We both slept really well last night, too well in fact. What we didn’t realize was that our telephone was dead, so we did not receive a wakeup call. I woke up at 7:30 AM, noted the time, and woke Kay to see if my watch was correct; it was. Our tour routine was for the guide to arrange wakeup calls for everyone at 6 AM, breakfast, then departure at 7:30 AM. After hurriedly dressing and throwing things into the daypack, I rushed downstairs to find everyone else waiting for us for a 7:30 AM departure. I explained the situation, and our guide rushed off to get the phone fixed, and find us coffee and pastry. Lesson learned: don’t trust wakeup calls.
We drove towards Bethlehem, but stopped short to let our guide off the bus; he holds an Israeli passport, and the Israeli government will not assure his safety in Bethlehem. Bethlehem is under Palestinian control, and security is provided by Palestinian authorities. We were surprised to find that Bethlehem was in the ‘West Bank’ area (formerly controlled by Jordan, and now controlled by Palestine). We crossed from West Jerusalem through a wall/gate not too dissimilar to the Berlin Wall and entered East Jerusalem also controlled by the Palestinians before traveling less than 30 minutes to Bethlehem. The wall was built in 2003 because of numerous suicide bombings of Israelis. After passing through the checkpoint, we picked up our Palestinian Christian guide, who is not allowed in Jerusalem. He told us he is basically a prisoner within the walled-in city. Bethlehem is a modern Palestinian city with a population of 80,000, only a few hundred people lived here in Jesus’ time. About 25% of the current population is Palestinian Christian, and the remainder Muslim. At the time of Israeli takeover, about half of the population was Palestinian Christian, but many young adults have moved out because of the severe restrictions of their movement in other parts of Israel; once they move out, they are never allowed back in.
Bethlehem. Our first stop was at a Palestinian Christian store for olive wood gifts, jewelry, etc. Street vendors awaited us right outside the door with scarves, bags, beads, and even musical camels.
As we continued in Bethlehem, we waited in line after line for viewing items in the Church of the Nativity. This old church is visited by millions of people, and has been modernized over the years; the Crusaders installed a higher ceiling and raised the roof—wooden timber trusses—to protect the mosaic floors and marble columns painted with scenes from Christ’s life. The inside of the church was dark and many of the features were stained from the use of olive oil lanterns. The pilgrims were lined up to go under the the sanctuary/altar area to a grotto area where a hand-sized rock was available to touch that indicated where it was believed that Jesus was born. Much of the ruins are protected because previous visitors broke pieces off as mementos for their use in worshipping.
The first evidence of a cave in Bethlehem being venerated as Christ’s birthplace is in the writings of Justin Martyr around 160 AD. The tradition is also attested by Origen and Eusebius in the 3rd century. In 326, Constantine and his mother St. Helena commissioned a church to be built over the cave. This first church, dedicated on May 31, 339, had an octagonal floor plan and was placed directly above the cave. In the center, a 4-meter-wide hole surrounded by a railing provided a view of the cave. Portions of the floor mosaic survive from this period. St. Jerome lived and worked in Bethlehem from 384 AD, and he was buried in a cave beneath the Church of the Nativity. The Constantinian church was destroyed by Justinian in 530 AD, who built the much larger church that remains today. The Persians spared it during their invasion in 614 AD because, according to legend, they were impressed by a representation of the Magi — fellow Persians — that decorated the building. This was quoted at a 9th-century synod in Jerusalem to show the utility of religious images. Muslims prevented the application of Hakim’s decree (1009) ordering the destruction of Christian monuments because, since the time of Omar (639), they had been permitted to use the south transept for worship. The Crusaders took Jerusalem on 6 June 1009. Baldwin I and II were crowned there, and in an impressive display of tolerance the Franks and Byzantines cooperated in fully redecorating the interior (1165-69). A Greek inscription in the north transept records this event. The Church of the Nativity was much neglected in the Mamluk and Ottoman periods, but not destroyed. Much of the church’s marble was looted by the Ottomans and now adorns the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. An earthquake in 1834 and a fire in 1869 destroyed the furnishings of the cave, but the church again survived. In 1847, the theft of the silver star marking the exact site of the Nativity was an ostensible factor in the international crisis over the Holy Places that ultimately led to the Crimean War (1854–56). In 1852, shared custody of the church was granted to the Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches. The Greeks care for the Grotto of the Nativity.
Mount of Olives. After departing Bethlehem, we stopped atop the Mount of Olives where views of Jerusalem were breathtaking. Most of the Holy places in Jerusalem were visible from this location, and we could only imagine what lay ahead. Immediately in our foreground was a huge cemetery; from the 3rd millennium BC until the present, this 2900-foot hill has served as one of the main burial grounds for the city. Separated from the Eastern Hill (the Temple Mount and the City of David) by the Kidron Valley, the Mount of Olives has always been an important feature in Jerusalem’s landscape. The two-mile long ridge has three summits each of which has a tower built on it.
Church of All Nations (Basilica of the Agony). The Church of All Nations, officially named the Basilica of the Agony, is located at the foot of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem next to the Garden of Gethsemane. It enshrines a section of bedrock in the Garden of Gethsemane that is believed to be where Jesus prayed on the night of his arrest (Matthew 26:36). The Basilica of the Agony was built from 1919 to 1924 using funds from 12 different countries, which gave it its common name, Church of All Nations. The domed roof, thick pillars, and floor mosaic give the church a Byzantine appearance. The architect of the building was Antonio Barluzzi, who also designed the nearby Dominus Flevit Church. The symbols of each country that contributed to the church are incorporated into the inlaid gold ceilings of each of 12 cupolas. The 12 cupolas rest on six monolithic pillars. The front of the church features a colorful façade supported by a row of pillars. Themodern mosaic above the entrance depicts Christ as the link between God and humanity. The Church of All Nations is run by the Franciscans, but an open altar in the garden is used by the Anglican community on Maundy Thursday (the day before Good Friday). The Church of All Nations lies on the foundations of two earlier churches: a 12th-century Crusader chapel abandoned in 1345 and a 4th-century Byzantine basilica, destroyed by an earthquake in 746.
Dominus Flevit Church. Built in 1955 to commemorate the Lord’s weeping over Jerusalem, Dominus Flevit features a beautiful view of the city through its distinct chapel window. Excavations during construction of the church uncovered a number of ossuaries (bone boxes) from the time of Jesus with numerous inscriptions.
Garden of Gethsamane. Early Christian pilgrims located the Garden of Gethsemane at the bottom of the slope of the Mount of Olives opposite the Temple Mount. Byzantine, Crusader and a modern church were built successively on the site where it is believed that Jesus prayed to the Father hours before his crucifixion. Adjacent to the Church of All Nations is an ancient olive garden. Olive trees do not have rings and so their age can not be precisely determined, but scholars estimate their age to anywhere between one and two thousand years old.
Photos of this trip may be seen at: https://picasaweb.google.com/DunnGoneTravels/IsraelAndJordan2011?authkey=Gv1sRgCIL-g8GBjtb-Lw&feat=directlink