A First Time Visitor's Impressions Of Israel Installment 2 by Wayne Simpson Bet Lechem and The Old City
Well, I took a bus tour of Jerusalem & Bethlehem today. I went with a group of 8 people from the two Dan Hotels in Tel Aviv. Our Tour director was a very colorful character. He was a kind of international adventurer type who basically came off as sort of English or Australian, but he was actually born in Manchuria. He speaks 10 languages and has relatives and kids all over the world including Oklahoma. Our tour group consisted of 3 airline cabin attendants from Uzbekistan, a man from Singapore, a couple from Ireland and another oriental man that spoke good English. So Alexander, the tour guide, alternated between Russian and English and Hebrew and Arabic all day long. He seemed to know everybody. He was always smoozing with the merchants and the Palestinian Police, and the Greek Orthodox priests.
The Palestinian police looked very sharp in their solid black uniforms with the white arm bands and their military looking brass. They were very friendly too. Alexander greeted some of them with the traditional eastern kiss on both cheeks, and they always got a prime parking spot for him. Bethlehem is in the West Bank area and is therefore Palestinian territory. The tour took us to the church of the nativity. The entrances were so low that people have to stoop low in order to get in. This was made this way during the crusades to prevent soldiers on horseback from pursuing people inside. The church building was built up in basically three time periods - the fourth century, the 12th century and the 19th century. There were places where the floor had been excavated down to the Roman mosaic tile floor of the fourth century structure. The basic superstructure for the walls and the columns was from the time of the crusades and the roof and buttresses were from the last century.
The grotto itself is in a kind of basement cave area. Its age is apparent. The whole of the front of the church and the grotto area are decorated with dozens of lanterns and icons and religious art. In the grotto many people will kneel and kiss the star in the spot that was supposed to be where Jesus was born. These are all very religious and sincere people but I can't help but feel an aversion to this behavior of acts of worship directed at physical objects. To me it is surprising the these folks never stop to realize that this is idolatrous behavior. But I realize that my view in the minority here. I saw some folks that were very moved by these experiences. I guess it just depends on how your mind is conditioned by your upbringing and environment.
The other two holy sites we visited were the Western Wall and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The Western Wall was just inside the Dung Gate of the old city. Since this day was the sabbath, we weren't allowed to take pictures up close. There were Jews and others who had come there to pray. We were given an opportunity to pray there too but I chose not to, again because I feel that it is inappropriate to direct one's worship toward a physical object. However, I could not help but feel the emotion and the sadness of the Jewish people that surrounds this place.
If it is surprising that non Jews could be drawn into worship toward physical objects, it is doubly surprising that the Jews who have gone to such great lengths to avoid idolatry in the past, would be so taken by it this way. This is an even more curious phenomenon considering that there is some research going on that suggests that the Western wall may not be a remnant of Herod's temple after all, but rather that it may be the wall of the Antonia fortress where the Roman soldiers headquartered to protect the temple complex. Antonia was said to be the only structure left standing in the area after the destruction of Jerusalem.
The Church of the Nativity is almost certainly not authentic either and there is no doubt that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is not the burial place of Jesus. These two sites were designated by Helena, the queen mother of Constantine, during a flurry of such rash associations that were all based on her visions and dreams, or those of her son - not very reliable documentation at all. Jerusalem had been so completely destroyed by the Romans that Josephus and Heggasippus both said that you could not recognize that a city had ever been there. Constantine and his mother had nothing to go on but these so called dreams and visions. In many cases we can prove that these places are bogus, but tradition seems never to die once it gets established.
The spectacle at the Church of The Holy Sepulchre was impressive and almost comical. Sinceit was the day before Easter, the church was being visited by the Patriarch of The Greek Orthodox church. I did not know beforehand that this was scheduled. As we stepped into the small courtyard in front of the church we were met with a cacophonous din that had just started. It was so loud that it hurt my ears. It consisted of a steady low frequency clanging about 60 hertz accompanied another low pitched clang that was kind of deadened like banging on an oil drum with a hammer. There was also a pair of much more frequent (like 16th notes) higher pitched clanging. I finally realized that these were church bells, but I've never heard church bells like these. They sounded like some sort of exotic latin rhythm but it was completely without syncopation or accent or variation. After about 5 minutes of this guards who were dressed in red Turkish hats who began clearing a path in front of the wide entrance of the church. Our tour guide came around and told us that the Patriarch was coming. As the excitement builded we finally began to see ladies in black dress come around the corner followed by more of these Turkish guards who carried long silver batons which they slammed into the ground every fourth step, making a kind of ragged cadence with the bells. Then followed the Patriarch (this man is like the pope to the Greek Orthodox people) with his long grey beard and regal bearing accompanied by other dignitaries of the church. It was quite a procession. After the dignitaries the crowd began to pour in behind them. The sound of the bells stopped. I listened to the low pitched bell as the ringing decayed away. I could still hear it resonating a full minute after the last bong. It must have been an enormous bell. It was hard to make any sense of what was happening inside. The place was wall to wall people. Some seemed to be kneeling at some ancient stone slab which the would kiss and cross themselves. There was water (or perhaps it was oil) on it which they would dab on their foreheads. The procession had gone inside to the shrine and was conducting some kind of ceremony there. This was a kaabba structure which we were told was the tomb of Jesus and that it was empty. We were not allowed in that day because of the ceremony. This structure was built by Constantine the great in the 4th century to enclosed this supposed tomb of Jesus. We were led by a kind of walled up cave area which we were told was Golgotha and told to remove our hats there. Soon there was a new round of bells sounding inside the church, not as loud or as low in pitch as before but equally curious. This time we could see the men playing them. One was beating what appeared to be an enormous square temple block while the other operated a pair of handles that were ringing bells somewhere. He appeared to be really getting into it his black robe was swaying back and fourth like an entertainer. I could see that the dignitaries had taken seats around some type of small throne room as if waiting for some ceremony to take place. We all took the opportunity to exit the place quickly because we heard that the Roman catholics would soon be there with their own procession. It was a bewildering spectacle indeed.
The old city hardly looks like a city at all. With its narrow streets and awnings or roof coverings over it seems like a bewildering ancient mall or bazaar with Arab (mostly) vendors hawking their wares from small dingy stores in these ancient buildings. They sell everything imaginable there. I even saw one shop that was knee deep in ancient looking electronic wires and parts in cardboard boxes. Arab vendors try to snag you and entice you to buy their merchandise. They won't take no for an answer - they just keep lowering the price. I bought a small Eilat stone bracelet - necklace set ( It looks like turquoise ) from a palestinian in Bethlehem. I wasn't especially interested though it was kind of pretty. He kept stuffing it into my hand or into the small opening in my backpack that was in front of me, and telling me how he was a poor man and needed to sell it. He started at $30 but he kept cutting the price. All the time I was thinking he was trying to distract me so someone else could sneak up behind me to pick my pocket so I was very observant about what was going on behind me. But there was nobody there so I was OK. Finally he got the price down to 20 shekels (about $6.50) so I bought it to get rid of him. Later I was offered the same set by another palestinian for $2. So much for bargains, at least it wasn't much money.
I have checked into my hotel now and I'm just getting acquainted with the neighborhood. I'll have to tell you about it later though.
(c)copyright 1998 by Wayne Simpson Distributed by Biblical Research Foundation 629 Lexington Road Sapulpa, OK 74066 Reproduction and distribution are permitted provided this copyright notice remains on all copies.
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