Over 2000 years ago, Mary and Joseph made the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They likely traveled with a caravan of other travelers, perhaps with others returning for the census for the safety and companionship of traveling in numbers. We don’t know exactly what route they took—perhaps the shorter but more demanding walk along the trade route through the center of the region, or perhaps the flatter way through the Jordan River Valley. Regardless of the route, the approximately 100-mile trip would have taken them 8-10 long days of walking. This must have been a scary journey for young, pregnant Mary.
While we celebrate the birth of Jesus in December, some scholars believe it is more likely that he was born in September, so Mary and Joseph may have journeyed in the oppressive heat of July or August.
Today, visitors to the Middle East can walk this route for themselves, and encounter beautiful views, rural villages, olive fields, hospitable local people and, yes, even Samaritans. This route is called the Nativity Trail, and was developed by Palestinians as part of the Bethlehem 2000 Project as a tourism and economic development project. The trail began in Nazareth, hometown of Mary, and stretched straight down through the West Bank to Bethlehem, the city of Jesus’ birth.
Sadly, shortly after the trail was inaugurated, the second intifada and subsequent closures and checkpoints made the trail almost impossible to walk from 2002-2008. In 2008, the trail was revived with an altered route to avoid new settlement areas and other obstacles. The trail also now usually begins in Faqu’a in the northern Palestinian Territories rather than Nazareth because of the logistical difficulties of movement between Israel and the West Bank.
Groups are now hiking this route again with guided tours co-sponsored by Siraj Center for Holy Land Studies and the Alternative Tourism Group from Beit Sahour. The ten-day walk includes visiting ancient ruins, walking through picturesque valleys, taking in views of biblical landscapes, experiencing village hospitality with local families, eating delicious local delicacies and camping out Bedouin-style under the stars.
The trail also leads walkers to the famous city of Jericho, now celebrating it’s 10,000th anniversary, known as the place where Jesus was tempted in the desert and also home to some of the oldest ruins in the world. Walkers visit Mar Saba and Nebi Mousa, two monasteries in starkly beautiful Judean hills. The final destination is Bethlehem, where guests can visit the fields where the shepherds heard of Jesus’ birth, as well as visit the traditional site where Mary is said to have given birth.
We walked most of this route in 2008 and were amazed at the beautiful rural landscapes and the potential of the trail to economically support local villages. The Jesus Trail team has mapped out a trail that connects Nazareth to the Jalame checkpoint in the northern West Bank (see J26 and J27 on the Jesus Trail website). In the future, we hope to work together to assist walkers through the Galilee section and hand them off at the checkpoint to their Palestinian guides.
Nazareth is the point of intersection of the Nativity Trail and the Jesus Trail, and already some walkers have walked the two trails back-to-back. In 2011, we plan to offer tour packages that include both of these remarkable pilgrimage trails, recalling to mind these epic biblical journeys and inviting modern sojourners to enter the ancient story and meet the modern people of the region.
This Christmas we remember Mary and her journey of faith, and the message of her son which continues to transcend borders and call followers to the challenges and rewards of the faith journey.