Mount of Olives panorama

Mount of Olives panorama
A panoramic view of the Mount of Olives

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


A map of today's trip
Our students had their first New Testament class right before we went to Turkey.  Yesterday, now that we are back, I had a two hour session with my students on the Infancy Narratives of Matthew and Luke.  Thus the timing was perfect for our full-day field trip to Bethlehem.  Bethlehem lies beyond the Separation Wall in an area of complete Palestinian control, but our passage through checkpoints both ways went smoothly.  Before we went to Bethlehem proper, we first went to the Herodion, an important palace and the site of the tomb of Herod the Great, which lies just to the southeast of Bethlehem.  After visiting Manger Square and the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem proper, we went to the largely Christian Arab town of Bayt Sahur, where we had lunch and visited two churches commemorating the Annunciation to the Shepherds.  We then went through the wall again to an open hillside just south of the settlement of Har Homa/Homat Shemu'el, which Latter-day Saints have used since the 70's as our own "Shepherds Field."

This was a full day but a very good one, made even better by the fact that Elaine accompanied me today.  I have blogged about these sites before, on last semester's trip and on our family outing on Christmas Eve Day.  Accordingly, my discussion of the sites may be brief, but I have LOTS of pictures.

Herod built the Herodion to commemorate a successful battle early in his career when he had actually been driven out of Jerusalem.  This was before he was helped to the kingship by the Romans.  Like many Herodian sites, it is a combined fortress and palace complex.  It actually boasts two palaces, a lower palace complete with a massive swimming pool and artificial island, and an upper palace in the fortress itself.  On the slope of this man-made cone he built his own monumental tomb.

After exploring the lower palace, we sang "God of Our Fathers, Known of Old," with lyrics by Rudyard Kipling.  Former students on the program will recall that I am overly fond of singing this at the site of many a ruined palace, thus illustrating how worldly pomp and power is transitory but the blessings of faith in Jesus last forever.

Looking down at the lower palace from the upper palace.

A young shepherd with some of his flock greeted us at the lower palace

Elaine with some of the reconstructed columns

Always nice to have my wife on a field trip!

Today's group pic at the lower palace in and around the artificial island in Herod's gargantuan pool

Sarah with a lizard
A schematic diagram of the Upper Palace
On the rim of the upper palace, where we could look out over the countryside and down into the palace, we held our devotional on Matthew 2.  Often from this vantage point, one can see the Dead Sea and even Jordan beyond, so this is a nice place to talk about the visit of the Magi.  While Herod may well have been in his palace at Jerusalem when the Magi came seeking the Newborn King (or, some suggest) at his winter palace at Jericho), being in a Herodian palace gives us a good opportunity to contrast this self-made, illegitimate king with Jesus.  .

Though today was rather hazy, we could still see nearby Bethlehem.  So, after talking about how Wise Men and Women, then and now, still seek the True King, we used the episode of the slaughter of the Innocents as an occasion to talk about "Sadness at Christmastime," how loss, death, depression, illness, and loneliness can make this happiest of holidays difficult for so many.  Nevertheless, the message of Jesus can bring hope and healing even in these situations.  Once again contrasting how Jesus, the True Son of David, contrasted with Herod, we sang "Once in David's Royal City."

Looking up towards the top of the Herodion.  Note the spring flowers.
Climbing the Herodion

Model of what Herod's tomb looked like on the side slope of the Upper Palace
Eric teaching
Students listening, more or less.  I need to find another gesture!

Looking down into the upper palace

Group pic in the upper palace

In the royal dining hall, later remodeled into a synagogue during the First Jewish Revolt

Elaine and Elizabeth Schafer descending through the cisterns and tunnels

Diagram of the different caves or "grottos" under the Basilica of the Nativity
Our main objective today, of course, was to visit the Basilica of the Nativity, built over the traditional birth spot of Jesus.  At the top of the hill that was the site of the small town of Bethlehem in the first century was a series of caves used by the inhabitants as storerooms, stables, and even dwellings.  Early Christian tradition placed the birth of Jesus in one of these, and this was a tradition that was strong enough that the emperor Hadrian built a pagan temple over them to coopt the site.  Later, after Constantine's mother Helena "discovered" the site, he built the first church here in the fourth.  This destroyed during a Samaritan Revolt, and Justinian built the current church here in the sixth century, making it the oldest continuously used church in the world.

Descending below the main altar into the grotto that marks the traditional spot of Jesus' birth and of the manger where he was first placed always involved standing in lines for a long time.  During our wait, we witnessed a Catholic procession come into the church, which is shared by the Greek Orthodox, the Armenian Apostolic, and the Roman Catholic churches.  After making it into the grotto, we then went into the neighboring Catholic church of St. Catherine, a newer, light, and airy church from which one can enter another part of the cave system. In many ways we had a better experience in this set of caves, that are closer to what the original must have been like.  Here we could read Luke 2:1-7, bear testimony, pray, and sing several heartfelt Christmas carols.

The Basilica of the Nativity, lefty, and the Armenian monastery and tower, right.
Before the small door of the basilica, which forces all to bend when entering

Inside the basilica

The Catholic procession

The star which marks the traditional spot of Jesus' birth

St. Catherine's, outside

Inside St. Catherine's

Our meeting in Jerome's grotto

After some free time in Manger Square, we walked to the bus garage and rode to neighboring Bayt Sahur.  There we had our traditional big lunch in the "Tent Restaurant."

Manger Square

Because we were not able to go to Bethlehem University today as we usually do on our Bethlehem trip, we had some extra time.  I suggested that while we were in Bayt Sahur (also spelled Beit Sahour) that we go to the traditional locations of the Annunciation to the Shepeherds.  Churches have existed on these sites from early times, even though the current  Catholic and Orthodox churches commemorating them are fairly new.  Still, they were beautiful, and I am glad that we added them to the itinerary (we did not actually get to go inside the Greek Orthodox church this time, so I am looking forward to doing that on a future trip).

The Franciscan church at Khirbet Siyar el-Ghanem was opened in 1954.  It is shaped like a shepherd' tent, sports a large "angel of the Lord" on  its front, and is really quite a lovely chapel inside.  It is built on the site of an early Judean monastery.  It has beautiful grounds, and on the northeast side of its property it affords good views of some open hillsides around Bethlehem, which is important given the development of the area where we usually go to commemorate the Annunciation to the Shepherds (see below).

Khirbet Siyar el-Ghanem, the Catholic church at Shepherds Field

Behind the church are some nice view points of the fields and hills outside of Bethlehem

The Orthodox church at Kenisat er-Ruwat is also fairly new, but it guards a site that has early associations with Shepherds Field.  In A.D. 384 a Christian pilgrim named Egeria noted a church-cave called "At the Shepherds" near Bethlehem.  The remains of such a cave church, which has served the Greek Orthodox community since the fifth century are on this site, so I am anxious to go back and see it.

This is the only peek that I could get through the gate at the Kenisat er-Ruwat of the grounds where the fifth century cave church identified with "At the Shepherds" is located

The new Greek Orthodox church at Kenisat er-Ruwat commemorating the Annunciation to the Shepherds
A double-headed Byzantine eagle!

As always, the highlight of our Bethlehem trip is when we end it on an open hillside just north of Bethlehem that has long been used by visiting Latter-day Saints as our own "Shepherds Field."  Just south of the Israeli settlement of Har Homa (Homat Shemu'el), its rocky slopes, green today with spring growth, gives a good feel for what the scene must have looked like that first Christmas Eve.  Unfortunately, the ever-growing settlement is in the processes of ploughing a road right through our "shepherds field," and while our caroling has been accompanies by passing herds of sheep in the past, this time it started with the sound of tractors and later ATV 4-wheelers as Jewish settlers raced around the site.

Still, we were able to talk about the Infancy Narratives, read Luke 2:8-14, and sing almost all the Christmas carols in our hymn book.  And the noise and distractions eventually subsided, and we had a really beautiful experience, culminating with some 20 minutes of quiet time as we spread about the hillside, alone with our thoughts and prayers.


The ones who made the day possible: with our center security staff Tarek, Bashar, and Mahmoud


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