Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Oh Little Town of Bethlehem.

Greek Orthodox monks conducting afternoon prayer at the Church of the Nativity.

Back when Christ was alive, it probably took days to travel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. These days, Bethlehem is pretty much a suburb of Jerusalem. I don't think it took us more than 20 minutes to get from Zion Gate to the military checkpoint in Bethlehem.


As I got out of the van, the first thing that struck me was the wall. It is the wall that separates the West Bank territories from the rest of Israel. According to Uri, the wall runs for about 700 kilometers, encircling the West Bank; it's about 25 feet high and 10 feet thick.  You would need a bomb or a missile to blast through it.

 
To go in/out of the West Bank, everyone has to go through the checkpoint. It's a surreal experience. As an Israeli, Uri is not permitted to enter. So, he dropped us off and gave us instructions on how to make our way through the checkpoint. We passed through a series of turnstiles and headed up a series of zig zagging ramps that eventually led us to an open area like a parking lot. We crossed the lot and there was another turnstile for exiting. There was a soldier in the booth eyeing us.  We just scurried along trying to not look like we had no clue where we were going.

Fencing is around the area of the checkpoint itself.

Looking through the fencing back out at *Israel*.  The concrete wall is on the left.

It's the most surreal travel experience I have ever had traveling from one spot of a country to another.

Once we passed through the turnstile, we were on Palestinian soil and a man named "Ali" stood to greet us. We followed Ali to an awaiting van and off we went. Bethlehem looks like towns I've seen in Egypt and Jordan. It's definitely a poor place. It's also located in a very arid region so few trees or any other form of greenery. Just a lot of buildings clinging to hillsides.

Bethlehem looks and feels like many of the towns I've been to in the Middle East.

We soon at another meeting location. Here, we would be saying goodbye to Ali and hello to Issa (sp?) who would guide us on our visit to the Church of the Nativity and St. Catherine's Church. I was just hoping he was the last guy we get handed off to!  It's quite a challenge traveling between Israeli and the Palestinian controlled territories!

Issa led us to the courtyard in the front of the Church of the Nativity. There he did the needful and gave us the history of the Church which of course, included a retelling of the birth of Christ.


Originally, there was a cave in the spot where the present day church stands. It was in that cave that supposedly Jesus was born and since early times, it has been venerated as Christ's birthplace. In 326 Roman Emperor Constantine ordered a church to be built and in 530, it was rebuilt by Justinian. The Crusaders later renovated the interior but much of the marble was later looted by the Ottomans. Evidence of all these hands on the church can be seen in its front entrance. Issa pointed out the original height of the archway, high up, as it was originally constructed by the Crusaders. It was shrunk to its present day size by the Ottomans who wanted to prevent camels and carts from entering the church to further loot the interior.

Even as short as I am, I had to crouch to pass through the entryway!

In 1852, shared custody of the church was granted to the Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches but it is the Greeks who look after the Grotto of the Nativity.

Entering the Church, it's not a grand interior like you see in churches in the UK and Europe. I think it's because it's a much older church. The nave though is particularly wide. Issa told us that the current interior is decorated with items gifted from other nations. He also pointed out that the current wooden beamed roof was restored in the 19th century with donations from the UK.


Issa led us to a spot on the floor that had a wooden covering that could be shuttered closed - it looked like a trap door. Beneath the present day floor are remains of a stunning mosaic floor dating back to the time of Justinian. Being out of direct sunlight has preserved the vibrant colors.

The Byzantines learned the art of mosaics from the Romans and they learned well.
We followed Issa to a location just to the side of the altar where a small group of Greek Orthodox monks were conducting daily mass. I stood to watch them and discretely take some photos.


We had to pass through an doorway which was guarded. It took Issa some convincing but eventually the guard let us in. Later, I found out that Issa was taking us via the exit from the Nativity of the Grotto instead of the entrance because the entrance would be too crowded with other tourists - he was trying to get us in "by the back door" :-) This is the kind of guide that I appreciate having!!

Located just to the left of the apse was a set of stone steps that led down to a small room.


The room was packed with people. On the left was the Grotto of the Nativity which is the church's focal point.


A silver starburst  is set in the floor over the spot above where Christ is said to have been born. One by one, people crawled into the grotto to pay their respects.


Opposite the grotto is the Manger Altar. There were so many people backed up to the altar that I couldn't even get close enough to take a picture. It was a mob scene down in that little space. I don't like crowds to begin with and I only take so much before I have to surface for air.

I headed back up the stairs and waited for the others to finish up.

Small altar.

From the Church of the Nativity, we took a side exit to the Cloister of St. Catherine's Church.  The church had a pretty little courtyard with a statue of St. Hieronymus (St. Jerome) in the center.




We entered the church but didn't get far - there was a service going on. There was an African minister at the podium, speaking in French - makes me think they are from West Africa. I had bumped into a large contingent of Christians traveling from Côte d'Ivoire two days ago. Perhaps they're related.....or not :-)



After our quick visit to St. Catherine's, we were done. We followed Issa to a meeting point where a vehicle would come to pick us up and drop us at a local souvenir shop. There's always shopping involved when you go on a conducted tour which is why I generally avoid them.....like the plague.

Heading down the steps to where we had to wait for our ride.
We had to wait quite a few minutes before a van showed up and it was a short ride back to the shop. Inside....(okay, I will go ahead and admit this), I bought a bag of Dead Sea salts for my colleague Umesh who asked me to pick up some for him and a small pottery bowl for my friend Corri.

I headed outside to enjoy the weather while everyone else wrapped up their shopping.

View of the street from the souvenir shop's front entrance.

Soon, it was back into the van and then back to the checkpoint. On the Palestinian side, there's a parking lot filled with taxis waiting for potential customers. There were so many taxis that our van driver had a hard time making his way to our drop off point so we told him to just let us off and we would walk the short (less than 50 feet) distance to the start of the checkpoint.

The taxi stand at the checkpoint.

On our way into Bethlehem, all the signs read "Exit". On our way out of Bethlehem, all the signs read "Entrance". Since I'm the most able legged and seasoned traveler of the lot, I ended up being the leader so it was on me to figure out how to get us back "to the other side". Just imagine, everyday, Palestinians who work outside the West Bank have to go through this routine. According to Uri,they have identity papers that they have to show to the Israeli soldiers everyday in order to be allowed to enter.

The path was not clear but I followed my instincts and I got the group back to the main checkpoint building which we didn't go inside when we exited. After a few false turns, we made our way to the security line where our bags were scanned, we had to go through metal detectors and then we had to show our passport and Israeli border cards. All os us when through okay except for the elderly Indian couple who had left their passports in their hotel room. It took some convincing but the soldier finally let them through. Whew!

Back on *Israeli* soil, we waited for Uri. He was parked some distance away but he spotted us. We were all glad to see him!

It was a short ride back to Jerusalem. Uri was going to be dropping everyone off at their respective hotels. It was still light outside and I wasn't quite ready to call it a day so I asked him to drop me off at Jaffa Gate. I got off with the Indian as their hotel is just across the street from Mamilla Mall. I spent about an hour or so wandering the Old City before deciding to call it a day.

It was back to the City Hall light rail station to catch my ride back to Ammunition Hill. At City Hall is a store selling Dead Sea products. The price was right so I picked up another two small bags of salt for Umesh.

By the time I got back to the hotel, I was exhausted. I hit the shower, got into comfy clothes and wrote this posting. Luckily, Uri is not picking me up until 8:30a tomorrow so I can sleep in a bit. I am tired and it's been a very interesting day. Tomorrow, we spend the day touring places in the New City. I'm looking forward to seeing the more *modern* side of the city.

Before I end this post, I have to note that I finally got my fellow tour mates' names down. There's Meera (sp) and her husband, Raj or Dr. Raj as I call him who are from Chennai, India. Both are retired. Then there's Cathy (sp) and her husband Mitch who are from Little Rock, Arkansas. Cathy , a nurse, is originally from the Philippines but she moved to Little Rock when she married Mitch. Last but not least there's George and his wife, Marion who are from Brooklyn, New York. George is a psychologist and Marion a social worker.

Okay, I'm done for the day. Good night from Jerusalem!