Ten km by road can never be so far or so close. Far as the beginning and the end lie in two countries that are at war. The war is a war of existence and hence not something that is getting resolved anytime soon. Close because they define the beginning and end of the story of one of the most famous person ever to have lived on Earth. It is a matter of belief if the shepherd from Nazareth was God or the messenger of God or just a human, but there is no debating that no one has ever been as famous. He was crucified in Jerusalem and just 10 km away is the cave where he was born. The church of Nativity is built right over the cave. For the significance of the place the church is quite a simple one – after all the original was built in 300AD and the current structure in the 12th century.
For two countries that are at war, it is surprisingly easy for a traveller to cross the border. You don’t need a visa or anything for that matter, just an Arabic driver (Israelis are not allowed to cross the border) and any way to prove you are a tourist. Bethlehem is much cheaper than Jerusalem and distinctly less developed. There are point to stop with great city views, but there isn’t much of a view.
The Church of Nativity, just like the Church of Holy Sepulture is very simple to look at. You enter through the gate of Humility which is low enough that you need to be on your knees to get in. There are two parts of the church, a greek orthodox church right over the cave and a roman catholic one right next to it, called the Church of St Catherine. The Greek orthodox church still has some wall art from the 12th century and some floor mosaics hidden under a second floor that are from the original church built 1800 years ago.
The underground grotto that houses the cave is a narrow one and gets quite crowded. There is usually a long line and a multi hour wait to get in. A good guide can find his way around the system and get you in a little sooner. There isn’t much to see, a small cave and a small group of people singing hymns. There is a star that adorns the place Christ was born in the Altar that is made in the cave.
There is not much else to do in Bethlehem, just some souvenir shops and some delicious orange juice. The drive back into Jerusalem is quite interesting. You can get a glimpse of the 800km long security wall that separates the countries at war. It has some cool graffiti on it. Once into Israel, you see two sides of the road, one Arab and other Jewish. The road through east Jerusalem approaches the Old city from the side of the Zion gate. This is a good opportunity to check out the view points as well as some churches like the Cathedral of Mary Magdalene, a name made famous by Dan Brown. Some of these places seem quite close on the maps, but if you do intend to walk, the slopes are quite steep.
The old city has many gates – while none are architectural masterpieces, they have a charm of their own. The Jaffa gate is easiest to reach, the Damascus gate is the most crowded and the Zion probably the most away from typical tourist circuits. At the Jaffa gate is the Tower of David or the Jerusalem Citadel. Lovely, well preserved fortress that supposedly has a marvellous light and sound show that gets sold out at least a week in advance. Damascus gate is home to a number of folks who get their pet pythons for tourists to click pics with. It is also a gate near a train station, so somewhat easier to get to, if you live near a train station.