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Sunday, May 17, 2009

ISRAEL DAY 4: Bethlehem (The West Bank)


Yesterday, Amir (our guide) dropped Natalie and me off at the West Bank Border (Palestinian Authority Territory). Israelis aren’t allowed by Israeli law to go in there so he arranged for us to be picked up by a Palestinian driver from the Bethlehem Souvenir Center Co. The shop provided us with transportation and a guide for free. The only catch was that we had to go into their store at the end of the tour. There was no pressure to buy anything (at all) but everyone does (including us) because the experience at the church is so amazing you want keepsakes to remember it. Palestine isn’t a country yet so there’s no real border crossing or stamps to add to your passport. Actually, no one looked at our passports nor were we stopped. Just an Israeli guard peaked into our vehicle on the way in and out.

Our driver was very friendly and he took us from where he picked us up at Bet Jalla to Bethlehem which takes 5 minutes. We met up with our guide a block from the Church of the Nativity. You’ve probably heard of it since it’s one of the most famous in the world as they broadcast Christmas Eve mass from here all over and it’s also one of the oldest continuously operating churches. The structure was built over the cave that tradition marks as the birthplace of Jesus. The structure is a combination of two churches: one is the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the other is the Church of St. Catherine. There’s also another denomination presiding there—the Armenian Apostolic.

The first basilica built here was completed in 333. That burned down in the Samaritan Revolt of 529 and was rebuilt in its present form in 565 by the Emperor Justinian I. To enter through the main door requires going through the Door of Humility built by the Turks. The door was built so low (it only goes up to about my chest) to prevent locals from rushing in on their horses, thereby forcing them to dismount and, perhaps unintentionally, paying their respects as they bow to enter.

The highlight of course is touring around the grotto beneath the basilica which enshrines the site where Jesus is believed to have been born. The exact spot is marked by a 14-point silver star set in the marble floor under an Armenian Apostolic altar. The other altar in the crypt, about 15 feet away, is the site which marks where Mary laid the newborn baby in the manger and that’s maintained by the Roman Catholics. There was an Eastern European tour group down there and they were singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in their native tongue which added even more reverence to the atmosphere.

It’s difficult to convey what I felt when I went down the stairs and see the exact spot where Jesus was born. Words can’t describe it but for sure I will never forget it. It’s still difficult for me to fathom that I just saw the actual place which I’ve been told about countless times. It never really seemed real and from now on hearing the stories and attending midnight mass at Christmas will have a newer and more profound meaning to me.

I was nervous about going to the West Bank – the only thing I knew about it was from the violent images on T.V. and someone told me it’s like Tijuana and I almost didn’t even go. But that’s not the case at all. I felt safe. Only one kid tried to sell me gum and one teenager hassled me to buy postcards but that’s it. Everyone I saw seemed happy and it was just every day life taking place – kids going to school, women shopping and men selling beans on the side of the road. I also saw many nice houses – nothing like what’s portrayed on the major networks.

There’s really not much to do in the West Bank so basically it’s a two-hour trip. Besides seeing the church and getting olive wood souvenirs, the last place of real interest is the wall that Israel put up that the Palestinians are upset about. I have no opinion but many Israelis I spoke to said it really has helped with the suicide bombings so if that’s what it takes – so be it.


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