Thursday 3 October 2013. We've been in past entries to Jerusalem, the Garden of Gethsemane, Western or Wailing Wall, Stations of the Cross and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on the site of the Crucifixion. The coach picks us up near the Jaffa Gate and we set off through the border into Palestine Controlled Territory and to Bethlehem.
Manger Square in Bethlehem, looking towards the Church of the Nativity. It doesn't look like much does it really? Yet behind the people on the left of the group is the main entrance to the Church of the Nativity which stands over the site of the grotto where Jesus was born.
Here's the reason you could not see the doorway. It is known as the Door of Humility. You have to bow considerably to enter through it and there is room for only one person at a time. We waited in a line, thankful that our coach had arrived on its own instead of in a queue!
Having gone through this tiny doorway, you straighten up to find yourself in a large basilica with five aisles separated with Corinthian columns. There are large fragments of golden mosaics on the walls but in the most terrible condition. The Status Quo of 1853 described in the previous entry, Calvary - The Church of the Holy Sepulchre between the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Christians means that here again agreement cannot be reached on how to maintain the building. So they don't. The roof beams are rotting away merrily, it leaks water like a sieve causing lots of damage and creating a huge risk of electrical fire. Apparently fights break out every now and then between young trainee monks of the different factions. I can't comment without blaspheming, but I think the situation speaks for itself...
Our guide in Israel was brilliant. Our guide in Palestine is abysmal. He speaks so quietly he cannot be heard unless you are right next to him and he commits the common but ultimate sin of the tour guide - when in a place with lots to see, he keeps us rooted here in this one spot for twenty minutes and then tells us there isn't time to go down into the Grotto... It's a very old and very nice piece of mosaic flooring. But standing here in virtual silence because he can't speak over a whisper and then missing the most important sight in the place... sheesh...
When he took us further into the basilica I immediately went off on my own instead of trying to listen. This is the altar over the spot where Jesus was born. At the side a series of steps lead down to the grotto and in there two places are picked out with rich decoration: the spot where according to tradition He was born and the site of the manger in which Mary laid Him. There was a queue, but not a twenty minute one. When I looked around again he was still speaking but only three or four people were even pretending to listen.
Looking back down the basilica. Another group are standing around the trapdoor, looking at the mosaic which was the original flooring. The guide ushered us through a side door and out into some cloisters.
We were pretty much at the back of the crowd and the guide again spent a while whispering about something that we couldn't even see. For all I knew, one of the tour party could have fainted. All we knew was that the ones at the front were looking at the floor.
When they dispersed we saw that they had been looking down a stone staircase leading down under the floor of the cloisters. An iron grill kept us from exploring. I only found out when we got back and looked on t'Internet that this leads to an underground passage from the Grotto. We followed the rest of the tour party into another chamber just in time for the guide to wave everyone out again. We were swept off with everyone else and then left as a group wondering where the guide had gone, because he didn't emerge for several minutes. Very strange...
Back out into Manger Square and this time looking away from the Church of the Nativity. The guide attempted to count us and failed miserably. "Put your hands up and drop them when I've counted you," he said and then counted in silence and without making eye contact. When he had turned three circles and realised he had counted enough people for three coaches he blamed us for not putting our hands down...
From the coach, the hillsides just outside Bethlehem where the Angels appeared to the Shepherds. "Do you all know the song?" the guide asked enthusiastically (and thanks to the microphone, audibly), "Let's all sing it...!" He gave up after a while... We visited a souvenir shop and admired the really beautiful wood carvings, many of which inevitably were Nativity scenes, but by no means all. They ranged from pocket size to not-so-miniature shed. We made a few small purchases and then ran the gauntlet of street vendors (all bearing an "official tourist vendor" badge) as we made our way across the width of the pavement back to the coach.
"Three hats only ten dollars?" offered one, waving a baseball cap at me.
"I've only one head..." I answered wittily, getting onto the coach without disturbing my pocket.
The price immediately dropped for all other passengers. It was now two hats for five dollars - a reduction of 0.8 dollars per hat! I felt aggrieved for all of a second.
We said goodbye to our Palestine guide. "I've not been doing this for long," he said unnecessarily. We went through the border once again. It looks forbidding, but plenty of people were just walking through and it was obvious that on both sides there were people who live on one side but work or study on the other side. All walls come down eventually and this will be no different.
We drove for a while then the coach stopped and we followed our original guide along a path in the middle of the countryside. He stopped by a green stemmed bush and snapped off several short green twigs and handed them round.
It was licorice. Not as strongly tasting as the sweets you can buy in shops, but unmistakable and quite pleasant.
A plantation of some sort was to our right and our guide slipped through a tear in the cloth covering and brought back a red pepper. I'm not overly keen on peppers but there were enough people from the coach willing to nibble on a bit of filched pepper. Not sure what the farmer would have made of it, but after a while we heard a bit of giggling - male and female - coming from behind the cloth so maybe farmer had other things on his mind anyway... There's not a lot else to do in the middle of nowhere, after all...
The place we were standing at is the site of the somewhat short battle between David and Goliath. Although the exact spot isn't recorded, this is the only spot visible from the two hills were the opposing armies stood. Decisive Battle by Champion doesn't work unless both sides can clearly see that there is no cheating.
Whilst a slingshot sounds a puny weapon, think about it for a moment. The Romans documented their respect for this weapon which was used extensively by us Brits two thousand years ago. These slings would not be a few inches of string. They were swung six feet or so (requiring 12 feet of material) around the head and a fist sized lump of rock weighing around a pound would leave it flying at several tens of miles an hour. That connecting with your skull would make you distinctly dizzy or dead... Lead was often used as a "bullet" and the ancient Greeks used to put witty messages on them in the 4th century BC including "catch"....!