Today we experienced a mix of standard tourist fare and life in Israel/Palestine well off the beaten path.
We went to Bethlehem in the morning to see the Church of the Nativity – the traditional shrine to commemorate the birth of Christ. Along the way, we stopped in the Palestinian town of Beit Jala to visit a school associated with Uncle Fred’s work. Dar Al-Kalima is a Lutheran Parochial pre-K through 12 school for the youth of the area. The kids at the school are about half Christian and half Muslim, but they have Christian devotions every morning for all the students. Interestingly, this seems not to cause any problems.
Fred and Gloria intended just to show us the outside of the school (where the children at recess were playing soccer with a water bottle). Fortunately, though, Tony saw us. Tony is the Vice Principal of the school, and he has been a friend of Fred and Gloria’s for 20 years. He was so excited to see them and us that he led us on a tour of the school for the next hour, including showing us schoolrooms and the new library, and introducing us to teachers and the Principal. He even served us coffee in the Principal’s office as she answered our questions about the school and education in Palestine (including plans to send children on a field trip to Jerusalem – for many, their first trip ever to a city only ten miles away). It was as though we were honored educational experts they were trying to impress, not just a couple of tourists who happened to have a connection to someone they knew.
If you’ve ever heard rumors about the hospitality of the Arab culture, believe it – we saw it today.
We also looked at the adjacent college by the same name, which is an art school. The paintings, photography, and ceramics we saw there were really nice.
An interesting difference between the two schools is that the younger students are prohibited from wearing anything that reveals their religion – no scarves for Muslim girls, no cross necklaces for Christian children, etc. That doesn’t work for the young adults at the college, though, because young Muslim women in many families need to start hiding their hair. So, changes come. However, the little cafe at the entrance of the school is a rare place where young men and young women can respectfully socialize together. Gloria says it’s fascinating to watch, because the general lack of inter-gender interaction experience leaves these college-age adults flirting like American junior high schoolers.
Visiting these schools was a really interesting treat for us – obviously, a private tour of a Lutheran parochial school in Palestine isn’t something that most tourists get to see. We saw the excitement of the students, the passion of the teachers, and the dedication of American volunteers. It was inspiring.
Dar Al-Kalima is well-stocked for a Palestinian school, but that is largely due to the generosity of Lutheran congregations in the U.S., Canada, and Germany. Many of the schoolrooms have a sign thanking a specific congregation from Colorado or Calgary for the supplies that the students use.
After that, we went to the touristy area of Bethlehem – Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity. The Church is a lot like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in a way – it’s a place where different Christian denominations have different historical claims and fight over who owns this and does that. It’s apparently to the point that the leaky roof hasn’t been fixed for years because they can’t agree on who should get credit.
The main portion (the one with the famous Door of Humility through which all tourists must crouch to enter the building) is part of the Greek Orthodox church. It’s an old building (with parts going back to the 4th century), and the site of the supposed birth of Christ is in a basement grotto. There’s a tiny door which becomes a huge bottleneck to get there, so again we got very close and personal with a bunch of Russian pilgrims.
The grotto itself is tiny but full of icons, censors, and blackened paintings. As so many millions have done before us, we touched the star that supposedly marks the spot.
Next we went to the adjacent Catholic church. It’s a much newer church, so it’s much cleaner and simpler. It also doesn’t have the site that tourists care so much about, to the annoyance of Catholics (apparently, there has been so much tension between the Catholics and the Greeks over this that a few centuries ago seven priests were killed in a brawl over access to the main grotto). Anyway, we were fortunate to be at the gate to the Catholic Church just when they opened it, so we had the luxury of looking at the church and the subterranean Grotto of St. Jerome completely unencumbered by tour groups. It was also great having Pastor Uncle Fred with us, as he was able to explain the meaning of the grotto and the rest of the church.
After the main church, we had a few other short stops in the area before heading back to Jerusalem:
- The Milk Grotto, where Mary supposedly spilled a drop of milk on the flight to Egypt, which supposedly miraculously turned red stone white. There are paintings and statues of a breastfeeding Jesus in the grotto – if the La Leche League were religious, this could be their patron church.
- The Shepherd’s Fields, a shrine that remembers a possible place where the shepherds were told about the miraculous birth. There are ruins of a Byzantine monastery there with lots of caves and a modern Italian chapel.
After that, we returned to Jerusalem to take up a very generous offer. Basil, the young man who had given the Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic at Thanksgiving Dinner, had invited us to his church for service. His church is St. Mark’s, the most important church in the Syrian Orthodox denomination. They think that their church is the oldest church in the world, and they think that the basement of their church is where the Last Supper occurred (everyone else points to a location on Mt. Zion outside the city walls).
The service was very interesting, as it was performed with four officiants at the front of the church singing a memorized liturgy in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. This is otherwise a dead language that is kept alive for religious purposes, much like Latin for traditional Catholicism. One of the officiants swung a censor around, filling the room with incense, and the service was obviously full of important ritual. We didn’t understand the ritual at all, but the singing was beautiful and soothing.
Unfortunately, there seemed to have been only one adherent in attendance in addition to the clergy and staff of the church. There were only about seven tourists, including us. For being the most important church of a historic Christian sect, it was sad how small the community was and how few tourists know anything about it.
So, that was mostly it for the day. We also had some Armenian dinner and then shopped for Armenian Ceramics (really beautiful) and Fair Trade Women’s handicrafts, but then we headed home.
So far, on this trip, we’ve seen the holiest and/or second-holiest sites for mainstream Christianity, Judaism, Syrian Orthodox Christianity, and Baha’i. Tomorrow, on our last day, we’re hoping to see the third holiest site of Islam, the Dome of the Rock. Since this is the holiest Muslim site we can see without risking our lives, I suppose this’ll have to be enough.
Then we head home.