Bright and early in the morning we hopped on a bus and headed for the West Bank to tour Bethlehem.
We had been told that Bethlehem was boring and all there is in town is a church. Which is sorta true. But both Jordan and I really loved our four hours there. I wish I could’ve spent more time in the West Bank! It really seems like a great place to spend a few weeks (like for Bible camps or something). We had a real guide this time (thank goodness!) who met us just inside the West Bank. Because he’s Palestinian he isn’t allowed to leave without special permission. Our guide was a Christian Palestinian Arab, which was really fantastic. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I’m so glad we booked a tour that used a Palestinian as a guide–they have so little opportunity for business, as opposed to Israeli guides. Especially because he was a Christian.
We walked down Star Street, the traditional way to get to the Nativity church, and saw many closed shops. These shops used to be owned by Christians and marketed for tourists. However, tourism to Bethlehem dropped dramatically in 2001 because of a huge spike in Palestinian-Israeli conflict (known as the Second Intifada to Palestinians). Only in the last couple of years is tourism starting to pick up, our guide said. Unfortunately, during the time of the violence and afterward, due to lack of jobs, many of the Christians that could leave the West Bank/Bethlehem did so. All Christians are Palestinians, so are often caught in the middle of the fighting–they are the minority of the minority and often disliked by both “sides.”
The Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest churches in the world. Remember how most churches have been destroyed by riots (like the Hagia Sofia)? And the Persians and Muslims liked to destroy churches as well? This church was built by no other than Empress Helena (just like most original churches in Israel) in 327ish. As she was building churches, the Christians in Bethlehem sent her a letter requesting a church built in the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. Emperor Hadrian built a temple to Adonis in 135 to specifically discourage Christians from worshipping there. Time passed on, and then Helena was building churches so the Christians seized the opportunity.
The church was severely damaged in Samaritan/Jewish revolts in the 530s, and it was the only church not destroyed by the Persians when they invaded in 614. Every church they passed was destroyed, but (by legend) because of a mosaic depicting the three magi, it was spared. The magi were Persian, the commanders reasoned, so the church could stay.
Outside the church is the Manger Square, which is still decorated for Christmas because it isn’t Christmas for the Armenians until our Gregorian January 17th. The huge Christmas tree behind us was decorated in green, red, white, and black–the colors of the Palestinian flag.
The door to enter the church is tiny, and is fittingly called the Door of Humility.
Originally it was very large, but people had the bad habit of walking their horses and camels right into the church. So over time they bricked in the door until you had to stoop to enter. Now it also serves the purpose to make people bow to the altar/cross as they enter, and also to remind people that everyone is equal before God–everyone must stoop.
Shared by the Armenians, the Catholics, and the Greek Orthodox, the church is centered around the Holy Grotto, or the cave/stable where Mary gave birth to Jesus. We showed up a little early and sat on the steps leading down into the Grotto, listening to the Armenian monks finish their service. As we waited, many pilgrims/tourists lined up behind us. Some very eager Russian pilgrims kept pushing in on us.
Inside the grotto is a 14-pointed star. The 14 points symbolizes the 14 generations between Abraham and David and then David to the Babylonian captivity, and then 14 more to Jesus (though I’m pretty sure there were more than 14 between Abraham and David). It also marks the exact spot, more or less, where Jesus was born. There is an indentation in the star to let pilgrims touch the rock beneath the chapel. In another corner of the grotto was where Mary laid Jesus in a stone manger. It was serious and beautiful, though not really peaceful. Those Russian were really pushing.
Before coming to Israel I’ve been very skeptical of “the exact site where X happened!” because, seriously, it was 2,000 years ago and it seems that in the Middle Ages the Crusaders really just wanted to come up with relics and holy places. But according to most of the history regarding these canonical/biblically mentioned sites, there’s a really good chance that everything really happened right there. Based on Christian worship taking place less than 100 years after the events unfolded, the tradition seems fairly accurate.
Leaving the Church of the Nativity, we saw many crosses all clustered together–on doors, signs, walls, jewelry, etc.
Known as the Jerusalem Cross, or sometimes the Crusaders’ Cross, it represents Jerusalem, the largest and middle cross, as the center of the world. The four smaller crosses symbolize the four corners of the world. Or it means the five wounds of Christ–take your pick.
We walked on to the Milk Grotto, a chapel on top of a cave at a street also called Milk Grotto. According to Bethlehem lore, when Herod sent soldiers to slaughter the innocents in Bethlehem, the family hid in the cave before journeying toward Egypt. Mary nurses Jesus in the cave to keep him quiet, and some milk fell to the ground. Where the milk fell, the stones turned white. A small part of the cave walls are note hard stone, but chalky.
Behind my head is the chalky part–you just have to touch it to get it on your fingers. This site is sacred to Christian and Muslim women because tradition states that women who have trouble nursing or conceiving have just to take some of the stone and put it in their drink (or put it under the pillow) and God will heal their affliction. Our guide said it is still popular to do, and that he has even had couples on his tours specifically request to go to the milk grotto because their infertility doctor recommended it. Our guide also said that his sister-in-law was having problems with infertility and he off-handedly suggested trying the Milk Grotto. After mulling it over, his brother and sister-in-law went. A year later, they returned with a baby girl to thank God. “Do with that story what you want. Believe it or not,” he told us.
We got in the van again and we to the Shepherd’s fields, which is mostly neighborhoods now with a small Franciscan church/monastery. While the Greek Orthodox and Protestant both have their own locations, they are just different corners of the same Shepherd’s fields. The Catholic church is called the Chapel of Angels and was built in the early 20th century by a famous Italian monk-architect, Antonio Barluzzi. A gifted architect, Barluzzi shaped the chapel like a tent to represent what the shepherds were living in at the time. Above the door is the sculpture of an angel pointing directly to the Church of the Nativity.
Inside there was a high dome with white stone angels surrounding the area. Some were looking down, speaking to the shepherds hiding below the altarpiece, while others sang upward, to God. Around the walls of the church the Scripture was written in gold lettering. The windows in the dome were designed to let the sun’s rays fall directly on the altar. It really was beautiful and I could just imagine the angels singing and frightening the shepherds. It made me want to sing the Hallelujah Chorus at the top of my lungs. I didn’t; I wanted to be kind to my fellow tourists.
Behind the chapel and down the hillside is an old cave, probably used by shepherds since the 3rd century BC. It has been added onto over the years to make it large enough to house another small chapel. Inside, our guide talked about the shepherds and sacrificial lambs. He explained that while wrapping a baby tightly just after birth is normal (we still do it), using swaddling cloths is not. The cave Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were in was at the edge of town, near the Shepherd’s fields. These fields, nearest the town, were commonly used for raising the sacrificial lambs–not regular sheep. When a lamb was chosen to be a sacrifice, the shepherds would catch the lamb in their arms at birth and wraps the legs in strips of cloth, to keep it clean and never touching dirt. Once it was time to sacrifice the sheep, it would be taken to the temple and only then would the cloth come off the feet, to show that it had been carefully taken care of and was pure and clean. When the shepherds came to see Jesus, they found him in a cave on the edge of fields used to raise sacrifices, wrapped (most likely) in the same type of cloth they wrapped their sacrifice lambs in.
After thinking on the symbolism behind that (Man, Jews love symbolism!) we left the area. We passed several restaurants and shops called “Boaz’s Field” or “Ruth’s Restaurant,” and it finally hit me that this is the same area that Ruth and Boaz met and lived. Which sorta makes sense, because Bethlehem is the hometown of David, who was Boaz and Ruth’s great-grandson. Duh.
I asked our tour guide, “Is it difficult to be a Christian Palestinian?”
He thought for a moment, then said, “Sometimes. The mayor of Bethlehem is always a Christian, and even though we make up about 2 percent of Israel, in Bethlehem we are 19 percent. We used to be 67 percent, in the 1990s, but because of the violence and no business, some left. But 48 percent of West Bank medical professionals are Christian, and several leaders to the prime minister here are Christian.
“The hardest part, though, is in business. Arabs support their families, so Muslims go to their family and neighbors’ stores, who are also Muslim. There aren’t enough Christians to support each others’ stores, and with tourism so low, it is very hard to make a living. Even for tour guides like me, although I’m licensed to guide tours in Jerusalem and throughout Israel, because I’m Palestinian I’m not given permission to leave the West Bank except for Christmas and Easter and perhaps family funerals. I’ve waited 10 years to get permission, and still it doesn’t come.
“But the Muslims in the West Bank are very open-minded, not like some of the other Arab countries, so it’s not too bad. There’s just so few of us.”
So I’ve officially decided that I want my nativity (whenever I have the money to buy one!) to be from the hand-carved olive wood made by Christians in Bethlehem, to support my “family” there. The pieces range from small to almost two feet tall, from $18 to $1200. Maybe I can buy a piece every other year, at Christmas. And buy big, pretty ones.
Throughout Bethlehem, on walls and in carvings I saw St. George and the dragon again. I mentioned before that it surprised me to see him throughout Coptic Cairo, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to see him here. He is the patron saint of England, after all, not Israel. Apparently the story was brought back to England by Crusaders. And part of the UK flag is made of St George’s cross.
Born in Cappadocia, Turkey to Christian parents, George eventually became a Roman soldier around the 3rd century. When his father died his mother moved back to her native Palestine and took George with her. Emperor Diocletian began a strong campaign of persecution against the Christians, but George protested.
He resigned from his post, was tortured, and hid in the Palestinian wilderness. He began protecting Christians against the persecution, and to the Middle East, the dragon represent the Roman emperor. He always fought the Roman empire, protecting fellow Christians in the modern West Bank area until his arrest and martyrdom. Today, when a new house is built, the Christians pick which saint to carve into the wall (or above the door) as protection. Some choose Mary or another saint, but 90 percent of the time they choose St. George because of his protection over Bethlehem so long ago. There’s also a tale of George going to Libya and fighting a real dragon, but that’s beside the point here.
Our tour was finished, but on our way out we got to see the walls separating the West Bank from the rest of Israel. If you have the time, I recommend walking along the walls. They are filled with graffiti and even official signs the Palestinian authority has put up, detailing personal stories of Infitadas and the creation of the West Bank from a Palestinian point of view. I didn’t get to read them because we drove past quickly, but it looked fascinating.
Later that afternoon we went to the Mount of Olives, but this post it too long already, so that will have to wait!