Bethlehem is the city of David in the Hebrew Bible and the birthplace of Jesus in the New Testament. The religious history and architecture here is beautiful to see and experience, even for Buddhists like myself. The center of town, Manger Square, is nestled between the Christian Church of the Nativity on the east and the Muslim Mosque of Omar on the west; walking down Manger Street takes you to Rachel’s Tomb, a holy site in Judaism.
For a breathtaking panoramic view of Jerusalem, climb up the Mount of Olives. This is an important burial site, and it is said that Jesus prayed here for the last time before he was betrayed by Judas. In this Garden of Gethamane, you’ll also see some of the oldest olive trees in the world (some are over a thousand years old).
The Church of the Nativity is arguably the oldest church in the Holy Land, built by Emperor Justinian in the sixth century. When the Persians invaded in 614, they destroyed many churches but spared the Church of the Nativity, allegedly because they saw a mosaic of the Three Wise Men dressed in Persian-style clothing. The door to get in is very small, lowered about 500 years ago to keep camels, carts, and thieves out, so you have to bow in order to enter. When you walk through the separate Roman Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, and Greek Orthodox sections of the Church, you can see some of the old original mosaics and red limestone columns. Here, you’ll discover a cave where people from all over the world take turns taking selfies at what is believed to be the exact location of Jesus’ birth.
Farther south of Jerusalem and Bethlehem is Hebron, the most populated city in the West Bank. Hebron is cited in the Bible as the home of Abraham, and is an important holy site for Jews, Christians, and Muslims alike. Important figures from the Book of Genesis are buried in the Cave of the Patriarchs, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah. The stone wall protecting the sacred site, built by Herod the Great, is quite formidable to approach. Inside, marble, mosaic, wood, and stone materials mesh together in an eclectic collage of history’s scars and competing styles.
About three miles southwest of Bethlehem city center are Solomon’s Pools. These three 2,000-plus-year-old cisterns in the Artas Valley once provided water as far as Jerusalem. Today, the surrounding hills provide a popular spot to picnic, hike, and briefly step into the palimpsest of Biblical civilization.
The Monastery of the Temptation, a Greek Orthodox Christian monastery from the sixth century, hovers precariously above the city of Jericho and the Jordan Valley. Get to the top by taking the Jericho Cable Car. The Instagram-worthy 4,364-feet ride up provides a bird’s-eye view of Jericho, one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. Walking through the streets of the monastery, there is a constant aware- ness (and with that, a fear and excitement) that you are walking through a town built on a cliff. At the very top of the monastery, there is a small balcony with space for two to lean over a creaky fence and feel the wind blasting up from Judaean Desert.
The Dead Sea
If not for the religious history, old architecture, or delicious musakhan, I would still recommend visiting the West Bank to experience the oddity of floating in the Dead Sea. You may not have the opportunity forever! As Venice sinks, the Dead Sea is drying up. Human uses for the Jordan River are reducing the flow of water into the Dead Sea, while evaporation continues unabated. The Ein Gedi Spa, built along the waterline 30 years ago, now requires a trolley to transport guests to and from the beach.
There are several public beaches at the Dead Sea. From Jericho, which is currently under the governance of the Palestinian Authority, I was able to take a Palistinian taxi to Kalya Beach. While transportation to Kalya Beach is not the most reliable (check the temperature of the politics if you are considering this option), Kalya Beach is less crowded than the more popular Ein Gedi and Ein Bokek beaches (under Israeli governance). Entrance fees are 55 shekels per person. For a day trip without the risks of road blocks, take the Egged bus 486 direct from Jerusalem Central Station to Ein Gedi. Entrance to the Ein Gedi Beach is free, though lockers and towels cost a small fee. If you are interested in a longer, more relaxing stay at the Dead Sea, take Egged bus 444 to Ein Bokek Beach. Here, you can stay at the familiar Crowne Plaza Dead Sea (off-season, a standard room costs $215 USD per night, and there is a minimum stay of two nights) or the more recently renovated Isrotel Ganim ($255 per night, no minimum stay requirement). This way, during the day, you can take showers, eat at the hotel restaurant, get a massage or mud wrap at the hotel spa (I personally prefer the Esprit Spa at the Isrotel), swim in the pool, and take a nap between refreshing dips into the Dead Sea.
Because the Dead Sea is the world’s lowest point on land (1269 feet below sea level), the temperatures are generally quite warm. Before you jump in, though, be careful not to get any of the salty water in your eyes. Watching unwarned tourists dive in and scream with pain almost kept me from rubbing any of the magical mud on my face. Made up of magnesium, potassium, calcium chloride, and bromides, lather your body with the gooey mud and you’ll immediately understand why Dead Sea minerals have been exported throughout the world.
Keep a Look Out For
The West Bank is a popular destination for bird watchers, with over a billion birds riding the hot air from the Jordan valley in their annual migrations. Look up to see swallows, storks, and 540 other bird species, particularly in March and April.
Banksy, a pseudonymous graffiti artist from the UK, has painted several famous and provocative images on the 26-feet-tall concrete walls of the Israeli West Bank barrier, including an image of a girl holding onto balloons and floating up, presumably over the wall.
Taybeh beer from the only local microbrewery, The Taybeh Brewery, was started in the mid-1990s by a former University of California Davis student. The five different styles of Taybeh are severed in many restaurants and bars in the West Bansk.
Sufi shrines can be found throughout the West Bank. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation supports (www.sufitrails.ps), a non-profit that offers maps and guided tours of trails connecting the curiously abandoned Sufi stone buildings and tombs.
[Upcoming] PIVOT, a smartphone app for Palestinian travel, has just won $25,000 in funding from the Harvard Innovation Lab and will begin pilot stages soon. Depending on your GPS location, the app will allow users to look at a place through a tunnel of time in order to see exactly where the user is standing.
Thinking back to my two wonderful weeks in the West Bank, I most fondly remember this one particular gay couple that I met in Ramallah, one self-identified as Israeli and the other as Palestinean, and their Romeo and Juliet story of sneaking across military checkpoints in order to be together. To me, their love is true love, cutting across the various transections of hatred and fear. Their hope is now my hope.