Jerusalem and Bethlehem
We’ll start our tour at the Holy Sepulcher Church - built by Holy Helen, destroyed in the 11th Century by the foes of Christ and soon rebuilt in its present glory by the Crusades. This huge building covers what Christians believe is the site of the most important event in human history: The place where Jesus Christ rose from the dead. But the pilgrim, who looks for the hill of Calvary and a tomb cut out of rock in a garden nearby, might be momentarily disappointed.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre displays a mish-mash of architectural styles. It bears the scars of fires and earthquakes, deliberate destruction and reconstruction down the centuries. And it is often gloomy and usually thronging with noisy rushing visitors. Yet it remains a living place of deepest worship, with its ancient stones are steeped in prayer, hymns and liturgies. It bustles daily with fervent rounds of incensing and processions. This is the pre-eminent shrine for Christians, who consider it the holiest place on earth. And it attracts daily pilgrims by thousands, all drawn to pay homage to their Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Our next stop is Bethlehem. This city is actually a continuation of Jerusalem, just some 15 minutes’ drive from the Old city, but it is situated in a different country – Palestine. Border crossing takes just a minute, and this is another example how different are local realities from what people usually presume watching the World News.
Bethlehem, mentioned in any number of Christmas carols, attracts pilgrims worldwide on account of its description in the Gospels as the birthplace of Jesus.
The Church of the Nativity, Manger Square – looks from outside like a medieval castle built above the underground room, usually called “a cave” or “a grotto” where Jesus was born to Mary. This church is one of the oldest churches in the world, where the religious ceremonies have never stopped from the very day of its initial construction 17 hundred years ago. The first church was erected here on the orders of the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, and his mother, Helen, who visited the place in 327 CE, when she was already about 80 year old. Before Constantine, the Romans had tried to wipe out the memory of the cave. They planted a grove dedicated to the pagan god Adonis, lover of Venus, and established his cult in the cave. As St Jerome wrote back in 395 CE, “The earth’s most sacred spot was overshadowed by the grave of Adonis, and the cave where the infant Christ once wept was where the paramour of Venus was bewailed.” Actually, there are written references to the Nativity cave as far back as AD 160. Even today in the Judean hills, families live in primitive houses built on top of natural or artificial caves used for storage or to shelter animals.
The Shepherds' Fields - "While shepherds watched their flocks by night..." - The fertile fields of Beit Sahour are believed to be where this biblical scene took place. There are two locations for the exact site, one run by the Greek Orthodox and the other by the Franciscans. Both sites have been excavated, and there have been churches and monasteries on both sites since the 4th century or earlier.
This area is also believed to be where the Hebrew matriarchs Ruth and Naomi gleaned in the fields behind the harvesters on their way to Bethlehem from Moab (Ruth 2-4). Ruth married Boaz, and they became parents of Oved, the father of Jesse. Jesse was the father of King David, who was born in Jerusalem. Thus Bethlehem became known as the "City of David" and it was predicted that the Messiah would be born there (Micah 5:1-5).