The first full day of our week in Israel began in the Judean desert. In our pre-trip conversations with our wonderful guide David, we told him that we wanted to spend a day in the West Bank. As an Israeli citizen, David is forbidden from entering the West Bank under Israeli law, so he contacted an Arab-Israeli colleague, Morsi, to guide us through this area of Israel.
The map below roughly shows our route, Jerusalem (our base), east to Jericho, then backtrack to Ramallah, then south to Bethlehem. It was a long but fascinating day and one we won't soon forget.
Driving through the tunnel of the highway leading east from Jerusalem transports you from a relative green landscape to a Martian-like desert.
Our first stop was a bird's eye view of St. George's Monastery built on the side of cliff in the 5th century CE. This was as close as we got, but it's possible to visit the monastery.
And then the obligatory stop at the Sea Level sign!
Our first stop was Jericho, claimed to be the oldest city in the world. Most of our time there was spent at Hisham's Palace, built in the early part of the 8th century. This would be the first of many beautiful mosaic floors we would see on the trip.
The complex is huge, spread over 150 acres, but we concentrated on the palace which is still undergoing archaeological excavation. Fortunately a large part of it was covered as the heat was intense the day we visited in mid-September.
The gorgeous mosaic floor is amazingly well-preserved and is one of the largest floor mosaics in the world covering 9,000 sq. ft. and containing five million pieces.
Other mosaics included this beautiful tree of life and many colorful geometric designs.
On to Ramallah passing many stands of figs and dates.
While only less than 10 miles from Jerusalem, Ramallah is a different world. I wanted to see it after so many years of hearing about unrest in the area. I had a picture of it in my mind as a dusty outpost in the middle of the desert. I couldn't have been more mistaken; as the de facto administrative capital of Palestine, it's a lively, relatively modern city.
Yasser Arafat was Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organizatio from 1969 to 2004 and is buried in Ramallah. We drove past his burial site but didn't visit it.
The political situation between Palestine and the rest of Israel is complicated. While Americans such as us only had to show our passports to leave each city in the West Bank, Palestinians' rights are severely curtailed. There are over 60 gates, or checkpoints, manned by Israeli soldiers in the West Bank.
This is part of the fence around Palestine. When complete the goal is that the fence will extend 435 miles.
And this sign was everywhere we went.
Our last stop in the West Bank was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity is shared by the Roman Catholic, Armenian Apostolic and Greek Orthodox faiths. The Armenian monastery is to the right of the photo below.
The church was built in the 4th century over the grotto that is traditionally thought to be the birthplace of Jesus. It is the oldest site continuously used as a place of worship in Christianity, and the basilica is the oldest major church in the Holy Land.
As you can see, much of the interior is very ornate.
The 14-point star depicted below is the spot where it is said that Jesus was born.
The star was inscribed in 1717 with Hic De Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est ("Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary").
The quiet grotto under the church.
The statue of St. Jerome occupies a prominent place in the courtyard. Jerome, a Christian theologian and priest, was born in the 4th century and is best known for his translation of the Bible into Latin.
Here are a few more photos of this lovely church.
A view of Bethlehem from the courtyard of the church.
We got a kick out of these Starbucks knockoffs throughout the West Bank!
➜ Top Tips
If you visit Israel, a day in the West Bank is interesting and eye-opening.
Try to do as much research about the West Bank and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as possible before you go.