The Road to Bethlehem

19 Jul

Church of the Nativity Interior

Church of the Nativity Interior (click image to see my set of photos of Bethlehem)

Bethlehem, situated six miles south of Jerusalem, is just a little over an hour’s drive from our house in Herzliya. Thanks to a missed turn in Jerusalem it took us nearly twice that long to get there last Saturday. We ended up driving through parts of central Jerusalem we were unfamiliar with. I frantically searched the map trying to determine where we were. It didn’t help that the names on some of the street signs had been inexplicably removed. But B. followed his instincts and soon I noticed we were on Beit Lehem road. Yay! That is the road to Bethlehem!

I’d learned the night before that the name Bethlehem (or Beit Lehem) means House of Bread in Hebrew. Oddly enough, the town name in Arabic is Bayt Lahm and means House of Meat.

Soon we were back on the map and nearing the checkpoint at Rachel’s Tomb. Getting through the checkpoint was a piece of cake. The guards looked at the covers of our passports and waved us through.

I’d been duly prepared for the checkpoint routine but the sight of the wall caught me up – a 25-foot tall concrete barrier that stretches as far as the eye can see. And is covered with graffiti. It brought me back to the day in the mid-70s when I’d visited the Berlin Wall with my family. I’ve lived to see that wall come down. I sure hope this wall comes down during my lifetime.

We drove on to a street near Manger Square and found a good parking space. At one end of Manger Square sits the Church of the Nativity. One of the world’s oldest continuously operating churches, it is said to have been built over the cave where Christ was born. The facade of the church, made of plain gray stone, is terribly unassuming. To enter, one must go through the “Door of Humility” – a door so low that even I had to bend down to get through.

Upon entering you find yourself in a cavernous nave lined with two rows of double columns. Barely visible on the columns are paintings of saints that date to the Crusader period. Wooden trapdoors in the floor were opened to reveal the original 4th-century mosaic floors. In contrast to the nave, the front of the church is elaborately ornamented in Greek Orthodox style.

A long line of visitors had already formed at the Grotto of the Nativity, where visitors wait to view a silver star placed on the floor under an altar. The star marks the spot where Jesus was born.

Adjacent to the Church of the Nativity is St. Catherine’s Church, a Roman Catholic church completed in 1882. It is from this church that midnight Christmas mass is broadcast worldwide. Outside St. Catherine’s is a lovely cloister featuring Crusader-era arches and a statue of St. Jerome, who lived and died in Bethlehem and whose major work, translation of the Vulgate, was done in Bethlehem.

The Mosque of Omar, Bethlehem’s only mosque, is on the opposite side of Manger Square. I wasn’t able to enter because my straw sun hat was not considered to be appropriate head gear. I would need to wear a scarf or shawl on my head to enter.

We also paid a visit to the Church of the Milk Grotto, built over the spot where the Holy Family took refuge during the Slaughter of the Innocents. Tradition holds that while Mary nursed Jesus a drop of milk fell on the ground and turned the stone white. We found an incongruous complex of buildings there. There was the ornate facade of the Milk Grotto, a more sedate Franciscan chapel as well as a very modern church.

There were countless souvenir shops on the streets surrounding Manger Square but I was in search of Baituna al-Talhami, a handicraft museum/shop where Palestinian women make and sell their wares. We saw lots of beautiful embroidered fabrics there and I picked up a few keepsakes of our visit to Bethlehem.

We had planned to spend the afternoon exploring Herodion, remains of a fortress/palace built by Herod, but the hot sun had done us in. We will return to Herodion another day.

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One Response to “The Road to Bethlehem”

  1. Alan July 26, 2011 at 8:45 pm #

    Maybe it’s only the blue tinge, but this photograph struck an emotional chord.

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