The Road to Bethlehem

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Semi-arid hills (Mount this, that, and the other, Biblically speaking) surround Jerusalem. To the south they roll gradually down to the plain of the Negev desert. Hebron road is visible winding between them. More click-to-enlarge photos. 2005:06:06 12:09:41

Bethlehem: Beit Lechem in Hebrew, and very similar in Arabic, means House of Bread. While no doubt the area can yield a fertile olive crop, I have trouble picturing amber waves of grain on these dusty carapaces.

I decided that it was time to visit Bethlehem, as my final few weeks here were approaching, and I'd have kicked myself if I'd failed entirely to go. Because it's there. Because it's Jerusalem's other half in this Christian Mecca. And because it's as far into the West Bank as, realistically, I'm likely to get on this trip.

Only about eight kilometers of road separate the West Bank town from East Jerusalem, so I decided to walk. Best way there is to see the land.

Just another view south over the Jerusalem / Bethlehem hills. The foreground buildings are mostly Jerusalem: Jewish New Jerusalem to the right; Arab East Jerusalem to the left. 2005:06:06 12:27:34

As I set off down Derech Hevron -- Hebron Road -- I wondered if this highway runs clear down the spine of Israel-Palestine to that particularly troubled town. Judging by the maps, my best guess is that it does, not that you could drive the whole way in any one vehicle.

Once upon a time, the road would have quickly opened up into empty countryside. Now, almost half the distance is spent overtaking the swift wave of construction spreading low-rises and good pavement ever farther afield. It's as though half the population of the city is fleeing outward just as fast as possible to escape the unrelenting tension and self-importance, while the other half rushes to settle any unoccupied hill lest some future government be tempted to offer it to the Arabs.

The transitional zone is abrupt. In the space of a couple of what will eventually be blocks, residences give way to a jumble of partial foundations and half-installed sidewalks. A few hundred meters further on, and it's over. Land they haven't yet gotten to. It's quite refreshing.

After the construction band, solidly filled-in suburbs give way to scattered settlement and bare scrub. Conifers, common around Jerusalem, give way to hardy olive trees as the altitude drops. 2005:06:06 06:05:16

It's downhill all the way to Bethlehem, and for a considerable ways beyond that, too. After all, the Negev and Jordan basins are largely at or below sea level. Although the total descent is only a couple hundred meters, that coupled with progression towards the arid country further south leads to a noticeable ecological change. Mountain sage and conifers give way to broadleaf sage and olive trees. The rapidity of these transitions never fails to delight me; in most parts of my old stomping grounds in the American Southwest you'd have to walk all day to see such a change.

1 Comment

You really ought to consider being a part time travel writer, you know. I'm really happy that you decided to walk to Bethlehem.

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This page contains a single entry by Milligan published on June 15, 2005 2:28 AM.

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