On the morning we set out to cross the Israeli-Palestinian border for a day-trip to Bethlehem, we heard what sounded like a baby crying in the open foyer of an apartment building on Jaffa Street. Investigating, we discovered a tiny kitten huddled in a corner on the cold, marble floor. Her, champion of hungry and cold animals around the world, proclaimed that we needed to help. I was concerned the kitten was just temporarily separated from its mother and said we shouldn’t move it. So, to compromise, we repurposed Her’s purple “North Fake” pants from Nepal into a makeshift mattress/blanket for “Shakes” (so named for her constant shivering). We left a small cup of water, scraps of leftover food from the previous night and a small container of yogurt – all placed atop newspaper on which Her had written, “Kitten needs home. Please adopt.” We planned to check on Shakes again when we returned from Bethlehem.
Bus No. 21, departing from the Old City’s Damascus Gate (7.5 shekels), crosses the border into the Palestinian Territory of Bethlehem and deposits riders a short walk through narrow, cobblestone streets from Manger Square, the center of Bethlehem. We took it, and despite some nervousness concerning how the Palestinians might regard Westerners, we were pleasantly surprised by the friendliness of the people we met on the street.
“America! We love America!” a group of young men shouted in chorus when we told them where we were from.
So, by the time we found our way to the Church of the Nativity, birthplace of Jesus Christ, we were feeling pretty welcomed.
The Church of the Nativity, first commissioned 1,700 years ago by St. Helena, mother of Christian Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, is considered the oldest church still in use in the world. When Constantine converted to Christianity, he set out to demonstrate his new faith by having churches constructed throughout the Holy Land. In 326 A.D., he dispatched the dowager empress to identify sites of great religious importance. The Church of the Holy Sepluchre in Jerusalem was eventually constructed over the sites of Christ’s crucifixion (“Golgotha”) and burial, and the predecessor of the Church of the Nativity, an octagonal basilica, was built over the site of his birth.
Today, the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church and the Franciscan order of the Roman Catholic Church share custody and upkeep responsibilities of the Church of the Nativity. And thanks to the three denominations’ infamous inability to get along, the church has suffered from neglect in the form of a rotting roof and the deterioration of its precious paintings and murals. It wasn’t until 2012 that the church was added to UNESCO’s “World Heritage Site” list, subsequently qualifying it for U.N. restoration funds.
But the renovations had failed to deter the swarm of tourists when Her and I toured the Church of the Nativity. Like most visitors, we entered through the four-foot-high “Door of Humility.” Contrary to legend, the entrance was not built low to make pilgrims bow in reverence but rather to keep out looters on horseback. Upon ducking inside, the first thing we noticed inside the column-lined nave was a massive hole in the floor rendered there to reveal, two feet below, remnants of an intricate mosaic floor dating back to Constantine’s time. The second thing we noticed was the colossal line leading to the Grotto of the Nativity, the site where Jesus was born.
With help from the loquacious “guides” milling about the crowds, we learned we could side step the hours-long line by paying for a “tour” that would culminate with entering the Grotto of the Nativity through the exit. We teamed up with another American couple and agreed on a price of 140 shekels for the four of us.
From the five, crucifix-shaped holes in one of the red limestone columns (place the fingers of one hand in the holes and pray) to the ornate star on the floor of the grotto marking the exact spot of Christ’s birth, the Church of the Nativity proved an awe-inspiring site. Nevertheless, the extremely small and crowded chapel makes the long wait for legitimate entry rather daunting for those who aren’t religious pilgrims.
Around the corner from the Church of the Nativity, fittingly on Milk Grotto Street, is the Lactation Church (aka, “Milk Grotto”), a cool, underground cave with chalk walls supposedly whitened by Mary’s milk. While fleeing Herod’s men, Mary and Joseph paused in the cave so she could nurse Jesus. Some of her milk splashed on the walls, turning them white, according to tradition. The site is popular is popular among new mothers, those who are pregnant and those trying to conceive because the chalk is said to have healing properties to aid in breastfeeding (naturally, this means pieces of the walls are for sale).
After touring the churches, we headed back to Manger Square, a busy city center surrounded by shops and restaurants selling food and row upon row of olive wood carvings to tourists. The hungry traveler can fill his or her tummy with falafel in one of the numerous small restaurants here for about a third of what a similar meal in Jerusalem will run. We bought two falafel sandwiches, a plate of fries and two cokes for 25 shekels from a shop owner who, coincidentally, used to live in Orlando – just three hours from our town of Jupiter, Fla.
The wall separating the Palestinian territories from Israel, although politically and socially polarizing — or perhaps because it is so polarizing — is a fascinating sight to behold. The 30-foot- high concrete obstacle, topped with razor wire and machine gun posts, was built by Israel in 2002 to prevent uncontrolled entry of Palestinians into Israel. From the extremely artistic Banksy graffiti of a young Palestinian girl patting down an Israeli soldier to the comedic “Make Hummus Not Walls” panel, the graffiti on the Palestinian side is the equivalent of an outdoor modern art museum. The feelings the wall and the graffiti evoke were unlike anything else I had encountered on the trip.
Passing by foot through security to get past the wall and back to the Israeli side was a fairly simple process much like airport security – except for the empty, cavernous state of the warehouse containing the checkpoints. I expected a gruff security officer, but the young woman operating the security booth waved us through and sent us on our way with a big smile and a “Have a great day!”
On our way back to Kaplan Hotel, we checked in on Shakes, fully expecting her to be gone. To our sad surprise, she was still there, with a little yogurt on her nose. Her, unwilling to leave the kitten alone, pleaded with passersby to take the kitten but without luck. Without luck, that is, until a woman carrying a cat carrier just happened to walk by. Through a conversation in broken English, Her managed to understand the woman watched after local stray cats. Miraculously, she agreed to care for the kitten.
In summary of the handful of days we spent in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I will say that the food, unparalleled historic significance and wonderfully diverse population make the area a must- see city for any traveler. Just be sure to steer clear of the dangerously adorable stray felines.