Friday, May 8, 2015


In the afternoon of our very full first day in Jerusalem, we hopped on the bus for a little drive to Bethlehem.  It doesn't look that far--it's only four or five miles--but it involves a border crossing of sorts to go from Jerusalem into the Palestinian West Bank region. It took at least an hour.
Map from here
It was a shock to see that a wall has been built around the West Bank. We Americans talk a lot about the Berlin Wall and the wall between the United States and Mexico, but I had never heard of this wall in Israel. It is 26 feet high, compared to the 12-foot-tall Berlin Wall, and four times as long. There are 272 finished miles, 36 miles under construction, and 132 additional miles planned. Our guide Inan, an Israeli Jew, acknowledged the controversial nature of the wall, but said it has drastically reduced Palestinian terrorism.
Photo from here
Most Jews are not allowed access to the West Bank via the checkpoint we passed through, but tour guides are given special privileges, and so Inan came with us. He was not, however, allowed to act as our tour guide in Bethlehem. Instead, we had a rather hyper Palestinian guide who met us in the bus station.

The clothing styles in the shops in the station told us we were in an Arab area:
(Pardon the poor quality of this photo. I was trying to be inconspicuous.)
KFC is big all over Israel and Egypt, no matter the religion or culture:
KFC in the bus station
Muslims believe in and respect Jesus as one of God's greatest earthly messengers. They also believe in the virgin birth, and they actively promote the birthplace of Jesus, welcoming tourists while at the same time promoting their own Palestinian state:
Welcome to Bethlehem /

We made our way through town, noting the more conservative Muslim dress and running across some interesting businesses.  I wonder if there is room in the Manger Square Hotel on Christmas Eve? I'm pretty sure it is fully booked every year.

 Coca-Cola is an omnipresent brand:
A few of my favorite store fronts:

 And the best one of all, proof that Palestinians have a good sense of humor:
Stars & Bucks Cafe, Bethlehem /

 Mosaics on the outside wall of a shop reinforce the major focus of the city:

 We stopped at an observation plaza to appreciate the view of the fields where shepherds were "keeping watch over their flock by night":
 I think it has changed a little in the last 2,000 years.
Hills surrounding Bethlehem /
I brought along my own personal shepherd just in case I needed someone to chase the wolves away:

We were in Bethlehem on March 12th, almost ten months after Pope Francis visited on May 25, 2014:
Photo from here
We were sorry to have missed him, but we did get to see the Pope Mobile (at least the shape of the Pope Mobile), which was parked in the observation area. It does seem like it would have been safer to park it in a garage somewhere.

 Next stop: Manger Square, decorated with--what else?--stars.
On Christmas Eve, a huge party is held in this square and broadcast all over the world. Locals sing carols here while they wait for midnight mass.
The tall building in the back is the Mosque of Omar, the only mosque in this city of 25,000.
Our ultimate destination was the Church of the Nativity, commissioned in 327 AD by Constantine and his mother to be built over the cave deemed to be the birthplace of Jesus. This original church was destroyed in a Samaritan revolt and then rebuilt by Justinian in about 565 AD. It has been expanded and remodeled many times since then, and is currently in the process of another interior remodel.

There are now actually two adjoining churches (the Church of the Nativity and St. Catherine's) and three monasteries (Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Orthodox). From what I've read, it's not always a harmonious partnership.

I loved the exterior--obviously very old. The walls on the right are part of one of the monasteries.
Waiting to enter:

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem /

The side view of what must be the Franciscan monastery shows an elaborate roof-top Franciscan cross that almost looks like a fussy TV antenna:
Inside the Church of the Nativity, primarily maintained by the Greek Orthodox church, there was scaffolding everywhere due to the remodel. I'd love to go back some day and see it without so much covered up. It was mostly the central nave that was affected by the remodeling, however, and there were sections that were unobscured.
Thirty of the forty columns in the nave have paintings of the saints, the Virgin, and the child Jesus that date back to the Crusaders. Many of the paintings are barely visible, having been touched and rubbed by visitors for centuries.

A lot of the columns were encased in thin strips of wood to protect them during the remodeling process. Messages and signatures were scrawled on just about every inch of the protective barrier, like letters written in a high school yearbook:

One of the most miraculous things in the church is this mosaic floor from the original Constantinian church. It has survived since the 4th century in spite of the many structural and ownership changes the building has undergone. This is very fine work--approximately 20 pieces of mosaic per square centimeter, compared to the usual 10/square cm. Much of it has been covered up for years, explaining its amazing condition.

The altar area of the church at the east end was gaudy, dimly-lit, and full of over-the-top chandeliers, icons, and candles.
Is it just me, or does this chandelier with the dangling orb remind you of prom? You can get the ensemble with either a green or a red ball:

I have "holy envy" (when you wish something that is part of another church could be part of your own church's traditions) of prayer candles, a beautiful Catholic and Orthodox custom of lighting a candle as a way of offering a prayer for a loved one, not a practice that is part of my own religion.

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem /

This is the Altar of the Circumcision, honoring an event that is part of the Orthodox tradition:

A beautiful Mary and Jesus icon with the typical metallic accents, but with atypical strings of pearls and beads across the front and filling the bottom of the frame. Were these left by worshipers?

Seeing women in Arab headscarves in front of Mary in her headscarf seemed appropriate.

The iconostasis of the main alter was made in the usual Orthodox fashion: rows of ornate representations of Mary, Jesus, and the saints on a wall that separates worshipers in the nave from the sanctuary where priests prepare the sacrament:

The uppermost row has scenes depicting the life of Jesus:

Another very typical Orthodox icon with silver plate over everything but the hands and faces of Mary and Jesus:
I especially love this nativity scene and wish I had a better photo. These scenes are the standard images found in Orthodox nativity art, including Mary and the infant Jesus in a cave, the Magi arriving on horseback on the top left, the shepherds getting the "glad tidings of great joy" from the angel on the top right, the flight into Egypt on the bottom left, and the prophet Isaiah (the foreteller of Jesus's birth) lying in what looks like either a hammock or a pea pod on the bottom right:
All of this was interesting, but the real reason for making the journey to Bethlehem was to go down the stairs and into the Grotto of the Nativity, the cave where much of the Christian and Arab world believes Jesus was born:
It didn't actually look like a cave, but perhaps 2,000 years ago it looked a little different:
It was very hard to connect this crowded, garish cavern with the humble scene described in the Gospel of Luke.
It felt almost sacrilegious to pose in front of this fourteen-point silver star that marks the "exact spot" of Jesus's birth:
More lamps surround the star. What is it with these lamps?
And here, just a few feet away (and with yet more lamps), is where Mary laid her babe in a humble manger:
It wasn't until we saw an unadorned cave a few days later at the Beit Lehi excavation site that I began to get an idea of what it might actually have been like at Jesus's birth. This location didn't do it for me--but it was still worth a visit.

Mark Twain's impression in 1867 was much like mine: 

In the huge church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem, built fifteen hundred years ago by the inveterate St. Helena, they took us below ground, and into a grotto cut in the living rock. This was the "manger" where Christ was born. A silver star set in the floor bears a Latin inscription to that effect. It is polished with the kisses of many generations of worshiping pilgrims. The grotto was tricked out in the usual tasteless style . . . . As in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, envy and uncharitableness were apparent here. The priests and the members of the Greek and Latin churches can not come by the same corridor to kneel in the sacred birthplace of the Redeemer, but are compelled to approach and retire by different avenues, lest they quarrel and fight on this holiest ground on earth.

I have no "meditations," suggested by this spot where the very first "Merry Christmas!" was uttered in all the world, and from whence the friend of my childhood, Santa Claus, departed on his first journey, to gladden and continue to gladden roaring firesides on wintry mornings in many a distant land forever and forever. I touch, with reverent finger, the actual spot where the infant Jesus lay, but I think--nothing.  (From Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain)

We left the garish grotto and made our way to the Church of St. Catherine, which actually shares a wall with the Church of the Nativity. The two churches could hardly be more dissimilar:
Beautiful (and relatively simple) stained glass window over the altar:
Another window shows an older baby and the arrival of the three kings:
A detailed bronze relief shows the "family tree" or genealogy of Jesus Christ, including Samuel and Jesse on the left and David as a young shepherd on the right. (Unfortunately, I cut off the figure of Jesus himself standing on top.)
Other art in and surrounding St. Catherine's includes this wonderful portrayal of St. George slaying the dragon:
I wish I knew more about this piece tucked away in a niche--a running monk with a arc of birds overhead. It made me think of the Miracle of the Gulls, an LDS story about the early Utah settlers being saved from crickets eating all of  their crops when an enormous flock of seagulls flew in and ate all the bugs.This monk looks similarly joyful about the birds:

In front of the church is a statue of Hieronymus, aka St. Jerome, an early Christian who was alive in the 4th century at approximately the same time the Church of the Nativity was being built. He is credited with translating the Greek and Hebrew Bible manuscripts into Latin. He also wrote extensive commentaries on the Gospels. Supposedly he did much of his work in the grottoes beneath the Church of the Nativity. He is shown here with a pen in his hand and his foot next to a skull. Legend has it that he kept a skull on his desk to remind himself of his own mortality.
Church of St. Catherine, Bethlehem /
St. Catherine stands on a ledge over the front door, surveying the busy tourist scene below. In about 300 AD and when just a young girl, she converted to Christianity after having a vision of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus. She became an excellent missionary, converting thousands, for which she was eventually tortured and beheaded. (No good deed goes unpunished.)

Our tour group gathered in the courtyard outside St. Catherine's to listen to Michael's lecture about the various stories surrounding the birth of Jesus. He concluded with an emotional reading of Psalm 23, "The Lord is my Shepherd," a psalm with an added layer of meaning for me now that I have seen the land where David herded sheep. 
We listened to a reading of the Nativity scriptures, Luke 2 and Matthew 1, and then ended our visit by singing five or six Christmas carols, ending with "Silent Night." Tourists from other groups passing through stopped to join in our singing, and several took a minute or two of video.

Chris and Stan listening carefully.
Bethlehem was not at all what I expected. Don't get me wrong--I had heard that it was a busy modern city, not a quaint little village, and so I was ready for that. What I didn't expect was the impact of having the city in Palestine and the way the Arab presence made me rethink some of my paradigms. I ran across this video of local Palestinians talking about and relating to the birth of Jesus.
Joseph having to get a permit to cross into the city? The Prince of Peace being born in the most troubled land on earth? Jesus as a refugee? Food for thought.


  1. The Church of the Nativity is under the Status Quo, just as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is, which is why the Greek Orthodox run it. It is very far from its humble beginnings.

  2. I enjoyed the SPAM (St. Paul Art & Media) video included at the end. I lived with David Galbraith in the Palastinian village of Abu Dis for part of my stay in Israel. David was a student at Hebrew University and later became our first LDS Branch President in Jerusalem. I enjoyed the trips to other nearby villages with his wife Frieda to pick up blouses embroidered by the women in the villages. She would then leave more blouses to be embroidered and pay them for those that were complete. Most of the time, the old peddle sewing machine was the only piece of furniture in the adobe home. Abu Dis was near Bethany and it was not difficult to imagine that I was walking streets much like Jesus saw when he often visited Bethany.

    1. Thanks, Russ. I love your memories. Keep them coming!

  3. I love your pictures-this was one of the places my camera was not working, and I missed many of these snapshots. Everything about Bethlehem was a lovely surprise--I don't think I can even put into words all of the wow moments I had.

    I look rather disgruntled in that picture of Stan and I. That was one of those very cold moments. I was glad when things warmed up.

  4. I think I would have had some disconnect moments, too, given what I imagine Christ's birthplace to be (and certainly fueled by art and church videos) and what is portrayed here.