Day 5: On Checkpoints and Borders

BETHLEHEM, PALESTINE – The Basilica or Church of the Nativity is many different chapels all layered on top of each other, as so much is in the Holy Land. The site is revered as the cave where Christ was born, but it has gained layers of history over 2,000 years because of the many pilgrims who have visited it.

To get in, we were waved through by the Palestinian crossing guards. In Bethlehem, they seem friendly and protective of tourists and pilgrims, and when we go through, we do not even have to completely stop; we just are waved through.

Entering Palestine, the streets in Bethlehem are not pretty. While there numerous 19th and early 20 century buildings that give a sense of old Ottoman and British Mandate Palestine, most of the streets are lined with shops and apartments of little note.

Christmas decorations are still up; perhaps they still have some lights at night for tourists, but the idea of Bethlehem of our childhood version of the Bible is way off. The town is mostly Muslim, and the security and indeed the temple is run by the government. Some in the west see increasing intolerance of Christians in the Middle East, but in this situation, the churches that govern the basilica allow Muslims to run it. Of course, it helps that the pilgrims are critically important to the economy.

As in other areas in the Holy Land, wherever you go, because of the small streets and the police, you need to get off the bus quickly. Buses are not allowed to linger in front of buildings, for obvious reasons.

Manger Square is just a block off the main street; you walk up a modest hill. Most noticeable is a time clock which is a countdown to Christmas, giving it a Times Square sort of feel, albeit in miniature. It is not as I had seen on TV, but what is?

The church dates beginning in 327 from Constantine’s time, and when you go there you are traveling more to that era, than to Christ’s. It was also the site of coronations of Crusader kings. It is really a series of churches rather than just one; the main basilica is Orthodox, though the roof timber came from Edward IV of England in the 1400s.

When you go in, you have to go into a small door’ it’s a filled in arch; the lore is that it was done so wagons could not get in. The church is full of chandeliers, many with red Christmas balls hanging from the bottoms. In a real-world twist, many of the light bulbs across the church are fluorescent, and give off an odd glow.

To actually visit the site of Christ’s birth, you have to go down steps and touch your hand on a small stone where he was born. Of course the exact spot can’t be determined but that is immaterial, as the pilgrims of 2,000 years have added a physical and prayerful patina to the stone.

We got our turn a bit unfairly, but I took the opportunity. The Palestinian guard took us through, even pushing through other pilgrims to make sure we had a chance at seeing it and touching the spot.

In looking back on it a day later, I see that the smooth spot of stone sort of reminds me of Luray Caverns in Virginia where a broken stalagmite has been smoothed over, and is in the color of two fried eggs, sunny side up. For generations, travelers have touched the egg.

But this “egg” is far more important, and when I touched it, nothing happened immediately. But on thinking of what I had done, and doing the same as millions of pilgrims for 2,000 years, I just got a blast of peace. It may be imagined, but it was a blast.

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