Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Andrei Trip to Bethlehem

Well I’ve been on a trip around Israel, following almost to a tee a 10 day Christian-based itinerary provided by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. I started in Tel Aviv then headed up the west coast, across to Galilee, then down the eastern flank through the Dead Sea to Eilat and then finally back up to Jerusalem via The Negev. One notable omission from their comprehensive itinerary is Bethlehem, probably since it is located in a Palestinian National Authority controlled area. By chance of luck I had an extra day due to the timing of my flights and reserved that final day while based in Jerusalem to visit Bethlehem.

To be honest I was never sure I would make this last trip as I was not allowed to take my rental car there, and if I did then my insurance was deemed invalid. I had also read an article in the NZ Herald recently about the difficulties for pilgrims getting to Bethlehem so I didn’t have high hopes. On the evening before I asked a local at the hotel I was staying at in Jerusalem for some advice on getting there and in the end it was decided I would drive to the checkpoint (only about 5 km from my hotel), park the car, pass through the checkpoint as a pedestrian and then walk the rest of the way which is only about 3 more kilometres to the town centre from the checkpoint. Being so close it was not an opportunity to shy away from. I also learned on that evening before that Friday the 7th of January is Christmas Day for the Orthodox Church (I probably should have known this already), of whom are the custodians of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Well I managed to find a park close to the checkpoint and as it was about 9:15 a.m., I was the only one entering Bethlehem at the time, although there were several hundred coming the other way, not doubt labourers and service workers who have jobs in Jerusalem. There were minivans lined up on the Israeli side, ready to take them into town. It was also forbidden for Israeli citizens to enter into the Palestinian National Authority controlled area, but okay for foreigners. As soon as I arrived on the Palestinian side I was approached by numerous taxi drivers, all waiting for the tourists, but was determined to walk since I had time, and as always, walking presents a better experience.

West Bank security wall by Jerusalem-Bethlehem checkpoint Taxis waiting by checkpoint on Bethlehem side

While not officially a different country you certainly feel like you are in a different one. There is suddenly no Hebrew on the signs any more, and the taxis, police and official emblems are all different. No more Israeli flags, only Palestinian ones. I wasn’t really sure where I was going initially and when I looked on Google Maps earlier, it only shows the main streets, which in a hilly area is not so straightforward. Nonetheless I was able to follow the occasional passing tour bus, the taxis, the manicured road and the souvenir shops as guides. About 40 minutes later I arrived at my destination, the Church of the Nativity on Manger Square. As I approached the square, the police presence was becoming apparent.

Palestinian Soldiers & Police, Manger St Church of the Nativity, Manger Square

As I arrived at the church I entered through the Door of Humility, a rather low door and designed in the Ottoman times to prevent carts being driven in by looters. After then passing through a small room I entered the main basilica and was awestruck by the interior of this beautiful Orthodox church, built in 565 AD by Emperor Justinian I. Despite being Christmas Day for the Orthodox Church, there were no liturgies happening when I arrived, just plenty of tourists. After viewing the main interior of the church the next step was to join the queue to go to the Grotto of the Nativity, accessible from inside the Church of the Nativity as it exists below the main alter. This cavern beneath the church is the focal point being honoured as the site of Christ’s birth.

Corinthian columns, Church of the Nativity Main altar, Church of the Nativity

While obviously not the only Catholic on site, it was apparent that the vast majority of visitors were from Eastern Europe, as indicated from their language and clothing. While in the queue I was able to obtain some candles and pray before descending into the cavern. Also while in the queue a group of Eastern European women behind me started into song three times during the wait and it was very touching. Not loud in the American way but very dignified and honourable. It was very beautiful and I managed to record some of it.

Upon arriving inside the Grotto of the Nativity, a silver star under an alter marks the very spot where Christ was believed to have been born. Each person is able to kneel down, pray, and kiss the star. For me it was a very spiritually moving experience, right up there with my journey down Via Dolorosa in Old Jerusalem two days earlier. It was an intense experience never to be forgotten. Also in the Grotto is another altar over the site where traditionally Mary laid the newborn Baby in the manger. There are also several artworks of Christ as a child as well as of the Holy Family.

Pilgrims descending into the Grotto of the Nativity Altar at site where Mary laid the baby Jesus in the manger

After leaving the Grotto of the Nativity I then moved into the adjacent Church of St Catherine, maintained by the Franciscans. A more modern church it also has caverns underneath including the Tomb of St Jerome who first translated the Bible into Latin. This church also includes the “Bas-relief of the Tree of Jesse”, a large bronze work by Czeslaw Dzwigaj gifted by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009.

The Church of St Catherine, run by the Franciscans

The Church of St Catherine and the Church of the Nativity are connected internally, and as I went back through the Church of the Nativity the queue to the silver star was about three times as long, so indeed it pays to get up early. After exiting through the Door of Humility I then proceeded up to Manger Square, adjacent to the compound. On the other side of the square is the Omar Bin Alkhatab mosque, apparently the only mosque in Bethlehem (even though 75% of the town is Muslim with the remaining 25% Christian). It was Friday prayers time so there were plenty of men sitting around the mosque listening to the Imam on the loudspeaker. I wasn’t aware of this initially and was busy mingling around them taking various photos. Anyway it was of no consequence and I continued to walk around Bethlehem, visiting other churches (Salesian Catholic, Greek Catholic, Syrian Orthodox) and a few souvenir shops before deciding it was time to head back to the checkpoint. This was now about 2 p.m. and on my walk back the security had noticeably increased. Almost all the way back to the checkpoint there were Palestinian National Authority soldiers stationed every 50 metres, sometimes with police and often checking dodgy looking cars. I am not sure how to feel about this, essentially they are there for my security but they are a reminder that the threat is real.

The Door of Humility Omar Bin Alkhatab Mosque Salesian Catholic Church

Upon approaching the checkpoint the West Bank security wall was covered in a mix of art and graffiti. Some of it about peace, other pieces quite nationalistic. The earlier labourers had all gone through by now of course, so heading back into Israel was rather straightforward. Rachel’s Tomb located right next to the checkpoint on the Israeli side was closed so I hopped back in the car and headed to the Greek Orthodox Monastery of the Cross, located close to the Knesset near the centre of Jerusalem. That was my final site for the day before taking in dinner in central Jerusalem.

Typical 6-door Mercedes-Benz Taxi Art on West Bank Security Wall

The trip to Bethlehem was one of initial anxiety, anticipation and fulfilment. The logistics aside, it was primarily a time of prayer and reflection, and for me especially, a time of renewal. To be in such an ancient location with such significance was overwhelming, and it is now a memory I will look forward to reflect upon in the future.

4 comment(s):

Andrei said...

Despite being Christmas Day for the Orthodox Church, there were no liturgies happening when I arrived, just plenty of tourists.

By way of explanation Sean, the Liturgy may only be offered up once on any particular day in any Orthodox Church.

The Church day begins at sunset and the Nativity Liturgy would have been offered up on "Christmas Eve" so there would be no Liturgy during the day you were there, it having already occurred the night before.

Andrei said...

Another point of note about the Church of the Nativity, Sean, is that it comes under the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, a Bishop who holds his succession from the Apostle
James Adelphotheos, also known as James the Just, rather than Saint Peter as Catholic Bishops do.

I'd love to go there one day but with my health the way it is now it don't think it will be an ambition ever realized.

Seán said...

Thanks for the extra info Andrei, I wasn't aware of those points. I know the Church of the Nativity is closed (to the public) on Sundays so it was fortunate that it was open on Christmas Day, though in saying that I guess they would be expecting many Orthodox pilgrims on Jan 7th.

I'm sorry about the health but I do hope you can make it one day.

I see a Christian was killed in Egypt yesterday. Was it related to those threats against the Coptic church that you mentioned last week?

ZenTiger said...

Thanks for sharing that Seán. Love the photos too. Definitely will be a special memory for you.

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