There was so much to see, and often a very short time in each spot on our Creativity and Madness Conference tour of Israel, my participation, a gift from friends. While we walked through the Christian section of the old city and drove through towns mentioned in the New Testament, the only actual Christian place on our itinerary was the Mount of the Beatitudes.
I begin with our off-the-grid trip to the West Bank to visit Hebron and the tombs of the Patriarchs and Bethlehem and Jesus' place of birth. My roommate and I were introduced to our driver by the young man at the King David Hotel's desk where our "conference" group stayed while in Jerusalem. He first took us to the Christian sights in Jerusalem, which I'll describe in a later post. We trusted him enough to make a reservation on Friday afternoon, April 17th, to take us and our friend, Peter, to Hebron and Bethlehem. We drove the highway that all can drive, though most vehicles we saw had Israeli license tags.
Doron, our driver, pointed out both Palestinian towns and Israeli towns and settlements, noting that the Arabs on the West Bank and those in the Gaza strip mistrusted each other. He pointed to a settlement that was inhabited by conservative Orthodox Jews. We passed one Palestinian refuge community as well.
Me, Peter, Simone (roommate from Ft. Collins) and Doron
In Hebron, we visited the Machpelah, built by Herod the Great over the cave where the patriarchs are buried. It has changed hands, depending on the invaders, and currently houses a Muslim mosque. Cenotaphs of Abraham and Sarah (tombs with tapestries over them, but without bodies) can be seen through bars that keep visitors from touching or entering the rooms. These cenotaphs were added to this complex in the 8th century AD, while Jacob and Leah's were placed in their present form in the 14th century. These are in the part of the building governed by the Jews. A few Jews were praying in front of these "tombs". We were directed by our driver, who couldn't go with us, to the Muslim side of the building but weren't allowed in to see the tombs of Isaac and Rebecca as they were preparing for a service. They said "come back tomorrow." I understand that the Muslims have a viewing of the Israeli tombs from their side of the building, and that Israelis can visit Isaac and Rebecca's tombs on only ten days each year. The actual tombs are in the cave underneath, closed to visitors. Rachel's tomb is near Bethlehem, and we didn't have time to stop there.
Today on-line news reported that a Palestinian youth tried to stab an Israeli solider at a check point near Hebron Saturday morning though no one was hurt. Other recent such incidents have resulted in the attackers being killed. Hebron is a Palestinian city. Doron drove us through a mostly deserted area where a few Jewish flags were hanging outside houses. He said when the Israelis moved in, the Israel police moved the Arabs out of the area. It seemed harsh, but less so after reading more about Hebron as a stronghold for Hamas. Today's Timesofisrael.com's reporter's notebook has a fascinating interview of Palestinian youth by an Israeli reporter.
From Hebron we drove to the outskirts of Bethlehem, where Doron had us get into a car driven by a young Arab, since he couldn't go into Bethlehem. On the way to the Church of the Nativity, we picked up our guide, a very knowledgeable Arab, Doron's contact for our tour of the sites there.
sell us trinkets in Hebron
We entered the Church of the Nativity by a low narrow door (that's Peter) built in the 16th century to protect worshippers from hostile Muslims. The earlier entries are closed. Also much work is being done on the structure. We were shown striking mosaic tiles uncovered from the original church, built in the 4th century, and told history of the church. The main sanctuary area is that of the Greek Orthodox where work is being done.
I looked longingly at the long line of people waiting to walk down into the grotto to see the shrine of where Jesus may have been born. It didn't look as if we could possibly have time to wait. Then we were led to a door on the other side of the church, where we could see the Armenian transept (below). Our guide told us to wait there, and we would be allowed to enter and walk into the grotto without waiting in line!
A group of young men, identified by our guide as officials of the PLO, were allowed ahead of us. Then we walked across and down into the grotto where women and men were kneeling and kissing the star in the floor that marked the official birth spot (!). My photo isn't good, but it's below with one of the projected wise men coming to the manger.
Afterward, we were led through the Armenian area to a side door where we entered St. Catherine's, the Catholic Church there. The monks have access to the Grotto at particular times of day when visitors aren't allowed. A service was being held for a group of visitors and we quietly went down steps into the grottos there.
Then we met our young driver at a gift shop, where it seemed imperative that we purchase souvenirs. We did, though simple ones. Our driver, on my request, took us to the wall where I took photographs (not yet uploaded). He must have known exactly where the graffiti artist, Banksy, had painted for we saw two of his creations along with a couple of others before raising back to our Israeli driver to get back to Jerusalem in time to dress for our Shabbat dinner at a local family's home.
(I can see that I must compress descriptions in the posts to come!)