The other side of the Wall: A journey to Rachel’s Tomb

To be honest with you: I first heard of the existence of Rachels Tomb when seeing the Destination Boards of Bethlehem-bound buses: Rachels’ Tomb/Checkpoint 300. It is not without irony that the place where the Hebrew Matriarch Rachel is buried now signifies a checkpoint between what can only be described as two separate countries: Israel and Palestine, and that is frequently the scene of conflict between the two flaring up.

On my visit Bethlehem, I noticed how oddly the wall was shaped close to the checkpoint, it looked like it concealed a narrow corridor behind, and I wondered what was behind it? So I started looking online, and dived into Old Testament History and the Palestine Conflict.

What is Rachel’s Tomb?

“And Rachel died, and was buried on the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem. And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave: that is the pillar of Rachel’s grave unto this day.” — Genesis 35:19-20

Rachel’s Tomb is the site considered the burial place of Rachel, the Jewish Matriarch. It is a site considered holy to all three Abrahamic religions. It is mentioned in the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian Old Testament. Rachel, who died in childbirth, was buried here by her husband Jacob, by the road between Hebron and Bethlehem. It it thought in Jewish belief that Jacob foresaw the future and that many Jews would be exiled and would pass by her tomb, and pray and find solace there.

“Thus saith the LORD; A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.” – Jeremiah 31:14-16

A simple stone pyramid existed from the 4th Century onwards, and a domes structure was first erected by Muslim rulers in the 15th Century. Following an earthquake around 1830, the Pro-Zionist banker Sir Moses Montefiore purchased the site, renovated the structure and added a Muslim prayer room.

Rachels Tomb, 19th Century. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, the structure became neglected during the British Mandate due to disputes as who was responsible for the site’s upkeep, but both Jews and Muslims continued to visit the site and respected each others prayers. From the 1940’s onwards, it became not just a symbol for Jewish peoples return to Zion, but also a site for Jewish women to pray for fertility and uncomplicated childbirth.

Rachel’s Tomb, 1930. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Between 1948 and 1967 the site was claimed by both Jews and Muslims and was occupied by Jordan. In theory, free access was granted to people of all faiths according to the 1949 Armistice Agreements though Jews were unable to enter Jordan and as such visit the tomb.

Rachel’s Tomb 1978. No fortifications yet. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Following the Six-Day War in 1967 and the 1995 Oslo Accords, it returned to be on Israeli soil while the City of Bethlehem became part of the Palestinian State. In 1995, following an attack and subsequent destruction of Joseph’s tomb in the West Bank Rachel’s Tomb was attacked, and this continued throughout  the Second Intifada until 2002, when the tomb was encased into a concrete fortress and incorporated into the Separation Wall. It has been on the Israeli National Heritage List, a move largely opposed by the UNESCO who maintain that it is a site considered religiously significant to both Muslims and Jews.

So what is it like to visit in 2018?

Until about ten years ago, you could only go there in an armour-plated bus, a service provided by Egged, the Israel Transport Cooperative Society. Today, Egged Bus 163 runs several times a day to the site, and driving is also possible. Due to its location in a double-fold of Separation Wall going through Palestinian territory, walking there is forbidden.

Entry to the Tomb Compound. The fortified tomb is seen on the right. Nothing is left of the original dome structure

So, it was the bus, then. I showed up at CBS, having gathered the bus times from my only non-Hebrew source, Google Routeplanner, and waited at the stop. As an empty Egged City Bus163 (armourplating no longer required) pulled up, the driver asked me, somewhat astonished, whether I was going to Kever Rachel. Soon, the bus filled up with mostly women in very conservative clothing, all long skirts and headcoverings, reading prayer books.  I was glad to find a few were English speakers! The bus then passed through some ultra-orthodox neighbourhoods to the North, and if you ever wanted to go to Meah She’arim but did not dare to, this would be your chance to get a fleeting glimpse of it without causing too much hoo-hah. Honestly, I was the only female on the bus with trousers, but given my light travelling style, my other option would have been a short sleeved dress just ging to the knee,  which would have been even more inappropriate – at least every inch except my face was covered in this outfit!  I don’t think getting off the bus in any of these neighbourhoods would have been a good idea, as trousers on women are considered very inappropriate amongst Ultra-Orthodox Jews, so I sank in my seat and covered my legs with my scarf, and looked out of the window. I had already learnt that for sure I must NEVER sit next to Ultra-Orthodox males, easily recognisable by their outfits, on public transport or anywhere else, and not look at them or speak to them, either. Thankfully, most passengers on the bus were women, and they all seemed friendly.

Then, something strange happened: As soon as we reached the Old City Walls, some males sitting by that side pulled the blinds down, as if they could not bear to the sight of East Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. But then, the Ultra-Orthodox have been known to throw rocks at Egged buses going through their neighbourhood because they refused to segregate men and women on their city buses.

The bus followed the same route down Hebron Road as the bus to Bethlehem, except they had different stops, then the Separation Wall turned up, and just before it, the bus turned right long the wall, where a police barrier blocked the road. The police barrier was duly opened, and we drove along the wall, then inside a completely walled corridor, then turned again into a bus stop and a parking lot, and were let out. The bus left and I was told that the next bus would leave in about 45 minutes, plenty of time for a visit.

All I could see was mountains of concrete. Nothing was left to see of the dome of the original structure of Kever Rachel, instead, there sat a squat concrete block with two entrances – one for men, one for women. Ahead, the road ended dead and was surrounded by a ten-metre wall. So, the wall to my left was the wall of colourful graffiti, just across in Bethlehem. The scene could not have been different here.

Access road facing back towards Jerusalem. The site is to the left, with separate entries for men and women.

 

Dead end street, entirely entrenched in walls. The building on the far end is already in West Bank Bethlehem.
Some Rules before entering

On the bus, everyone was very conservatively attired, but out here, mixing with those visitors who had come by car, visitors were a bit more mixed. I followed the women to “their” side of the tomb, where everyone, and absolutely everyone was praying, some from books, some on small benches in front of the tomb, but most holding one hand up on the tomb. It was very peaceful, and solemn, much different to the noise and shoving I had experienced at the most significant Christian sites like the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Inside the women’s prayer area
The centrepiece and actual shrine of the burial site

I stayed for half an hour, then walked to the end of the dead end street and contemplated on the sadness that befell me that, although considered holy, some worshippers could not rech the site at all, while the others had to essentially enter a walled fortress that seemed so remote from the rest of Israel.

Road back to Jerusalem

I made a small video on my phone, as sticking my camera out would have been way too intrusive.  Apologies for the wobbles!

 

Practicalities

Rachel’s Tomb is free to visit and open almost around the clock, though using public transport, a daytime visit is most practicable. Dress modestly (cover shoulders, cover knees, ladies wear skirts below the knee if possible, but long trouser may just about pass) and be prepared to cover your head upon entry (you can borrow head scarfs at the site). I think it goes without that as a site considered holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, you ought to treat the site with respect to those who worship there. Unlike at Holy Sepulchre, you will stick out very much if not dressing or behaving appropriately. It is not a problem if you are not Jewish, none at all, people will make you feel welcome / leave you alone. The large majority praying at the site will be the local people, although I saw a few visitors from the US.  Although I am not Jewish, it was one of the most solemn and spiritual places I had the honour to visit in the Holy Land. Around the anniversary of Rachel’s passing (yahrtzeit) in late October or early November, be prepared for thousands of visitors flocking to the site and possible restrictions.

Transport: The tram (which goes by the fancy name Jerusalem Light Rail) is  great way of getting round Jerusalem. Within the Old City, you’ll have to walk. The tram, coming from the Central Bus Station stops at City Hall (handy for Jaffa Gate, the more touristy entry to the Old City, heading into the Christian Quarter) then at Damascus Gate (one of the Arab Quarter entrances to the Old City and also the main Jerusalem Hub of the East Jerusalem Bus Company, on three plots spread around Damascus Gate). Take the tram to the Central Station stop, then take the Bus.

Bus:  As you face the Central Bus Station (CBS), go right along Yafo Street for about 150m to find the Bus Stop for Rachels Tomb. The Stop ID is 4169.Egged Bus 163 makes the journey roughly every two hours, with great variations throughout the day. The most convenient stop to get on is at the CBS, but you could also get on at Shivtei Israel Street near the Old City, although its a fair walk up Shivtei Israel Street to get to the Stop and the bus may be really crowded by then.

At present, Egged Bus 163 leaves Jerusalem Central Station/Yafo  at 05:10, 07:55, 08:55, 09:55,10:55, 11:55, 12:55, 14:55, 16:66 and 18:55. The Bus 234 to Rachel’s Tomb Checkpoint will take you near there, but you will not be able to walk further than the road block, and you will not be able to reach the site on foot. Although you could theoretically ask someone in a car to take you, I personally wouldn’t hang around in this rather sensitive area.

Car: I presume few visitors have their own car, but most locals actually drive there. The GPS coordinates are 31 N 43’09” x 35 E 12’07” . Unless at the yahrtzeit, when Thousands of pilgrims visit, parking should be easy (and its free)

Accommodation: I stayed in an AirBnB in West Jerusalem close to He Haluts Station. I highly recommend staying close to the Light Railway. You may find more quiet the more Western you go, whereas from Central Station East you’ll be right in the shopping and business district with a lot of dining options, too. With the Light Rail going at least every ten minutes even late in teh evening, it’s really easy to get around. The well-known Abraham Hostel, for example, is very centrally located by the Ha Davidtka Stop. Since I was travelling on my own on a budget of 500 EURO (for the entire week), hotels were out of the question this time.

Food: Not there. Take the 163 bus back to Shivtei Israel Street/ City Hall and alight there for plenty of options along Yafo Street – its best to walk a bit further away from the Old City for more authentic options.

Tours: As far as I looked, I could not find any tours to Rachel’s Tomb. I think on certain days, some Orthodox communities put on special buses to the site, but being neither Jewish nor a Hebrew speaker I did not investigate them, especially as Egged makes it very easy to visit by public bus. You will find numerous tour operators in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem offering guided tours to Bethlehem, for example with Abraham Tours or Tourist Israel  but they usually don’t include the street art of Bethlehem, and neither do they offer visits to Rachel’s Tomb. Murad Tours offers a Street-Art Tour of Bethlehem that includes the Church of the Nativity. However… unless these tours visit Bethlehem really early to avoid the crowds and the long queues (it opens at 05.30 or 06.30 depending on season), a trip can be easily done on public transport and/or taxi and will most likely cost a lot less. Also, I am unsure whether the tours will wait long enough for you to stand in line and visit the Nativity Grotto.

Tourist Israel operates a tourist shuttle between Tel Aviv/Jerusalem and both the Church of the Nativity and the Walled Off Hotel in Bethlehem from 1 April 2018, costing from USD15.

For hearing different sides of the story, something I highly recommend in a place as disputed and debated as Israel and Palestine, I recommend seeking out dialogue with both Israeli and Palestine nationals. A fellow traveller went on a Hebron Dual Narrative Tour and highly recommended it. I don’t think I would have dared to visit Hebron by myself either, due to the complexities of the zones and checkpoints, and this is the tour I would have gone on given more time.

If I could go back, I would try to arrive at the checkpoint at the crack of dawn next time and visit the Church of the Nativity as early as possible to avoid the crowds. It’s less than 10km from Jaffa Gate to the checkpoint, so a taxi shouldn’t cost much.

Additional Material

I had a 2011 Bradt Guide* and WiFi in pretty all public places which was more than enough. The Bradt Guide does not include the Palestinian Territories and is well out of date regarding prices and accommodation options, but a new edition (minus Palestinan Territories!) is due out in summer 2018. Lonely Planet * includes the Palestine Territories and a new edition is out in summer 2018. I generally prefer Rough Guide * as it’s often stronger on history and culture and has more diverse accommodation and dining options, but its Israel and Jerusalem guidebooks don’t look like they have been updated in the last few years.

Rachelstomb.org is a site that I found most helpful and that finally encouraged me to visit.

 

Links marked with an asterisk (*) are affiliate links. This means if you make a purchase through these links, I will earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. 

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