We finished lunch in Jerusalem, boarded another bus (seven vans/buses throughout the day) that whisked us out of Jerusalem towards Bethlehem to the Church of the Nativity, the last stop of the day.
In case you didn’t know, Bethlehem is in the West Bank, meaning our guide, an Israeli citizen, was unable to escort us across the border (think border crossing into Mexico) because of his passport (no entry for Israeli’s). (On the way out of Bethlehem, we had to go through immigration and had to show our passports for exit back into Jerusalem). At the border (a massive separation wall), our tour group was handed off to a Palestinian tour guide who walked us though a never ending, snaking corridor that led out onto the other side of the imposing wall. From here we hopped into yet another van, which eventually dropped us off at the Church of the Nativity, the birth place of Jesus.
From the outside, the church looks more like a medieval fortress. The entrance to the church (called the Door of Humility), once grand, was lowered by Crusaders to prevent mounted horsemen from entering, so you have to stoop down to enter.
Once inside, the church is light and spacious. There are fragments of mosaics flanking the walls and in the center of the church on the floor are lifted-up wooden panels revealing the church’s original 4th-century mosaic floors.
The line to get into the Grotto of the Nativity was massive so our tour guide did some fancy finagling and got us all front of the line passes (on the sly) much to the chagrin of those who had waited (patiently) in line. (I’d be mad too if I was them). The “exact” spot that marks the birth of Jesus (and the cause of the massive line) is marked by a fourteen-pointed star (this star also boasts the dubious honor of being the cause of the Crimean War). We missed the Chapel of the Manger (where Christ was laid) and the Altar of the Adoration of the Magi (where the Wise Men are believed to have adored the infant Jesus) somewhere down in this same vicinity, but line cutters can’t be choosers (or get too greedy). We were given seconds to see and snap shots and told to surface as quickly as possible (hence, the pictures are a little fuzzy).
A small door in the main church leads to an adjoining courtyard and (Roman Catholic) Church of Saint Catherine (built in 1881). This is the church where Christmas Eve Midnight Mass is televised throughout the world.
This was the conclusion of our tour of the Church of the Nativity. We got back into a van and were escorted once again to do more shopping at another ‘certified’ shop. Raj was able to work his haggling-magic one last time, enabling us to purchase some beautifully hand-carved olive wood serving bowls.