While only four miles from Jerusalem, Bethlehem is part of the West Bank and is now surrounded by a security wall/fence. Many of the Palestinian Christians and Muslims who live there are not able to move freely in and out of the city without a permit. On the way into Bethlehem, we were directed to go around the city to a different checkpoint, since the one on the main road was busy with travelers going to Jerusalem for Ramadan. (This year, everyone over 45 years old was allowed to go without a permit, but younger people had to obtain one.) A recent Israeli settlement was also a significant part of the landscape. The settlements are a huge sticking point in the peace process.
The Church of the Nativity, at the place of Jesus' birth, is an amalgamation of buildings ancient and modern. The first church on the site was built by Queen Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, in 326 and is considered the oldest church in Christendom. The majority of the current church on the site was built during Crusader times. During an earthquake in recent decades, they did engineering work to see if the large church columns were still architecturally sound. During that work, they found tile flooring and some mosaics from the original church. The main church is used by the Orthodox. A Roman Catholic church, built in the 1800's, connects to the Church of the Nativity. The two sanctuaries provide an interesting contrast of styles. The Catholic church is newer, lighter in color, much brighter, and includes hangings and artwork dating to the past decade. The thousand-year old Orthodox Church of the Nativity is darker, with most of the old icons, paintings, columns and hangings covered in the residue of centuries of candles and incense smoke. The lovely scent of incense lingers in the Orthodox church.
|Jerome's Chapel (photo by Greene)|
|Altar at the site of Jesus' birth (Greene photo)|
|Small manger chapel (Greene photo)|
|Sheep in the hills outside of Bethlehem (Greene photo)|
After a full morning of the living into the Nativity of Jesus in a new way, we visited a Palestinian Christian cooperative of local artisans that worked with with olive wood, gold, mother-of-pearl and other materials. Then we had a good meal at a Bethlehem restaurant. Of course, the pita was good at Bethlehem (which means literally "house of bread"), as were the falafels and the rest of the meal.