On our third day we took a half day trip to nearby Bethlehem. For this we had to cross into the Palestinian controlled sector of the West Bank and our Israeli driver had to be supplemented by a Palestinian guide once we crossed the checkpoint. Our driver told us that he is issued a special permit to enter this area as Israelis are not normally allowed into the Palestinian occupied zone. His point was underscored by huge warning signs stating that “Entrance for Israel citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and is against Israeli Law”. Despite this somewhat somber warning, neither of us felt in any danger throughout our visit and simply marveled once again at the sites of such historical and religious significance that we would see.
The first of these was the “Shepherds’ Field”, the presumed location, about a mile from the Nativity site, where the shepherds were told of the birth by the angels. A point which had previously been lost on us was that, up to this point, lambs had been sacrificed to God and that this particular flock was in effect being reared for that purpose. So, in addition to what must have been an alarming message from the Heavenly Host, these men were being told that they no longer had a livelihood!
Today there are two buildings to commemorate this revelation; a small church at the point where the shepherds were told and which contains three murals depicting the events of that day; and an even smaller chapel built over the cave that was used for their shelter while tending the flock. Our guide made it a “living scene” and, although it did not have the same intensity as that experienced at the Crucifixion site two days ago, the green grass, together with the cypress and palm trees all around, now made it the truly pastoral scene that it was then.
We then drove to the Church of The Nativity itself. This church has existed in some form for 1500 years and was built to replace the original one on this site commissioned by the Emperor Constantine and it sits above the cave where the birth of Jesus took place and the manger just a few feet away.
The under floor space is small and has a roughhewn ceiling (it was a cave) and only a limited number of visitors are allowed down the ten or so steps to the two points of pilgrimage. Despite uniformed crowd control personnel (and much shouting and pointing), the area of the manger was very crowded with much pushing and elbowing for position – or so it seemed. Clearly almost everyone there was on a once-in-a-lifetime visit and wanted to get close to and touch the Holy sites so there was a “Not so Christian” clamor for position in claustrophobic quarters.
However, we were at the presumed site of Jesus’ birth so a slight discomfort and a rushed feeling were a small price to pay for the experience. Presumably the crowded and frenetic feelings of the visit itself will fade soon and leave only the inescapable fact that we have been to the site that started two thousand years of change, and yet of an undeniable constancy. Again I feel obliged to say that, no matter what faith, and to what extent that that faith is manifested in any individual, there can be little debate that the events at this site and those of thirty years later just a short distance away, have prompted the best in art, sculpture and music – and incredible emotion in those who have seen and heard them. The spiritual aspect is either a basis for these feelings or an incredible bonus for those who are so moved.
Leaving the frantic commotion of the Church of the Nativity, we walked about ¼ mile to the Milk Grotto. Again, a confession: this was new to both of us. Supposedly this was the place where the Holy Family hid before their flight to Egypt and it is said that Mary’s milk as she was feeding Jesus fell to the floor and turned the cave into a beautiful white stone. Certainly the stone is white today (unlike the reddish brown one sees on entry) and the quiet, underground room is a tranquil respite from the busy Nativity scene. It is quite serene and contains a beautiful icon of the Virgin and Child. It was an ideal spot to complete our tour of Bethlehem and start the return journey to Jerusalem.
The tour we took on Day 4 (Saturday) had the single destination of the ancient city of Jericho. Once again we entered the Palestinian sector but, as yesterday, with no problems and no feelings of insecurity.
Our guide had, as he said, “lowered our expectations” on the road to Jericho telling us not to expect to see the walls that came tumbling down nor, indeed, any walls of consequence in the city. In fact it turned out that much of the city – certainly the area we visited – is an enormous archeological site and there are examples of walls, rooms and artifacts that date not just from the time of Joshua (1300BC) but, it is claimed, go as far back as 7000 years ago. There were even claims that a city had been formed here as early as 10,000 years ago.
The site being excavated looked essentially abandoned today and our guide told us that money is in short supply for a continuation of the work. Nevertheless, we did see some examples of structures, now well below ground level that were built by some of the earliest non-nomadic people on earth. This area, close to the Jordan River had a plentiful water supply (not so obvious today) and this promoted farming and the establishment of permanent settlements.
Of slightly more contemporary interest, the hill desert beyond the city of Jericho is where Jesus spent his forty days and nights of fasting right after being baptized in the nearby Jordan. This is the Hill of Temptation which rises steeply from city level and now houses a Greek Orthodox Monastery about 2/3 of the way to the summit. At the summit are the walls of one of three palaces that Herod is said to have built in Jericho; obviously he was a powerful and rich man who learned to live well during the Roman occupation.
Also in Jericho is the Sycamore fig tree into which Zacchaeus climbed to catch a better view of Jesus as he came through the city and was commanded to come down as Jesus wished to visit with him in his home – an unusual request of the unpopular tax collector who was seen more as a servant of Rome than as a “local”. Although the tree we saw is centuries old, it seems unlikely that we were looking at the one climbed in the Bible story. We did see a still-functioning spring of fresh, potable water that was supposedly made drinkable by Elisha who threw salt in the source to purify it.
Regardless of the absolute authenticity of these – and many other Biblical stories from this region – we were now a part of that history. We were in Jericho, the oldest city on earth and certainly the lowest (1300 feet below sea level); we had climbed (just a little way) up the Wilderness desert of Jesus’ period of Temptation; on our way from Jerusalem we had been essentially on the road of the Good Samaritan; and we were now standing within a mile of the Baptism site (just across the River in Jordan and a place we had actually seen several years ago on a visit to that country). Simply being here was a privilege.
We returned to Jerusalem and then walked along the ramparts atop the city walls. We chose to cover about ½ mile on the south and east sides. The views of both Old and New cities were magnificent on a sunny, warm afternoon but the walk was quite a challenge as the ramparts changed levels with great frequency and with very steep steps!
We re-entered the Old City near the Western (Wailing) Wall and saw the famous prayer site below Temple Mount. Presumably because our visit was towards the end of the Sabbath there were no crowds and only a handful of people touching the portion of Wall that we saw (no photographs allowed). Once again, however, we were immersed in a piece of history and at a place of deeply religious importance to those of the Jewish Faith. These sites – Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Christian in whatever part of the world, provide experiences that make traveling the passion that it is for both of us.
We returned to the Jaffa Gate along the narrow, crowded streets of the Muslim Quarter in sharp contrast to the Jewish-populated areas. Those of the Faith who were out and about were generally on the way to or from the synagogue and dressed accordingly. I can recall post-war England being similar on Sundays when I was young and the shock-wave of “Sunday opening hours” that began in the sixties. That melting of the Sabbath into just one of seven days has clearly not occurred here.