After 2 days in the Egyptian sun, we headed northeast and ported in Israel. We were there for 2 days and took the first day off. After our busy days, it was nice to just relax. We hung out by the pool, took naps and ate way more than we probably should have. Calories don't count on vacation, right?
The next day we got up early and headed off toward Bethlehem. Gigi was terribly excited. Our tour guide Phillip was American, but immigrated to Israel about 10 years ago and was absolutely chock a block full of information. Except for the one question *I* asked. He said I won the stump the guide award. My question? Where was Amrimathea located? In case you don't know the tomb that Jesus was placed in belonged to Joseph of Arimathea and I was curious as to where Arimathea actually was. Phillip looked at me, cocked his head to the side and laughed. He told us he'd never really thought of it, because he'd always considered "of Arimathea" part of his name. Haha! Check me out.
We piled on the bus (there were lots of buses on this cruise since I wasn't comfortable going it alone at many of our destinations) and drove about 45-50 minutes or so and arrived in Bethlehem.
Our first stop was the Church of the Nativity, which is traditionally thought to be the birth place of Jesus. Notice the teeny tiny little door in the bottom center. That's how you enter the church. It's called the door of humility because you literally have to bend down to get in. We actually had to tilt Han Solo's stroller back a bit to get it through the door. The door was originally a fairly standard size church door, but the Ottomans made the door small so that mounted horsemen could not ride their horses into the church. Weird, eh?
This is the interior of the Greek Orthodox part of the church. You enter through the tiny door and here you are.
This is a section of the original 4th c mosaic floor. It is only open a little ways and is actually several feet below the current floor. Somebody (Emperor Constantine, maybe? I can't remember) had to the floor raised for some reason.
The columns were originally painted with pictures of the apostles. If you look closely at the bottom of this column, you can see the faint outlines and colors of a few faces.
These mosaics high up on the wall are some of the only remaining decoration from the original church.
The entrance to the Grotto of the Nativity. This line to enter was over 2 hours, so we did not get to actually go in.
When you leave the Greek Orthodox section of the church through a regular size door down near the altar, you come into the cloister that is part of the Catholic section of the church. The interior is pretty Catholic church typical with lots of arches and vaulted ceilings. It was much brighter than the Greek Orthodox side.
The cloisters outside.
After we left Bethlehem, we headed to a monastery for lunch. The restaurant is in a cave like part of the building. It was really lovely.
After lunch we headed to Jerusalem. On the way we stopped at an overlook for photos.
Looking toward the old city. The gold dome is the Dome on the Rock.
The Mount of Olives.
Russian Orthodox Church of Maria Magdelene on the Mount of Olives.
Looking into the old city.
We happened to be there on a Jewish holy day, though a cannot remember what Philip said it was. The people were dressed in amazing religious wear and I wondered how they didn't all collapse in the extreme heat. By the time we arrived, it was 92 and we were miserable. Many of the men were in full length, heavy black coats, and those from Eastern sects were wearing huge fur hats.
Inside the city.
The Wailing Wall. There was also a segregated entrance to get down to the wall, but as it was so packed for the holiday, we opted not to go all the way down.
The kindness and manners of the people we came in contact with were refreshing and kind of overwhelming. Our group had split up for a bit so people could take some time at the Wailing Wall or just looking around. I had taken Han Solo out of his stroller because I was afraid he would cook in there and held him in a small patch of shade. There were about 25 people crowded in the shade and 3 chairs containing men who were probably old enough to be my great-grandfather. When I walked over with Han Solo in my arms, they all 3 immediately stood and pointed me to a chair. Being younger by than them by several decades, I smiled and shook my head, indicating that they should resume their seats. They were having none of it. There were repeated nods to the chair and finally one of them men gently grabbed my shoulders and pushed me down into the chair. They all smiled and nodded at me and spoke words I couldn't understand to Han Solo who laughed at all the attention. A similar incident took place about an hour later in another part of the city. Apparently women holding children trump old men when it comes to chairs and if you don't sit, they will make you and then make you feel like you've done them a great honor.
We wandered through the city toward the Via Delorosa, Philip rattling off so much knowledge it's a wonder his head didn't explode, and started on the Stations of the Cross. Some of them are "lost to history." For those of you who might not be familiar, they are along the traditional route of Christ carrying his cross. NB: Archaeological evidence contradicts several of the traditional spots thought.
The first station, which we were lucky to get to see because of the holiday (This is not my photo, BTW. It was too crowded to get a good photo.), is the Franciscan Monastery of Flagellation, where Christ was condemned to death by Pontius Pilate. It is also said that this is where he was given his crown of thorns. NB: Archaeological evidence points to this actually happening at Herod's Palace, which was to the south or southwest, IIRC.
This is the 3rd station, where Christ fell for the first time. These are said to be the actual paving stones where he fell. True or not, they attracted a lot of attention.
The 5th station, where Simon helped Christ carry the cross up the hill of Calvary (or Golgotha).
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre contains stations the final stations, including the actual crucifixion, death and burial. This is the entrance to the courtyard.
The church itself. The church was founded in 326, when Helena (mother of the Emperor Constantine) supposedly found the true cross here. See the ladder just below the window to the far right? That ladder has to be there at all times and is called the Immovable Ladder. There are so many stories about why it is there, but in the end, it kind of all comes down to politics (doesn't everything?). If you're interested, you can find more info here. But not yet!
Inside, the church is really gloomy and looks incredibly neglected, like many of the other sites we saw that day. I found this incredibly interesting. These are the holy sites for many, many religions, yet they are, quite literally, falling apart.
An artistic representation of the stations.
When you first walk in you see the stone of anointment. This is where Christ's body was anointed with oil before burial.
To the right of this is a staircase that leads up to Crucifixion Hill and the Golgotha Altar, which is supposed to be where the actual cross was erected and when Christ died.
Once again, it was too packed to get a good photo, so the one below is not mine.
This is actually my photo and was taken from the gallery where the Golgotha Alter stands. The altar is to my back and the anointing stone is below. Just to the left of the archway is the Aedicule, where the actual tomb is supposed to be. Unfortunately, like the nativity, the line was way too long to go in and have a look.
After we left the church, we once again wandered through the rabbit warren that make up the old city. I don't know how anyone finds their way around. It's just one passageway after another and there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to it. The passages were sometimes narrow and sometimes wide, but all held stall after stall of trinkets, clothing, household items and food vendors. Philip said it was the Wal-Mart of Jerusalem. :)
When we finally arrived at the bottom of the passages (I can't tell you how many stairs we carried Han Solo's stroller up and down!), we exited the city through the Jaffa Gate (below). There was a huge festival with bands playing Jewish music (you can't stop yourself from tapping your foot at the rhythm), more food vendors and lots of people.