Two Co Wexford women this year walked the 160km Nativity Trail from Nazareth to Bethlehem, discovering the 'real' Palestine along the way.
Noirin Healy-Magwa from New Ross and Kathleen Higginbotham from Wexford were part of a group of 20 people who walked a route, which according to the Bible is the journey Joseph and Mary took from Nazareth to Bethlehem where Jesus was born.
Here Noirin recalls a trip of a lifetime: 'We began our trek in Nazareth (City of the Annunciation) and reached Bethlehem (City of the Nativity) ten days later. It was a most enlightening, interesting, safe trip organised by a tourist agency in Bethlehem.'
On the trip in September, and with the assistance of an excellent local guide, Noirin had the opportunity to explore the landscape, holy sites, churches and monasteries of this ancient land.
Along the way the group were welcomed by Palestinian, Muslim and Christian families on overnight stays in their homes, towns, villages, refugee camps, Bedouin settlements and hotels. They learned about the history, heritage and culture of the region and were received with openness and hospitality everywhere they travelled.
'Hospitality and food are intrinsically linked in Palestinian culture and we were treated to traditional dishes of hummus, falafel, yogurt, cream cheeses, stuffed zucchini, goat stew, lamb and chicken. We were refreshed with sweet sage flavoured tea during the hot days and sustained our energy with strong, sweet, Arabic coffee.
'As we walked, we observed the challenges and daily struggles of a people living "under occupation" in a diminishing Palestine who have limited opportunities to travel outside the West Bank. They are surrounded by checkpoints, with a separation wall built by Israel and an increasing number of Jewish communities in settlements strategically placed on Palestinian land.'
The group were met at Ben Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv and were transported to Nazareth, known in the Christian tradition as the home of the Holy Family. After a relaxing hotel stay and time to adjust to temperatures in the mid-30s, they enjoyed a walking tour of Nazareth where they visited Mary's Well, the Church of the Assumption (a revered sacred site decorated with beautiful icons, paintings, mosaics and marble floors) and viewed other historic buildings.
'As we walked through the city we encountered many places with names familiar to us in biblical stories from our education and we spent some time strolling the souk (market area) and finished our tour with a trip to view Mount Tabor outside the city. Later we walked through Jamalah checkpoint, crossing from Israel to the West Bank.'
Their next stop was the bustling city of Jenin, where they visited a Jenin refugee camp, a name familiar to many as being a centre of resistance against the occupation. They paid a visit to the world famous community based theatre and cultural centre, 'Freedom Theatre' and learned about their history and the programmes they deliver within the local community.
After an overnight stay in a local hotel the group set off on an 18kms hike in open sunshine, which brought them through some of the most fertile land and rolling hills of Palestine, a land of ancient olive trees, orange groves, almond trees and in more recent times large horticultural tunnels.
'Our midday picnic lunch and our replenished water supply under the shade of a few sparse olive trees was much appreciated. In the village of Zababdeh, we visited the local church and later divided into smaller groups and on to the homes of local families where we stayed overnight, enjoyed dinner, a good night's rest and a hearty breakfast. Then we continued our walk through fertile land and forests, descending to the spring of Ain Fara'a and reaching the village of Fara'a and its crowded refugee camp, one of 19 refugee camps in the West Bank. Here we were once again welcomed and hosted by local families. '
The next day they trekked through the picturesque valley of Wadi Bidan in view of terraced orange groves and olive trees dotted across the slopes until they reached the city of Nablus, one of Palestine's largest cities, a commercial and industrial hub well-known for the production of excellent olive soap and traditional sweets.
'Our hotel, surrounded by narrow streets, beautiful architecture and stone façades of the old city was a ten-minute walk to the ancient Turkish Baths where we enjoyed a good bathe, scrub and massage! In Nablus we visited Jacob's Well situated in a large Greek Orthodox Church and later spent time with the Samaritan Community who trace their origin to the Israelite tribes and practice a form of Judaism that only recognises the five books of Moses. We were guided to a good viewing point to see Tel Balata, the site of the ancient Canaanite/Israelite city.'
From Nablus we headed South towards Jericho, with another home-stay in the village of Duma and on through the amazing deep rocky gorge of Wadi Auja, with temperatures rising to 38/39 degrees. After seven hours walking in the intense heat through a spectacular secluded valley they arrived at the Auja spring, one of the largest water sources in the Jordan Valley.
'On our arrival at the spring, the soaring temperatures drove some of us to enjoy a swim in the clear, cool spring water. As it was autumn, we missed the abundant springtime flora and the beautiful purple blue Iris haynei, the national flower of Palestine.'
An overnight stay in a Bedouin Camp was a highlight for all of the group.
'We enjoyed learning about their lifestyle, land use, family structure, sheep, goats and camels, and their vulnerability as they struggle to live as nomads within sight of an increasing number of sprawling settlements. We were treated to a tasty traditional meal in view of a spectacular desert sunset. A cool, open 20-bed tent ensured a restful night for all.'
Their next stop was the 10,000 year old city of Jericho, which lies 250 metres below sea level. There they enjoyed the luxury of a swimming pool and air conditioned hotel rooms in the sweltering desert heat. Close to the City of Jericho they took a cable car to reach the monastic complex of the Mount of Temptation where Jesus is said to have had a confrontation with Satan.
'We travelled on to enjoy the unique experience of floating in the Dead Sea, well-known for its high salt levels and mineral-rich mud. Sadly, the waters of the River Jordan are being diverted for commercial agricultural use, resulting in the Dead Sea losing its main water source and it is now rapidly shrinking. En route from Jericho we trekked through the barren parched Wadi Qelt to St Georges Koziba Monastery and later visited the Nabi Musa Monastery, a mosque built by the Mamluks in the 13th century. We crossed the desert and headed southwest to the Monastery of Mar Saba, a vast spiritual complex under the Greek Orthodox church. This is one of the oldest monasteries in the world and has a constant stream of pilgrims and a surprisingly large number of women visitors, even though they are not allowed to enter the main compound of the monastery.'
After their last overnight in the desert, with heavy hearts the travellers trekked through the Jerusalem wilderness, on the last leg of their journey to reach Bethlehem. En route they visited a Bedouin traditional musician and were treated to a few tunes on his traditional bow stringed instrument, the Rababa. In the distance as they approached Bethlehem, the could see the historical Herodium Hill Complex which houses Herod's Tomb.
On reaching Bethlehem they visited Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity with the three Christian churches, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic, situated side by side at the site where Jesus was born. They took a short tour to view the nine-metre-high separation wall which Israel began building in 2002, as a security barrier between the West Bank and Israel. Over time the route of the wall no longer follows the 1949 armistice border (Green line) and large sections now cut deeply into the West Bank.
On their final night in Bethlehem, they enjoyed a celebratory meal with the tour company and were treated to a wonderful performance by a local traditional dance group.
'The nativity walk had come to an end and most group members moved on to spend an extra couple of days exploring the ancient city of Jerusalem and its famous historical holy sites, before travelling to the airport and onwards to our respective homes. Travellers and Pilgrims from many countries visit the 'Holy Land' every year but usually travel by bus to the main Holy Sites. Our walking trip took us through lands which were more easily accessible for tourists before the establishment of the state of Israel and the subsequent occupation of the Palestinian territories.
'In 1934, HV Morton in his book "In the Steps of the Master" documented his travels, his impressions and experiences as he travelled across Palestine with the 'New Testament' in his hand. Morton travelled unhindered through many towns, villages and the countryside. He faithfully visited the Holy Sites as he walked in the footsteps of Jesus, the Disciples and the Prophets. Sadly, 85 years later some of the sites he visited were not accessible on our trip, because of Israeli checkpoints and the separation wall which restricts movement.'
She said nevertheless, the tour does bear testament to the emergence of new and unique opportunities to experience safe, well guided walking tours and explore areas of great historical and biblical significance.
'This Nativity Trail, similar to the Camino Way in Europe and Kumano Kodo in Japan provides a unique, authentic experience that connects with the heart and soul of these ancient lands and allows us to see with our own eyes its culture, heritage, religion and political systems. Throughout our trek, our guide gave well balanced information on the history and culture and also gave us entertaining stories from Palestinian Folklore that were a welcome distraction when the going got tough!'
The Nativity Trail, Abraham's Path, and Samaritan Walks are organised by two NGO tour agencies in Bethlehem. They will also plan trips on request from various groups and individuals from Christian organisations, tour companies, independent guides, church groups, peace activists and special interest groups. They can be contacted at "The Siraj Center" www.sirajcenter.org and "The Alternative Tourism Group" www.atg.ps