We left this morning for the Shepherds Fields where the Angels came down to announce the birth of Jesus. It is within the boundaries of Bethlehem but on the way we passed the wall ( Israeli Security Barrier) with all the Graffiti. Everyone has been shocked about the encircling of Bethlehem by this huge concrete wall. It is actually higher than the Berlin Wall was. Close to the checkpoint the wall has been covered with protest Graffiti and has some Banksy art. Our tour guide stopped the bus so we could all get out and look more closely. It is very powerful as a means of protest. Kathy H. and I hurried down to the Walled Off Hotel which has a Banksy and a museum and art gallery. It is a quirky place that advertises its rooms as having the worst view! We didn’t have time to explore but just had a quick look insidei.
There has been much discussion over the politics of Israel and Palestine since we arrived and we are starting to get a clearer picture of what is happening here. In Australia we are so naive and lack real information. It is a very complex situation.
After we returned to the bus we continued on to the Shepherd’s Fields. The tour guide explained how the shepherds used to graze out of the area as far as Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. After the crops were harvested they returned to graze their animals close to Bethlehem. They usually confined their flocks in caves or shelters at night to protect them from wolves etc. The church at the shepherds’ fields was built over the cave where the shepherds had been. This would have been around July or August which means Jesus was most likely born in the middle of the year. We all decided our Christmas in July was actually quite authentic!
The Church was another Bulozzi design and it was a circle with the dome punctuated with round glass to represent the light of the angels. The acoustics were really quite good and it is a tradition to sing a Christmas carol when you enter. We sang Silent night. It was hard to get in because there was a large group of Koreans who were lingering and taking lots of photos. There are so many different nationalities visiting the Holy Land that we are surprised the service in many places is quite ordinary and they are not very well prepared or just see us as $$. We think that they are too busy trying to survive. Many of the hotels are very short staffed and everyone has huge water tanks because they only get water once a week.
While we were in an open air chapel our tour guide explained a lot of the history of Israel and Palestine and helped us understand the West Bank and the Palestinian Territories with a Swiss cheese analogy. Anne and I had struggled with a map of the area to identify the three zones, Palestinian controlled(A), Palestinian/Israel shared (B) and Israeli controlled (C) but when he explained that Palestine is the holes in the cheese, we got it finally.
Our next stop was Shopping. The tour tries to support traders in Bethlehem so we had time to view quality souvenirs. Most of us bought gifts for others or ourselves. I succumbed to a Jerusalem Cross in gold. Just a very little one but I really liked it and I like to bring a momento back. Jewellery is small to pack! Anya really lashed out and bought a gold cross with a diamond along with a range of saints medals. They did have beautiful things but so much is very glitzy.
We went off to lunch then so that we could time our visit to the Church of the Nativity when other groups would be lunching. Anne and I decided to just have a drink instead of a full lunch but I wished I had bought the apple I had left on the bus.
When we moved on to the Church of the Nativity, our guide told us his last tour had waited 3 hours to get in! We were all hoping his strategy of early lunch would pay off. He has been pretty good at managing these things for us most of the trip. He knows everyone and has good relationships which seems to help us every time.
The entrance to the church is a low door to remind you to be humble or it was built by very short people! We fortunately did not have to queue for very long. Even so it was a bit of a crush to go into the cave in which Jesus was supposed to be born. All these caves have been a revelation to us. The story of the birth has been ‘ Europeanised’ I suspect because the whole complex of the Church is built on caves which would have been more exposed in their time but have been built over and the surroundings have been built up. Even the manger would have been stone. Timber has never been prevalent and stone is the choice for most things. The star on the floor in the cave indicates the place where Jesus was born.
We were all a bit disappointed that we could not sit and contemplate the birth of Christ. People get 5 minutes then you need to move on! When you reappear it is into the Greek Orthodox Church of St Catherine which has numerous elaborate lamps and chandeliers. These represent the light of God within. Suddenly we were all in a flurry because we were able to have a mass in the Chapel of the Holy Sacrément. We have been very fortunate to be able to have Mass at various churches along the way. It seems all these pilgrims are keeping the churches in good business. We also find other groups singing in chapels and churches which is a lovely extra bonus. They usually have great voices and good acoustics.
The Chapel of the Holy Sacrement where we were able to have a Mass.
Another cave in the complex below the church was that for Saint Gérôme. It was his mission to translate the Bible into Latin. Here it was also crowded. I thought of the Bell tower in Porto when we had waited and then were squeezed into a small space. We needed red and green lights to manage the crowds! Not great for people with claustrophobia.
From here we walked to the Milk Grotto another cave with a church atop. It is supposed to be where the Virgin Mary hid before the escape to Egypt and while breast feeding the infant Jesus, some of her breast milk spilled onto the floor and the cave was transformed. The guide was rather sceptical of this story but there were many devout people there paying homage.
The picture of the Virgin Mary actually breastfeeding is something I have never seen before. The chapels in the caves were rather lovely though. We had some free time and so a few of us decided to explore the market. There were all sorts of things but also a lot of second hand gear stalls. It was not very vibrant because it is Ramadan and people are fasting, or shops were closed.
In the end we had time for a beer in the garden of the cafe run by the order of San Francisco. I did enjoy that and it helped assuage my hunger.
Back at the hotel the dining room was nearly empty so we all made a dash for dinner before the other hordes arrived. It gets so noisy. Think Coles Cafeteria!
We were having an early night because we had a very early start in the morning. Though whether I would sleep was debatable. The sirens were wailing on and off all evening.