Israel has long been on my travel bucket list and my journey began in Jerusalem, before moving to Tel Aviv for the latter part of my trip. For years Israel’s political status has been complicated: I watched many “Why Israel and Palestine…” videos on YouTube. However, I am still unable to put my mind in an organized manner about the situation and borders of the region.
I got a lot of questions about “Is it safe to travel to Israel?”. As a tourist, I felt safe getting around Israel – until I heard about the occasional terrorist attacks that happened in the Palestinian Territories. Just be cautious and stay away from chaos, it is statistically safe to travel in Israel. Another option is to join a guided tour, I met a lot of tourists and groups, but generally, it did not spoil my enthusiasm to walk in Jesus Christ’s footsteps on a pilgrimage of the Holy Bible.
A Catholic or a Christian must know that Jesus spent most of his life on earth in today’s Israel from before his birth to his death. The key locations for the ministry of Jesus were Galilee and Judea, and some events took place in surrounding areas, like Perea and Samaria. Many miracles and teachings happened in Galilee.
While I was in Israel, I visited the key and important sites in Israel where such key events took place, walking the Jesus’s footsteps, and had a taste of the holiness and the true meaning of the stories behind these events.
In this article, I am sharing my day trip to Bethlehem and Nazareth, the top-rated Christian sites of the Annunciation and the Nativity.
Nazareth is somehow the beginning of the New Testament – this is home to Mary and Joseph, and where Jesus spent his childhood. Jesus lived in Nazareth for almost 30 years of his early life.
Today, the small town is Israel’s largest Arab city, and the population of Muslims and Christians is split 50/50.
Most of the major Christian sites and the souk are in the bustling Old City, a maze of alleyways between the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation (Church of St. Gabriel) and the Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation. Hidden down narrow passages are the Synagogue Church, the White Mosque, Ottoman-era mansions, and great restaurants.
Basilica of the Annunciation
This is the largest church in the Middle East, depicting the traditional scene of the Annunciation.
The apse of a 5th-century church encloses a sunken grotto, backed by the remains of a Crusader church. Above soars the modern edifice, consecrated in 1969.
The upper level of the chapel displays a number of artworks of the Holy Mary, including Japanese artist Luke Hasegawa’s Japanese Mosaic of Madonna and Child.
On the side of the Basilica, take a walk in the Church of St. Joseph, and other Christian sites like St Gabriel’s Church and Church of Jesus the Adolescent are nearby.
Nazareth was the hometown of Jesus, but according to the Hebrew Bible, most famous as the birthplace of Jesus. It is also the birthplace of the shepherd boy David and the site of his coronation as the King of Israel.
Joseph and Mary traveled south from Nazareth to give birth to Jesus – Constantine the Great had a church built on the site in AD 326. The Church of the Nativity is Christendom’s oldest house of prayer today.
Bethlehem is in the Palestinian West Bank, 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem. Bethlehem has been under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority since 1995. Once majority Christian, it is now about 75 percent Muslim.
Dominated by the walls of the Church of the Nativity and the 1860 Mosque of Omar, Manger Square is the hub and focal point of Bethlehem. The major Christian sites are around here. For more information? Head to the Swedish-built Peace Center. Around the square is the Old Market, it is an atmospheric souk that sells souvenir gifts and embroidery made by the Arab Women’s Union.
If you are visiting Bethlehem during Christmas, Christmas Eve in Manger Square is an emotional experience, with Roman Catholic Midnight Mass from St. Catherine’s Church being broadcast around the world. With all the denominations present in the Holy Land, Christmas celebrations stretch over a long period. Festivities can be enjoyed during the run-up, and Orthodox masses last until January 18.
Church of the Nativity
Marking the birthplace of Jesus Christ, the Church of the Nativity is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built in 530, the church has many features that remain from the original basilica. This church is entered through the tiny Door of Humility, its size aimed at preventing looters from riding in on horseback. In the nave, limestone columns carry Crusader paintings of saints.
The cave under this church set on Manger Square has been reverting as the birthplace of Christ since AD160 – a silver star marks the spot. However, the Grotto of the Nativity is not always open because of the masses, and to get there, you may have to wait for about an hour because of the long queues.
There are very narrow steps that lead to the cave so pay attention to your footsteps. Orthodox, Catholic, and Armenian make their masses at the birthplace, so there are masses three times a day starting as early as 6:30 a.m. It is different on Sundays, holidays, or any special occasions for any of the churches.
St Catherine’s Church
The church connects with the Church of Nativity. The Franciscans built this church in 1882 on the site of the 5th-century monastery associated with St. Jerome.
His statue is in the cloisters.
The Milk Grotto
This is an important location as the Holy Family sought refuge here during the Massacre of the Innocents.
The case of this site gave shelter to the Holy Family, and it was said that a drop of Mary’s milk fell on the floor as she nursed Jesus and changed the color of the floor to white.
The building we see today was a Catholic Chapel, built in 1872, on a former Byzantine church that was here around the 5th century, hence we can still find parts of the floor in the yard with mosaic tiles.
The chapel today has walls covered with many testimonials from worshippers as both Christians and Muslims believe that scrapings from the stones in the grotto help women conceive, or boost a mother’s milk.
Shepherds Field is where the angel announced the Birth of Jesus to the Shepherds around Beit Sahour. The site, as described, was where the “shepherds watched their flocks by night”. The meaning of these sites is much more significant because what’s left today are just caves, dating back to the times of Jesus Christ. Check out the two-thousand-old caves described by the Gospels, the Fields of Boaz, and the Tower of Edar.
The Monastery Church was built in the 4th century and the Chapel of the Shepherds’ Field was built in the 1950s. These monuments were dedicated to the church and inside visitors can see murals of biblical events. Antonio Barluzzi designed the chapel, and there’s a giant cave under the chapel.
In 2005 and 2007, the renowned UK street artist Banksy put about a dozen images on the separation wall in the West Bank. Visitors can see many of his iconic artworks in Bethlehem.
If you have more time, check out the Rachel’s Tomb (Jacob’s wife), Palestinian Heritage Center (a reconstructed Bedouin tent and a Palestinian living room at this center), and Solomon’s Pools (these reservoirs supply water to Jerusalem from Herod’s time until the 20th century). The Ottoman Sultan Osman II built a small fort near the upper pool in the early 17th century.