Our last post brought you to Jericho, in the West Bank. That same day, I visited Bethlehem, another Palestinian-administered city. In my mind, however, Bethlehem is inextricably linked with another ancient city, Jerusalem, which I visited months previously. They are different, yet so similar.
For one thing, they have geographic proximity. They are both highly transited tourist destinations, and both figure prominently in Christian literature. What’s more, in my opinion, is what their Christian sites have in common, which left me feeling equally disappointed. But more on that later….
Two cities, divided
First, the contrasts: wealth and freedom.
They sit just 6 miles apart (from center to center: in actuality, their outskirts practically touch), yet Jerusalem is wealthy and Bethlehem is poor. While both have buildings that are covered in the Jerusalemite stone that seems to glimmer in certain light, Jerusalem sparkles metaphorically with five-star hotels, elite boutiques and fine restaurants. Meanwhile, Bethlehem withers: dilapidated concrete flanks tiny eateries and knock-off establishments.
You won’t see much of them from a distance, however, because of the large, tall wall that surrounds the city and pens in the inhabitants. Yes, while Jerusalem is a bustling city connected by expressways that facilitate the ebb and flow of international visitors of every race and color, Bethlehem is closed off from the world. In order to enter, our tour group passed unaccompanied (the Israeli guide that brought us to that point was unable to enter) through a military-controlled checkpoint that looked like a movie-set caricature.
It is purposely maze-like to prohibit a direct line of sight, and painted dark olive green/gray. Closed-circuit cameras await at every bend, while signs posted throughout warn that photographs are prohibited. You pass mirrored glass, presumably for observation, and speakers in high crevices inform you that you should move along. Eventually you come upon a real person in the form of a passport control agent, and then enter an eerily open field before exiting again through far less-stringent barricades into Bethlehem.
(Note: You might wonder why I didn’t list religion or culture as a contrasting point. Jerusalem actually has more Muslims than Bethlehem.)
Jesus and the money changers
In the Bible, Jesus becomes outraged by money changers outside of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple because their commercialism undermines the sanctity of the location.
Two thousand years, and not much has changed.
(Second note: Please bear in mind that my time in each city was limited to a day trip. I have friends that have lived in Jerusalem and have assured me the city has much to offer, and I can only imagine the hidden face of Bethlehem that a lengthy stay (were it possible) would have provided. Also, remember that the Christian sites are controlled primarily by Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Russian Orthodox entities, rather than by municipalities. The following is a study of human nature, rather than an admonition of any particular group.)
These two cities share the most important religious sites of the Christian religion: the claimed venues of Jesus’ birth and death. Think you might find an open area filled with a hushed and reverential silence where a manger or cross once stood? Think again. What you’ll find is a huge cathedral with a lengthy line, at the end of which you can descend into a tiny room covered in gilt and thick with incense. It’s there – if you believe – that Jesus was crucified, and here – if you believe again – that Jesus was born.
(Shortly after birth he was moved to nearby caves; there’s a church there, too. Or you can visit the church commemorating the shepherds who witnessed the bright star in the sky; there’s a church there, too. There are also churches to mark the prison where Jesus was sentenced to death and the different “stations” of the Via Dolorosa, or his journey to the cross. And each has its own donation box and/or gift shop.)
Coming from a country with so many modest, Protestant churches, the “scene” here can be overwhelming. It’s as if the churches and cathedrals of each branch of Christianity compete with each other for the prize of largest, most ornate, or most important. After all, kings, cardinals, and merchants throughout centuries have celebrated holy sites with imposing, monumental structures to glorify God … and to display the wealth and power of the benefactor. Since they snapped up all the real estate long before we arrived, this is what we’re left with: shoulder-to-shoulder churches.
Equally overwhelming is the fun just outside the religious sites: vendors clamoring to turn your piety against you in the form of outrageously overpriced trinkets. In Bethlehem it happens in plazas or assigned tour “rest stops” while in Jerusalem there is a complex labyrinth of covered alleys forming a dense bazaar, but both are comprised of bored and jaded vendors hawking schlock to just another tour group. Both feel sad, and tired.
Our pick: what to see in Jerusalem is outside the gates
Rather than end on a discouraging note, we’ve got one more description up our sleeves. The Russian Orthodox Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, which sits overlooking Jerusalem from the Garden of Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives, is where Jesus is said to have spent his last night and where he was betrayed by Judas. The tiny garden today is filled with olive trees, as described in the Bible. There weren’t many other people when we visited, so it did feel reverential. What’s more, it’s a beautiful little church with some of the best views of the old city of Jerusalem. As an added bonus, there wasn’t a vendor in sight.
Visiting this church also gives you the chance to witness the ancient and gigantic Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, which holds around 150,000 graves. It is considered the premier burial site of the Jewish religion, because this is where the Old Testament stipulates that the Resurrection will begin.
From either of these sites, the view of Jerusalem’s old city is unobstructed, and the monument dominating the skyline is none other than … the Dome of the Rock, one of Islam’s holiest shrines. To be there is to be amazed by the confluence of religion, culture and history that is the Holy Land, and it proves why – despite the disappointment seeping through everything that I’ve written above – a visit to these cities is ultimately worthwhile, and unlike any other.