Monday, April 14, 2008

Remembrances of the Holy Land (Bethlehem)

PHOTO: Dave Kim

Energized after decompressing over lunch, it was time to get in the Way back Machine again, this time to see Bethlehem.

We now encountered the Separation Wall, which Israelis have built to separate the West Bank from Israel. At this point, it's around 30 feet tall, and made of concrete with viewing towers at the top. Nice colorful photos and writing adorns the wall, giving it a comfortable appearance.

(The Israelis have said the Wall was built to combat suicide bombers from getting into Israel. Ignoring the charged politics of the situation, the raw numbers suggest "that goal" has been achieved, dropping from a high of 202 in 2002 to only a single incident by the time we visited in 2008.)

Adi pulled the bus up to some Israeli inspectors. He was asked to back us up into a location further from where we were. All of a sudden he left the bus. Doron followed and had a rather heated discussion with the soldiers.

After a few more exchanges Doron, not Adi, got back on the bus and hopped behind the wheel. Without saying anything he moved the bus up to the original spot we'd stopped. We all looked at each other and said, "Doron is driving the bus??" No explanation was shared as to what the reason for Adi having to leave the bus was.

Rules forbid Israeli citizens from crossing into the territories of the Palestinian National Authority so we could not use Doron's services as guide. We walked through the checkpoint to a bus that was awaiting us, along with a Palestinian guide.

As opposed to the other side of the almost anti-septic western Israeli side of the Wall, the Palestinian side was scrawled with graffiti, reminding me of pictures of the Berlin Wall in places. Further down from the entrance it was plastered with huge unflattering black and white posters of Jewish men and women, probably over 10 feet tall.

They looked like they were taken with some type of wide angle lens that accentuated the size of their noses. And if that wasn't bad enough, some where pointing towards their noses to remind visitors of the stereotypes typically used to put Jews down as a race.

As we departed from the Wall zone, we found ourselves going through the business districts of Bethlehem. There was definitely a different look and feel compared to the other side.

Whereas everything in Jerusalem was relatively clean, with a brightness to the colors. Here, in Bethlehem, things were muted with a general dustiness.

We passed through Bethlehem to a rural area outside the city to the Shepherds' Field are located. This is where the Angel of the Lord brought the wondrous news of Jesus' birth to the lonely shepherds tending nearby flocks. (Some people question the December timing as it's unlikely they'd have their flocks out in the heart of Winter).

Here, there were several grottos set up for visitors to go into. For whatever reason the caretakers felt the need to decorate in a Christmas-like theme year-round. The ceiling of the cave was painting a light blue, with white stars scattered throughout. There were also lights set up inside.

Our group was small enough that we could sit on ledges hewn into the rock along the edges. TS gave us a sermon about the night Jesus was born, and we then proceeded into CM leading us in worship.

I've never been one to sing in public. Call it shyness. Call it not being confident in one's voice. It's just not something I like to do. However, in this close proximity with others who were all doing so, it was easier to do than stick out like a sore thumb. GC who was sitting to my immediate right, made it easier by sharing a song book with me without my asking.

On our return to Bethlehem, we went to the Church of the Nativity, which most people agree is the likely birthplace of Jesus Christ, no matter what time of year it actually occurred.

Buses were parked away from the actual building, and you first walk into Manger Square, a stone paved area in front of the old church.

We entered through the Door of Humility, a 51" high door where a visitor is required to bend over to enter, more of a burden for people like TG, MG and myself, than others. As the story goes, it was an added benefit during Crusader times because a mounted rider would not be able to take his horse or camel through the small entrance.

Because of this being the second most important site in Christianity it's has been fought over by the different religious sects for centuries. An agreement was finally reached that the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic churches would manage the administration of the building. They were the only groups occupying the church at the time.

(Yet, that agreement hasn't always keep the peace. A huge brawl started between Armenian and Orthodox priests in December 2011 when someone moved a ladder over too far to dust a chandelier that wasn't quite in their area of control!)

Walking in and passing through the small narthex, we find ourselves in the old basilica with its wide room filled with huge columns to support the roof. Continuing to the right, we entered a smaller section that was loaded with Greek Orthodox paintings and Iconographic art. The pungent aroma of incense thick in the air.

The actual access into the Grotto is by a small wedge shaped stair case. There was also a minor traffic jam to get in because the Silver Star marking the place of Jesus' birth (as was decided by Empress Helena's architects) is within a few feet of the bottom step. As pilgrims reach the site, many place their Holy Bible on the star, the idea doing so will bless the Book with even more spiritual power beyond the Word. Some even kneel down to kiss the glass lens.

Taking a moment, I placed my Blackberry (with the previously mentioned Bible software) on the spot. Our course, it really was really just a Verizon loaner, so someone somewhere else has been bestowed with that spiritual blessing, though the software was wiped before returning.

The Grotto was very crowded, with a lower than normal ceiling built for a time with shorter people. If you were to look from overhead it's actually shaped like a body with two outstretched arms. The star is at the head. Once we'd had our chance by the alter we headed farther back into the body section, and a small section cordoned off so TS can give us some thoughts to take away.

Originally, there was only one entry point, which meant you'd have a crowd of people trying to get in while others were trying to come out the same way. Eventually another exit was added to the left of the star.

Outside the Grotto we now entered the area claimed by the Armenian Apostolic Church. There was a group that someone said was from the Syriac Orthodox Church. They were deep in worship, rhythmically marching counter clockwise, reciting a melodic chant. I wish I'd been able to capture it on video, it was so mesmerizing. I guess CB made the mistake of briefly sitting on one of the chairs in the area and someone quickly chased her away.

Back in the Basilica there was an doorway that took us into the adjacent Church of St. Catherine. This modern basilica is managed by the Roman Catholic Church, and was built over the top of to Byzantine churches. Evidence of which is protected in the main basilica floor. Then there was a small hallway that took us down in the bottom where the grotto of St. Jerome is located.

After exiting the church there was a gorgeous courtyard full of greenery and statues decorating the exterior.

Boarding the bus, we were taken to a huge souvenir store across town. This one was owned by Christians so it was particularly happy to see our business. It had aisles and aisles of items made from carved olive wood. I saw a manger set that was really tempting.

The owners found out that CM and RC were musicians and asked if they would brighten the place up with some worship music. They did and other shoppers enjoyed the set.

TS and the guide herded us up towards the front counter to make any purchases. This took a lot longer than I would have expected from the length of the line.

Our bus was supposed to be waiting outside. We waited and waited and waited. Some started to worry that perhaps they'd actually forgotten us.

While we waited a street vender came buy selling traditional Arab Keffiyeh,  the checkered wraps we're used to seeing in photographs. He talked SeL and SH into buying.

At first SeL told the guy he didn't want to get it because he'd never remember how to fold it right. However, the salesman talked them into it by promising to show him how to do it right. SeL got the red one and SH got one reminiscent of Yasser Arafat.

Rather than leave after he'd made his sales, he stood around just to chat. He said he'd lived in the USA at one time, but decided to come back to the Middle East. He started talking about the politics of President George W. Bush, to which nobody wanted to take part in. Sensing the conversation was quieting he headed off for some new faces. (We'd been warned before the trip not to get involved with political discussions.)

Still waiting for our bus, I noticed CB talking with a 30-something Palestinian. He was dressed well in western-style clothing. He said something to her and she giggled. He apparently said something again and she smiled and moved away from him.

I asked her what that was about? At first she didn't say, but then whispering in my ear, "How many camels?!?!?!" I looked at her perplexed. Apparently, he wanted to know how many camels her husband would take in trade for her as a bride. A strange joke to say to someone, wouldn't you say?

With much rejoice we finally saw our bus show up. Quickly piling on, we headed back to the inspection point to reenter Jerusalem and headed for the hotel.

Upon walking into the hotel we're stopped in our tracks, and cannot get to the elevators. A Hasidic wedding party had contracted with the hotel for use of the main ballroom. We arrived as the bride and groom were leaving.

Men, dressed in all black black suits and fedora hats escort the bride and groom across the foyer to the elevators to the accompaniment of rhythmic clapping. The bride is dressed in a flowing white gown while her groom stands out with a grey suit with plain yarmulke. As the newly weds waive good-bye and step into the elevator car, a couple of the men grab a young boy and push him for the ride up to their room.

Since the main ball room isn't available, the hotel has set up the dinner buffet in an alternative location. It wasn't nearly as extensive as what they'd seen for breakfast, and is must more cramped.

Back in the comfy confines of my hotel room, I tried my luck at watching the Sharks' most recent playoff game. Internet wasn't free here in Jerusalem though. Many major hotels in this part of the World have figured out they can charge for the Internet. And they charge based on how much data you download. If you're going to do a lot of data, such as streaming video, you're basically forced to spend US$20 for 24 hours of connection. YIKES!!

The connection worked great. I was able to start watching the game, and I was excited to be catching a game. I laid down in bed while watching. BIG MISTAKE!

I think I got through the first part of the 1st Period, and then fell asleep. I woke up several hours later after missing most of what I'd recorded, and decided it wasn't worth trying to rewind it and watch the rest.


No comments: