Bethlehem is a short bus ride from Jerusalem, but it is inside the area controlled by the Palestinians, the so called and much disputed "West Bank". Our tour guide, Jonathan, didn't feel comfortable coming with us to the West Bank, as he is an Israeli citizen. We never did fully understand his reasoning, but it did mean that to some extent, we were on our own.
The Israelis have built a wall, the Israeli West Bank Barrier, between the two communities and there are armed guards at the checkpoints. The whole area felt rather tense !
West Bank wall, built by Israel
We knew we were not in Jewish Israel any more when we saw posters of Arafat (dead since 2004) and his successor Abbas
Bethlehem is, of course, the traditional (and biblical) birthplace of Christ, although many scholars don't accept this as historical fact. The main site consists of a very old church, The Church of the Nativity, with the more modern Church of St Catherine adjoining. They are reached through Manger Square, which is where celebrations are held every Christmas.
Manger Square - not very picturesque. Perhaps it looks better at Christmas
The Church of the Nativity on the right and the Church of St Catherine on the left
Parts of The Church of the Nativity date back to the 5th century, although there were Christians worshiping here before that date. The entire church is undergoing major restoration and very little of the interior can be seen because of scaffolding. It's also very crowded.
The Church of the Nativity
Hidden by the scaffolding are some attractive mosaics, which are also being restored.
Presumably, when the restoration is complete, the church will look much nicer !
Parts of the church which are not undergoing restoration are decorated in the highly ornate style of the Greek Orthodox Church, which maintains the building.
The adjoining Church of St Catherine is in a much more modern style.
The Church of St Catherine
Underneath and between the two churches are a variety of caves and chapels carved from the natural rock. One of these caves is traditionally thought to be where Jesus was born, but access is difficult and we opted not to wait.
Once outside again, we were not surprised to find a traditional nativity scene portrayed, although it didn't look anything like the caves and grottoes we had just left. It wouldn't have been a big surprise if we had seen Father Christmas as well, but he must have been at the North Pole that day.