Other trips

Other trips can be accessed by clicking the following links:

Iceland, Finland, Estonia, Russia, Mongolia, China, Thailand, Cambodia and South Korea

Germany, Poland, Austria, Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Israel, Jordan and Copenhagen

Hawaii, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, Malaysia, Nepal, India and England

Latvia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Slovenia, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, Greece, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, Ethiopia, Kenya, S. Africa, Zimbabwe, UAE and Denmark

Panama, Colombia, Ecuador (Including Gallapagos), Peru, Bolivia, Chile (Including Easter Island), Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Mexico

Saturday, November 1, 2014

10/27: A Visit to Bethlehem, the Cradle of Christianity

On Monday, October 27th, Steven and I returned to the Palestinian bus station taking the bus this time to Bethlehem, home to one of the oldest  Christian communities in the world. It’s located geographically just 15 minutes or so from Jerusalem but in an area controlled by the Palestinian Authority so that is ‘feels’ like it’s in another country hundreds of miles away. Although a few decades ago most residents were Christian, today the great majority of Bethlehem’s 40,000 residents are Muslim, as is the case in the West Bank.
 It only cost us  21NIS each, about $2.50, to ride the snazzy Greyhound-like bus from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Steven commented that the gaily decorated bus reminded him a lot of the buses he’d been on in India and Afghanistan some 40 plus years ago.

Steven and I were both mystified as to where Jerusalem ended and the city of Bethlehem began as we saw no real demarcation point the way the bus driver took us. There were housing developments the entire way in between the two cities. We did see a short stretch of the controversial solid concrete wall that snakes through the Judean hills which divides Jerusalem and B’hem. The bus though just sailed through the crossing without stopping because, as we were later told, the Israelis don’t care who goes to the West Bank; they only care who wants to enter areas controlled by Israel. However, there were large red signs up notifying Israelis they’re forbidden to enter the West Bank.
As soon as the bus stopped, there was a scrum of men at the door all shouting at the passengers ‘Taxi, taxi.’ Not knowing how far it was to reach the Church of the Nativity and the other churches that Bethlehem is so famous for, we did take one with the driver hoping that we’d therefore hire him to take us to some of the West Bank settlements and be our guide for as long as possible. He was disappointed when he dropped us off at the market when we’d insisted on only wanting to see the churches.
 I wonder what Starbucks has to say about this copycat version?
Partial view of Manger Square with the Mosque of Omar, the city’s largest Muslim house of worship, on the right. The Church of the Nativity is on the left, i.e. behind where I was standing. I must admit being surprised and disappointed looking at what Manger Square was like.
After walking through the vibrant souk, we reached Bethlehem’s central plazaManger Squareand immediately walked into the Palestine Tourist Information Office. The two women inside were exceptionally welcoming, giving us bookmarks and allowing us to choose any 2 of the beautiful posters they had. We’ve never received such service before and noticed that other tourists were not given the same ‘Welcome Package’ and don’t know why we rated!
Outside the Information Center was a large display telling Palestine’s view of the occupation of their lands by the Israelis. The map shows how their land has been greatly reduced since 1946. Steven and I found it fascinating reading about what has gone on from the Arab perspective since that’s not the side we’re normally exposed to through the news.

We then walked to the other side of manger Square to the Church of the Nativity which has been and will continue to undergo extensive renovations. I didn’t know that the Church, like Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre is also shared by different denominations: the Greek Orthodox, the Latins (RC’s) represented by the Franciscan order and the Armenian Orthodox. The same 19th C. Status Quo Agreement froze their respective rights so that ownership, the timing of ceremonies, the number of oil lamps etc are all clearly defined.

Some background: The church is the oldest standing one in the country. When the Persians invaded in 614 they destroyed every single church and monastery in the country except this one. Legend holds that the church had a wall painting depicting the Nativity tale, including the visit to the infant Jesus by the Three Wise Men of the East. To the local artist, ‘east’ meant Persia so he dressed his wise men in Persian garb. The Persian conqueror’s did not understand the picture’s significance but ‘recognized’ themselves in the painting and this spared the church.

The interior of the church is gloomy so when you add in all the scaffolding in place, it was difficult unfortunately to appreciate what I’m sure must be a beautiful church. As soon as we entered, we joined the long line of people waiting to enter the Grotto of the Nativity. While Steven held my place in line, I walked around taking photos.

The entrance to the grotto at last!

Once a cave and the type of place that might have been used as a barn, the grotto has become plastered and decorated beyond recognition. After waiting in line for about an hour, we finally had about 3 seconds each to see the small altar; on the floor beneath is the focal point of the entire site: a 14 point star with the Latin inscription translated as ‘Here of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was born.’ 

Just a few steps from the altar is an alcove, guarded by the Franciscans, that is believed to be the manger where the infant Jesus was laid. How incredibly moving it was for even a somewhat lapsed Catholic to be in such a holy site.
Adjacent to the Church of the Nativity and accessible by a passage from its Armenian chapel is the Church of St. CatherineBethlehem’s Roman Catholic church that was built by the Franciscans in 1882. The midnight Christmas Eve mass is broadcast around the world from this church! I found the church to be so incredibly beautiful, not
only its exterior but its interior as well.

We descended steps from the church to see a number of dim grottoes that were once used as living quarters. Chapels here were dedicated to Joseph, the Innocents killed by Herod the Great and to the 4th C. St. Jerome who is credited for writing the Latin translation of the Bible right here. We heard a tour guide relate that if he hadn't translated the Bible, there would have been NO Christian church and that he made it possible for people to understand the Word of God. The King James version of the Bible, done in 1611, was translated into English from St. Jerome's Latin version.

Walking from Manger Square toward the bus through the exciting Arab souk.

Seeing the picture of these young boys brings a smile to my face again. The boys had been walking behind us when all of a sudden I felt a tap on my shoulder. When I looked around to see who had done it, these boys looked at me with such innocence and glee in their eyes. Of course, I turned around and did it right back at them a moment later which they found equally amusing!

Bethlehem street scenes: 

Don’t know what the man was cooking and selling but an interesting photo.

I just happened to look up as we passed a small alley on our left and noticed these fancy dresses.

Saw these popcorn trucks all over Bethlehem.

Bethlehem's main street.
Steven getting directions back to the bus station from a Palestinian police officer.
Palestinian taxis have green license plates and all other Palestinian vehicles have white license plates compared to the yellow plates that are used in Israel.

Many tourists choose to hire a taxi to visit Bethlehem’s other famous sights for Christians, Shepherd’s Fields, Rachel’s Tomb and Milk Grotto Chapel and also visit some of the refugee camps but we were content seeing the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square. We spent quite a bit of time walking through the Arab souk on our way back to the bus stop and our short ride back to Jerusalem, a world inaccessible to almost all the inhabitants of Bethlehem. What an incredible journey to be there in Bethlehem and visit the birthplace of Christianity.