Walking Around Bethlehem
January 17, 2018
Bethlehem is a lovely city to walk through, because few cities in the world can claim to surpass it in friendliness. While in other parts of the world tourists and pilgrims may be a nuisance, every local nods and smiles at one as they go past. Perhaps after millennia of the constant stream of foreigners passing through, the residents of Bethlehem are more seasoned and thus more open to visitors. Of course, all the vendors and shopkeepers want one to stop in their store, to browse, to buy things, and to tell one’s friends of their store’s greatness. But, even they go far beyond any salesman I have ever met, and run errands to a currency exchange or order tea from the local coffee shop free of charge. They will teach you Arabic, and so whatever you end up buying, always at a good deal, will come with many more services besides.
Bethlehem is very loud, and one hears the incessant sound of the call to prayer from towering minarets. It is in the majority a Muslim town, with that religious group’s population growing over many decades. The Christian population has simply remained the same, so, while they used to be eighty percent of the residents, now they are at thirty percent. Hence, when strolling through the city, one mainly encounters Muslims.
Other aspects of the town that arrest one’s attention are the steep hills, the shouting of vendors, and the many running children. However, my favorite aspect of my walk are the multitudinous smells from the shops. Here there is the savory smell of a roasting lamb. There, I smell the spices popular in the local cuisine. Everywhere, I smell pita bread baking. I have found that smells are my memory’s greatest triggers, and so when I go back to Middle Eastern restaurants back home in Michigan, I will always fondly remember my pilgrimage to Bethlehem.
By Andrew Ayers (Diocese of Grand Rapids)
Photos by Charles Warren (Diocese of Rockford) and Mike Lewis (Diocese of El Paso)