ISRAEL – The Bible is a book filled with stories of epic journeys. These include Moses in the desert, Saul’s (St. Paul’s) conversion on the road to Damascus and the Stations of the Cross documenting the path Jesus took on the way to Calvary, just to mention a few. On the original Nativity Trail, 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.
The Nativity Trail is unlike the Via Dolorosa in Old Jerusalem which marks the path of Christ en route to his crucifixion. The exact route Mary and Joseph traveled between Nazareth and Bethlehem is unknown for certain. Despite that, the distance is estimated to have been approximately 100 miles of arduous desert hiking. More than likely, it proved to be a difficult and frightening 10-day trip for Mary.
Though we celebrate the birth of Jesus each December, many scholars believe he was 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 early August.
The modern Nativity Trail today
Today, visitors to the Holy Land can walk the route of Mary and Joseph’s pilgrimage along what we now know 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. It then led in a straight line through the West Bank to Bethlehem.
Unfortunately, officials closed the trail soon after its launch 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. Officials made this change hoping to avoid logistical difficulties in traveling between Israel and the West Bank.
The Holy Land today can be hard to fathom
In many ways, the Holy Land is a difficult region for visitors to comprehend. That’s because layers of history and religion have built up around places so familiar to us from Biblical studies.
Modern day Nazareth, for example, is a large bustling city that in no way resembles the images of the settlement we conjure in our minds from the Bible.
Many historic venues in Israel are in a similar state. Because of this, scholars can only approximate and guess as to the locations where certain Biblical events actually occurred. That can prove unsettling for many pilgrims who journey to the region to see sites so significant in their own religious upbringing.
The Nativity Trail excursion itself
In any event, the fact that the Nativity Trail has been altered over time is not unusual. This is an ancient land where so much historical drama has occurred over the past two millennia.
The ten-day Nativity Trail walking excursion includes visits to ancient ruins, picturesque valleys and biblical landscapes. It also entails spending time in small villages and enjoying the hospitality of local host families. Among the added benefits of this tour is dining upon delicious local cuisine. Equally interesting: an opportunity to camp out under the stars much as Bedouins have done for centuries.
A pair of ancient monasteries
Along the way, visitors explore two beautiful monasteries in the starkly rugged terrain of the Judean Hills. Historians consider Mar Saba, founded in 483 by Sabbas the Sanctified, as 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 visitors can see at the site are antiquities seized in the 12th century by Crusaders. They remained in Italy until 1965 when Pope Paul VI returned them in a gesture of good-will.
The second monastery, Nebi Mousa, is built 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 developed into a larger walled monastery following his death in 482.
Among the surprising excavations visitors can encounter is the vast local water supply complex. It has greatly aided further archaeological study and was, of course, also a major asset for the ancient Judean desert lifestyle.
Discovering Jericho and Bethlehem
Other than Bethlehem, many claim that Jericho is the oldest city in the world. Arguably, this ancient city may prove the highlight of many a Nativity Trail pilgrimage to this region.
Remains of civilizations from 9000 B.C. certainly make Jericho the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. Archaeologists have unearthed no less than 20 different settlements in this locale to date. It was here that Jesus was tempted in the desert, and it is also home to some of the oldest ruins on the planet.
The Nativity Trail ends in Bethlehem, the ancient birthplace of Jesus according to historians, scholars and the Bible. The city is located in the central West Bank of Palestine about 6 miles south of Jerusalem. Surprisingly to many tourists, Bethlehem today has a Muslim majority, which may be disconcerting at first to Western travelers lining up to visit the manger scene where Christ was born.
Reflecting on the very first of Christmas Pasts
Whether rightly or wrongly, December represents the celebration day of Jesus’ birth. And that makes the Christmas season a good time to visit this region and perhaps seek out the Nativity Trail. One thing to remember, though: Since this region lies within a Muslim environment today, the amount of holiday decorations and celebrations Christians usually anticipate around Christmas remains minimal here.
Nevertheless, hillside views of the terrain overlooking the valley beneath the ancient cities and beyond, where shepherds still tend their flocks just as they did 2000 years ago, are more than enough to capture the sensations of the season.
And walk in the footsteps of Mary and Joseph while following the Nativity Trail is a unique adventure. Pilgrims and travelers can best experience this adventure during the Christmas holiday season we annually celebrate.
REVISED AND REPRINTED FROM DECEMBER 4, 2018
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.
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