Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Holy Land Day 10 Part 2

We are led down into one of the many caves in this area. It's warm and dry, and we crowd together to listen to our guide explain how important they are to her culture. 

Caves are safe havens. At night, the sheep are brought in and the shepherd sits at the entrance, perhaps lighting a fire to warn away wild animals. Remember how we learned that there are still wolves in Israel? We also learn that the 23rd psalm describes a shepherd's life. 

 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

All this is straightforward.

 He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.

We have seen how the sheep follow the shepherd in single file.

 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, 

These deep valleys are prone to flash floods in winter and it's the shepherd's duty was know when to go into them.

I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

The shepherd raps his staff rhythmically on a stone, and as long as the sheep hear it, they graze freely. 

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

Sheep's head have no wool and sunburn easily. The traditional treatment is olive oil and it is rubbed into the skin.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

We've all seen stained glass with a shepherd carrying a sheep on his shoulders. They still do that with injured sheep, or sheep that are a little wayward and like to graze at the edges of their fields. Aren't we all like that sometimes?
We make our way out of the cave and to yet another souvenir shop. Hawkers besiege us again trying to sell us precious stone beads strung into necklaces. Allan finds a broken one on the ground, and wonders how precious they are if they can be discarded so easily when they break. Our guide tells us that the sheep here are a unique breed called awassi which has a fat tail good for cooking. We see a painting of it at the souvenir shop.
But my mind is on the herb mix we had with our Jerusalem bagel. I head next door. The small grocery store has a few herb mixes but I can't find what I'm looking for. The lady, a pleasant Christian woman, helps me out, asking her husband something in Arabic. (swift Arabic, then "google", then more swift Arabic, then "Ipad"

Her husband googles the words I have said in English and with Allan's help, we find the box of mix I'm looking for. Our guide says it's wonderful mixed with oil, with bread to dip into it. 

I'm pleased to see on back cover that it is made by Palestinian cooperatives and small scale farmers.
It's back toward the checkpoint again. The high security walls are full of graffiti, such as a dove of peace wearing a flak jacket. Again, that tension, although our guide reports that Bethlehem's last three mayors have been Christian, and the latest is a woman. Christians are poor here, but it's been good in recent years. I come away with mixed feelings about our visit.
We have one more special site to see, not far from our hotel. One that is so wonderful, it has to be saved for last.

Friday, April 17, 2015

The Holy Land Day 10 Part 1

We have entered the Palestinian Authority again, this time to visit Bethlehem. Going through the checkpoint is easy for a tour bus, but the high towers and concertina wire show it's far more difficult for a Palestinian. 
We pick up our new guide, a middle-aged Christian woman with a heavy accent and a kind look. Our bus parks at the bus depot, and we take the escalator up to the next floor and walk out onto the street. Bethlehem is a vibrant town, closely packed amidst the hills south of Jerusalem. The older part looks similar to the new part. I can't seem to see where one ends and the other begins. 

But the first thing we notice is an unusual coffee shop. See the difference?
We walk up to Manger Square. It's rather ordinary, but our guide explains what this will look like on Christmas Eve. The church ahead is also quiet, and under renovations. We dip our heads down to pass through the tiny door. It has become increasingly smaller as the centuries go by, and various conquerors have their way with the church. But, we're told, it's the oldest church in Israel, thanks to one mosaic which depicts the Wise Men as Persians and when the Persians came to destroy the church in the 7th century, they saw the mosaic and out of respect, spared the church. 

We make our way down to the cave below. The manger was not a shed, but a cave, why we will learn later in the day. It's a small room, about 12 by 8 feet, with a 14 point star revealing the original floor. 

Worn smooth by countless fingers touching it, the spot of stone is to some the exact birthplace of Christ. But our guide warns us that it could have been anywhere in this cave. A small Catholic service is going on in a tiny alcove, but with a our whispers, we don't seem to disturb them. We learn that the manger Jesus slept in was made of stone, too. Wood is too precious in this dry country. 
One of our group asks about the Tomb of the Holy Innocent, and it turns out that our guide is a friend of the current caretaker and she arranges for a rare and privileged visit. Even she has not had a visit to this heart-rending area of the church.

We're told that when the church was built in the 4th century, the Empress Helen, the mother of Constantine, heard that the locals said there should be a tomb for the first martyrs for Christ -- the young boys killed by Herod. So she ordered that the bones be gathered up along with their mothers' bones (for most were killed to defending their babies and I am sure there were some fathers in there, too) and a special tomb was created for them. It was found recently, and the some of the bones remain on display. I won't post a photo, but the exact number of boys runs between 20-60, not in the thousands as tradition has stated. It's sad to stand down there and look upon those tiny bones, and the ossuaries that hold the rest of them. 
Oddly, it's not until I am on the plane home that I realize that this very tomb, with all these tiny bones and markers and archeological evidence is proof of Jesus's earthly existence. It is still sad as I think on that place. I hadn't considered these boys to be the first martyrs, but they are.

Outside, we return to our bus and go to the Shepherd's Field. It's a small valley nearly completely surrounded by Bethlehem. The Bedouin still raise sheep there and there, in a cave, we learn some extraordinary things about the 23th Psalm.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Holy Land Day 9 Part 3

This is one of our busiest days to date, but there is so much to see.

After lunch we wind our way out of the Jewish quarter, passing a huge menorah, built for the next temple and set on display in full view of the Temple Mount. We pass beggars, most Orthodox Jews, who offer prayers for a price. We've only learned a smattering of this sect's life. There are many groups of them, each defining themselves by their hat style, and devoting their lives to the study of the Scripture. Most don't work, or else their wives do, and live on the charity of other Jews. They were long coats, beards and curly sideburns and huge black hats. Our first night in this city, two Orthodox young men helped us find our way to the City Wall, and I know from previous experience they are pleasant to speak with, although I noticed one turn his head away from looking at a woman. Their women cover their hair, either with a wig, as the older women do, or by scarves as the younger women do.
We pass the menorah, and walk down to the Wailing Wall. It's segregated, and I weave through the throng of Jewish women toward the wall. I look up.

Among the few plants growing from the cracks, I see doves. Tradition says that when there are doves on the wall, God is there. I tear off a piece of paper and write a prayer on it, then roll it and squeeze it into on of the cracks.
Jews do not turn their backs on the wall, instead backing away from it. I didn't know what they were doing at first.
I discover that the men must cover their heads. White yarmulkes are free and Allan took one, although a baseball cap is acceptable. 
The washroom behind us are brand new. They are right beside the entrance to the tunnels. Recently discovered, they are tunnels and cisterns and incomplete work that date back to Herod the Great. Jews come here for a quiet place to pray, although the fans run constantly, moving the hot moist air around. 
Rafe answers some questions from the group. What do the Muslims think of this? They are afraid that the Jews will tunnel in under the Dome of the Rock. No, most Jews don't want Dome of the Rock destroyed. In Jewish culture, killing is wrong. The Zealots at Masada felt they had no choice. Trying to win back the Temple Mount would cost too many lives. 

We continue down the tunnels to the very end, where we see how instead of dragging big rocks in, they dressed the bedrock to look like stonework. The area is incomplete here, perhaps because the workers had just learned of Herod's death and didn't expect his son to continue with the work. In the dark, it's hard to get a decent photo.
We head afterward to the Antonio Fortress, where Jesus was flogged. It's from there we begin along the Via Dolorosa that is through the Muslim quarter. 

It's disappointing. Shop owners call out to you in this narrow street, barely wide enough to keep two abreast. A few of the (now) 14 stations of the cross. You press through the crowd, clinging to a loved one, stop at each station and move on. One of us comments that it's almost like when Jesus cleared the temple, and how disappointing this Way of Sorrows is now. 

Finally we enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. A massive building with various denominations squabbling. There is little evidence left, as the tomb was removed in the 4th century and the altar covers much of a rock said to be the place on which Jesus was crucified. The line to kneel and pray is long, with may pilgrims going in alone and staying there for several long minutes. But the people are patient. Our group bypasses it and moves on to the shrine where the tomb was. Again, another long line, It's a noisy place, with chanting, and incense and the glintings from a thousand oil lamps. I cannot find any resemblance to a tomb here and escape outside.
We have a short time to shop amidst the tiny shops and stands. Rafe has given us some code words to tell us which shops are safe and which aren't. I won't reveal them here. It's the only way he can do his job and tour guide and still protect both the vendors and the guests. Again, that delicate balance.

I bought a pomegranate juice, freshly squeezed, along with a few small gifts.
At supper, we're given Pilgrim Certificates, a nice touch. Tomorrow, our last day here, we're off to Palestine again. But this time, to Bethlehem!