Yuletide Cheer!

It’s a quarter past one, Christmas morning. The night is silent enough, but strangely doesn’t feel holy! Almost 3 time zones behind us, Bethlehem is still seeing Christmas Eve.

About 4 years ago, in May of 2000, I made the pilgrimage: to the Holy Land of Israel, Palestine & Jordan. We still have a laminated picture of “Jerusalem Millennium”, showing all the holy city of Jerusalem, and the Dome of the Rock dominating the landscape! (Incidentally, we bought the picture for a dollar, or 42 rupees from Cana and got it laminated for 350!)

I remember the day we landed in Jordan, we were supposed to visit Jericho en route to Tiberias, but the spectre of terrorism loomed large, a car bomb had exploded in the vicinity of the ancient city. So, we started off with floating in the Dead Sea and went off to Tiberias & the Sea of Galilea.

The third day, we set off for Bethlehem.. the birthplace of Jesus and the ancestral home of the House of David. (No need to groan. This blog IS about Bethlehem!)

Digressing a bit, Tel Aviv- Haifa are two of the prettiest cities I’ve seen. Haifa is the twin (port) city of Tel-Aviv and the Mediterranean Sea there is the bluest and the sands are very white. Tel Aviv houses most of the embassies, since Jerusalem, the actual capital of Israel is disputed land. Jerusalem is divided into parts according to who has authority over the land: Palestianians or Israelis… Jews, Muslims or Christians. The Via Del Rosa (Path of Sorrow) winds its way through the city and ends in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The ancient city of Jerusalem is walled and has 9 gates for entry, one of which, the Golden Gate is permanently closed and will only open on the Day of Judgement. The walls are pock-marked with the scars of shellfire.

For people who are acquainted with the Bible, it comes as mild surprise that Bethlehem is about 20 minutes away from Jerusalem. In fact, most of Israel is 3 hours away. The country is very small and is surrounded by hostile or cautious Arab nations. Their carrier, El-Al makes frequent changes in flight paths and never flies over Arab countries. Israel is massively armed and most of its youngsters are dressed in fatigues and hold a machine gun in their hands.

Bethlehem is a sleepy little town in Palestine proper. Most of the buildings in this part of the world are made of limestone. Bethlehem’s chief attraction is, of course, the Basilica of Nativity. It lies on one end of the Manger Square. Surrounding the Manger Square are St. Catherine’s church and Salladdin’s Mosque.

The Basilica itself dates back to Byzantine times and the original floor is that of mosaic and was built over the Grotto where Jesus was born. It was reconstructed by Emperor Justinian. In AD 614, invading Persians came upon the Basilica, but did not destroy it because it had pictures of the Magi dressed in Persian costumes.

The surviving church looks like a fortress, mainly because the Crusaders rebuilt and repaired it. Meanwhile, invading Muslims soon overrun Israel. Salladdin turned all the churches into mosques by the simple expedient of adding a prayer niche facing Mecca. But, the Basilica of Nativity was again spared. Instead, he built a mosque at the opposite end of Manger Square. Looking at the doorway to the Basilica, we realise that it has been resized many times. The present doorway is 4 feet high and very narrow.It was reduced so that the Turks couldn’t get in riding on their horses. This is why it is called “Door of Humility” because in order for someone to enter the temple he has to bent over.

The Basilica is under the control of the Greek Orthodox Church and the smell of incense permeates it’s whole being. The Cave where Jesus was born can be reached by a flight of stairs. The Star of Nativity blazes on the floor of the cave, and candles burn around it.

The Star of Nativity is different from the Star of David, which is the traditional six-pointed star. (inverted triangles)

Next to the Basilica of Nativity is St. Catherine’s Church. Here Rome celebrates Christmas with festive messes. One grotto of the Church is called the Grotto of Innocents, in memory of the infants killed by King Herod. Also there is St. Jerome’s Grotto, where Bible was first translated into Latin by St. Jerome. (I vaguely remember a story involving a painting of St. Jerome and the skull!.. Let me Google!)

After intense Googling (whew).. Here is St Jerome’s story!

For hundreds of years, St. Jerome has been a favorite subject for artists. Some artists chose to depict the saint as a hermit in the desert; others prefer to show him as a scholar in his study.

St. Jerome was a 4th century scholar who could speak, write, and read Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. He used his knowledge to translate the New Testament gospels and all books of the Old Testament into Latin, the language used by the educated elite. The project took him twenty years.

In both prints of St. Jerome, a LION keeps the scholar company. According to legend, the lion came limping up to St. Jerome when he lived as a hermit in the desert. Unafraid, St. Jerome carefully removed a thorn from the lion‘s paw. The grateful lion remained with the saint and became his loyal companion.

The skull that is shown in some prints, symbolises the brevity of life.

Hmm, not exactly the story I remember, which involved the skull talking!!

PS: The ice-creams in Israel are ace. They cost 1-2 shekels each and are irresistable. Good value for money!

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One thought on “Yuletide Cheer!

  1. Cerberus Nathanael

    Hi Shruti,
    I got to your blog off Orkut. That’s a wonderful write-up on The Holy Land. I hope to travel there myself someday, and maybe get to see the House Of Books that now holds the Pentateuch. Do drop by my blog sometime.

    Best wishes,

    Ajit.

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