Trip Start Sep 27, 2008
Trip End Oct 18, 2008

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Where I stayed
Jerusalem's Hotel Hashimi

Flag of Palestinian Territory  ,
Saturday, October 4, 2008

We wanted to see Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity, where Jesus is believed to have been born in a manger.

Going to Bethlehem means going to Palestine. The little town of Bethlehem is in the West Bank--only a few miles outside of Jerusalem--but on the other side of a high wall. Israel is building a wall--separating Palestinian areas for safety, or to secure land.

After a quick breakfast, we took a bus outside Damascus Gate for 4 NIS each towards Bethlehem. After about 15 minutes, we were at the checkpoint--thick, high walls of concrete topped by razor wire. We entered a building and went through a passport check. An Israeli soldier advised us not to take pictures in "the terminal". We passed through and out to the other side. There was a line of about 100 people waiting to get into Jerusalem in the terminal and spilling outside in a fenced-in walkway.

Bryan brilliantly negotiated a 20 NIS taxi ride to/from the terminal to Bethlehem (another 2-3 miles away). We got a great driver--who shared his hometown knowledge, and his opinion of the wall. He was disturbed that he could no longer travel the old roads, passing freely and quickly to see family on the other side of Jerusalem.

I didn't recognize the church from the outside. The entry is in a big courtyard, with a short door--the Door of Humility. We were some of the first tourists of the day and had the place to ourselves for a few golden moments. After stooping to enter, you come into a wide open space--no pews--but columns of red leading your eye to the altar up front. Hundreds of golden oil lamps, old glass chandeliers, sparkled in the sun streaming from the windows behind the altar. Smoke from candles and incense filled the air. It's a simple place really.

Below the altar, is a small room with the magic spot where Jesus was believed to be born. Curving steps on either side of the altar lead down into a close room--we could see several priests down there, swinging incense burners and chanting. We lit candles and looked at the iconic pictures covering nearly every inch of the walls around the altar and the steps to the grotto. When the priests left, we entered slowly and saw the 14 point star in the floor that marks the spot. A huge group of German tourists entered behind us--and we watched as many of them kneeled, kissed the star and got their photos made. They sang a hymn.

I tried to take in the significance of the place. It's hard to imagine. It's hot down there, and a tight spot with over 50 people squeezed in. The walls are covered by leather like draperies and pictures hang on the drapes. It's overwhelming to see, to comprehend the importance of this place to millions of people around the world. As the Germans left and another group began to come in, I stepped forward and stooped to touch the star. I put my hand into the center of the star, near the 7 o'clock position, cupping the lip of the hole with my palm briefly and brought the cold of the stone/metal to my heart in a fist. I backed away and exited the grotto. Up into a stream of sunlight from the high windows.

We spent some time watching a dozen priests in various uniforms pray at the altar above the grotto. The streams of sunlight looked solid--like you could hold them in your hands. We sat quietly, trying to absorb it all. I imagined the pictures in National Geographic from a few years ago--when the church was held hostage in a month long siege. To protect the church, the Christian priests would not leave. The Palestinian soldiers honored the significance of the church and the place was spared by the Israelis. It's amazing what a place can signify. We began to talk about all the icons, the tangible pieces of religions...the books, beads, stars, stones, walls. And wondered why religions have to have something holy to touch, a ritual, to be part of worship.

Next door was a more modern church, where midnight mass is broadcast across the world on Christmas Eve. We walked around the grounds a bit and stopped for a coffee at the Casa Nova Palace hotel. We spent some time in a gift shop--picking up some olive wood ornaments in a 14 point star shape.

On the way back, our driver--who had waited for us--stopped to show us some of the graffiti along the wall and the nicer hotels in Bethlehem. He wished us well as he dropped us back at the checkpoint.

This time, the line on the outside was gone. But there were about 40 folks waiting on the inside. We got in line and waited for almost an hour to pass through the airport-like security. The turnstile into the screening area let in only about 4 people before it locked. This and the significant waiting time caused a great deal of restlessness and comments from those of us waiting. I imagined they were saying things like "what's the hold up?" "Hurry!" Once you passed the turnstile, you put everything through a conveyor x-ray, passed through a metal detector and then entered another line to have passports/papers checked. We passed through with a simple check. Palestinians had to put their hands on an electronic reader before passing through. Only one checkpoint was open and this took time.

Truly like another country. I think we deserved another stamp in the passport for this border crossing.
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nomadicant on

It was in 1995 that I visited some of these same places and your writing is sending me back on an amazing journey of the senses...I recall the feeling of the breeze on hot dusty skin, the smell of the fresh bread reaching up to the open air dorms where we slept in the Muslim quarter, the tiny shoe repair shop, those men stretching in open doorways between sips of tea in the cool air of early morning before the sun sneaks into the cracks in the narrow maze of streets...

Thanks for taking my mind on a little journey this cold Chicago evening.

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