Originally created 12/12/04

Holy Land seeks visitors during Christmas



JERUSALEM - For the first Christmas season in five years, Israel and the Palestinians are cooperating to boost tourism to encourage Christian pilgrims to visit the Holy Land during the holiday.

The Israeli and Palestinian tourism ministers announced in a meeting last month - their first since fighting broke out in 2000 - that they intended to guarantee easy access for visitors traveling between Jerusalem and nearby Bethlehem, simplifying security checks.

Christmas celebrations in the land Jesus walked once attracted tens of thousands of tourists. But in the last few years, violence has kept pilgrims away.

Tourism has recently begun to rise again due to a marketing push and a renewed effort to maintain relative calm after Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's death on Nov. 11.

"We are telling everyone that they can come more freely to the Holy Land," Palestinian Tourism Minister Mitri Abu Aitah said in the meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Gideon Ezra.

Ezra said he expected the new procedures to help. "I think this meeting between us will lead to a lot of people to come visit the Holy Land," he said.

If you make the trip this season, here are some recommendations:

Walk the ramparts of the Old City in Jerusalem, where you can view the minarets and steeples from every angle. You may even see a relative of the peregrine falcon, the lesser kestrel, who prefers the stone holy places when it nests in the area from February to July.

After visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, built in the fourth century by Emperor Constantine to mark the traditional site of Jesus' crucifixion and burial, enter the small door to the left as you come out the main entrance. Climb the stairs through three tiny Ethiopian chapels to the roof. Passing through the archway, you can enter the Coptic Patriarchate. Find the stairs leading down into a dark cistern whose acoustics are wonderful for singing your favorite Bible hymn.

For a spectacular view in every direction, climb the tower at the Lutheran Church a few steps away from the Holy Sepulcher.

One of the most difficult challenges for tourists in Jerusalem is finding out when it's possible to visit the walled Al Aqsa Mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount. The compound, home to the Dome of the Rock mosque, is closed twice daily, during prayers, but it is worth the effort to get inside and view the rock from which Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.

To the left of the plaza of the Western Wall, a retaining wall of the Second Jewish Temple and the holiest site for Jews, you will see the entrance to an archaeological tunnel. Here you can see stones, cisterns and a Hasmonean water channel used 2,000 years ago.

At the Old City's Arab market shops, you can buy vests decorated with traditional Palestinian embroidery, hand-painted Armenian pottery and fresh sesame and pistachio brittle. Haggling is an art you must master quickly. In most cases it's best to offer half the price you are first quoted and work your way up to about two-thirds of what the seller asks. Try not to show you really want the item or the shop owners won't budge much.

Traveling from Jerusalem just a few miles away to the West Bank town of Bethlehem can seem somewhat daunting since tourists must pass through an Israeli military checkpoint.

But don't mind the M-16 guns held by the Israeli soldiers. This area has not seen clashes in more than a year and they are unlikely here since both Israelis and Palestinians are eager to facilitate the travel of pilgrims.

Manger Square is not the quaint, calm scene depicted in the Christmas carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem." Although it has been transformed in recent years, it is often still full of tour buses.

The stone Church of the Nativity is dank and cold, but filled with fragrant incense and a wonderful sight when full of worshippers at the midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Bring warm clothes if you come for the holiday season; temperatures around Christmas in Bethlehem average in the 40s.

If you're lucky, it might even snow.