Here’s a big surprise–the Israelis and Palestinians are squabbling over land rights in Jerusalem again.
Archaeologists have cleared an ancient passageway they believe was a drainage tunnel leading away from the Second Temple, the Jewish holy spot destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. The Canadian Press reports the tunnel runs from the Temple Mount, now the site of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, 2,000 feet under the Old City and into the Palestinian neighborhood of Silwan.
The controversy centers around the dig’s sponsors, the Elad Association. Not only do they fund excavations of Jewish sites, but they also move Jewish families into Silwan. Locals have cried foul and say the dig is politically motivated, that what the archaeologists are really trying to do is make a connection with the Jewish temple and Silwan as a justification for moving the Palestinians out. Archaeology quickly gets political in a land where the past justifies the present. As I discussed in my article Two Tours, Two Jerusalems, residents of this city can look at the same thing and see something completely different. Silwan even has another name in Hebrew–The City of David.
But none of this matters to the child in this lovely photo by user Flavio@Flickr via Gadling’s flickr pool. She’s content to sip her drink in a quiet spot somewhere in Jerusalem’s Old City. Looking at her face you can’t tell if she’s Jewish or Arab. Many Israeli Jews can pass for Arab and vice versa. They both speak Semitic languages that share a large number of words. In Hebrew, the word for peace is shalom. In Arabic it’s salaam.My Spanish wife commented that the kid looks Spanish. Hardly surprising considering that many Spaniards have both Arab and Jewish blood, a legacy of the many periods in that nation’s history when they lived in peace. A thousand years ago, this kid would have been allowed to play with “the other side”. I doubt she gets to now.
I wish it were the same in Israel. When I was working there as an archaeology student back in the Nineties, I made friends with a Palestinian guy and an Orthodox Jewish family. Despite their homes being only a few minutes’ walk apart, they never met. I tried to get them all together, but they weren’t interested. So if you go to Jerusalem, remember you’re actually going to two cities and try to visit both.
Those of us who travel to Bethlehem soon discover the huge gap between our happy Sunday School expectations and the heavy realities of visiting the West Bank in person. It’s not such an easy place to get to, though world interest makes Bethlehem far more accessible than say, Ramallah or Jericho.
Out of 133 destinations rated in this month’s issue of National Geographic Traveler, the West Bank’s little town of Bethlehem ranked the lowest. Sad but true, travel experts consider the birthplace of Jesus Christ to be the world’s worst travel destination, one that’s surrounded by a giant concrete wall with difficult checkpoints and generally tangled in a political rat’s nest.
Still, for those in search of a geographically-correct Christmas, Bethlehem offers a nice dose of nostalgia served with a serious side of political pondering. It’s also a bit of a circus, like Las Vegas with Franciscan monks and machine guns. In such a place, it helps to have a guide. In lieu of a bright star shining in the east, behold ten hints for helping you navigate the dark streets that shineth:
- Check the border situation constantly: security in Israel varies wildly. Peace or violence in one location does not pre-determine security in other locales, especially in Bethlehem. CNN, BBC, and US State Department travel alerts are interesting but rarely compelling. Instead, ask around in country. Learn to listen beyond the bias and get the inside scoop as to which entry points are ‘hot’ and which ones are getting less traffic. Which brings us to the next point:
- Plan a window of extra time: crossing into the West Bank is always a gamble. In some cases, you may not even make it, so don’t write “Bethlehem” into your travel planner between 10:00 and 12:00. Instead, plan a range of days and hope that your first attempt is successful. If not, try, try again.
- Hire a Palestinian taxi driver with Israeli license plates: When it comes to straddling a tumultuous border, get the best of both worlds: A Palestinian driver with Israeli papers (and driving a car with Israeli plates) is pre-cleared and faces far less hassle when crossing back into Jerusalem. They will also be much safer escorts for you while you are in the West Bank. Again, ask around and seek trusted insights from insiders.
- Avoid big bus tours: though safer in principle, taking a tour bus into Bethlehem is often a recipe for a painful wait at the border in either direction. Add fifteen minutes for every olive wood sculpture of the baby Jesus in your backpack. If possible, travel ultra-light (passport, camera and a bottle of water) and in small groups.
- Visit the Church of the Nativity backwards: the supposed birthplace of Jesus Christ is anything but peaceful, with all the wailing Russian Orthodox pilgrims and nit picky clergy who voraciously guard their little corner. Take a second to relax your religious connotations and realize that you are in a major tourist destination with crowds like those at the Empire State Building or Dollywood. Visiting the church in reverse order–saving the Grotto of the Nativity for last–can help you skip some of the longer lines.
- Don’t go on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day: I know, I know, that’s kind of the point, but know that it will be a Christian madhouse. Try going instead to visit first thing in the morning of December 24th, otherwise (insert joke about there not being any room in the inn, ha, ha.)
- Dinars or dollars: shekels have very little use in the City of David and most ATM’s disperse Jordanian dinars. Get some cash before you enter, or use US dollars. Again, the lighter you travel, the better.
- The Shepherds Fields of Bethlehem is a hoax: What? You mean the shepherds that saw a star shining in the sky and then heard angels singing, “Glory to God”–they weren’t actually hanging out on that specific hilltop that happens to be a ten-minute drive from the Church of the Nativity? No, sorry. The chapel and twisted olive trees are a nice reminder of a cool event, but it’s a Victorian-era invention for tourists like us.
- Bring a bible: The Book of Luke is probably the best and only guidebook to take with you. The book never gives false information about restaurants, opening hours, or directions, and offers some great context about the town itself.
- Keep apolitical: It sounds way obvious, but a trip to Bethlehem is not the time to show off your cocktail conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Be assured, no matter what you say, you will offend least one person. Even UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon would put his foot in his mouth in Bethlehem, so better to shut it. Talk about the weather and delve deeply into your clueless tourist persona–on this border, it’s the safest way to be.
One of the world’s largest mosaic museums recently opened in Israel.
The Museum of the Good Samaritan displays artifacts from the many cultures that lived in the region. The main attractions are the intricate mosaics found in synagogues in the West Bank and Gaza.
The museum is located on the highway between Jerusalem and Jericho near the ancient town of Ma’ale Adumim in the West Bank, believed to be the site of the inn where the parable of the Good Samaritan took place. According to the story, told by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke (10:25-37) a man is beaten up by robbers and left for dead on the side of the road. Nobody will help him but a Samaritan, a member of a rival Jewish sect that was persecuted in ancient times. His act of mercy has become synonymous with the kindness of strangers and the ability of goodness to reach across social boundaries.
This being Israel, history is politics, and officials were quick to put a spin on the museum’s opening. In an article in the Jerusalem Post, Knesset Speaker Reuvlen Rivlin said the museum underscores Israel’s historic ties to the West Bank and Gaza and its devotion to keeping a presence in them. The Knesset is the Israeli parliament, and Rivlin is one of the most powerful members of the ruling Likud party, so his words carry significant political weight.
Some of the mosaics come from Samaritan synagogues, offering a rare look at a faith that few people know still exists.
We seem to spend an inordinate time here at Gadling writing about beer, especially when it rolls around to Oktoberfest season. Click here for Justin’s post about the best beer tents in Munich, and here for his video insight into the most exciting funfair rides on offer after a few foaming steins.
My own hazy memories of September in Munich include enduring the “Drei Loopen” roller coaster after a lunch of Lowenbrau and pretzels.
A quieter and altogether suprising alternative to the Oktoberfest is the small scale beerfest that recently took place in the Palestinian town of Taybeh. Brewer Nadim Khoury is a Christian, but out of respect for his Muslim neighbours actually brought forward the start date to avoid clashing with Ramadan.
A range of brews were available for ten shekels (around $1.60) and festivities included the Palestinian rap group DAM and local hip hop crews Boikutt and G-Town. Sounds like a cool place to be.
Click here for an excellent article on the challenges of being a brewer on the West Bank.
Story and pic via the BBC.
The famous River Jordan, described as a raging or “violent” river in the Bible, is now just a sad trickle of raw sewage and agricultural runoff. Even on the site where John the Baptist performed the ritual on Jesus, Kasr Al-Yahud (near Jericho), the river is now “an opaque, brown, sluggish” mess.
Apparently, Israeli water diversions, started in the 1960s, have been a large reason for the ninety percent drop in flow over the years. However, Syria and Jordan are also to blame. Now, a planned, joint Syrian-Jordanian “Unity Dam” threatens to do even more damage by stopping the river’s largest tributary, the Yarmuk, and possibly completely drying up the river in parts.
Rather than the “original” spot four miles north of the Dead Sea, most religious pilgrims have had to move their re-enactments of the baptism to Yardenit (near Alumot, near the Sea of Galilee), over 60 miles away to the north, to the only clean-water spot: a lonely 3km stretch on the 200km river.