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I know I promised this post for yesterday evening – however, after a total of 9 full hours spent either in class or otherwise working on Hebrew yesterday, my brain was absolute mush. It is important to note and give full credit and thanks to Scott O’Hara for not only taking photographs I suggested, but then allowing me to post them here as illustration.

And, on to the Bethlehem stories:

The title of this post is not an exaggeration; this was by far the best birthday I have ever had. I forewarn you, my readers – this post will be a long one, but I did/saw too many awesome things to not relate them to you. Also, this post probably best exemplifies my intention to only write about things that no one else would really know about, so my accidental 3 mile walk deep into the West Bank fits perfectly 🙂

First, since my birthday was on Shabbat, we were unable to take the Egged bus system (the Israeli buses) – instead, Scott and I took the Arabic bus system, and I have nothing but raving reviews for it. It is a full 2 shekelim cheaper, for a cost of 4 shekelim per trip within Jerusalem (for us, getting to the Damascus Gate of the Old City), and then a mere 6 shekelim to go into the West Bank and the cities therein. The smaller and medium buses are Mercedes buses like I rode in Africa, and they offer an almost fully smooth ride. The exception is when making turns – all of those style of buses have very small diameter tires, and are quite tall vehicles, so one experiences quite a bit of leaning when the bus takes turns.

After riding past the huge security gates into Area A of the West Bank, past 20-foot tall concrete walls, and 12-foot tall razorwire fences, armed Israeli soldiers, and armored cars (but no tanks), our innocent little bus drove into the Palestinian Territories and around several neighborhoods to all of its stops. We eventually ascend a very, very tall hill, and finally come to a complete stop. We ask the driver “we were supposed to go to Bethlehem – why are we stopping?” This was responded to very clearly: “this IS Bethlehem; what else do you want?!?” Apparently, my previous internal conception of the “little town of Bethlehem” featured a small, quaint city nestled in a valley and fairly archaic still. In reality, however, the city is fairly large, quite modernized, and full of life: street vendors have all sorts of products, and there are electronics stores, jewelers, and anything else one can think of.

Picking a random direction (as Scott and I seem wont to do), we walked up to a higher elevation still, and came upon the Lutheran Christmas Church (which was unfortunately closed) – we knew we were getting close. We peaked the hill, which we later found out is approximately 950 feet above sea level, and started down towards the ever-popular Manger Square to get into the parts of the town we had come to see.

Getting to the Church of the Nativity, we are heckled by some Palestinian guys outside offering to be our guides, but we decline since they seem less than ideal for that purpose. Ducking under the 3.5 foot tall entrance way (which was fun for me 😛 ), we enter the church proper and stare at a veritable networked sea of incense burners hanging from the ceiling. We are approached by a different gentleman, introducing himself as “Naif,” and we start off through the church with him as our guide. I made a point of asking how much he was looking to make, as I happen to know that these “free services” include some free yelling if you don’t pay the price they set at the end, so I was OK with his “suggested donation of 90 shekels” at the end. He explains many things, such as the very short entrance being a modification to prevent raiders from merely riding their horses/camels into the sanctuary (which strikes me as a great idea), and how the church is actually 3 churches in one: Catholic, Orthodox, and Armenian.

The central, Orthodox part of the church has some great Crusader-era murals to glance at, as well as an ornate altar featuring over 45 icons (of Jesus, saints, apostles, and so forth). To our right was the Armenian church, which we did not venture into, and then ahead of us we saw the steps down to the lower level (see the picture of me on some red steps going down). This lower level, as it was explained to us, was the cave in which Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem, and where she gave birth. In fact, this cave is also quite ornate, as this is the widely held real location of both the birth of Jesus, and his placement into the manger: they have separate spots, and you can see them in the pictures. I am in front of a small alcove and looking at the camera in front of the location of the manger, and I am laying down and touching the silver inlaid star marking the spot of Jesus’ birth. Already an intense location, there was a heavily Catholic Spanish tour group in the crèche as well, and they were all dressed very well, and broke into hymn twice while we were down there. The un-air conditioned cave, combined with 55 people crammed into it made for an extremely warm and humid claustrophobic space, but a moving one nonetheless.

Climbing up the stairs into the other side of the church, we were hit again with cool air, and a few lungfuls of incense served as a heady refreshment after the close quarters below. We wandered into the recently-renovated Roman Catholic portion of the church, redone when Pope John Paul II came to Bethlehem in 2000. We wandered over a grate that Scott didn’t notice and flipped out when he saw it, and into a courtyard – this is where Scott and I are pictured, in front of the statue of Hieronymus. We went down into another cave underneath the church, and Naif explained that this is where Saint Jerome had spent 36 years with his assistant, translating the original Aramaic Bible into Latin, which would become known as the quintessential Vulgate Bible. As should becoming clear, quite a few world-changing events had happened on the premises of this Church of the Nativity, and I look forward to going back and spending more time admiring its architecture and art.

The following is a big step for me: I am the type of person who purchases between 1 and 3 personal souvenirs total whenever I go anywhere, and my first one was in Bethlehem. Naif took us to “Mary’s” shop, where we were offered fresh brewed tea from the leaves (it was delicious). We looked around the shop, and were offered “a very good price,” which I think I have yet to NOT be offered anywhere outside the US. As if Naif’s “random” decision to take us to this store wasn’t indicative enough of his ties to the place, he “argued” on the phone with the boss, “Joseph,” and secured us better prices. Ironically, after traveling all the way here and going to Bethlehem, I manage to make a purchase commemorating the Old Testament: a silver with gold-inlaid piece of artistic metallurgy, it featured Samson standing strong and knocking over two pillars of the temple. It will feature prominently in my Grant Road house upon my return to DC, so those of you who live close, keep your eyes out for it. We left “Mary and Joseph’s” store (the fake names were a little much, I think), and went over to the Milk Grotto.

La Grotte du Lait as it is also labeled above the entrance is the presumed location where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus hid while Herod sent men to kill all young children in the city. It is said that as Mary breast-fed Jesus, a few drops spilled and instantly and permanently turned all the stone pure white (which it still was, as we saw). An interesting, and prior to visiting it, unknown to me location that was worth the trip to see.

Naif assured us that to get to the nearby Catholic Shepard’s Field (as we aren’t allowed to the traditional Orthodox Shepard’s Field), we simply go about a mile down this one road, and follow the signs. We thanked him, and decided to walk the short distance. This choice proved eventful, to be sure. We walked for quite some time down the huge hill, and ended up taking the wrong branch of a Y intersection at one point (so much for straight all the way down), and so turned around and took the other path further. Shortly thereafter, we happened upon a mom-and-pop shawarma place, and went in for lunch. It was, with no doubt in my mind whatsoever, the best shawarma I have yet had in Israel (compared to all the different places in Jerusalem I have tried). It was also obscenely cheap – 13 shekelim (about USD $3.10) for the shawarma in a pita and a Coke. Excellent lunch finished, we asked for updated directions. The owner told us to go straight for about a mile, and then turn left, and to follow the signs. We promptly forgot about the “turn left,” and went on our merry way.

As we walked along the road, we passed by some extraordinarily poor homes, businesses, and parts of the neighborhood that were utterly run-down and decrepit. Groups of students were on their way to classes, and taxi vans zoomed past in both directions, and we decided to keep going, keeping our eyes out for the signs we were promised. In addition to getting a much better sense of Palestine by walking through it in lieu of driving, we also got to walk by several carpentry and woodworking shops making products of olive wood. Whereas most sawdust smells awful to me, or at least not good, olive wood sawdust smells amazing, as Scott found to his amazement as well.

So, to give you, my readers, a better idea of the distance involved here, our jaunt into the West Bank was at about 3 miles at this point. We had walked through and then out of Bethlehem proper; through and then out of Beit Sahour, the neighborhood following it; and then through and out of the next small neighborhood. We hadn’t seen any sign promising us the Shepard’s Field in quite some time, but decided to continue down a nearly empty road for a bit longer. Soon thereafter, walking down the right side of the road, we passed by a small outpost on our right. Flying a Palestinian flag proudly, it featured a modified Land Rover with military gear. Also prominent in our eyes were the 3 or 4 gentlemen dressed in full jungle camouflage, red berets, and bearing AK-47’s on the porch. We looked at them once, and then continued going ahead, thinking “just KEEP WALKING, and NO MORE EYE CONTACT.” Safely passing what was in all likelihood a Fatah military outpost, we finally got past all sense of any neighborhood and were truly out in the wastes of the Palestinian desert. We finally decided to flag down a taxi van and ask if we had passed the place… which we did by about 2 miles.

We climb into the van, and speed down the road at about 50 miles per hour back the way we came. An elderly couple on the opposite side of the road were making a slow left turn, and our driver laid on his horn. They didn’t heed his warning, and he slammed on the breaks, going 50 MPH in a heavy Ford van with tires of small diameter. Equally concerning was the completely wet road, the remains of a shop owner cleaning off his car and storefront. Skidding and sliding, we narrowly avoided dying in a car crash due to iconic Israeli bad driving; this right after walking by a Fatah outpost unharmed. Although shaken, we figured we must be either lucky or divinely protected to keep getting through things unscathed… but we still we happy to get out of the speed freak’s taxi van and walk on our own two legs again. The street he told us to walk down had NO SIGN WHATSOEVER announcing the Shepard’s Field, so we had no chance to get there from the start. 😦

Walking in through the gate of the Shepard’s Field, several things became immediately apparent: 1) this was easily the best kept lawn I had yet seen in the nation of Israel; 2) it was kept up by Franciscan monks; and 3) Scott and I were the only two people in the entire place. We walked along the path to the small chapel in the center of the area, and went into what is now my favorite place of worship I have been to in the entire world (this includes beating out the US National Cathedral, Notre Dame, and so forth). Please check out the included photographs, which will do better justice than my description (the frescoes there are breathtaking, because they fit the sense of the location perfectly).

We walked outside and saw the fountain in the courtyard (see the photos of that), and discovered to our intense pleasure that this property also has… a 4th century Byzantine church and monastery being dug out by archaeologists. Since the gate to it was clearly open, there was no one around to forbid us, and we had worked so hard to get there, we decided to go in and check it out. I am attaching a few of the photos, but it was truly amazing as well – nothing like standing in a cave where a crude altar still stands, and trying to imagine a service in that underground sanctuary. We plan on going back to Bethlehem bearing my flashlight, because the tunnels in the caves are unlit but seem to go back fairly far, and we yearn to explore them (hopefully no one will be there the next time we go either 🙂

We left the caves, and walked to the farthest point of Shepard’s Field from the gate, to what is the most peaceful spot I have yet encountered on this Earth. To our left were the ruins of the old church, to our right and behind us was open space that is part of the Field. In front of us was a beautiful panoramic view of the country around us (see the panoramic photo), with a huge mountain, the first actual forest I have seen, and other things. Below us, down a 40 foot sheer drop, was someone’s home and fields of olive trees. Off in the distance was a Jewish settlement. Our location combined with our luck in encountering no other human beings within the Field, meant that upon seeing the view, we experience a good 3 minutes of nearly perfect silence. This, combined with the day’s experiences, was already very peaceful, but then something unexpected and somewhat miraculous (I do knowingly mean to use that term and its intended meaning here) happened. In front of our very eyes, even though we could see very impoverished Palestinian households, a huge fence besides the road to the settlement, the imposing settlement itself with the meanings therein, and all the other strife in the region, two doves flew down from somewhere to our left, and landed amongst the olive trees below us. The meaning here was not lost on me – two renowned symbols of peace in and amongst an embattled and volatile area bode very well in my eyes (they symbolize to me the hope that still exists in a seemingly hopeless conflict). These encounters, plus the overriding sense of the Field itself made my first 3 minutes looking off that cliff the most peaceful time in my whole life. I wish we had a photograph of the doves, but see the attached for the views we had. I look forward to going back here with my camera and getting some more photographs in the future: definitely my favorite place I have been thus far.

We left the Field and went across the street to what looked like a nice gift shop… and it turned out to be THE Gift Shop. The place was huge, and the lady at the front asked us in Italian, German, and Spanish which language we preferred. We explained that English would be best, and so we were given a tour of the store by a man who spoke excellent English. This was no tourist trap – this was at least as nice as higher-end diamond stores in the US, but its products are all hand-produced by local families (tourism is Bethlehem’s lifeblood, after all). Among many other beautiful items, they had a USD $6000 7-foot tall olive wood cross with inlaid mother of pearl; a back room of 250 year old icons for USD $250, and all sorts of wooden carvings and silverwork products. I ended up carefully considering one of these as my possible, later second souvenir: it is an Eastern Christian crucifix, so it has the two extra cross-bars on it (as can be seen here: http://www.catholicstore.com/images/products/20769sm.jpg); it is made of olive wood, inlaid with genuine mother of pearl, and has a small inlaid glass vial at each of the corners of the cross (soil of Bethlehem, incense, Bethlehem olive oil, and white Jerusalem stone). It is a beautiful piece, and when I probably purchase it, I will post an image. We did end up purchasing locally-made wine, for very cheap, at the suggestion of our sales representative.

We took a van back to Manger Square, and walked back to the bus stop. The trip back to Jerusalem was entirely uneventful, save for the border from the West Bank into Israel. Everyone on the bus, including several 80 year old nuns, was forced to get off the bus, which then pulled up and was inspected by one Israeli soldier. We then all had to show our passports, and we able to get back on. It wasn’t entirely awful, but this was one of the better checkpoints: as I understand it, the smaller ones, that are predominantly used by Palestinians and no tourists, are the ones where people get heavily mistreated. As I look forward to more trips into the West Bank, I can only say that I will report what I personally encounter.

Back at my room, I shared the Bethlehem wine with my roommate – he said it was better than all the awful Israeli wine he has had thus far, and I personally think it was better than the stuff they served at the French Embassy back freshman year… all for USD $9.00. I hope this post was enjoyable to read: it is so long because I wanted to do my best and explain why this birthday was the best one of my entire life.

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One Comment

  1. Happy belated birthday!
    That stuff looked seriously cool, and its really nice that you can still get around the country even after all of the craziness lately. Guess that really is a testament to them.
    The frescoes in that church are absolutely unbelievable, and, plus, a place like that has to be even better with no other annoying tourists. It had to be pretty awesome.
    Keep having fun and enjoy the heat for me while I am still in frozen Minnesota.


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