On a recent visit to the Middle East, I woke up very excited, as I was going to leave Nazareth and visit Bethlehem, the town where Christmas began. Nazareth was interesting, but nothing beat my enthusiasm for visiting the manger, checking out the donkeys and sheep, visiting with shepherds, and perhaps even buying some frankincense and Myrrh.
I met my guide in the lobby and was a bit disappointed when we walked through the parking lot to a car. I was expecting a donkey, hitched to a post ready to carry me to the birthplace of Christianity. Once we hit the road, I asked him how far it was. He told me about 2 hours, as it was 160km. I was quite stunned, because I know Mary made the trek in her last month of pregnancy on the back of a donkey.
He explained to me, it was the experience of being in the vicinity of where things happened that mattered and not the exact details. Well, that certainly made a lot of sense, and made it much easier for me to grasp what I was piecing together.
We came to the Palestinian border (Bethlehem lies in Palestine), and were greeted by heavily armed guards, who scrutinized our passports and our faces. Interestingly, there are huge, orange camera boxes at the side of the road, when you approach the checkpoint. My guide, Maher, explained they use facial recognition software, and scan the faces of the driver and front seat passenger, prior to arriving at the border.
Shortly after crossing into Palestine we stopped, and I was gazing at a massive wall, which spans over 700 km in length. It was built by the Israelis to prevent Palestinians from entering Israel. Of course, the Palestinians who have lived on the land for thousands of years, refer to it as the ‘apartheid’ wall.
We continued driving and entered the city limits of Bethlehem. I was amazed at what 2,000 years can do. Expecting to find a small village, I was now in a city of 130,000, with thirty percent of the population Christian and the rest Muslim. I was concerned about security, but it seems everyone gets along. Unfortunately, tourism has taken over, and anything that looks remotely sacred has been turned into a tourist site.
My mind had conjured up visions of rolling hills and small, stone buildings, donkeys and oxen in the streets, and stalls of spices and fruits everywhere. Many years of seeing artists renditions of Bethlehem, had formulated images in my mind. Of course, the thirty plus heat immediately erased any preconceived scenes of snow.
After driving for quite a while, we found a parking spot and began walking the streets where individuals from the New Testament had walked. We passed some interesting shops, such as Stars and Bucks (with a similar logo to Starbucks) and a big hit in the area, Colonel Sanders, with his KFC.
After a fifteen minute walk we entered Nativity Square, a large, concrete area, which leads to the beautiful Church of the Nativity. The cathedral is a historical marvel, all to itself. It was constructed in 330 CE by Constantine the Great, in the place where Christ was believed to have been born. A star marked the exact spot of the birth, but it was stolen in 1847.
Another myth shattered, there wasn’t a manger. Most houses back in the day, had caves beneath them where they would store goods, sleep when it was very hot upstairs and keep their domestic animals. Such was the case in the house (or inn), where Joseph and Mary stopped, after their lengthy donkey adventure.
The lineup was quite long (about two hours), but as I probably will not return anytime soon, it was something I had to do. Once you arrive at the entrance to the cave, you walk down about six or seven steps, and come upon two places within a couple of metres of each other. The first is where Christ was born, and the second where he was laid down.
The experience was interesting, but the frantic disorder of the people, eager to touch the sacred spot and tripping over each other, coupled with priests rushing people in and out, takes away from the holy atmosphere.
The cave or grotto beneath the Church of the Nativity, is the oldest site continuously used as a place of worship in Christianity, and the basilica is the oldest major church in the Holy Land. The cathedral has basically remained unchanged since its construction. Two bell towers were removed during the Crusader period, and there have been several additions. Today it covers approximately 12,000 square meters (130,000 square feet), comprising three different monasteries: one Greek Orthodox, one Armenian Apostolic, and one Roman Catholic (Armenian Apostolic is the oldest Christian religion, formally established in 101 CE).
The visit was extremely interesting, and one does get into the Christmas spirit when visiting. Most of the western ‘marketing traditions’, associated with Christmas, proved not to be realistic, but the stopover was worth doing. Maybe this Christmas, instead of hearing me sing ‘Away in a Manger’, I may instead insert the word ‘cave’.