Israel and Palestine Territories: The Bible is a book filled with stories of epic journeys; Moses in the desert. Saul’s (St.Paul) conversion on the road to Damascus. The Via Dolorosa, the Stations of the Cross, documenting the path Jesus took on the way to Calvary.
When Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem 2000 years ago for the census, they probably journeyed in a caravan with others for safety and companionship.
Unlike the Via Dolorosa in Old Jerusalem which marks the path of Christ en route to his crucifixion, the exact route between Nazareth and Bethlehem is unknown. Despite that, the distance was approximately 100 miles of arduous desert hiking. The trip most likely proving to be a difficult and frightening journey for a very pregnant Mary.
Though we celebrate the birth of Jesus each December, many scholars believe he was probably born in late summer at the beginning of September, which means the travel would have occurred during the oppressive desert heat of late July or August.
The Nativity Trail
Today, visitors to the Holy Land can now walk the route of Mary and Joseph’s pilgrimage along what is known as the Nativity Trail or the Jesus Trail.
Established by Palestinians at the turn of the 21st century as part of an economic development project to increase tourism, the Bethlehem 2000 Project trail originally began in Nazareth leading in a straight line through the West Bank to Bethlehem.
Unfortunately, the trail was closed soon after it began due to unrest in the Middle East.
It re-opened in 2008 however, with an alternate route that usually commences in Faqu’a in the northern Palestinian Territories rather than Nazareth. The change was made to avoid logistical difficulties in traveling between Israel and the West Bank.
In many ways, the Holy Land is a difficult region for visitors to comprehend because the layers of history and religion have built up around places so familiar to us from Biblical studies.
The Nativity Trail
Modern-day Nazareth is a large bustling city that in no way resembles the images of the settlements of the Bible.
Many historic venues in Israel are similar. Where scholars can only approximate and guess as to the locations where certain events actually occurred. That can be unsettling for many pilgrims who journey to the region to see the sites that have been so significant in their religious upbringing.
The fact that the Nativity Trail has been altered is not unusual in a land where so much historical drama has occurred over the past two millennia.
The ten-day walking excursion includes visits to ancient ruins, picturesque valleys, biblical landscapes and spending time in small villages enjoying the hospitality of local host families.
Among the added benefits is dining upon delicious local cuisine as well as an opportunity to camp out under the stars much as Bedouins have done for centuries.
The Mar Saba monastery
Along the way, visitors explore two beautiful monasteries in the starkly rugged terrain of the Judean Hills.
Mar Saba, founded in 483 by Sabbas the Sanctified, is one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world. Today, the complex is home to approximately 20 monks who still maintain many of the ancient traditions.
For example, the only building women can enter is the Women’s Tower near the main entrance.
Among the relics at the site are antiquities seized in the 12th century by Crusaders. Those relices remaining in Italy until 1965 when Pope Paul VI returned them in a gesture of good-will.
The Nebi Mousa Monastery
The second monastery, Nebi Mousa, is found on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho and the Jordan Valley. Founded by the hermit Euthymius “the Great” in 428 as a monastery for hermits, it changed to a larger walled monastery following his death in 482.
Among the surprising excavations is the vast water supply complex which has greatly aided further archaeological study and was, of course, also a major asset for the ancient Judean desert lifestyle.
Other than Bethlehem, the city of Jericho is arguably the highlight of the journey. Remains of civilizations from 9000 B.C. make it the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world. To date no less than 20 different settlements that have been unearthed to date.
It was here that Jesus met temptation in the desert. It is also home to some of the oldest ruins on the planet.
Ending in Bethlehem
The Nativity Trail ends in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. Bethlehem today has a Muslim majority. This may be disconcerting to travelers lining up to visit the manger scene where Christ was born. The city is located in the central West Bank, Palestine about 6 miles south of Jerusalem.
Christmas in Bethlehem
December represents the celebration day of Jesus’ birth, making the Christmas season a good time to visit. However, remember that being in a Muslim environment minimizes the number of holiday decorations and celebrations.
That said, hillside views overlooking the valley beneath the city where shepherds still tend their flocks just as they did 2000 years ago, are more than enough to capture the sensations of the season.
A walk in the footsteps of Mary and Joseph is a unique adventure. An adventure whose meaning increases during the Christmas holiday season.
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor is an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is the founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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