Growing up in the UK, I was raised a Christian. Going to church was just part of the routine of our Sundays, and school assemblies still included hymns and prayers. So it wasn’t surprising that, as a child, Biblical place names were often more familiar to me than those of towns even twenty miles from my home. As I got older, the faith didn’t stay with me – I have no particular belief as an adult – but the magic of the land of the Bible is still there.
It’s why for many years I dreamt of visiting the Holy Land, and an essential part of this dream was to discover Christ’s birthplace for myself and travel to Bethlehem. I wasn’t sure what to expect from a Bethlehem visit – apart from seeing the Church of the Nativity in TV documentaries from time to time, information on the modern city is limited – but I knew it was something I wanted to do one day.
Last year I finally had the opportunity, and I fell in love with Israel – especially Jerusalem. It was something that took me by surprise at the time, because I always expect to be disappointed by places I have always dreamed of visiting: they very rarely live up to my expectations. But Jerusalem had a magical blend of colour, culture and history, and almost all of that history centred on the stories that had filled my childhood. Wandering the streets of the old city, visiting the Stations of the Cross and standing in the Garden of Gethsemane, treading the very paths Jesus walked so long ago, the entire visit was made up of “pinch yourself” moments.
Jerusalem is a story for another time, and is something I am still trying to put into words for myself, let alone anyone else. But there is one major Biblical site which lies a few miles outside the city and, due to recent politics, on the other side of a heavily-militarised border: Bethlehem in Palestine. There was no chance I was coming this far without visiting, so I took a half-day trip to the West Bank.
I approached Palestine with some trepidation. Not with fear: visiting Bethlehem is pretty safe if you’re not Israeli. As a British non-Jew, I was welcome and waved across the border easily; although the region is volatile, as long as you take advice and stay away from troubled areas you are unlikely to get mixed up in anything unpleasant. But a few days earlier I had crossed Palestine on my way to Jerusalem from Eilat, and our group made a side detour to the city of Jericho. Jericho was in some respects a shock: I was aware that I was in a war-torn zone, but the city was noticeably down-at-heel, with no foreign visitors I could see and a general sense that the town had seen better days. Approaching Bethlehem, a part of me was expecting more of the same.
Bethlehem is where Palestine really becomes “the West Bank” in the eyes of the world. Although the name applies to the entire territory lying on the western edge of the Jordan river, the title holds special significance in this area, where a massive concrete wall forms a symbolic, as well as physical, barrier between Jewish Israel and Muslim Palestine. Passing through the checkpoint, the wall was unmissable, and we would be returning later. But for now, we headed straight for the Shepherds’ Field. As the name suggests, this is the location where the shepherds are said to have received a visit from the angels, telling them that Jesus had been born in Bethlehem. Whether or not you believe the story, and whether or not this is the exact spot even if you do, it is certainly true that this rocky hillside played host to shepherds for many centuries both before and after the time of Christ. Caves litter the area, providing night-time shelter for the herders, and there is a sweeping view across to Bethlehem city on the opposite hillside.
The site is now home to a number of churches of varying vintages. From ruined churches over a thousand years old, to ancient (but intact) rock churches, to the shiny new chapel sitting on the top of the hill, there are many opportunities for prayer and praise, and several services were underway even while we were visiting. The new church is particularly worth a visit; the Angel Gabriel stands guard over the entrance, and there are splendid modern frescos to admire in the light and airy interior. But wandering the hillside is the main attraction, and it doesn’t take much imagination to close your eyes and put yourself in the place of those shepherds of 2000 years ago.
Leaving the Shepherds’ Field, we next headed into the city of Bethlehem itself. No longer a village with donkeys, Bethlehem is a modern city with concrete apartments, shops and traffic lights. But in its centre lies Manger Square and its centrepiece: the Church of the Nativity. Approached through a very low doorway which forces all who enter to bow before God, the church opens up to a spectacular, if slightly gloomy, space. Unfortunately, during our visit it was under repair, so the main nave resembled a building site – not to mention the plywood hoarding surrounding the front of the building. But although it was hard to admire the architecture, it is the significance of the location that matters.
The inside of the Church of the Nativity is place that is dark, glittering and mysterious. Masses are held regularly, of every denomination – when we visited there was a Greek Orthodox mass taking place, with bearded priests, processions of banners and swirls of incense. Below the main altar lies the Chapel of St Jeronimus, and it was here that we headed first. Almost an underground crypt, the chapel is beautiful in its own right, but it has another claim to fame. For it is in the chamber next door that lies the spot where Jesus is believed to have been born.
A wooden door with a convenient peephole offers a tantalising glimpse of the birthplace, with a long line of people passing by to pay their respects. To get closer ourselves, we had to go back up into the main body of the church and join the queue. Although there were so many people there, it was a moving experience to know that this was a once-in-a-lifetime moment for so many. I may not have any particular faith, but there was something deeply affecting about being in this place, and actually standing on a spot that has such momentous significance for so many, as well as being such a feature in my own childhood. When it was eventually our turn, we descended the steps and I had a brief moment to kneel and touch the star set into the floor that marks the birthplace itself. Although the exact location is only conjecture, it was the gesture that held the most significance for me.
After a brief circuit of the main body of the church, with its ancient decorations and icons, we passed through a side chapel with a recessed statue of St George slaying the dragon. St George is the patron saint of England, so it brought a smile to my face to be so well represented! Finally, we exited back through the low doorway onto Manger Square. After a bit of souvenir shopping in a nearby store (never fear, there are more than enough souvenirs to ensure you don’t forget your visit, from books and religious items to gold plastic statues of Jesus, and many, many boxes and bracelets made of the local olive wood!), we headed to our last stop of the morning. From Biblical history, we jumped forward 2000 years, back to our own troubled time: we made a stop at the West Bank barrier.
There isn’t much to see at the wall – except the wall itself. Covered in murals, it is a sobering sight. The Banksy art is well-known, and it’s a thrill to see it, but it was the local art which had the greatest impact on me. Local people walked by, the ladies in traditional hijabs, and it was hard to ignore the fact that, just the other side of the wall, Jewish Israelis were going about their business in a totally different world that, technically, is still the same country. It’s clear that the wall divides a community and a nation, but until the question of whose nation is it gets resolved, the wall still stands. From a day that started with the hope and magic of the Nativity, it was an emotional end to see the division that still exists today.
To visit Bethlehem is an emotional experience, but I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
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