Sites for Catholics to visit in Bethlehem

It is very easy to cross from Jerusalem in Israel to Bethlehem in Palestine. We took a bus in front of the Damascus Gate in the center of Jerusalem. Buses run frequently and are quite economical. There are two routes, one that takes you to the West Bank border and another that takes you to the center of Bethlehem. Be sure to take the second route. This bus is only for tourists and Palestinians, since the Israelites are prohibited from entering Palestine.

When we arrived there were many taxi drivers waiting for tourists. They offer tours in Bethlehem but it is just transportation service because they don’t know the history very well. The sites are separated (if you want to go to the West Bank wall and the Field of the Shepherds) and since we did not have much time, we decided that it was better to be driven. That same day we had to take a bus from Jerusalem to Eilat in the Red Sea and then cross from Israel to Aqaba in Jordan.

Since we were 3 people, the tour came out very cheap. We paid less than $15 per person and when we finished he took us directly to the border. We took the opportunity to see the Banksy Hotel and the West Bank Wall before returning.

If you take the bus from the center it takes longer since they check the Palestinians who want to enter Israel. Remember that Palestine is another country and you must carry your passport for border control. Like Israel, Palestine does not seal your passport.

The Field of the Shepherds in Bethlehem

The first stop was the Field of the Shepherds that is two kilometers away in the Beit Sahur area southeast of Bethlehem.

You can see the excavation done by archaeologists in the Field of the Shepherds that show that there have been churches and monasteries in the area since before the fourth century. It is not known exactly where the actual site was and there are three possible options.

The shepherds looked after their sheep in this area using caves as shelter. According to the Gospel of Luke, in this field, the angels announced to the shepherds for the first time the birth of Christ.

The Chapel of the Field of the Shepherds marks the site where it is believed to have happened, according to Catholic tradition. The chapel was built by the Franciscans in 1953 near the ruins of an ancient monastery of the fifth century. The architect A. Barluzzi decorated it with images of the announcement to the shepherds and the childhood of Jesus.

It has a natural cave where the shepherds met. Inside the cave a small church has been built that is still in use.

There are two rival sites in the same location, one run by the Franciscans and the other by the Greek Orthodox Church. The same dispute happens in the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth. The Greek church is 600 meters north of the Franciscan church. It includes a cave from the fourth century and has three apses with remains of mosaic and ancient frescoes. This church is the only one outside Jerusalem that has survived intact since the fifth century.

To the east there is a Protestant church that includes caves with ceramic remains.

Church of the Nativity

Contrary to popular perception, Bethlehem is a very touristy place. Most tourists are pilgrims who ride large buses. They are the type of tourist that monopolizes the whole place and makes it difficult for those who do not go in their group. If you want to go to the Church of the Nativity, I recommend that you go in the morning or at the end of the afternoon when the groups have left (unless you are one of them).

We went around 1 p.m. and it was impossible to enter the place where Jesus was supposedly born. We were given a chance to enter and be able to see the rest of the church, but the typical thing is to enter the line to go to the cave.

This church is under renovation as it has leaks and is on the UNESCO List of Endangered Heritage. It was the first site in Palestine to be declared a World Heritage Site. The vote was given in secret in 2012 because of the objection of the United States and Israel.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was built in 327 by Constantine the Great and his mother Helena over the cave where Jesus was born. The church was burned by a fire in the sixth century and in 565, the Byzantine emperor built a new basilica, restoring the architectural tone of the original. Over time the church continued to be remodeled including its bell towers.

Grotto of the Milk

In West Bank there is also the Milk Grotto. This Catholic chapel was built by the Franciscans in 1872 on the site of a fifth-century Byzantine church. Only a few mosaics remain on the floor of this first church.

History says that this was the place where the Holy Family found refuge during the “slaughter of the innocent”, before they could flee to Egypt. The name of the place is given the story because a “drop of milk” of the Virgin Mary fell on the floor of the cave and changed its color to white.

Catholic couples who have problems conceiving a child visit this site with hopes of getting pregnant. It is also visited by new mothers. Both buy soft white chalk from the cave and mix it with their food to increase the chance of conceiving or the amount of milk.

Blessings Gift Shop in Bethlehem

It is worth taking a souvenir from Bethlehem and the best place to buy it is at Blessings Gift Shop. This shop is also a factory where they carve olive wood. Outside the store were some camels smoking a pipe and another drinking a bottle of water.

The wood of the shop comes only from pruned trees, no tree is cut or damaged. Trees over 150 years are pruned every year so that more branches grow and produce more olives. Olive trees are native to the Holy Land and have been cultivated for more than 6000 years. The older the olive tree, the darker the color of the wood, and the younger the olive tree, the lighter the color.

I went before Christmas, so I bought a small manger made of wood. In that street there are several shops that sell souvenirs and I took the opportunity to buy my Palestine magnets. You can climb to the roof of the factory and see a panoramic view of Bethlehem.

Be sure to include a full day to tour Bethlehem. You can stay in a hotel in Palestine or in a hotel in Jerusalem. If you have enough time you can walk to all the tourist sites, but be sure to go in sneakers.

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