Holy Land 2015 | Day 05 Part I – Beauty, Bethlehem, and Baklava

Let’s start off by noting when the hotel restaurant menu says we’re having sausages for breakfast, what they mean to say is hot dogs.

The cucumbers were good, though. And the banana peppers are really tasty but VERY spicy compared to the two little ones that come with your average Papa John's pizza. Hmm, probably a different kind of pepper...

The cucumbers were good, though. And the banana peppers are really tasty but VERY spicy compared to the two little ones that come with your average Papa John’s pizza. Hmm, probably a different kind of pepper…

Just sayin’. Anyway… Today was our second of two days in Bethlehem and we move into Jerusalem tomorrow. Click the pic for a bigger version, and enjoy Part I of the day. Here’s the scoop, dear reader…

It’s Not the Toys R Us Shopping Spree, But It Was Still Pretty Good As many on this journey are clergy, we started Sunday morning in a much different way: shopping. We went to a shop in Bethlehem that specializes in olive wood and mother of pearl carving and their wares were absolutely beautiful. Now, olive wood carvings are everywhere, but this was our first stop to shop and there were plenty of choices. A lot of it, I admit, was not to my taste. However, that doesn’t mean I didn’t appreciate the amount of artistry and crafting that went into each piece. In fact, I’d say I appreciated olive wood carvings more now that I’ve been here than I had before. Everything is hand-carved, except around 10% of each item’s selection that they kept around simply to show the difference in quality.

Hand-carved. Smaller items 2-4 days while the larger items take weeks and are priced accordingly.

Hand-carved. Smaller items 2-4 days while the larger items take weeks and are priced accordingly.

Most everything was out of my price range, too, but I did snag one thing I didn’t have until now: my own communion plate and cup set to use in worship settings (I lead a small weekly communion service at Hennepin Avenue UMC and at other places like LYFE Camp). I chose a small set made of hand-carved olive wood and I must say, it looks pretty cool. The coolest item there, though, had to be the giant nativity scenes carved into hollowed-out tree trunks. The work that went into them is a measure in skillful precision many of us will never know.

Here's a nativity set carved into a hollowed-out olive tree log. Don't worry, even the discounted and haggled price is out of my league.

Here’s a nativity set carved into a hollowed-out olive tree log. Don’t worry, even the discounted and haggled price is out of my league.

I’m usually bad at discerning an item’s value on a trip like this but I think I did pretty well. Didn’t overbuy and I don’t think I overpaid. And everything fits nicely in the suitcase, which was part of the plan. I heard luggage can get tossed about quite a bit so I brought a two-drawer Rubbermaid container for souvenirs and sure enough, everything I picked up fits exactly! I do wish I’d asked Hennepin Avenue UMC‘s art committee for a little budget to get a nice piece for the church, as there were many wonderful things that would fit right at home in Carlson Hall.

Look at the detail on these figures. Amazing.

Look at the detail on these figures. Amazing.

How do you fare on trips like this, in terms of souvenir purchases? Do you stay on budget? Can you keep your suitcase from going overweight?

O Little Town of a Giant, Ancient Church Our first major stop was at Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It’s impossible to know precisely where the historical Jesus was born. However, after the emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, his mother, Helena, went on a pilgrimage to find (aka decide) where many things happened. I’m well aware this is a traditional space where Jesus was born; the actual place is lost to history, of course. I think when I have more time I’ll either write a post on this journey of afterward about my take on the whole tradition vs. historicity of these places and how I feel about it all.

This is the main gate which was made even smaller to make sure invaders couldn't ride a horse inside.

This is the main gate which long ago was made even smaller to make sure invaders couldn’t ride a horse inside.

In 326, this church was erected and it’s the oldest Christian church in the Middle East. It retains that title not because it was built first, but because it lasted longest. It was the one church spared being destroyed by Muslim armies centuries ago – all thanks to the Wise Men. When the armies entered this church and saw artwork depicting three kings visiting baby Jesus and thought these Persian connections were their ancestors. So, they left the church be and we visited it today.

The church has a long sanctuary with tall pillars on either side. There are no pews, just open space.

The church has a long sanctuary with tall pillars on either side. There are no pews, just open space.

Here's some info on the restoration.

Here’s some info on the restoration.

It’s a large building filled with scaffolding and other renovation material, the first renovation since 1927 after an earthquake. One of the things getting a makeover is the original mosaic tile floor (which we saw a section of, just beautiful) and which had been covered for centuries until discovered during the 1927 renovation. Amazing, the things right under our feet lost to forgetting over the course of history. It had been covered because pilgrims were stealing tiles on their visits.

The original mosaic floor underneath the newer floors is unbelievable. The number of little tiles and the work that went into it is mind-boggling. Look at this photo, then the photo of the entire sanctuary. Yeah.

The original mosaic floor underneath the newer floors is unbelievable. The number of little tiles and the work that went into it is mind-boggling. Look at this photo, then the photo of the entire sanctuary. Yeah.

Here's a close-up of the mosaic floor. They had three trap doors open so guests can see it. However, unlike the US where there would be "caution" signs and railings all over (let alone velvet ropes) these were simply open. Watch your step!

Here’s a close-up of the mosaic floor. They had three trap doors open so guests can see it. However, unlike the US where there would be “caution” signs and railings all over (let alone velvet ropes) these were simply open. Watch your step!

Our visit was just in time as the line grew quite long to see the small cave under the chancel where tradition says Jesus was born. We were waiting for an Armenian worship service there to end and when it was over an Armenian cleaned up the space, while a Greek Orthodox man watched. See, the church is shared by three brands of Christianity – those two and Catholics. All share the space with strong ties as their ancestors were here and they have love for the land. However, there is territoriality. Allow a person of another religion into the space that’s been designated to you and do so without complaint for even a minute and you’ve now given that religion permission to use that space at that particular minute every day, thanks to an interesting way to think of precedent. In fact, when they get together to clean after Christmas, over 100 police are on-hand to break up any interdenominational clergy fits fights. One area they could clean more, perhaps, is be more choosy with their iconography. There are so, so many paintings, carvings, etc. that they’re all over the place, seemingly haphazard, and so random that they rarely make much discernible thematic sense except they are Christian and/or depicting Jesus. I mentioned this to someone and she said it’s like they’re storing everything in a big attic. Still, what else would they do with it all if they put half of it away? There’s part of me that says, despite the removal of many ancient pieces of artwork, it would be gorgeous in there if it was cleaned up a bit.

A lot of artwork is seemingly put wherever it will fit in a haphazard way. It's beautiful and it's place seems out of place.

A lot of artwork is seemingly put wherever it will fit in a haphazard way. It’s beautiful and it’s place seems out of place.

These stairs lead to the place of the manger. We had to wait at least 30 minutes for an Armenian Christian worship service inside to end before we could enter.

These stairs lead to the place of the manger. We had to wait at least 30 minutes for an Armenian Christian worship service inside to end before we could enter.

The cave was intimate. Room enough for around 50 scrunched-in people to gather and pray. There’s a large silver star on the floor where the manger is purported to be and the tradition is to touch it. That’s usually something I’m not into, thinking it idolatrous. And yet, I went for it and said a prayer as I did so. The smell of incense from the worship service beforehand was pungent and not to my taste. I think it was worth the hour wait, though. Because right there, in O Little Town of Bethlehem, something wonderful did indeed happen. And tradition, while not history, is growing on me.

The place of the manger, by tradition, is down in this chamber.

The place of the manger, by tradition, is in this chamber.

The tradition is to touch the star and say a brief prayer, both of which I did. Was the manger really here? No, but the tradition is a pretty strong one.

The tradition is to touch the star and say a brief prayer, both of which I did. Was the manger really here? No, but the tradition is a pretty strong one.

The group sings O Little Town of Bethlehem in the rear part of the cave's chamber.

The group sings O Little Town of Bethlehem in the rear part of the cave’s chamber.

On the right: original columns.  On the left: columns being restored.

On the right: original columns.
On the left: columns being restored.

St. Jerome lived at this church for over 30 years down in a pit while he translated the Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible. While we have much better translations today, his work’s influence was wide for quite some time. We got to see both the entrance to this pit and a statue honoring him, as well.

St. Jerome was a Bible translator, not a real estate agent.

St. Jerome was a Bible translator, not a real estate agent.

A statue honoring St. Jerome.

A statue honoring St. Jerome.

Think your church has a parking problem? This lot was empty when we entered the church and filled up in time for worship, bumper to bumper.

Think your church has a parking problem? This lot was empty when we entered the church and filled up in time for worship, bumper to bumper.

Where do you stand on tradition and history? If the nativity isn’t historical fact, does it still hold meaningful truth for you? Henry and the Baklava Boy At lunch my friend, Henry, had his first baklava and enjoyed it. I asked the server who brought us all baklava the first time around (a nice older gentlemen we lovingly named “Baklava Boy”) if he would please bring it back for us again. He came back with the tray and gave Henry two, then three, then seven or so pieces piled high while we laughed. In my experience in the US, baklava isn’t cheap. But at the grocery store or a restaurant, you’re looking at $10-12 for what Henry had!

A view of Bethlehem, if I recall correctly. The red roof homes are Israeli settlements which have been condemned as illegal by many UN countries including the US.

A view of Bethlehem, if I recall correctly. The red roof homes are Israeli settlements which have been condemned as illegal by many UN countries including the US.

Lunch was pretty good today, tried a little bit of everything.

Lunch was pretty good today, tried a little bit of everything.

Thank you, my friend, wherever you are! (Well, Bethlehem, but you know what I mean).

Thank you, my friend, wherever you are! (Well, Bethlehem, but you know what I mean).

Stay tuned for Part II in which I take gigantic steps, literally, visit a Palestinian refugee camp, and go to someone else’s house for dinner (and yes, I used good manners, thank you). Regards, Nate

Shoulda bought it.

Shoulda bought it.

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4 thoughts on “Holy Land 2015 | Day 05 Part I – Beauty, Bethlehem, and Baklava

    • When you put it that way, I can’t be sure if he did his work on it there but he did live there. Like many priests / pastors, it was likely tough not bringing his work home with him. 🙂

      Like

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