While yahooing “Bethlehem” on the internet, a couple of results stating a curious theory caught my eye: namely, that Jesus’ birthplace might not have been the famous Bethlehem of Judea, but a much smaller–and closer to Nazareth–Bethlehem of Galilee (Beit Lehem Haglilit). Further research rendered abuntant results, though all of them lead to the same character: Aviram Oshri, a Jewish archeologist. According to Wikipedia
“it was originally known as Bethlehem of Zebulun […] Archaeological findings from the early Roman Period show it was a prosperous city. Due to its proximity to Nazareth, Aviram Oshri, a senior archaeologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority, believes that this is the Bethlehem where Jesus was born.”
Whereas, with an excessive touristic zeal, IsraelTraveler.org says that
“it is perhaps one of the more picturesque places in the whole of Israel […] a place of a prominent European atmosphere, with its elegant stone houses, the impressive tile roofs and the wide main street into which everything flows. Here one can find today Zimmers, a unique Visitors Center, restaurants and cafés, small shops, art galleries and a large herbs farm rich in scents. It is recommended to visit the historic House of the People and the impressive round water tower at the top of which is a water pool.”
So I decided to visit the place. I was curious about this discovery and, sojourning in Nazareth by that time, I didn’t want to lose the opportunity of stepping on perhaps the real land that saw the birth of Jesus.
However, though barely six miles away from Nazareth as the crow flies, to get there without my own vehicle was not such a simple task as it looked. To start with, none of the locals I asked seemed to know the place, and even a man who drove daily along the nearby road had never realized its existence. This shocked me a bit, having taken for granted that, at least around Nazareth, everyone should be aware of a neighbouring location competing for such a honour as being the birthplace of God’s son. But I was resolved to go; so I had to device my own route. GPS in hand, I first took a bus to Haifa and asked the driver to drop me at the junction with road 7626, where I could hitchhike or, if unlucky, walk the three remaining miles to the village. Under a merciless sun, it took me quite a while to get a ride. A young Jewish guy, honest enough to admit that it was easier to hitchhike in this region because Muslims were friendlier, picked me up and dropped me at highway 77, little more than one mile away from my destination. Yet, no sign of it was to be seen.
As a side note, let me say here that most of the population in the North District of Israel, whose capital is Nazareth, are Arabs (70% Muslims and 30% Christians, pacifically coexisting) who submitted to the Israeli occupation of their land in 1948, and consequently disapprove of the Jewish as much as they can. During my short stay in Nazareth I could sometimes hear words of animosity and even hatred, and I understood why my Jewish friend from Jerusalem used to tell me that it was not particularly safe for her to travel to some parts of the country.
So, there I was, standing by highway 77 and GPSing my way to a presumed landmark of universal importance that, notwithstanding, didn’t even have a road sign pointing to it. As a matter of fact, shortly after a quarter of a mile, and much to my astonishment, I had to leave the asphalt and take the dirt road supposedly leading to this mysterious Bethlehem. For the moment, all I could see of it was an isolated gardening shed. At both sides of the road lay meager farming lots and famine olive tree orchards. Finally I came to a fence whereof the gate stopped the way to vehicles. A town behind a wire fence?, I asked to myself.
Beyond the gate the road was paved again. I passed by a few scattered houses (not older than two or three decades), most of which had some or other kind of dog, not altogether friendly, guarding the property. I could hear one of them growling behind me along thirty endless steps. Yet not a soul appeared to my sight. Further on, the street forked and I kept walking along what I then clearly realized was an urbanization, on a layout much like what you can find all over North America: plot, house, garage, yard, grass, spread out toys, mailbox, little gate; then another plot, and another one… At length, I came across an old couple walking a dog, people sitting at their front yard’s table, someone driving a huge 4WD or a group holding a jolly meeting under somebody’s tree. Voices could be heard speaking in Hebrew, others in USan English, and the children in a playground were fair haired like angels. Contrary to what happened in Nazareth, nobody nodded nor said hello to me, much after the riches’ stiff ways. Then I understood the fence and the gate: this was a hostile Jewish-American settlement in the middle of a hostile Arab territory; a fistful of wealthy families living in relatively expensive houses one mile away from average low class Muslim populations. Why here? God knows, as there are much nicer places in Israel where to build a country house rather than this dry, bare and ugly land. Maybe they’re subsidized by the Israeli government same as the settlements in Palestine?
However it be, after walking along the whole place -around 3/4 ml long- I didn’t find any sign whatsoever of ancient remnants or archaeological sites, nor an information board mentioning anything related to Jesus’ birth or a former settlement. Needless to say that I also didn’t find any of the picturesque things mentioned in IsraelTraveler.org: no European atmosphere, no elegant stone houses, no restaurants or cafés, no art galleries and no nothing flowing into the wide main street… So, what the hell was all that? A bad joke?
On my way back to Nazareth, helped by three Arab drivers, I was meditating. Perhaps there was some hidden corner within the urbanization where excavations had been done? Perhaps there were remains of a two thousand year old village, now wholly extinguished, two meters below the ground? Or perhaps this claim for the real birthplace of Jesus is only the whim of a zealot Jew too willing to take from the Palestinians the relevance of their Bethlehem? Unless further information be published in the future, the incognita about this place’s authenticity will remain.