Note: As of June 1, 2011, I realizes some of these link are broken. They’ll be back up in a few days when I get back to the United States.
Today I made my first foray into the West Bank to visit the famed city of Bethlehem. The process itself was fairly straighforward, though pretty intimidating. I decided to take the Arab bus (#21) that leaves from the front of the Damascus Gate in the Old City of Jerusalem. These buses are the counterpart to the national Israeli bus system, Egged, and use East Jerusalem as a jumping-off point for trips into Palestininan areas (i.e. the West Bank). I flagged down the bus (they don’t stop at bus stops normally unless requested or someone is flagging them), and thought, “Here we go.”
The bus ride skirted the Israeli security barrier; it passed several large red signs that stated that entering Bethlehem is illegal for Israeli citizens, as the area is fully under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). I was the only Westerner on the bus.
I knew the general direction to reaching Manger Square, the spot on which the main sites, like the Church of the Nativity and the Mosque of Umar, were located, though not exactly sure how to navigate the winding and narrow streets. I stopped and asked for directions, and was quickly on my way.
A note on the people in Bethlehem (and as my Lonely Planet says, the people in the entire West Bank): everyone was incredibly friendly. I was personally led to the Church by a man who looked like he was late for work, but when he saw me consult a map, he stopped and walked with me the rest of the way, curious as ever about Chicago and what I thought of his city.
Another man brought me to the Milk Grotto Chapel (“thee Milky Grooto church”) and then led me into his home to meet his extended family. He was exceptionally proud to show me his family’s workshop, brandishing local olive tree wood and mother-of-pearl to create intricate Christian souvenirs (“this is NOT from Teewan!”) His mother made me some of the best tea I have ever had.
I am strongly against giving anything or anyone that much blind faith, but I thought, for better or for worse, I am going to trust these people. I’m really glad I did.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot:
“Lechem” in Semitic languages is the word for a basic unit of sustenance. In Hebrew, it means bread. In Arabic, meat. “Beit” in both languages means house. “Beit” + “lechem” = Bethlehem. I always laugh a little when I read Hebrew road signs pointing to the West Bank barrier that essentially say “house of bread.”
Lots of French influence in the West Bank. Signs were always in Arabic, English, and French.
The Lutheran Christmas church
A sign in front of the Church of the Nativity discussing the occupation of the West Bank. The article and pictures are highly manipulative in how data is presented. The text does not acknowledge that Palestinian-to-Palestinian violence has dropped significantly and far few people have died on both sides of the barrier. Also, the map for 2000 is skewed. Jews no longer occupy the Gaza Strip, fufilling Ariel Sharon's promise to pull all settlements out of the area and return it to the Palestinians. Also, the map shows no Arab land holdings in Israel proper. That's factually incorrect; while vastly underportioned, Arabs do own roughly 6% of the land of Israel proper. The map also suggests that IDF presence counts as Jewish land, therefore showing the West Bank as mostly a Jewish area. US soliders stationed in Okinawa doesn't make Japan an extension of America. Neither does Israeli soldiers stationed in Jenin or Nablus make the area "Jewish," as the diagram suggests.
I love signs. Rules for entering the Church of the Nativity, as stated by the Palestinian Authority (PA).
As stated somewhere else in this blog, churches are notoriously hard to photograph inside because everything is so shiny (which makes using the flash really unpleasant) and the odd lighting doesn't translate well into the digital world. The entrance to the Chuch of the Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus.
Original mosaic fom when Constantine ordered the construction of the Church in 326 AD.
Bad quality, blurry, and horrible lighting, but the front of the Church.
Beautiful stained glass
More stained glass, this time in the Franciscan Church of St. Catherine, where mass is held every year on Christmas Eve and broadcast worldwide
St. Catherine's; said church where the Christmas Eve Mass is held and broadcast globally
Flame with Arabic writing on the side next to a statue of St. Mary
Blurry, but I watched the Armenians do something that involved lots of singing, a really ornate-looking copy of the Bible, and wine
The Medieval Cloister outside of St. Catherine's and the Church of the Nativity. The statue looks like it says Hieronymous, though I highly doubt it is the eponymous painter.
So many interconnected churches in Bethlehem! This is the Franciscan Monastery - cool door.
Cool wall mosaic in St. Catherine's
The Door of Humility, the entrance to the Church of the Nativity. According to historical sources, it was probably made smaller not to humble the patron entering the Church, but rather to prevent invaders from riding in on horses.
Slowly making my way out of the large Church of Nativity compound
On the other side of Manger Square, the Mosque of Umar, Bethlehem's only mosque. I was there at the time of Friday noon prayers, so it was a really neat to hear (the call to prayer plays very loudly) the Islamic call to prayer and watch all the men come out of the buildings, all while standing only 100 feet from the spot of Jesus' birth.
Going to the Milk Grotto Church, where Mary alledgedly spilled some milk while feeding baby Jesus, turning a red stone white.
Said stone. Again, bad lighting.
The Milk Grotto Church from the outside. Side note: much like their Israeli counterparts, the Palestinians have flowers growing or in pots EVERYWHERE.
"The Peace Fountain;" walking to the Bethlehem Old City
Yasser Arafat, the late leader of the PLO, was on posters throughout the city
Apparently a West Bank staple. I got fresh squeezed grapefruit juice.
Oh, that's where Miami is. Maybe South Beach refers to one of nearby Dead Sea beaches?
Lots of activity after Friday afternoon prayers
A view from a Bethlehem hill. Ramallah, the de facto capital of the PA, is over the ridge.
Grafitti along the inside of the Israeli West Bank barrier.
A view of the security barier; leaving Bethlehem through the massive military installation