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 Friday, 20 December, 2002, 06:47 GMT
Retracing biblical steps
Map of journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem
St Luke, Chapter 2

And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.

James Reynolds

Two thousand years ago, according to Christian tradition, Joseph and Mary travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Their journey would have taken several days to complete. It would have come with its own set of dangers.

Now, for a foreign journalist, the journey can be done inside one day. But the dangers are still apparent.

James Reynolds stops to put 'press' signs on his car
Danger comes from Palestinian gunmen in the hills
I started from the centre of Nazareth, now in northern Israel. My first decision was which route to take.

The New Testament does not mention which way Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem, so biblical scholars have had to work it out themselves.

The best guess - the couple went via the Jordan Valley. So that is the route I chose.

I began the drive along Israeli roads just north of the edge of the West Bank.

These roads have often been a target for Palestinian suicide bombers in the last two years of violence here.

I then headed down into the Jordan Valley, past an Israeli military checkpoint and into the West Bank.

Present dangers

At this point I stopped and spent several minutes sticking very large "Press" signs on my car, and I made sure that my flak jacket and first aid pack were at hand.

Two thousand years ago, the danger on this route may have been from thieves and bandits. Now, the danger comes from Palestinian gunmen in the hills, who have shot at Israeli cars using the road.

As a result, many Israelis avoid using the Jordan Valley road and almost everyone stays away from it at night.

I drove quickly along the mostly empty road. I passed Jericho - the oldest town in the world (and for now, the only major West Bank town not under Israeli military control) - and I headed westwards, through the Judean Hills towards Bethlehem, passing camels and shepherds by the side of the road.

Nazareth Basilica
The Nazareth start is in Israel, but the road soon goes into the West Bank

I approached the town via a series of winding back roads.

At one point, I came across an iron gate blocking a muddy road. Israeli soldiers were waiting in a jeep nearby.

Seeing that I was a foreigner, they waved me through. Most Palestinians, though, have to wait.

I carried on through hill roads, past monasteries and into the outskirts of Bethlehem.

The streets were deserted. The shops were closed. Israel is in control of the town. The army has imposed a strict curfew.

I drove slowly and carefully - making sure to keep my hazard lights on. That has become an accepted warning sign for anyone driving during a military curfew.

It is meant to alert Israeli forces to your presence - in the hope that they will not shoot if they see you.

Eventually, four hours after starting my journey, I reached Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity - my final destination.

Christmas cancelled

The square was all but abandoned. I walked around for a few minutes in the cold and the quiet.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
Bethlehem's curfew dulls celebrations in the reputed birthplace of Christ
Then I heard the sound of loudspeakers and engines. Two Israeli army jeeps drove into Manger Square - reminding people to obey the curfew.

A number of children on the edge of the square threw a few stones and then they ran off.

Usually at this time of year the square and the church would be packed.

But because of what people here call "the situation", because of the military curfew, there are no crowds and no celebrations.

This winter, Christmas has effectively been cancelled in Bethlehem.

The New Testament does not detail the problems faced by Joseph and Mary on their journey.

But I know what the trip is like nowadays. And I am left wondering whether it may not have been safer to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem in biblical times.

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See also:

10 Dec 02 | Middle East
09 Dec 02 | Middle East
22 Nov 02 | Middle East
23 Nov 02 | TV and Radio reports
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