By Trevor C. Hale
It’s not every day you touch the spot where Jesus was born. Yes, that Jesus. The King of Kings. The big kahuna. Hey-soos! I’m looking at a 14-point silver star that, according to tradition, marks the place of His manger in the basement of the Church of Nativity. I’m with my wife in the other, other B’ham—Bethlehem—and seeing some of the sites in the Holy Land.
Earlier in the day, a few miles up the road, in Jerusalem, we saw the Church of the Sepulcher (the place where Jesus, according to tradition, was crucified, buried, and arose); the Western (Wailing) Wall, part of the Temple Mount that comprised the foundation of King Solomon’s Temple; the room where the Last Supper took place; and The Dome of the Rock, where, according to tradition, the prophet Mohammed ascended to Heaven.
Both our Israeli guide in Jerusalem and Palestinian guide in Bethlehem continue to use the disclaimer, “according to tradition” when describing holy sites, as the location of many of the holy sites were built 300 years after Jesus died by the Roman Emperor Constantine. Objects may appear closer in the rearview mirror of faith and history. Disclaimers are important in a place contested so strongly by so many.
The earliest records of Bethlehem place its founding near 1200 BC. It has been invaded, razed, and rebuilt numerous times over its tumultuous history. Like so many places in the Holy Land, the layers tell a story.
Bethlehem’s top attraction is the Church of the Nativity and the Grotto downstairs. The church entrance, known as the Door of Humility, is a small three-foot entryway installed by the Ottomans to make invasion difficult. A much larger 6th-century Crusader-era arch can be seen just inside. As we enter, the nave is cavernous but filled with scaffolding as it is undergoing another renovation. It is filled with the faithful—this is, after all, the oldest continually operating church. Ever.
Administration of the church has been contested over the millennia between Greek Orthodox and Catholics. Today the church is carefully divvied up between Orthodox, Catholic, and Armenian clerics. There are 15 grotto lanterns in the Church. Six are cared for by the Greek Orthodox, five by the Armenians, and four by the Catholics.
We leave the church and pass through a gauntlet of hawkers through Manger Square selling plastic nativity scenes. The guide takes us to the shop of a family that has produced religious icons for generations. The shop manager demonstrates how much better the cured wood carvings are than the cheap imitations. Bethlehem used to be the center of production for all objects holy, but most are sourced in China today. All Abrahamic faiths are represented. There are Jerusalem crosses (which resemble a square crusader cross), Stars of David, and Islamic Hamsa (an inverted open hand). On one shelf, tiny Arcs of the Covenant are for sale.
As we hop back in the car, our guide asks if we want to see some famous Banksy graffiti.
We see one of his most famous works, “The Flower Thrower,” on the side of a garage. “Armored Dove” is just around the corner. It depicts a peace dove with a flak jacket, on which a target is overlaid. Finally we see “Girl Frisking Soldier.” He created these in 2007. Today, his art sells for millions. In New York last year during his “residence” there, if a Banksy appeared on a building, it was quickly stolen or put behind glass or a garage door.
And then we come to the wall. Bethlehem is located in Palestine, in what many of its residents term “the occupied West Bank.” A 40-foot imposing wall separates Israel from Palestine. It’s eerie and foreboding. Israel’s position is that it protects civilians from terrorism, and after its completion, indeed attacks reduced dramatically. Opponents of the wall say it was designed to annex Palestinian land under the guise of security. It is a source of much contention in the region.
As we leave Bethlehem and Palestine, there are bright red signs warning Israelis about the danger of being in Palestine. We ready our passports to show the heavily armed guards at the checkpoint, but our guide says our faces will be enough to get us through the border. Would comparing Bethlehem and Birmingham be insightful? Certain shared themes might emerge, like the need for regional cooperation and the importance of faith. And of course, we have our own our own sacred places, like 16th Street Baptist Church, Kelly Ingram Park, and Sloss Furnace, to name a few.