For our last day, we started out by visiting the Mount of Olives. The Mount of Olives is a mountain (well, it’s more of a hill) opposite the Old City, overlooking most of the Muslim quarter. The entire mountainside is covered with an enormous Jewish cemetery, facing down towards the Western Wall. The cemetery is extremely important, and the Jews were very eager to take over that land and build a cemetery so that their people could be buried as close as possible to the “Holy of Holies”.
We started by going to the Chapel of Ascension, which sits at the very top of the Mount of Olives. It is here that people say Jesus ascended into Heaven. It was a little chapel, sort of shaped like an octagon. In the middle of the chapel was a little framed stone where there was the footprint of Jesus. Neither Dad or I could really spot the foot print, but the pilgrims from India who were visiting it at the same time definitely seemed to spot something. It has been so interesting seeing how people react and engage with the different sites, and the people here were extremely passionate and emotional about the Chapel. Their guide had to basically drag them away, but they all refused to leave until they had all kissed the stone and said a prayer.
From there, we wandered down the mountain a bit to another church called the Church of the Pater Noster. This church was one of my favourites. It was quite a bit newer, but what was really cool about it was the “Our Father” that covered every surface of the church in different languages. It had the prayer in every language imaginable, and I loved walking around and reading the same thing in all different languages.
We continued down the hill, stopping by at a few different sites. We visited the Jewish cemetery, where we got the most incredible view of the Old City. Abraham explained that in Judaism, they place small stones on graves people stones last forever, while flowers and other things like that die.
The last church we visited on the Mountain was the Church of All Nations, which was build more recently when 12 countries (including Canada!) from around the world donated money for the construction of the church. It was really beautiful! The stained glass was purple, which I’ve never seen before and LOVED, and the ceiling was painted like a night sky with navy blue paint and stars. I’ve never really seen a church like that, and I really loved it.
Next we visited the Garden Tomb. The Garden Tomb is owned by the British, and it is thought that Jesus could have been buried there. They don’t claim that it is definitely where we was buried, but based on a few different indicators, they have reason to believe that it “could” be where he was buried. Abraham handed us over to a friendly guide from Liverpool, who lead as around the beautiful gardens. We started by seeing the tomb, which is typical of a rich man’s tomb in the time of Jesus, and matched a lot of the biblical descriptions of Jesus’ tomb. He lead us through a few different indicators, and pointed out a cliff-face, where they think Jesus might have been crucified. I guess the Bible talks about Jesus being crucified over a skull, and part of the rock face looks a lot like a skull. I really liked how they approached the whole thing. It was very humble, and they explained that while this could be where everything happened, it really doesn’t matter to them where exactly everything happened. They said the Garden Tomb is something to commemorate and remember and reflect on the stories, rather than historical fact.
Next we headed to Bethlehem! I definitely expected it to be a bit of a long drive, but Abraham informed us that since it was Sabbath, the border crossing would be almost empty, and it would only take 10 minutes. I had no idea Bethlehem was, geographically, so close to Jerusalem. I guess on a normal day, it can take hours to cross the border – especially for a Palestinian. Palestinians aren’t even allowed to cross the border without a special permit, and even if they manage to get the permit, they are not allowed to drive across – they have to walk through and then bus from the other side. Abraham has a tourism permit through the company he works for, and is therefore allowed to drive through as long as he has tourists in the car. I imagine it must feel very demeaning to only be allowed to do something when there’s foreigners in the car. There are people who live in Bethlehem who have never, and will never, be able to cross the border and visit Jerusalem, where for a lot of them the holiest sights in the world are sitting. Can you imagine living 10 minutes from what you consider to be the most important holy sight in the world, and being refused access?
It was really crazy to see the wall. It’s quite an unimpressive structure, but the statement it makes is pretty powerful. The Israelis built it almost entirely on Palestinian territory, and the plan is for it to eventually outline the Western Bank in order to keep Palestinians from visiting Jerusalem. On the Israeli side, it was completely bare, but once we crossed to the other side the wall was covered with all sorts of political graffiti. We didn’t have any trouble crossing the border, which Abraham said was expected since there were tourists in the car.
Bethlehem, like the rest of the West Bank, has a bit of a different feel from the rest of Israel. Bethlehem is in Area A of the West Bank, meaning it is controlled by Palestinian authority. The city is significantly impacted by the presence of the wall, which keeps it from expanding. The wall is colourful and absolutely covered with graffiti praising Palestinian martyrs and making passionate political statements. There was a complete lack of Hebrew writing, and everything was back to Arabic and English like in Jordan.
Our first stop was the Church of Nativity, where it is widely agreed Jesus was born. It’s hard to believe that they have any idea at all about the locationswhere highly disputed events occurred thousands of years ago, but it’s still really interesting to see the places. The church is located in a square known as “Manger Square”, and like so many churches we’ve seen, is built over a cave where they think something important happened thousands of years go. We saw the church, and then climbed down into the basement where we got to enter the actual cave where they think he was born. Despite the Western story of the birth of Christ that talks about Mary and Joseph getting turned away from an inn and giving birth in a cute little manger, the actual events happened in caves. The basics of the story is accurate, though. People always kept their animals in the back of their caves so that they didn’t have to walk through them all the time, and when Mary and Joseph came seeking shelter, the people of Bethlehem had no space for them up front, but offered them the back part of a cave where they kept all the animals. And we all know the rest of the story. Dad and I got to skip the line and go in through the exit because it was just the two of us, and it was very very crowded down in the cave. Abraham helped me push my way forward so that I could touch the bronze star worked into the stone floor which is the designated spot for the birth. The people here were so emotional and passionate about seeing the star and the cave. You could really see how much it meant to them.
We also got to see the Catholic church where they broadcast midnight mass every Christmas Eve around the world. Abraham said that he goes every year, and that we should look out for him if we watch it. Just as we were leaving, we got to see a processional as the priests and monks made their way down to the cave. The church felt really new and not all that historical, but I guess its placement in Bethlehem is what makes it significant.
Next we got lunch. We told Abraham that we really wanted to try the famous falafel of the Middle East and, man, did he deliver. He took us to this restaurant where out front there was a man frying falafel right in front of us! The man handed us each a falafel to try, and nothing has ever tasted so good. I’ve had falafel in Canada, and I really love it, but I’ve got to say that they taste nothing like the real thing. It was so fresh and so delicious – I really can’t describe it! We sat down in the restaurant and ate way too much, but it was so hard not to. Both Dad and I agreed it was the best meal of the trip.
After lunch we hopped in the car and drove out to where the shepherds were supposedly sleeping when they say the Star of Bethlehem. Now the ancient shepherd fields are full of buildings and houses, but there are still shepherds who live there. Here, we went to the Church of the Angel. This church was donated by Canadians, so there was a beautiful plaque with a maple leaf on it in the centre of the church. Abraham noted that the acoustics were really good here, and suggested that I sing again. This time I sang Silent Night, and he was right; the acoustics were great. It was really special to sing something like Silent night in a place like Bethlehem. As I was singing, a group of tourists came into the church and they were all really sweet and clapped and everything. One man asked for an encore, and another couple asked if I was a professional singer! A few people even filmed it!
That was our last stop in Bethlehem, and before we knew it we were crossing back though the wall and into Israel. About halfway home, we realized that we forgot to buy Baklava! Abraham took us to a really famous shop in East Jerusalem called Ja’far Sweets, where we bought excessive amounts of the Arabic delicacy to bring home. It’s super heavy, but it will be worth it to bring some home!