Our first day exploring Jerusalem began with our guide and driver, Jiries, collecting us at 9:30am, and we headed to Bethlehem via the settlements. This country and the situation is a complicated issue, and I don’t understand all of the nuances, but I want to learn more. The fact that Jiries is a Christian in Jerusalem makes for an interesting interpretation of events and issues (only 2% of the population of Jerusalem are Christian).
Our passports were in our hands ready to present for inspection at the checkpoint where we cross to Bethlehem, but the soldiers (who looked all of 15 years old!) were not at all interested in stopping our car – they were too busy chatting and having a cigarette!
We began our explorations with a visit to a section of the Israeli West Bank Barrier, also known as the ‘separation wall’, where graffiti artists such as Banksy have covered it with political works. Trump featured prominently in the section we visited. The wall is seen by the Palestinians as Israel’s attempt to expel them from Jerusalem, and Israelis see it as protection from terrorism.
Jiries arranged for a local guide to take us to the Church of the Nativity. We were hesitant at first, thinking that we’d be fine with our trusty guidebook. We could not have been more wrong. When we arrived at about 11:45am on a Sunday, there was already a gigantic line of pilgrims waiting to get down to the actual place where Mary gave birth to Jesus and the shepherds paid homage to the baby. It was massive. But our guide, Khalid Bandak, seemed to know a whole bunch of people, who were happy for us to ‘scooch’ past and take short cuts, and all of a sudden we were at the head of the line, much to the chagrin of a British couple who had been there since 10am. He said that sometimes you need to be like a snake, and I was damned impressed! He got us in and we didn’t have to wait for three hours. He just kept chatting to people and charming his way through. We just acted like we had the right to be there – maybe we were famous, who knew?
Strolling through Manger Square, the main square of Bethlehem, we realised we were in need of food, the smells wafting from the many felafel places enticed us. We asked Jiries which of the many places on offer he would recommend, and we popped in. Didn’t realise until half way through our felafels that it was the place that I had ear-marked from TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet to go to for lunch – Afteem Restaurant. The service was fast and friendly, and the food flavoursome and filling.
The Israel Museum
Jiries asked if we were interested in The Israel Museum, which of course we were. He worked at the museum for 25 years, until a new boss was appointed and decided he wasn’t needed any more. So sad for him, as he loved it so much. So he took us to his home away from home, and had great pleasure in showing us his favourite exhibits, the first being the beautiful building the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept.
“The Shrine of the Book was built as a repository for the first seven scrolls discovered at Qumran in 1947. The unique white dome embodies the lids of the jars in which the first scrolls were found. This symbolic building, a kind of sanctuary intended to express profound spiritual meaning, is considered an international landmark of modern architecture. Designed by American Jewish architects Armand P. Bartos and Frederic J. Kiesler, it was dedicated in an impressive ceremony on April 20, 1965.” The Israel Museum
After showing us the Shrine of the Book and explaining the gigantic outdoor model of the ancient city, Jiries left us to explore the rest of the museum. We were impressed with the content of the museum, beyond the Dead Sea Scrolls, and spent most of our time in the Jewish Art and Life sections and Fine Art Sections. One of the highlights was the Rothchild’s room – a donation of an 18th century French salon, all glittering gorgeousness!
Our adventures continue in Israel with our time in Jerusalem…
Tour Guide: Jiries Asmar (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Read our full Jerusalem story here:
Part 1 (current): Bethlehem and Israel Museum
Part 2: Old City