Over the past few years, we’ve spent a fair amount of time in Bethlehem one way or another and have really enjoyed the relaxed, low-key vibe and the novelty factor that this iconic place actually exists.
The low-key factor however, means that after you’ve been to the Church of the Nativity and wandered around some of the Old City streets, it can be hard for the tourist (or seasoned expat), to know what you’re missing. We decided to ask our tour guide friend Mustafa for a ‘backstreet tour’ and left the itinerary to him.
The tour started in Beit Jala, the Christian hilltop town famous for its olive oil which some call the best in Palestine, it’s grapes and several beautiful gold-roofed churches. Mustafa grew up (and still lives) in the Aida refugee camp and as a teenager he used to walk uphill every day to attend High School in Beit Jala. Back in the 19th Century many Christian residents of Beit Jala emigrated to Chile and we were surprised to learn that it now had the largest Palestinian population outside of the Middle-East.
Mustafa said that he had once met a Chilean Palestinian and their Arabic was far closer to the traditional Beit Jalan dialect than members of the town today. Isolated from other influences, they had preserved their mother tongue just as it was.
Beit Jala also claimed to be the home of Santa Claus and the spot where St Nicholas’ lived is marked today with a church in his name. As we walked around the steep old streets, Mustafa pointed out Ottoman and Mumluk architecture which included large archways to allow camels bearing good to walk straight into shops.
Mustafa’s main income before COVID-19 struck used to come from tourism. As we walked, we chatted about life over the past eighteen months. He’s an industrious sort with a young family to support and since then he has worked in construction and hospitality trying to make a living. This has not been easy, and he’s now working 12-hour shifts, six days a week as a chef in a local restaurant.
Leaving Beit Jala we drove through the town of Al-Khader to Solomon’s pools. These are three large reservoirs, built around Jesus’ time to channel water from the South Hebron hills to Jerusalem and King Herod’s desert fortress Herodium, by means of an intricate aqueduct system. Today they stand largely neglected, the subject of several failed tourism projects.
Mustafa had studied the pools in detail as part of his tourism qualification and he was knowledgeable and animated in bringing this colossal engineering project to life for us. He explained that Jerusalem is only around 50 metres lower than Bethlehem and the aqueduct dropped less than half a metre per kilometre. Some of the ancient stones that were hollowed out to channel the water still sit underneath people’s houses today. We stopped to see an example of this at a house with a terrifying dog chained in the yard.
Our next stop on the tour was both poignant and personal. It was the end of the grape picking season and Mustafa invited us to pick some bunches of green and red grapes from his family’s land. Any image of a beautiful vineyard was slightly tainted by the main Route 60 highway which had been ploughed through the middle of the family plot and was now bordered by a high concrete wall. The family now held reduced land on both sides of the road making access challenging and of course, receiving no compensation for the loss. Despite this, the grapes were sun-ripened and abundant. We filled a bag and the kid’s sampled as many as they could.
Our last stop, was Bethlehem town centre itself for a walk around the Old City. Mustafa waved off the youngsters about to pounce on us for car parking money and signalled for us to park bang in the centre of Manger Square, the way only a local would feel entitled to do. As we ambled the streets it felt like he knew just about everyone and one of his sister’s came out to say hi. There was a spring in his step and a glint in his eye from sharing the secrets of his hometown that he knows and loves. Our tour was wonderfully insightful and unconventional.
Whether you want to see the usual sights or ‘something different’, Mustafa offers personal tours around Aida Camp and the Separation Wall, Bethlehem, Hebron and anything in between. To arrange a tour, you can contact Mustafa on +972 56-956-3407.