'After a day's walk, everything has twice its usual value' - G M Trevelyan
Imagine stepping off a bus and right into the pages of a storybook! That is exactly what we did, except that the book wasn’t a fairy tale, it was the New Testament.
We arrive in Bethlehem just over the Palestinian border, a little after eight o’clock in the morning and walk up a steep incline. Catholic churches are always built on the top of hills and the Church of the Nativity is no exception. In fact, it is the highest, largest, and holiest church in Palestine.
Built on what is thought to be the exact location of the stable in which Jesus was born, this is not the first church built on the site. I would imagine that the original churches would have been simpler, more humble than the one I am standing in now. One of the first churches was built by Constantine the Great between 325 and 326, but after it was destroyed, this one was built by Byzantine emperor, Justinian, and has remained largely unchanged since then.
Actually there have been many changes, and additions to the church over the centuries. This church is a complex comprising three different monasteries; the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic, and the Roman Catholic. We have entered through the tiny top of a doorway which extends below where we are standing. Even I have to bend to enter the magnificent Greek Orthodox Church; the one built by Justinian.
There is a good story that our local Palestinian guide tells us about the church. Some years ago, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was asked for money to make some repairs to the church. He agreed but no money came forth. After he died, the roof began to leak quite badly and church once again asked for money to repair the roof and to clean the water damaged walls. This time the money was paid and the roof was repaired. When it came to cleaning the walls, the workmen noticed the plaster was flaking off the walls, revealing magnificent mosaic frescoes. But the highlight of the Church of the Nativity is its gold altar. Coupled with the swags of lanterns, this altar remains festive all year round.
We move to the adjoining Gothic Revival Roman Catholic Church, which is dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria. Here, the Christmas midnight mass is permitted to be said in Latin due to a decree made in 1852 under the Ottoman Empire. Even Vatican II could not change the terms of the agreement. The entrance to this Church is said to have been once the entrance to a cave, and many of the chapels within this church were build into natural caves.
We are standing on the site where, it is agreed by scholars that Jesus was born.
We cross the border back into Israel and fast forward 33 years.
Our first stop is just outside of the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem and inside the Mount of Olives.
The Garden of Gethsemane is now cordoned off to stop tourists from plucking leaves (or fruit) from the gnarly 2,000+year old olive grove. Next door to the Garden of Gethsemane is the Church of All Nations. Built on the foundations of two earlier churches from the 4th century, the mosaic floor is remodelled on an original floor in one of the first churches. Fragments of the previous mosaics are viewed through glass inserts in the floor. The most significant part of the church is the piece of bedrock taken from the Garden of Gethsemane installed in front of the altar. This is said to be the stone on which Jesus prayed the night he was betrayed.
Today's excursion has been an immersive experience, but the day is not yet over. What happens after lunch brings the whole Easter story come to life.
Our day is concentrated around the Old City of Jerusalem, but there is a whole modern city surrounding the old walls. Our tour guide takes us to a lookout just below the university, where we are able to view the city as a snapshot. He points out some important landmarks. I did not realise that modern Jerusalem is built on hills and is politically contentious, even today.
We walk through the Dung Gate, first viewing the archaeological site just outside the wall. It leads directly to the Western Wall, a Jewish sacred site. This is the place the Jewish people write prayers on paper and then try to push them into the tiny crevasses between the huge blocks of stone. The Western Wall is divided; men pray on one side, whilst women on the other. At the base of the wall are piles of paper; the prayers that have fallen off the wall and now gather at the point the wall meets the ground. These papers are collected twice a year and are burnt; the ashes are buried on the Mount of Olives. We are allowed to enter this space and pray or even just touch the wall. In the blazing sun, there are men, women and even children praying here, completely oblivious to the sun. As much as I would like to go on and on about the wall, its dimensions and its history, these are facts anyone can look up on Wikipedia.
Once we are gathered again, we turn and walk through a tunnel that leads us into the Muslim quarter of the city. Narrow streets, not unlike the medinas in Fes or Marrakech, lead up stairs. There are small shops on each side of the laneway and every now and then a loud bell indicates a silent electric motorbike is approaching. I realise that on the left side of the lane way are steps whilst the right side, stone wedges have been placed to make this a ramp perfect for motorcyclists and vendor carts. I wish we had more time to explore the little shops.
But we have more important things to do. On a wall is the fifth Station of the Cross, where Simon, a spectator had been pulled from the crowd, and ordered to carry the cross for Jesus. From here, we follow the path Jesus took whilst bearing the huge cross. At the sixth station, we learn about how Veronica gave Jesus a cloth to wipe his face and the seventh station, where Jesus falls for the second time. Around another corner is the eight station, where Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem. These, our tour guide tells us, were probably the women from villages surrounding the old city of Jerusalem.
We follow our guide then as we round a corner and see the entrance to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where the tomb in which Jesus was laid is enshrined. Inside the Church also are the last three stations of the cross and is the exact location of Calvary, the hill on which Jesus died. We enter the Church where there is a spiral staircase leading to the spot where Jesus died. Downstairs, in front of a magnificent mosaic is a piece of bedrock. It is here that the women prepared Jesus' body for burial in the tomb.
I must admit that despite the solemnity of the death and resurrection of Jesus, one would perhaps expect the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to be quiet, respectful, with people shuffling past the parts of the church with silent dignity. What really happens is none of the above. The area is noisy; hundreds of people clamour, push, and shove to get to each of the areas as quickly as possible.
Today's journey has taken us from the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem to his death in Jerusalem. It has been a day of reflection and of revelation. I didn't expect to have the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Jesus, but in doing so, has made the stories of the New Testament, especially those surrounding the Easter story much more relevant.