A trip to the historic lands of Judea and Samaria – the modern-day West Bank – is like walking through pages of the Bible.
This small chunk of land in the
highlands of the Levant is where Jesus started his ministry, where Abraham
staked his claim on the land and where King Solomon lolled in his tent by
shimmering pools of spring water. “Bible Tourism” here is the real deal, where places
mentioned in the Holy Scriptures can be visited, contemplated and honoured.
Bethlehem is a fine place to begin a
tour of the West Bank’s holy sites. It was here that Joseph and Mary visited
for a census and went home with a son. The birth of Jesus is commemorated at
the Church of the Nativity, the world’s oldest
continuously operating church. One cannot help but bow through the
appropriately named the Door of Humility, only about one-and-a-half metres high.
The raison d’etre of the church is to protect the Grotto of the Nativity, a
cramped, candlelit nook believed to be the spot where Jesus entered the world.
A 14-point star placed on the ground marks the auspicious spot.
Weave through the busy Bethlehem
streets to the neighbouring village of Beit Sahour, home to the Biblical field
where shepherds watched their flocks by night. As the Bible tells it, an angel
appeared before the shepherds to herald the arrival of Jesus. “Do not be
afraid,” said the angel “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for
all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been to you; he is
Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11). Visitors today can pray inside a small cave
chapel once used by shepherds, located about 100m past the entrance gate.
Travelling around the holy sites of
Bethlehem is made difficult by the West Bank Barrier, a security wall
built by the Israeli army to seal off the West Bank from the rest of Israel. The
wall slices right through the northern part of town, cleaving it from Israel’s Jerusalem
and leaving some Bethlehem structures on the Israeli side of the wall. Principal
among them is the Tomb of Rachel, an important prophet among
Jews and Muslims, and her story is related in the Old Testament’s book of
Genesis. Although historically part of the West Bank, access is now only from
the Israeli side of the security wall.
The road south of Bethlehem leads to
Hebron, an ancient market town with a colourful bazaar, jam-packed with spices,
fruit and clothing. There is a heavy military presence, and so tense is the
atmosphere that Hebron’s main holy site, the Cave of Machpelah, has been divided in two
parts, one half for Jews and the other for Muslims. On top of the cave is the 2,000-year-old
Ibrahimi Mosque; inside the quiet halls,
the pious pray before mighty cenotaphs that commemorate Abraham, Isaac, Jacob
and their wives.
To the east of Bethlehem, chalky
hills sink below sea level towards the Dead Sea and the ancient city of
Jericho, immortalized in the Bible for its walls that tumbled under the blasts
of trumpets (Joshua 6:20). The steep-faced cliff looming behind Jericho is
where Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights and was then tempted by the Devil
Even in the height of the hot
Jericho summer, Christian pilgrims can be seen clambering up the Mount of
Temptation to pray at the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Temptation,
built into the side of the mountain. Further up, at the top of the steep steps,
a creaky wooden door leads to the caves where Jesus is said to have denied the
Devil three times.
Not far from Jericho, the River
Jordan squiggles through the desert dividing the West Bank from Jordan. It was
here, at Qasr Al-Yahud, that John the Baptist set up
his ministry, preaching to businessmen, soldiers and sojourners that passed by.
Christians presume this to be the site of Jesus’ own baptism and it is possible
to visit the site today.
Jews, Christians and Muslims can
each identify dozens of holy places in the West Bank, but the Samaritans are
also intrinsically tied to this sacred land. The Samaritan faith, an offshoot
of Judaism with around 700 followers today, is centred on Mount
Gerazim, located near the West Bank city of Nablus.
Samaritans believe that Mt Gerazim
is was not only the first piece of land ever created, it is also the land from
which Adam was created and where Abraham went to sacrifice his son Isaac
(Judaism believes that these events took place on Jerusalem’s Mount Moriah).
Samaritans have been worshipping here since ancient times and any visit must
include a walk to the peak, where the remains of the ancient temple can be
Touring the West Bank does have its
challenges. Security checkpoints divide Israel and the Palestinian territories,
there are poorly signed roads and little tourist infrastructure. But with Bible
in hand it is possible to visit some fascinating sites that are steeped in
mystery and sanctity. The main gateway is from Jerusalem and it is even
possible to make daytrips from Israel -- but to get the full West Bank
experience, plan on spending three or four nights in Bethlehem, Jericho and
The article 'A Biblical guide to the West Bank' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.