Even if you are not a religious person, you have heard of Bethlehem and if you are a religious person, being here is the experience of a life time. The primary site to see is the Church of the Nativity, built on the spot where Jesus was born in a stable and visited by shepherds and wisemen. Every Christian denomination is represented here; Christmas is celebrated here at three different times on the calendar by the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. Christmas decorations are already being put up around the town. The fake Christmas tree made in China in the main square was a nice touch indeed.
The church really didn’t look much like a church to me inside. The original one was built in 425 by Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine of Constantinople fame. He was not a Christian, but his mother was and if mama ain’t happy, then no one is happy. Even at that early date no one could really knew where Baby Jesus slept on his first night on earth. You’ve got to have faith. The Persians came through town in 1614 and burned down every church in Bethlehem but this one, which had a mosaic depiction of the three wise men on the front. The Persians recognized their clothing as looking just like their own and put their flaming torches away. That’s why the Church of the Nativity is the oldest church in the Holy Land.
Its primary focus is the spot where the manger supposedly was. Streams of pilgrims line up to see it, but the line is delayed at least three times a day by services that are conducted by the groups listed above in the churches which form the antechamber of the manger space. Our guide got us near the front of the line as the Armenian service was wrapping up, but we stood in the queue for nearly an hour bending over to crawl through the Door of Humility and wind down a narrow stairway. It’s hard to imagine how crazy it must be here at Christmas time. The Catholics worship in St. Catherine’s church nearby that is much newer and the one we see on TV when Christmas from Bethlehem is broadcast. I have to say that for us it was an underwhelming experience.
We wandered through the picturesque old city and marketplace with Mustafa. Bethlehem is his home town and he seemed to know everyone we passed. Since he lost his prestigious CPA job at the hospital in 2005 when the wall was erected, he has struggled to get a new career going. Our OAT group keeps him busy for a few months, but then he stands around in front of the church freelancing offering his services to tourists who wander by. Many of the men he greeted as we walked around with him are in the same position. We were surprised there weren’t more tourist shops in the area. At our request Mustafa took us to an establishment that specializes at making religious figures out of olive wood. Not a T-shirt to be seen.
He took us to see the wall which he calls the Wall of Separation and the speaker we heard yesterday would call the Wall of Protection. The concrete wall was massive, forty feet high, and full of grafitti including a piece from Banksy. Our president, a noted wall lover, was also part of the spray painted tableau.
A short drive took us to the Mar Saba Monastery, a bleakly beautiful establishment built in 439 and still functional as a monastery. A tower built across the way was for the female relatives of the monks so they could visit from afar. It is surrounded by the Judean Desert whose landscape made me think of being on the Moon.