Day 3 – Continued – Bethlehem
The second half of our first day in Jerusalem had us cross a mere five miles to Jesus’ birthplace, Bethlehem. Though short on miles, this trek required us to pass through a heavily gated border into Palestinian territory. Because we were part of a tourist group, our tour guide had already arranged for our entry, so coming and going went without issue. We were greatly relieved!
Our tour guide, Ariel, is Jewish, a true Israelite, so he was not allowed into Bethlehem, but we knew that ahead of time. So… we left Jerusalem without him and met a new guide, a Palestinian, at this cool little restaurant in the heart of Bethlehem for lunch.
Our seats on the second floor patio kept us out of the sun and captured the breeze coming off the Judean hills to our east. The décor was everything you’d expect for place wedged between the Mediterranean and the Middle East – billowing fabric from the ceiling, red cushioned seats with blues and purples in the carpet and decorations.
And the food…such fun food! Bowl after little bowl of who-knows-what were waiting for us as soon as we came in. Appetizer kind of food. Cabbages in various colors and seasonings. Cucumbers and tomatoes. Three different kinds of olives. Something that reminded me of hummus but wasn’t. And, yes, hummus and pita bread. So good.
Our small plates were whisked away in time for the main course of chicken and “beef” kabobs. I was never really sure if the “beef” was lamb or some other sort of meat. I decided not to ask and just try it. It was all very tasty; some I liked more than others. But I was thrilled when the bak-la-va (spelling?) came out for dessert. The honey on it satisfied my sweet tooth.
Then we headed out to tour. All the famous holy spots are just as “venerated” in Bethlehem as they are in Jerusalem, so lots of churches. The first of which we saw was The Church of the Nativity. Any guesses what happened on that location?
Yup. This is where it is believed Jesus was born.
Not only is it the oldest church in all of Israel, but it’s a most unique church — three different Christian churches have ownership of it: Catholic, Armenian, and the Orthodox. Literally, they have partitioned the church into three parts, each having claim to their own part, offering a means for peace to exist between them.
It’s a highly ornate church, almost too much for me, but once I made myself get past all the chandeliers and Christmas bulbs hanging down around me, I could appreciate the most articulate craftsmanship in the wood and metal-work I’ve ever seen.
While we waited in line to step down into a cave to see the spots where Jesus was born and where He was laid into the manger, the Armenians were holding their daily service. It was interesting – lots of chanting in their language, a little incense, and much praying!
In case you’re still hung up that we were going into a cave to see where Jesus was born…well, “stables” in this part of the world, especially in Jesus’ day, were actually in caves. Yes, your cute little barn in your nativity set is all wrong. If it makes you feel any better, I bought an original olive wood nativity that day in Bethlehem, and the holy family is under a roof!
From here we were bussed a bit down the road to a location that they believe was the field where the “shepherds watched their flocks by night,” “where angels we have heard on high” made their appearance the night Jesus was born.
Honestly, the shrine, gardens, and trail that were at Shepherd’s Field kept us from seeing an actual field, but we took their word for it and threw ourselves into the experience. The shrine was gorgeous, and while we circled through this vaulted-ceiling room, we softly sang some Christmas carols about that night.
So moving. Our echoes were most angelic sounding!
Our final stop for the day was at The Three Arches, a very nice store filled with all kinds of souvenirs of our day’s experiences. We sipped on grapefruit juice while we walked the store with baskets in hand. Real baskets. The kind you make in basket-weaving. I love this place!
My friend and I couldn’t seem to pull ourselves out of the olive wood section, so Ahmad decided he would be our personal shopper that day. He made us laugh A LOT! Had so much fun. And spent some major shekels. I guess you could say Ahmad did his job well!
We made it back to the hotel giddy from our purchases and gritty from all our sweaty explorations, so most of us showered before dinner; after dinner we retired for the evening.
We did notice that once the sun set, the traffic immediately increased, shops re-opened for the evening, and the Jewish guests in the hotel were riding in elevators with us again. The holy day, Shavuot, was over. Life is back to normal in Jerusalem…at least till Shabbath, their Sabbath, when all the “non-working” starts over again.
Why don’t we observe Sabbath that way? Seems like a great idea to me!
Signing off for now. Tomorrow we get to enter the gates of Old Jerusalem. I can’t wait!