Bethlehem – Church of Nativity

This post is part of my Israel travel series Scrolls from the Holy Land: Travel stories | Photo gallery

Way down in the land of Judea,
God sent to the earth a Savior, for all men
One star for the Holy Light,
Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

From Jerusalem to Bethlehem:
Bethlehem, being in Palestinian territory, is served by the Arab bus network. From the terminal near Damascus gate, bus # 21 goes directly to the stop near the church of Nativity. However, for some reason I was boarding bus # 124 probably because I asked the wrong question. Just like me, there was a couple from Mexico and a guy from Korea. Just a note: Bus 124 does go to Bethlehem, but – not to the place you wanna go. The correct question to ask is – “Which bus goes to Church of Nativity in Bethlehem?” 😉

It was too late by the time we realized that we were in the wrong bus. We found ourselves dumped at a check post in some unknown part of Bethlehem. Fortunately we met a German guy who was volunteering at the church and was passing through that place – he showed us the right way. It was a long 30 minute walk – almost felt like a pilgrimage! I was glad we took the wrong bus, how else would I have seen the real (i.e. non-touristy) Bethlehem town? But, for a non-adventurous traveller the moral of the story is – take bus #21 from Jerusalem, it costs 11 NIS and is the best way to go in my view.

Market on the path to Church of Nativity

The Church of Nativity is accessible only on foot. There IS a road, but it is lengthy and inconvenient, so most people prefer to walk (except the large tour buses). Even the bus #21 drops you at some distance away from the Manger square where the church is located. It is a pleasurable walk thru narrow alleys full of shops on either sides. The cost of goods was, in general, lower that that in Jerusalem (for example, the Jerusalem bread cost only 3.5 NIS as opposed to 5 NIS in Jerusalem). It was fun to walk thru the market, and every five minutes there was either a chapel or a mosque.

Church of Nativity:

Virgin Mary and baby Jesus in Church of Nativity

This church is one of the oldest Churches in the world that is still operational. It is built over a cave that is believed to be the birth place of Jesus Christ. This church is administered jointly by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic branches. The guidebook I used said that all the three styles are identifyable. However, I am not architecturally endowed, so it all looked the same to me. As the case of most other historical sites in Israel, this site too was built, destroyed and rebuilt over the past 1500 years. I was in Bethleham just two days before Christmas, and it was nice to see shops and houses decorated, not to mention truckloads of devotees.

Birthplace of Jesus Christ:

An array of photo frames and idols of various figures, crosses, worshiped using flowers and lighting of oil lamps. There is a marked symbol looking like Sun over which people rest their heads – touching that symbolic representation of God is very important. People push you around in the zeal to grab a quick view (darshan?) of the holy place. The place of worship itself is underground in a damp and stuffy chamber. You are supposed to clean your feet before entering. Wearing a cap is prohibited. The priest doesn’t allow you to linger there and hurriedly thrusts a bit of holy food (prasad?) on your palm before signaling you to move out.

Wait a minute – did you think that I was describing some Hindu temple? No, I wasn’t, infact I was telling you exactly how it was in the core of this Church! The lines of distinctions between religious worship are not as deep as we think, are they?

My visit to the Church of Nativity (and Israel in general) exposed me to a whole new world of Christian symbolism and iconography. In the pictures above, the star symbol was the exact place where it is believed that baby Jesus was born. Immediately after birth, the baby was lifted and placed on a manger because Joseph and Mary were too poor to afford anything luxurious. That’s the white platform in the picture.

The church is really old and is preserved in that fashion. As soon as you enter the church, there is a large open square with complex arrays of lamps hanging on either sides and all over the church in general. The walls are decaying but the golden mosaic can still be seen. The pillars, largely worn out have delicate paintings on them. The whole place gave me a very distinct feeling that I am just a tiny dot in the universe. Suddenly, I discovered that I have unknowingly joined my hands to pray.

I am glad I visited the place where Jesus Christ was born.


The Korean guy was lost and the Mexican couple was very religious, so they probably spent more time in the Churches around. There is nothing else really important in Bethlehem other than this place so I was on my way back. Meanwhile, I met this European guy while I was having some Arabic coffee in one of the shacks on streets. People were naturally curious about us and it was very entertaining to talk to them. One of the local Arab guys knew a Hindi song from the 80’s and was delighted to sing it (it took me a while to understand what he was saying!)

Salespeople! Ah, well, I missed the aggressive Indian-style sales tactics since I came to Canada last year. It was the same, same old technique that is so common in India. People will pursue you and virtually beg you to buy their stuff. As an MBA student taking ‘negotiations’ courses, all their tactics fascinate me. The little kids always seem to know what price a person is willing to pay, and they are excellent negotiators! One girl even said, ‘Your girlfriend will love it’ – they know exactly what to say (well, almost 😉 )

Manger square in Bethlehem, directly in front is the Mosque of Omar

There is an infamous ‘wall’ that separates the West Bank area from rest of Israel. Every vehicle from Palestine to Israel is stopped at the checkpoint – every passenger has to exit the vehicle, stand in a queue and get his ID’s checked by Israeli soldiers. They also check the vehicles. It seemed just another thing for the Palestinians but I was trying to imagine a similar situation in India. I think we must pause and appreciate the freedom that we enjoy regardless of our religion (in India, or the rest of the democratic nations in general), because not all the people in the world get the same.

There was a separate queue for foreigners (just the two of us). I met a soldier of Indian origin at the border checkpost and had an interesting conversation with him (will post later) .

Soon the bus navigated to Jerusalem and dropped me off at Jaffa gate – The main entrance to the old city…

And that’s going to be my next blog: Old city of Jerusalem.

Beginning composition by New hope Music

This post is part of my Israel travel series Scrolls from the Holy Land: Travel stories | Photo gallery