The Middle East , Melting pot of the world religions and still focus of tensions and conflicts is our next destination.
We fly to Tel Aviv and take our bus to Jerusalem – our destination is Bethlehem, located about 10 km south of Jerusalem in the West Banks of Palestine, also called the A Zone.
We pass the police checkpoint and enter the West Banks and the ancient city of Bethlehem which is the holiest place for the Christianity as due to the New Testament it is the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth whom Christians believe to be Messiah and the Son of God.
For the Jewish people it is the birthplace and home town of King David, the King Of Israel.
The history of Bethlehem dates back to the 14th century BC and Bethlehem means “House of Bread” or “House of Meat” – our guide tells us that it is the place where Jesus came to life.
Perched on a hill at the Judean Desert today it is home to the Arabian community of about 27.000 people and controlled by the Palestinian National Authority.
In 2000 a program of economic recovery and tourism for Bethlehem was initiated but disturbed by the conflicts between the Palestinian and the Israeli from time to time.
We walk through the old streets of the city. Somehow it reminds me of the old city of Mardin in Turkey in the South East which is also about 1000s of years old.
We are on our way to Manger Square as we want to visit the Church of Nativity.
It is a church with a very plain façade and it is said that at this place St Mary and St Joseph were hiding in a little cave where on the 24th of a December night Jesus of Nazareth was born. In 326 the Roman Emperor Constantine ordered to build a church over here which was later rebuilt by Emperor Justinian. In 1852 shared custody of the church was given to the different communities of Roman Catholics, Armenian Orthodox and Greek Orthodox.
On the other side of the Manger Place there is the only ancient Mosque of Hz. Omar in Bethlehem.
In 636 Hz.Omar conquers Jerusalem. Patriarch Safronyus is about to give him the key of the city. Due to the legend Hz Omar is asking Safronyus for a place for his daily prayer. Safronyus tells him that the whole city is under his control and he can pray wherever he likes. Hz Omar knees down outside of the Nativity church and begins his prayer. People later ask him why he did not pray in the church but on the street next to it.
He tells them that if he would pray in the church it would be a necessity to convert it to a mosque but he wanted to keep it as it is, a church.
For this reason the Hz Omar Mosque was built later on as a tribute to Hz.Omer and in memory of his first prayer over here.
In Islam, Jesus Christ is not perceived as the Son of God but well accepted and respected as a very important prophet prior to Hz Muhammed.
It is an exciting feeling to be here – a man was born at this place who had immense influence on history and people for thousands of years who is followed by 2.3 billion people meanwhile in the world.
The church looks quite modest – we came to the entrance which is a very small door, called ‘The Door Of Humility’ where you need to duck and step inside.
In the past it was a Crusaders doorway marked with an arch but when the Ottomans took over in 1517 they reduced the doorway to this tiny size to prevent people entering the site with their horses and carts and looting. The arch above the small door shows the size of the original doorway.
Entering the site by bowing your head is a symbol of humility and faith and showing respect to the location. These types of doors you can also find in the very old monasteries in Mardin at the South East of Turkey.
Inside the church there is a wide nave which survived from the Justinian period. There are also fragments of high quality mosaics hidden under the floor.
Thirty of the 44 columns have crusader paintings of saints, the Virgin and the Child.
Most of the columns are of polished pink limestone and re-used from the basilica from the 4th century. There are trap doors in the present floor as well as to the left of the altar. The entrance floor is decorated with paintings and carvings of Christian symbols and scenes from the bible.
Moving forward we are coming to the entrance of the cave where the birth took place. It is dark and very crowded, mainly Christian pilgrims are here to visit the holy site.
While we walk down the stairs we see the location at the right hand side marked with a silver star. This is “The Grotto of the Nativity ” – the place where it is said that St Mary gave birth to Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God. The Grotto is the central point of the Nativity Church. Pilgrims are kneeling down and touching the star or kissing it in belief of their God.
On the other side of the Grotto there is a place marked with candle lights – this is the place where St Mary laid Jesus into the manger, also called “The Crib “. Apart from Christians , people from allover the World who wish to have a child are also visiting this place.
Jesus was probably born around 8 to 4 BC at the end of the Herodian time .His Father Joseph was a carpenter who was coming from Egypt and Mary was his mother . Jesus was born in Bethlehem but spent his childhood in Nazareth where the family normally was living .He was called ” Jesus of Nazareth ” as this was the way in ancient times to define and name the people. He was Jewish and went to the synagogue school in Nazareth and spoke the language of the Aramean , a language that was used in the region of Syria , Mesopotamia and Palestine in those days .For a while he followed a movement led by John the Baptist who was also the one who baptized him in the Jordan River .Afterwards Jesus retreated into the desert and started fasting for 40 days that became the Eastern period in the Christian religion later on.
This is how the history about Jesus starts .
I will tell more about his life in the 2nd part of this blog when we will tell more about our days in Jerusalem and Jesus’ life and his way to Golgotha hill where his crucifixion took place .
Finally we walk up and then out of The Nativity Church there is another monastery outside, the Cloister of St Catherines Church.
It incorporates columns from the 12th century and was rebuilt in 1948. It is a peaceful location with a beautiful inner garden.
While we walk out and go back to our bus , we meet a Palestinian guide who calmly tells us about the difficulties to live here in this very tiny area and under the pressure of war and the conflict with Israel.
We just listen to him – Bethlehem is a place of a man who was born for peace but is left now in the midst of fire.
While we drive out of Palestine and pass the checkpoint to leave for Jerusalem we are in mixed feelings.
Two different worlds just next to each other and not able to live in peace together.
I can just wish that there will be solutions found so that people have equal rights on both sides and the opportunity for a good life and peace on Earth.