Slouching towards Bethlehem

“House of Bread”

= Beit (house) Lekhem (bread)

= Bethlehem.

This is, within the boundaries of Israel, the most exotic place I have been to, and it is only half an hour — no more — from Jerusalem.

I start out this morning figuring that I ought to see some sort of sight while I am here. No use spending my day at a series of coffee houses, although that is very doable. Perusal of my favorite guidebook convinced me to try for the Church of the Holy Sepulchre instead of the Israel Museum. Museums are all inside affairs, and I had a sudden need to be outside. So I flag down a Moshe the Taxi Driver and head off to the Old City. Moshe is my escort for the day. Do I have simple taxi cab rides? Maybe in another lifetime.

It would seem that the English phrase “Holy Sepulchre” does not translate well into my pidgin Hebrew or Moshe’s pidgin English, but after a brief translation by a more well-informed person by the side of the road, we were set.

Parked, and heading through the Jaffa Gate, we found and picked up our Official Tour Guide of the day, Awni. ‘Tis a good thing — guidebooks themselves are not as good in real life as a real live person is.

For those who’ve not been there, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is a sort of one-stop shopping deal for your basic Christian tourist. What we got there:

  • where Jesus was stripped
  • where Jesus was nailed to the cross
  • where Jesus’s cross, with him attached, was set into the ground (a hole in the floor is provided for those who wish to touch the Actual Rock) (so I did)
  • where Jesus’s body was buried in the family tomb generously donated by Joseph of Arimathea

The business end of the church itself, like so much in that building, is handily divided into three denominations: Roman Catholic, Armenian Christian, and Orthodox Catholic. Downstairs, where we have the Actual Tomb, there is much regulation. To get the gist of it, one must understand how the AT is laid out: very small enclosed chapel in the bottom level of the CotHS. Small, here, meaning more than 4 people, or more than 1 person > 6′ tall, is pushing it. The teeny chapel itself is in 2 sections: the front is the front of the tomb, where the Marys found the rock rolled back from the AT (handy piece of “Actual Rock” on display there), and beyond this is the AT, complete with slab where the body lay. Above this hang about a dozen gilt/bronze lamps which presumably had candles in them — there were so many lamps clustered there that they gave little light, and one had to rely on the electric ones to see. Scads of small gilt candle holders line the ledge above the slab, with a few knick-knacks distributed among them. Slab is covered, and host to one or more people praying out loud. One has to duck (I’m 5’6″ and I had to bend double) to get through the archway, and for some reason, one backs out. Not being one to buck tradition, with a tour guide, several devout Christians, God, and assorted clergy watching, I backed out.

Equal access to the three above-named denominations was both guaranteed and regulated by the Turkish rulers in the 1800’s. Each is allowed an exact slice of time in which to perform its ablutions/celebrations/dustings/arranging-of-flowers. A Turkish Muslim (= disinterested 3rd party) still oversees this process, and is also the one who holds the keys to the place.

Nearby is the stone alleged to have been the one upon which Jesus’s body was laid so that it might be washed and wrapped and otherwise prepared for burial. This had to all be done in a hurry, because it was Friday, and Shabbat started at sundown, so they had to do a very hurried sort of funeral service.

Moshe and Awni, conversing in Hebrew and a Turkish variant of Arabic, decide maybe I need to see Bethlehem. I agree. So Bethlehem and Gethsemane (on our way back) are added to the day’s adventure.

“Bethlehem,” I say to myself. “Isn’t that in Palestinian hands?”

“Yup,” I answer myself. “That’s where those militants took over that Church of the Nativity that you want to see and stayed there for — what? — a couple of months or so.”

“Yah, OK,” I say to Moshe and Awni.

Drove, the 3 of us, in Moshe’s taxi, over regular highways and through a regular highway tunnel in a hill, wind through a couple of streets and end up parked at a junction of aforementioned regular streets and dirt roads. Dirt roads, not as in nicely-smoothed gravel pathways. Goddam dirt. Here, Awni and I are picked up by Isa, our Palestinian tour guide, mysteriously arranged-for by Awni on his cell phone. It is physically possible to drive from Jerusalem to Bethlehem and right up to the front porch of the Church of the Nativity. But the laws of physics and the laws of politics do not often agree, so we stopped at the junction to be met by Isa.

We climbed over some rough ground — scrubby rocky ground full of garbage, and duly being picked over by those in charge of salvaging cardboard — and tripping over which Awni fell, but was not injured — to the outer edge of Beit Jala. A nice, air-conditioned van awaited us, and we waited inside for a couple more tourists who we thought were going to accompany us, but who seemed to have been held up by the process of showing ID to the police at whichever border they wait at. I myself saw no police on the way in, and was never asked for ID. But here, one gets so very used to seeing nice young people wandering around carrying shiny automatic weapons. If they’re not pointed at you… why worry? Hell, I’m not a Palestinian, I’m just a Jew-wannabe from Ohio. Whatever. So we go with Just Me.

We drive through Beit Jala first (place names formerly seen only on CNN’s web pages peer out at me from real life), which borders Bethlehem. Every building is shuttered, and all is covered by dust, the rainy season not having started yet. Even the few stores and restaurants that say they are open are shuttered. Dust? Sun? Heat? Intifadeh? (according to my friends, I cannot pronounce the latter word properly) (I do my best) The roads are in incredibly terrible shape, and are in the process of being repaired, which kicks up ever more dust. Many buildings look like they are in the process of being built, but have no construction workers inside. Several of these, judging by the rust and dust, look like their funding somehow got discontinued. Real surprise there. These are the only fully un-shuttered buildings I see.

CotN: I ignore the two whole itinerant souvenir salesmen who approach me (how do they know I speak English anyway?). Barren-looking place. Wooden rafters, donated by Edward the Somethingeth of England about 500 years or so ago, and still able to hold up the roof. More divisions according to Christian denomination. The Roman Catholic division is its own separate church-addition, with a floor only 3 years old — rebuilt in honor of the pope’s visit. Place where Jesus was born, place where Jesus laid in manger. You can read about this in the guidebooks — you don’t need me to tell you. Caves. Bethlehem has lots of caves. They were used to house the pack-animals in. But you knew that, right?

Reverse process of getting out of Bethlehem/Beit Jala, with stop at souvenir shop run by friend of Isa. Emerge reasonably unscathed, in possession now of holy-land-symbol pendant with garnet decoration, and chain.

Gethsemane: Old church. Dark. Small domes each with flag of donating country. USA flag/dome in prominent corner. Several olive trees in the garden of this church, they claim, were alive during Jesus’s time. I was doubtful at first, but having seen them, I decided that, if any olive tree can live for 2,000 years, these have done so. The caretaker was in the process of closing up the church when we got there, so I have no more of an account for you.

And here I sit, at the bar of the Shakespeare cafe. I type. I drink beer to refresh myself after a hot afternoon spent exploring outside in a dry desert country. Soon Avraham will come to drag me out of here to shop for a lulav and an etrog for Sukkot, which starts tomorrow at sundown.

Bless me, y’all, on this last journey.

8:57:00 PM

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