Tag Archives: Palestine


Nativity bell towersBethlehem is a city in the Palestinian Authority with a population of 21,947 and another about 25,000 in the neighboring towns of Beit Sahour and Beit Jalla. The majority (72%) in the district are Muslim today. Christians in Bethlehem constitute less than 15% of the population (Fifty years ago, Christians made up more than 70% of the population). In the Hebrew Bible, the city is described as the birthplace of King David, in the New Testament, as the birthplace of Jesus, and hence is a center of Christian pilgrimage. Although Israelis are not allowed by Israeli law to enter areas of the Palestinian Authority, I have authorization as an Israeli tour guide to take foreign tourists to Bethlehem and Jericho.

The main attraction in Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity which stands at one end of Manger Square facing the Mosque of Omar. On the sides of the square are restaurants, souvenir shops, and a modern building that houses the Tourist Information Center, a bookstore, a restaurant and an exhibition hall which currently has a display of creches, the models of Jesus’ birth in the manger from Christian communities around the world, each in their own native style.

Mosque Omar, Manger Sq

The Church of the Nativity was begun in 327 CE by Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena over the cave that marks the birthplace of Jesus as told in the Gospels of Mathew and Luke; the sanctuary had an octagonal floor plan centered directly above the cave and was completed in 339 CE.

Nativity pre529

Nativity todayThis church was destroyed by fire during the Samaritan Revolts in 529 CE. Justinian rebuilt a new basilica in 565 CE similar to the original, making it one of the oldest surviving churches.  In this plan, the octagonal sanctuary was replaced, being enlarged to three apses. Since then the church has had numerous additions, including its prominent bell towers. The Church of the Nativity is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first to be submitted by the Palestine Authority.

Wooden trap doors give access to portions of the original geometric floor mosaics that survive from Constantine’s church.

C Nativity mosaic

Twice the church was spared, by the Persians during their invasion in 614 CE because, according to legend, they were impressed by a representation of the Magi — fellow Persians — that decorated the building. In 1009 the Muslims prevented the application of el Hakim’s decree ordering the destruction of Christian monuments because, since the time of Omar, they had been permitted to use the south transept for worship.

Entrances Church of NativityJustinian’s building had three imposing doorways of which only the central one is now in use (the left entrance is blocked by a buttress, the right by an Armenian hall for pilgrims). The one remaining doorway has been severely constricted – in the Crusader period, it was lowered with a Gothic arch; after 1515, the entrance was further reduced to prevent looters entering with horses and wagons – today it’s called the Door of Humility. Under Crusader rule the church was comprehensively redecorated, the interior walls  covered with gold mosaics. and a unique assembly of Crusader art was painted on the red limestone columns. Access to the grotto is via a pair of Crusader Gothic doorways on either side of the raised sanctuary, the bronze metal doors and baptismal font are from Justinian.

Beside the church is an elegant medieval cloister which was restored in 1948 by Barluzzi. The adjoining Church of St. Catherine is built in a more modern Gothic revival style. Beneath the church is a series of caves where St. Jerome lived and worked on the Vulgate, his translation of the Bible from Hebrew into Latin (having previously translated portions from the Greek Septuagint which came from Alexandria) from 384 CE.

From Bethlehem you can drive east through Beit Sahour to Shepherd’s Field, the site where the shepherds saw the Star of Nativity. There are two rival locations, one Greek Orthodox and the other Franciscan. Both sites have been excavated, and there have been churches and monasteries on both sites since the 4th century. This area is also believed to be where Ruth the Moabite gleaned in the fields of Boaz behind the harvesters. Ruth married Boaz and had a son Oved, the father of Jesse who was the father of King David.

The Greek Orthodox site is at Kanisat al-Ruwat and includes a cave used as a church from the 4th century, of which the barrel-vaulted roof (5th century) still survives; today, a new large church has been built on top. About 600m to the north is the Franciscan site with a low natural cave or rock shelter that is used as a modern chapel. Above is a modern church built by Barluzzi in 1954, shaped like a tent and decorated with a beautiful bronze angel by Duilio Cambellotti.

Shepherd Field Church

If you continue east, perched on the cliff above the Kidron valley is the Monastery of Mar Saba dating back to 483 CE.

Solomons Pool

West of Bethlehem are three large reservoirs from the Hasmonean period, called Solomon’s Pools, that stored the water from two aqueducts from springs in the Hebron Hills. From these pools the Upper and Lower aqueducts continued via Bethlehem, Armon HaNatziv, Abu Tor to the Old City (remains of the aqueduct can still be seen along the route); another aqueduct was built by King Herod to bring water to Herodium. The Palestinian Authority have built a large conference center with a restaurant and small archaeological museum overlooking the pools.

Visit Palestine with Shmuel

VisitPalestineWalking through the Arab shuq you might notice graphic posters displayed in a number of shops. Perhaps one of the most striking says VISIT PALESTINE with a graphic of the Haram el-Sharif. Two of the most popular places to visit in Palestine are Bethlehem and Jericho. I am now authorized to guide there so you can now visit Palestine with me.

Interesting thing is that the poster is not contemporary, not by a Palestinian artist or graphic designer and in fact, has nothing to do with “Palestine”, meaning the West Bank and Gaza. The poster is from 1936 when the whole area was Palestine under the British Mandate and the poster was designed by an Austrian Jewish artist living in Tel Aviv.

Moving from Vienna to Berlin to Paris and then Barcelona, Franz Krausz and his wife Anni managed to flee Europe, came to Palestine in 1934 and settled in Tel Aviv. Krausz was a pioneer of art for advertising and designed posters for Israeli companies like Dubek cigarettes and Elite, the chocolate and candy manufacturer. Krausz most dynamic and colorful work was hand-painted gouache, sometimes based on photographic studies shot by his wife. My good  friend and artist, Bob Gottlieb is living in Louisville, KY with my photograph of the “Petrified Trees” in the Large Makhtesh from my calendar and is planning to do a painting of the scene. Anyone else interested in trying their hand at painting from my photographs? For an example of a photograph and painting of the same scene, see my post on Banias stream.

The “Visit Palestine” poster is Krausz’ best-known image, with just those two words in English, no Hebrew or Arabic, done using only six colors. On the left foreground of the poster is a tree in silhouette, perhaps an olive, or oak or carob, framing a view of the Haram el-Sharif and Dome of the Rock, even the Dome of the Chain is shown, with Jerusalem behind – the view of the city is from the Mount of Olives. Although prolific and one of Israel’s most-accomplished graphic designers Krausz made very little money from his frugal clients.

ComeSeeIsraelYou might notice two other graphic posters in the Arab shuq. One, with English and Hebrew, has the words Tourism in Palestine as the caption at the top (in Hebrew, the text is Tourism in the Land of Israel). The main image is a gentleman, dressed in white, with a British explorer hat and high boots pointing at a map of Palestine, ostensibly a guide.

Around the main image are small icon-like drawings of places of interest (certainly a peculiar list of sites for a tour), on the left:

  • Mosque of Omar, ie. Dome of the Rock
  • Herzliah, ie. Herzliah gymnasia (high school in Tel Aviv)
  • Cave of Machpelah
  • the town of Rishon LeZion

on the right:

  • Tower of David
  • Bezalel Art Academy in Jerusalem
  • Rachel’s Tomb
  • Metulah

The poster is an advertisement for “The Association of Jewish Guides, Properly Trained In All Subjects That Make a Good Guide, Is At Your Service Fixed Rates Apply to the Office” and to encourage the purchase of craft items made in the Holy Land in order to help it’s economy and the artists who lived here.

Come to PalestineThe other poster has Come to Palestine on the bottom. It has the words “Society for the Promotion of Travel in the Holy Land” across the top, with two circles, icons of the Dome of the Rock and Tower of David (like the previous poster). Below is an idyllic painting of a palm tree overlooking Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee with a snow-capped Mount Hermon in the distance, with shepherds sitting on the hillside beside an almond tree with blossoms. The scene is viewed through a horseshoe arch, the arch starts to curve inwards above the level of the capital or impost, a form developed during the early Islamic period.

Under the painting is a quotation from Song of Songs 2:11 For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone…

The whole thing, both Biblical and Zionist themes, is done in a style influenced by the European jugendstil (similar to Art Nouveau) and by traditional Persian and Syrian styles. Both posters were designed by Zev Raban of the Bezalel Art Academy in Jerusalem in the mid 1920’s to promote tourism to Palestine.

Under the influence of Boris Schatz, the founder of the Bezalel Academy, Raban moved to Palestine in 1912 during the wave of immigration known as the Second Aliyah. He joined the faculty of the Bezalel school, and soon took on a central role there as a teacher of repoussé, painting, and sculpture. He also directed the academy’s Graphics Press and the Industrial Art Studio. By 1914, most of the works produced in the school’s workshops were of his design.

For other examples of Raban’s graphic work reproduced on ceramic tiles visit Bialik House in Tel Aviv. At the intersection of Rothschild Boulevard and Allenby Street, Lederberg House also has some ceramic murals: a Jewish pioneer sowing and harvesting, a shepherd, and Jerusalem with a verse from Jeremiah 31:4, “Again I will rebuild thee and thou shalt be rebuilt.”