This is the third article in a four-part series on Rick's recent trip to the Holy Land.
Lots of tourists go to the Palestinian territories, but I'd estimate a vast majority of them do it in a rush from Jerusalem to Bethlehem just to see the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, abut six miles south of Jerusalem. They then return directly without spending a single shekel in restaurants or hotels in the West Bank. Obviously, there's much more to experience there.
If you come, you'll find that Bethlehem is no longer just the "little town" of Christmas carol fame. It's a leading Palestinian city -- the city sprawls and is almost indiscernible from greater Jerusalem. It's not a pretty town; most homes and businesses stand behind security walls and fences.
But Bethlehem has a special energy and a very cool Arabic vibe, especially in the early evening. The Arab market is colorful. And the skyline is a commotion of crescents and crosses -- a reminder that the town, while almost totally Arab, remains a mix of Muslims and Christians.
Not all Arabs are Muslims, a fact that surprises some. When meeting an Arab Christian, many Western tourists ask when the family converted. The answer is usually, "About 2,000 years ago, back when Jesus' disciples were doing missionary work around here."
Another surprise is on Bethlehem's main square. For more than a hundred years, the Mosque of Omar has shared Manger Square with the Church of the Nativity. Jesus and Mary are both a big deal for Muslims. I had a joyous interview with an imam after filming a prayer service in his mosque. He explained, "Bethlehem is holy for Muslims, as well as Christians. For Muslims, Jesus is a major prophet. We also revere Mother Mary. In fact, an entire chapter in the Quran is named for her." We sat cross-legged on the carpet of his mosque for an interview. I asked him to let me hear how he talks to God (but in English) and his prayer literally brought me to tears. As we hugged, I could feel the pull of Islam.
Across the square in the Church of the Nativity, Christian pilgrims waited to touch, kiss and pray upon the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born. In A.D. 326, Roman Emperor Constantine sent his mother, St. Helena, to establish three churches in the Holy Land: Church of the Nativity, Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where Jesus is believed to have been crucified), and one on the Mount of Olives (where Jesus is thought to have ascended into heaven). Today, Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity is oldest because the others were destroyed, then rebuilt. It is regarded as the oldest Christian church in daily use.
While our image of "no room at the inn" is brick and wood, the "inn" of Bible fame was very likely a series of caves. And "no room" likely meant that a woman about to give birth would not be welcome in the main quarters, as birth (like menstruation) was considered an unclean thing. Mary was sent out to give birth to Jesus in the manger cave, where the animals hung out.
So a cavern beneath the church -- the Grotto of the Nativity -- is the focal point of your visit. You take the steps by the church altar down into what's been regarded since the second century as the site of Christ's birth. A silver star in the floor marks the spot.
I'm glad when visiting Bethlehem I didn't just blitz in for a quickie from Jerusalem. After a couple of days, I was really impressed by how much fun it was to simply be there. There's a resilience, a welcoming spirit and a warmth that is striking. While I didn't see many Americans overnighting it (except for a few Christian and political tour groups), everywhere we went, we'd hear, over and over, "Welcome to Palestine." It was as if people just were thrilled they had a name for their country ... and someone from the outside was here to see it.
Next: Visiting the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
(Rick Steves (http://www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. For an extensive and behind-the-scenes look at his recent travels and TV shoot in Israel and Palestine, see his blog on Facebook.)
(c)2013 RICK STEVES DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, LLC.