In hindsight I’m not sure what I expected of Bethlehem before I arrived there. Whatever it was wasn’t remotely what I got.
Bethlehem is many things – religious site, tourism hotspot, centre of cultural and artistic resistance – but what hit me hardest, straight away, is the fact that it’s a border town. It has the look and feel of a place just the wrong side of the barrier between rich and poor; the terrain is sparsely populated between Jerusalem and the wall, but densely packed immediately beyond it. Anyone who has ever crossed the US/Mexican border at Nogales will draw comparisons. This, at least, was my initial impression – but given this was my first foray into the West Bank proper, perhaps my first assessment was coloured heavily by the disparity between the splendour and bustle of Israel and the impoverishment of Palestine.
Myriad factors – the short distance to Jerusalem, its appeal to tourists (both recreational and religious), and especially the insidious proximity of the wall – have led to a throng of graffiti artists, most prominently Banksy, establishing Bethlehem as an iconic centre of artistic resistance to the Israeli occupation. This resistance is directed towards and painted on the wall itself, the symbolic and material zenith of the state of Israel’s incursion into former Palestinian territory. Much of Banksy’s best and most famous work has been done on the streets of and the wall around Bethlehem, and in 2017 he opened the Walled Off Hotel – right next to the wall itself and, as such, boasting “The worst view of any hotel in the world”.
It’s a must-see. We stopped for drinks on our second night in the town in the hotel bar, provocatively decorated with CCTV cameras mounted deer head-like on wooden shields, reworked versions of classic paintings with overt references to the occupation, a painting of Jesus with a laser beam aimed directly at his forehead, and the centrepiece: a playerless piano, graced over time by remote performances from a variety of high-profile acts (including Flea from the Chili Peppers playing jazz piano with his feet). It serves good local beers as well as a playful mocktail menu including a ‘Lord Nelson’, a ‘Lady Nelson’, a ‘Half Nelson’, and a ‘Nelson from the Simpsons’. On our second visit to the hotel we looked round its museum – by now we’d already been to see the excellent Yasser Arafat museum in Ramallah, and this shorter, more ground-up and up-to-the-minute account of the occupation complements that display superbly. It’s a particularly moving experience, pulling no punches in exploring the brutality of the occupation and the dejection that the construction of the wall has brought to Palestinians both in the West Bank and the Gaza strip.
We didn’t stay in the Walled Off – budgets dictated that we opted for the infinitely more understated Assarya. An unintended benefit of that happens to be its close proximity to the Walled Off, meaning the features of the latter can be explored and appreciated without incurring the much higher cost. The Assarya itself is less than halfway between hotel and self-catering apartment; some rooms include amenities like cookers and washing machines. Then again, some don’t, and it’s not immediately apparent how to distinguish between the two when booking. Whilst somewhat spartan in terms of décor and facilities, the staff are friendly and helpful – as a West Bank base on a budget, it does the job.
Besides the Walled Off, another option for more discerning visitors is the Jacir Palace. On our last night in Palestine we attended a British / Palestinian wedding here (tremendous fun, in case you wondered) and given that plenty of the guests stayed at the hotel we were able to access various areas, particularly the swimming pool, throughout our trip. Replete with history, the Palace was initially a mansion, and has been a prison and both Israeli and British military barracks before its conversion to a luxury hotel. Without being able to comment on the rooms or service directly, all reports were very positive.
If modern Bethlehem’s tourism centres on graffiti, historic Bethlehem is of course defined by its place in the story of Christianity. The Church of the Nativity, adjacent to Manger Square in Bethlehem’s old quarter, is almost the ultimate tourist trap: an absolute must-see that’s simultaneously a touch underwhelming. Given it was August and temperatures were mostly around 35C, and factoring in a dip in tourism to the West Bank following Trump’s embassy antics, the Church was still packed and we had to queue for over half an hour to access the grotto that purportedly contains the exact spot of the birth. You’re ushered in, through and out of the grotto quickly so there’s little time to absorb the atmosphere, although an ascetic group of pilgrims sit meditatively at the back while the more secular punters are caught in the stream.
There are some beautiful frescoes in the gaudily-decorated church itself, mostly dating from Crusader times, and a section of excavated floor where mosaic from Empress Helena’s original church, dating back to 337AD, is visible. These make it worth a visit in their own right, but don’t expect to be overcome with Christmas spirit – particularly in peak tourist season.
As for food and drink, Bethlehem is a leading light of the West Bank’s talent for both. Taybeh, brewed near Ramallah, is the West Bank’s incumbent beer of choice but is joined by newer, craftier challengers from Bethlehem, namely Shepherd, a crisp dry lager, and Wise Men (ideally ordered in threes), a deliciously aromatic pale ale. On our first night we drank Shepherd and a delightful local red wine called Star of Bethlehem as we dined in the picturesque Hosh Jasmine. Set on a hillside in Beit Jala overlooking Bethlehem itself it offers stunning sunset views of the town, and the rugs and cushions adorning the outdoor seating as well as the open fire and barbecue create a charmingly authentic ambience of shepherds dining al fresco. To reach it you will realistically need to take a taxi – we were advised ahead of our trip to demand to run on the meter, and were without exception completely unsuccessful in this, so be prepared to haggle for a decent price up front.
We stayed nearly a week in Bethlehem, and it served excellently as a base from which to explore the rest of the West Bank.