Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity

Trip Start Mar 14, 2013
Trip End Mar 28, 2013

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Flag of Palestinian Territory  ,
Monday, March 25, 2013

We decide to split our walking tour of Jerusalem into two days. Today, we will enter the Old City at the Jaffa Gate and concentrate on the Armenian and Jewish quarters.

The area near the Jaffa Gate is the highest point on the western side of the city. Its walls were first built by the Hasmonean kings in the 2nd Century BC because this side of the city had no natural defenses. The Jaffa Gate we see today dates to the Ottoman Turks and their Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent who ruled from 1520 to 1566 AD.

We see the Tower of David Museum and walk past St James Church and to the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate (which is closed when we arrive). We walk downhill through the narrow cobblestone alleys of the Armenian Quarter. We enter the Jewish Quarter and continue downhill. Everything in Jerusalem is either straight uphill or downhill.

All at once the vista opens and we see the Western Wall before us. This is the sacred Wailing Wall of the Jews. As we near the wall, we see that men and women each have separate areas where they pray. In the background stands Temple Mount which is sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians.

For Jews, Temple Mount was the site of the great Temple of Jerusalem, the holiest place in Judaism. Christians revere it as a place visited by Jesus and some believe it will play a major role in end-time events. Temple Mount is also the site of the silver dome of the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the gold Dome of the Rock. Al-Aqsa is the third holiest site in Islam. After an earthquake in 746, the mosque was completely destroyed and rebuilt by Caliph al-Mansur in 754 and rebuilt again by his successor al-Mahdi in 780. The Dome of the Rock is not a mosque. It is a shrine. It is built over a sacred stone which is believed to be the place where the Prophet Mohammed ascended into heaven.

We take a taxi back "uphill" to the Jaffa Gate. We recover Graham's vehicle and drive to a ridge east of Jerusalem known as the Mount of Olives. From this location, we look down on the remaining live olive trees. It is here where Jesus spent most of the last week of his life. It is also where Judas betrayed him. We look down and see the golden dome of the Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene. We look across the valley toward the old city of Jerusalem. Between us and the Temple Mount are large Muslim and Jewish cemeteries. 

We descend to the Garden of Gethsemane. This is where Jesus spent the night before he was arrested. We are told the ancient olive trees in the Garden may well have been saplings in the time of Jesus. Today, the Garden is neatly maintained behind a wrought iron fence. Jesus would have seen an olive grove with a “gethsemane” (olive press in Greek) nearby.

We enter the "Church of All Nations" at Gethsemane. The church’s name honors the contributions made by many countries to its construction. The first church on this site was a fourth century Byzantine church, later transformed by the Crusaders into a basilica.

This afternoon we visit Bethlehem and the birth place of Jesus. Although Bethlehem is only 10 km south of Jerusalem, getting there is not as easy as it sounds. Bethlehem is located in territory controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Our guide, like most Israelis, is not welcome. Theoretically, we also need a visa to enter but theory and reality are not always the same in this part of the world.   

Graham makes a call to a prearranged contact (an Arab). The contact will meet us in a neutral area and takes us across. When our tour is complete we will return to the neutral area where Graham will meet us and take us back to Jerusalem.

We transfer into our temporary guide’s car and head into Bethlehem. The city is said to have 25,000 inhabitants but the level of traffic and construction would seem to indicate far more. Soon, we arrive at the Church of the Nativity. This Church was built by Emperor Constantine in the 4th Century AD and rests over the cave where Jesus was born.

Today is Passover for Jews and Holy Week for Christians. We are surprised there are not more pilgrims and visitors at the church. We find a parking place right away. With only a short wait, we are able to kneel in the spot where Jesus was born. We see the spot where the manger is said to have been placed. We are told the manger where Jesus was placed was not wood but stone. We also visit the Chapel of the Immaculate Virgin Mary.

We return to Jerusalem and meet Willis, Peggy, Kent and Rada for dinner. We walk on our own and actually manage to find the restaurant we sought. It is well worth the effort. This is the best meal we have had since arriving in Israel.

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