Bethlehem was not a researched stop where I had a list of shots and places I wanted to see, but I knew I wanted to spend a few days in Bethlehem. Everything in Israel has some religious and historical significance so I knew I would find some sites for those purposes and come away with some photos. My standard procedure is to walk the city first to get a lay of the land, smell the place, feel the pace and mood of the people, and generally just start paying attention. Getting into the city wasn't all that difficult. A shuttle from the airport in Tel Aviv dropped me at a bus station and the driver pointed me to a bus that would take me past the walls and into Bethlehem. It wasn't as easy coming back out, but at least getting into the city was straightforward. Those walls may look old, but I'm sure they're still plenty formidable.
I had rented an AirBnB from a shop owner. On the day I showed up, he was late to arrive so I walked down the street to find some groceries and coffee. The market owner started telling me right away about how restricted they are living in Palestine. I'm not one to get into religious conversations so I deflected and asked about the places I should visit as a photographer. I did however make a mental note to keep my senses aware for cues to the larger sense of what it's like to live here. I got checked into my room about an hour later and then went out on foot. I never did see a good sunrise here. Most of the days were sunny and cloudless. This is looking north towards Jerusalem where I got a sense of how hilly and mountainous the area was.
Heading up a street where I thought I might find the Church of the Nativity, there was this art installation that grabbed my attention. After reading the inscription on the plaque on the wall I understood its significance. The text on the plaque reads...
Even as an island city of Palestine in the midst of Israel, Bethlehem is a place of hope.
Silly me, I didn't take a photo of the shepherd here, I just got a photo of his sheep. People still live as simply as ever and support themselves as they always have. Besides tourism there isn't much else to do here for work, and leaving isn't really an option for those who live here.
The young man who was watching his family's sheep found this field next to Solomon's Pools. Solomon's Pools are pretty impressive, but the pools are now drained so they are less of a hazard for people and animals falling into them and drowning. I was hoping to go down into the pools but had to settle for photos over top of the fences instead.
As for how the people live; I saw a lot of men meeting and talking on the street corners. No doubt there's some context here that I don't understand. They were getting into some topic very loudly and didn't even give me a look. Being such a small and isolated city, most of the population knows each other in some way. Can you imagine living in tight quarters all the time with your best friends, not so good friends, and even your exes who aren't allowed to move out of the city. Yeah, I imagine that would make for some passionate conversations.
The biggest eye opener for me actually came when I was ready to leave Bethlehem and return to Jerusalem. I must have been sleeping when the bus drove past this wall on our way in. I was thinking I could just walk to the bus stop and get to where I needed to be next. Apparently the bus can come into Palestinian territory but going out you have to go through security checks and have a good reason to be leaving the city. This wasn't a big deal for me, but I wasn't expecting there to be guarded walls around Bethlehem, and I now understood the feeling that the people here had about the restrictions of living here.
Would I go back? Absolutely. Bethlehem is a pilgrimage city for many to see the birthplace of Christ. It's a unique place in it's own right even if you aren't there to see the religious sites.