by a couple of times before realising this is it. We bargained a good price for a sherut and proudly sat in without being quite sure where will they take us. As English is not a popular language in this part of the world, anymore.
‘Is this Jericho?’ -Ariha. -Jericho? -Ariha. The man shaking his head frantically in the signage of ‘yes’, or so we understood. Knowing back in the day that Ariha is the Arabic name for the same town, we would be happier. Like this, we were only confused and get off the taxi of the gradually angrier and angrier driver in the middle of- well, a parking lot. But that parking lot stood lonely in a desert-like environment missing any town or city anywhere close by. That’s where we were, around five o’clock in the afternoon with the Sun high above our heads. Long live wanderlust. This is where you got us.
Believe it or not, this was Jericho. We only came a little bit late. Everything that’s left of the oldest inhabited town on earth mentioned in the Old Testament is turned into a tourist attraction and thus closed down by five o’clock. We didn’t get to see the ruins of Tell es-Sultan from the ground. However, we got lucky enough to catch the last cable car, which runs up to the monastery on the top of the Mount of Temptation and therefore could admire everything from the bird’s eye view. Together with us, the full bus of school kids caught the same cable car. Which was fine until the point they started to run after us, encircled us and demanded cigarettes 🙂 Teachers clearly couldn’t keep up. Walking up the to monastery on the edge of the rock wall is quite epic by itself and we even got it with the sunset. There’s even a little bar up there. It got a bit windy meanwhile, which means they were not sure when can the cable car take us down, so we surrendered and ordered some drinks. What else we could do 😉
Here comes the legendary departure. We made it down the Mount of Temptation around nine o’clock in the evening. A young Israeli woman who sat in the cable car with us, offered us to share a taxi, so we could make it into the actual town of Jericho. The one that still exists, has roads, shops, people and traffic. Yes, we had no idea. Stupid tourists, so they say. But what then? All of a sudden we were in the middle of honking and speeding cars left by the side of the roundabout. We tried to talk to a couple of drivers but it was of no use. We concluded that our best bet is to talk to police officers strolling the streets.
How can we get to Jerusalem? They were actually quite helpful, advised us about buses and then uttered a memorable sentence: ‘All roads lead to Jerusalem, my friends. Not Rome, Jerusalem.’ Encouraged we hopped on the bus and arrived at the a-Za’ayem checkpoint, crossing point in the Separation Barrier between West Bank and Jerusalem, or better to say between Palestine and Israel. The bus couldn’t continue further because it had a Palestinian licence plate. Gigantic double wall with barbed wire on top mounted in front of us. How do we get on the other side? A small boy, maybe of age ten, noticed our disorientation and gestured us towards the green fenced corridor, wide only for one person. Obediently we walked in and came to a proper police check where all the bags and clothes were examined. Of course, men and women separately. So I could only hope that we’re gonna meet on the other side. After flicking through my brand new passport (I specifically got it for this trip), they let me pass. There we met again and easily got a bus to the centre of Jerusalem. And so we made it back, slightly before midnight, quite relieved. That was it, our epic trip to West Bank.
what animals did you see on the Mount of Temptation?? [Mark 1:13]