Monday, February 13, 2012

Traveler Al's "Almost a Last Hurrah" Voyages


Exit of the Grotto - Church of the Nativity - Bethlehem

I was the last one to board the bus which had come around to the other side of the Old City of Jerusalem, near the New Gate and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  We were on top of one of the seven hilltops that form the Old City.  (Rome is on seven hilltops too!)   

I did not pay too much attention to where the bus went in the next 20 minutes or so as I was tired and desperately needed a bathroom break.

The bus ended up in front of a modern hotel in a small, cramped valley. There were several hotels clustered together.  We entered the Olive or the Olive Tree Hotel for our lunch and mid-day break.  There were several tour bus groups having their lunch break here.

Hotel Olive - Lunch Buffet in the dining room

I don't care what language it is in - It's Coke Time!

A beautiful buffet lunch was set up. I got my bathroom break and on my way back to the dining room asked a waiter for a Coke and a glass of ice. Naturally, I had to pay for this separately.  It was about 2.5 Shekels.  I gave them 5 Euros and received some coins in change – which I still have.

Our break was about 1 hour long and it did make a difference, my energy level perked up and I was able to get re-hydrated.  I won’t say that I was jumping with energy, but I was ready to take on the rest of the tour to Bethlehem.

It seemed that the bus never really got far away from built up areas. Soon we were at the 30 foot high concrete slab wall that the Israeli’s have built around Bethlehem to stop the infiltration of Palestinian snipers and suicide bombers into the nearby Jewish neighborhoods.

Entering Bethlehem - through the 30 foot high walls and guard towers

Here is a short video and narration done by a National Geographic Magazine photographer with some of his photos that gives a better idea of the situation at Bethlehem.  The video is from 2007, so things are a bit better.  The Israeli Security Forces (the army) did not close the steel gate at all during the day we were there. 

It was easy to enter Bethlehem.  Later it would prove tedious and time consuming to get out of Bethlehem.

Mickey explained to us that the name Bethlehem means – Place of Meat” in Arabic and “Place of Bakers” in Hebrew.  The city is built on steep hills and is very crowded. To the east the hills drop down towards the Judean Desert and the Dead Sea.

Inside Bethlehem - Security wall in the middle distance.

Star and Bucks ?   Do you suppose they could be sued by Starbucks?

Mickey also told us that he had no authority to be our tour guide in Bethlehem. We had been advised of this on the ship when we signed up for the tour. The Palestinian Authority handles all policing and security matters inside Bethlehem including requiring all tour groups to have a Palestinian Tour Guide.  

I would latter benefit from this policy as Mickey had the time to take me to see places in the Church of the Nativity where the rest of the tour group did not go with the Palestinian guide.  It helps the Palestinians to earn a living in their surrounded,  walled in city.

Mickey told us that even today, because the hills are mainly made of limestone, there are many small caves and grottoes that are still used as stables to house livestock the same as it was in Biblical times.  Naturally, if the Holy Family was given a resting place in a stable in Bethlehem, it would be in a cave or grotto. 

Palestinian Authority Police Post - Bethlehem

We stopped at a police post to pick up Mamal, the Palestinian guide. The city is very tight, there are no large horizontal spaces for tour bus parking, so parking spaces have been built inside the ground floor of several buildings. These buildings are lower and about a quarter of a mile away from Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity.   

Mamal received permission from the Palestinian Police to allow the tour bus to unload higher up the hill and much nearer to the Square and Church.  We all were happy with that decision!

Main entry to the Church of the Nativity - the door is only 4 feet high

Inside view of the low entry door - Church of the Nativity
There was a long line of visitors waiting outside the main entrance to the Church of the Nativity.  The entry door is quite unique in that it is less than four feet high, forcing visitors to bend low to enter.  This door is called the "Door of Humility".  The reason that the entry was lowered was that The Christian Crusader knights had the bad habit of riding their horses into the Church instead of dismounting and walking in.  Now, it is impossible to ride a horse into the Church!

Entering the Church of the Nativity via a side cloistered courtyard
Mickey had me follow him through another entry off to the side of the Church, through a cloistered courtyard and then into the Church.  He showed me the hatch doors built into the floor that were open to reveal the mosaic tile floor that had been built under the sponsorship of Emperor Constantine and his mother, Helen.  

Church of the Nativity - Hatches in floor to expose or cover original mosaics

Original mosaic tile work done during Constantine The Great's reign. These are about 2 feet below the current floor level.

Mickey led me over to the exit portal of the Grotto that is the place of Jesus birth that is down under the main level, got an okay from the religious guard for that section of the Church to take me down to the Grotto. The space is very small, very warm and claustrophobic due to the visitors packed into every inch of space. 

What is is like inside the Grotto - the Manger's location is behind the visitors.

Exit of the Grotto beneath the Church of the Nativity - the site of Jesus' birth.

The location of the where the manger stood is marked and encased in a glass case.  I was barely able to get any photo of it as it was totally surrounded by visitors waiting to see the Grotto Star.

There was a Spanish tour group going through at the time I was in the Grotto. Many of them were prostrating themselves face down over the Grotto’s Silver Star that ornaments the hole over the spot where Jesus was born. The hole allows access for religious items such as crucifixes and medallions to be lowered to touch the actual spot.  As soon as one person got up off the floor immediately another one took the place over this spot where both Jesus and Christianity were born.  

This is what you can see as people put themselves over the site of the Grotto's Silver Star

Mickey was able to ask them to allow me about 2 seconds to take a photo, but you can see that I was not quick enough to get an unobstructed view.

The place where Jesus was born.

Lamps inside the Church of the Nativity

VIP's at the Greek Orthodox portion of the Church

Another view of the Greek Orthodox Altar

Beautiful Lamps - Armenian Orthodox part of Church ?

Armenian or Coptic Orthodox part of the Church - Note religious faction guards leaning on columns.

Greek Orthodox Altar.

The more modern Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine - next to but connected with the Church of the Nativity.
My visit was soon over; the main part of our group would take a tour of the Church without going down the Grotto.  Mickey walked with me out to see Manger Square, which should be familiar to you if you watch the news articles about all the visitors there every Christmas Eve.  The Square is actually quite large when you are standing there at the side of it.

Manger Square - Bethlehem  The Church of the Nativity is behind me as I took this photo.

A street vendor that Mickey knew came over and helped me as well, as my legs were very tired and I was afraid of falling as we went down the steep walkways back to the bus parking building.

My impressions of the Church of the Nativity are negative.  There is no feeling of sanctity or reverence due to the huge numbers of visitors. I suppose that might come if one could come early in the morning or after the throngs of other visitors go so that one had the time to think and reflect on what happened in these places and what it all meant.  But, there is no time, no space and no quiet for that.

The building itself is in poor shape, though somewhat cleaner than the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  There are 4 Christian religious factions who share the building and all that goes with it:  The Greek Orthodox, The Roman Catholic, The Armenian Catholic and The Coptic Orthodox churches.  They have the same sorts of turf battles with men sitting here and there inside the church to assert and protect the rights and claims for their particular faction.The agreements that bind the relationships of the different factions are based on the 1851 firman or ruling by the Sublime Porte of the Ottoman Empire known as "The Status Quo" - which is not included in the agreements of the Vatican II Council.

The men sitting at the right and left are both guards for each of  their religious faction's parts of the church.

For once, I was the first one back to the tour bus.  About 10 minutes later the rest of the group returned and we pulled out of the bus parking building.  We made the mandatory stop at a shop “owned by Palestinian Christians” for souvenir shopping. The shop did have very many beautiful items in gold, silver and olive wood items made on the premises for sale, but the prices were high and I had no room in my luggage for souvenirs.  

Carving olive wood is one of the main occupations in Bethlehem.

To leave Bethlehem, we had to exit the by the only gate. Each car was stopped by Israeli Security. If the driver and passengers were Palestinian, they underwent a thorough security screening. The line of cars was about 15 cars long.

We waited to pass Israeli Security

And waited some more.

We watched the street vendors work the line of waiting cars.

Still a long line to exit Bethlehem

We had a good chance to watch the street vendors working up an down the line of cars and to look at all the graffiti painted on the wall.

Palestinian Graffiti inside the wall around Bethlehem.

Almost out of Bethlehem
It took about 45 minutes to make it to the gate.  The Security men and women boarded and walked up and down the aisle looking at each of us and asked if anyone had given us any mail, messages or packages to take out of Bethlehem. 

Somehow, this one resonates!

Once we cleared the gate, we began our journey back down the hills to Ashdod.

While we were still in the Jerusalem area, there were a lot of very complex cyclone fences alongside the road. At the crest of some of the hills there were odd structures.  These structures looked like the sail shapes of the Opera House in Sydney, Australia, but they ran for long distances along the hills. 

I asked Mickey if they were going to build stations for metro lines up there.  Mickey replied that those structures are built where there have been lots of snipers shooting at cars on the freeway and roads down below. The structures make it harder for them to make unimpeded shots!

The bus twisted and turned down the coastal hills into a rainstorm that continued all night long. Mickey joked with us that the Ministry of Agriculture would not let us leave because we brought needed rain with us!

We arrived in time for our dinner back on board the Constellation, very tired, but with lots of things to think about and remember.

Next - Haifa, Akko and the excavated remains of the Crusader's Headquarters at Acre. 

Please click the colored link to view my other blog about living in Hawaii "Life in the 50th State"

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