We just returned from a day long excursion to Bethlehem. All I could think of along the way was the distance Jesus had to walk from that area to Jerusalem - no wonder he stopped along the way and healed, taught and fed. We were on bus and it was hot and dusty and a little boring. Glad he had so much to keep him occupied.
The Church of the Nativity was of course the highlight; the actual cave dwelling of Jesus' birth is small, but the church structure built around it (beginning in 365 AD and then updated in the early 1020's) is quite something. An area of the floor has been broken through to expose the original Constantinian tile inlay flooring - extraordinarily beautiful.
We also visited the shepherd's fields and the Milk Grotto - a cave thought to have housed the holy family as they fled to Egypt.
To get to Bethlehem we drove through checkpoints and saw a new Israeli settlement - hundreds of small white dwellings built inside a hillside. Bethlehem itself is quite steep and high up on a hill. Each person we spoke to there was anxious to know how we felt about their town - the Palestinians are very proud of this city. Proud and protective.
Which reminds me of last night - our wonderful hosts here at the hotel Al Cazar invited us to dinner, prepared by their family members. "Authentic Palestinian food!" they exclaimed as they brought plate after plate of yumminess. Roasted chicken with lemon infused potatoes, homemade houmous and pickled cucumbers. And so much more...
We finally convinced our hosts (owner Nader and his cousin Yusef) to sit and chat with us. What an honor to hear their stories. Yusef, although 2 years younger than Alex, looks about in his mid 70's. He has lived his entire life in a refugee camp on the road to Bethlehem, and has managed to put his 5 sons and 1 daughter through college "because God is good". Nader proudly introduced us to his twin (boy and girl) 5 year olds and his 14 and 16 year old daughters. Both older girls have been awarded scholarships to participate in a student exchange program in the states. He admitted to being a little different in that he insists his daughters get all the education they can get - here or elsewhere.
We've had ornery cab drivers who tried to charge us 2 and 1/2 times the normal fare (wish you could have heard my better half unleash his Romanian haggling skills) and drivers who have gone out of their way to stop at significant highlights so we won't miss seeing something.
I guess I'm saying this just to emphasize that the people here are remarkable. Both Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs - hospitable and gracious, stubborn and good humored. We just keep looking at each other and saying "this is truly a wonderful and chaotic place!" We are so blessed.
Soon, the sun will set and Shabbat will begin. Everything will close and all will slow down. I like that idea...