Mount of Olives panorama

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

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Bethlehem and Jerusalem Day 1

Basilica of the Nativity

We checked out of our hotel in Jericho early and drove up to Jerusalem, where those who had not been with us when we crossed over from Jordan had their first view of the city. As is customary, I played the Tabernacle Choir's recording of "The Holy City" as we came out of the Mount Scopus tunnel and Jerusalem came into view.

The BYU Jerusalem Center was one of the first things we could see from the bus as we emerged from the Mount Scopus Tunnel

Driving around Jerusalem and crossing into Bethlehem, we first visited The Bethlehem New Storre run by the Nissan Brothers. It is one of the Bethlehem megashops, where local Christians sell olive woods and jewelry.

We then went to the Basilica of the Nativity on Manger Square.

The traditional site of Jesus' birth was identified by Empress Helena, Constantine's mother. Local Christians identified a grotto, or cave, where tradition held the Nativity had taken place. Constantine had a large basilica built over the site between A.D. 333-339, and originally it had an opening in the main hall so that worshipers could look down on the site. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian replaced the original church in A.D. 565 with an even larger basilica.
Floor plan of the original basilica built by Constantine. The dotted lines within the octagon represent the viewing area into the grotto

Floor plan of the current church, originally built by Justinian. Various caves under the basilica, including the Grotto of the Nativity, appear as dotted lines.

In this building, the grotto was covered and is now accessed by steps under the altar. This church was almost destroyed during the Persian invasion of A.D. 614, but according to legend, the Persians stopped when they saw a depiction of the three Magi, who were dressed as Persians, carved on the front of the church.

The 14-pointed star that marks the traditional spot of Jesus' birth
The grotto under the altar is always very crowded
Next to the Basilica of the Nativity is the Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine, a newer, more open church.

From it one can access another set of caves known as St. Jerome's Grotto. Jerome was a Roman Catholic saint who moved to Bethlehem to translate the Bible into Latin. To do this, he wanted to be as close to the birthplace of the Word Made Flesh as he translated his word. This grotto, and some other caves, are part of the same cave system as the Grotto under the Nativity Church

In this grotto, which better gives us an idea of what the original caves would have looked like,  read Luke 2:1–7 and we sang “Away in a Manger” and “Once in David’s Royal City.”

Shepherds Field

At Bayit Sahur, a neighboring village to Bethlehem, we went through the traditional Catholic Shepherds Field, visiting two of the caves first and singing a few Christmas carols (the hills are filled with these natural caves, which shepherds would have regularly used).

Paul Jennings with the little lamb of a local Palestinian shepherd

This Franciscan Church commemorating the angelic annunciation to the shepherds was designed to look like a tent

We then took up a teaching/worship station overlooking the valley north of Bethlehem, where I read Luke 2:8–18, discussed it quite a bit, and then led us in singing several more carols.

This open hill recalls the hillsides where shepherds were abiding with their flocks by night
The nearby Israeli settlement of Har Homa is expanding on these very hillsides. Sadly, these buildings now cover the traditional "LDS Shepherds Field" where we used to take out students
Before leaving th Bethlehem area, we had lunch at the Tent Restaurant, where we enjoyed traditional Palestinian mixed grill.

Israel Museum

Our last stop for the day was the Israel Museum, where we saw the huge model of Jerusalem in the first century and the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept. We then checked in to our hotel, the Grand Court Hotel.

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