ISRAEL, PART 7: BETHLEHEM
O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee to-night.
Bethlehem is a small town, south of Jerusalem, along the West Bank. In biblical times the area surrounding it was known as Judea:
As small as it is, the importance of Bethlehem is epic. It is considered the birthplace of both King David and Jesus. Right now it is controlled by the Palestinians but its history includes of long list of conquerers and rulers (estimated dates):
- Canaanites (1335-1330BCE)
- Israelite monarchy (1000-586BCE)
- Romans (132-135CE),
- Muslims (637);
- Crusaders (1096-1099);
- Sultan of Egypt (1187) and from (1813-1841)
- Ottomans (1500 -1900)
- British (1920 to 1948).
- Jordan annexed Bethlehem 1948-1967
- Israel (1967-.1995)
- Palestine (1995-present) as part of the Oslo Accord
Today Bethlehem’s population is over 27,000 and the residents are predominantly Muslim Arabs with approximately 40% Christian Arabs. The Christian denominations include Syrian, Malachite, Armenian, Maronite and Greek Orthodox. The citizens of Bethlehem hold Palestinian citizenship.
Our visit to Bethlehem started with a lovely multi course lunch on the terrace of the home of our local guide – we were humbled to have been invited into his home and share such a special meal, that not only included more salads that I could name, fabulous local wine and a unparalleled view of Bethlehem:
After our lunch the tour began in earnest with a visit to a most holy place: the Church of the Nativity, located in what is known as Manger Square. I expected a large entrance and was surprised by the church’s less than 4 foot tall “doorway:”:
This entrance immediately brought to mind Alice in Wonderland – and I wondered if there was a bottle labeled “Drink Me” to make us smaller so we could enter easily.
The above two photos were taken from the internet – as with most of the popular sites in Israel, this church was quite crowded- this is what the entrance looked like to me:
There are two main theories as to why this doorway is so small: Around 1500 CE the original entrance to the Church of the Nativity was lowered to stop looters from driving carts in. It is also believed that it seemed appropriate to bow low before entering the most holy place where Jesus Christ was born..
Inside it was also packed with tourists, but our guide knew of a “back way” that got us closer
to view some beautiful floor and wall mosaics and ornate altars:
We then went below the main levels to a series of small altar rooms where services are still held;
The most holy place of the entire Church and Bethlehem itself is accessed by a separate winding, narrow stone staircase. Again, due to the massive crowds and my resulting claustrophobia, these pictures are from the internet:
The Church supposedly was built over the cave where Jesus was born. His birthplace is marked by an inlaid silver star.
Now you might think this doesn’t look anything like the “manger” depicted in so many Christmas crèches. The Gospels do not say that Jesus was born in a cave. However to this day many poor families in the “Judea” area build their homes near a cave that it used to shelter their animals.
It appears that there is a considerable amount of debate on whether Jesus was born in a cave or a ground level manger, in Bethlehem or Nazareth.
At the end of the day it all boils down to faith.