Despite the dark shadow of the ongoing Israeli occupation of Palestine, the birthplace of Jesus continues to attract millions of tourists who flock to the holy city of Bethlehem every Christmas.
But the historical significance of the Palestinian city goes beyond its renowned Church of Nativity, built above the grotto where Jesus is believed to have been born, and Palestinians believe visiting Bethlehem should not be confined to the festive season.
Indeed the reasons to visit this magnificent city, regarded as the Arab Capital of Culture for 2020 under the UNESCO Cultural Capitals Program, are too numerous to count.
Banksy’s walled off hotel, marketed as ‘the hotel with the worst view in the world’ and unveiled to mark 100 years since the Balfour Declaration, made headlines in recent years. The renowned British graffiti artist hoped it would help attract tourism to the occupied city and educate people on the realities of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and its impact on the daily life of the land’s Palestinian population.
Certainly, any tour of the occupied city is political by nature. Bethlehem is surrounded on three sides by Israel’s 25-foot-high concrete Separation Wall. Visitors and residents alike would not be able to move in and out without passing through at least one Israeli military checkpoint. Illegal Israeli settlements spread across the occupied West Bank dominate the landscape.
The numbers of Christians in the Holy Land have been dwindling with many fleeing the brutality of life under Israeli occupation. In the 1922 census of Palestine there were approximately 73,000 Christian Palestinians in the occupied territories, the majority Greek Orthodox.
However, beneath the struggle and the grinding military occupation is a Palestinian yearning to connect with the world and display the holy city’s treasures, both old and new.
The Old Bethlehem Museum, set within a 19th century Palestinian home, offers an insight into traditional Palestinian life, culture and embroidery, while the Palestinian Heritage Centre offers traditional handmade clothing, jewellery and souvenirs.
The city’s wealth of Christian sites includes St. Catherine’s Church and the Chapel of Milk Grotto among others. Palestinians have also been seeking to rebuild the road believed to have been taken by Mary and Joseph on their way to the Church of the Nativity.
But one site in particular, which dates back to the fifth century, traces Greek Orthodox monastic tradition in the Holy Land and is not only the perfect window into monastic life in the desert, offering its devout dwellers an escape from worldly distractions, but also a mind-blowing architectural masterpiece.
The Mar Saba Monastery, set half-way between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, is the oldest monastery in the Holy Land and one of the oldest continuously inhabited monasteries in the world.
The marvellous archeological monument, which hangs over a cliff overlooking the Kidron Valley some 15 kilometres from the town of Bethlehem, was established by Saint Sabbas of Cappadocia (Mar Saba in Syriac) in 483 AD and remains an active monastery.
Saint Sabbas entered a Jerusalem monastery in 457 AD but left it to seek solitude in a cave in the valley, where he later built a church on the slopes of the gorge opposite the cave he lived in and assembled monks who stayed in his ‘Lavra’—a term in Orthodox Christianity which refers to a cluster of caves where hermits reside. The Greek Orthodox Church later built the monastery in dedication to Saint Sabbas, whose relics were seized by crusaders in the 12th century and moved to Venice. They were returned in 1965 by Pope Paul VI.
The grey-domed complex was largely rebuilt after a major earthquake in 1834. In keeping with its ancient tradition, only men may enter the monastery, although women can view the complex from the Women’s Tower believed to have been built by the saint’s mother who was also forbidden from entry.
The Mar Saba monastery is—somehow—not a World Heritage Site, but the wealth of history there, the breathtaking views and the serenity of its surroundings would undoubtedly make for a memorable visit.