Nov 23, Wed:
Cana-Bet Alfa Synagogue, Beit Shean Roman Town, Bethlehem, Jerusalem.
We had our last buffet breakfast in Hotel Galei Kinneret in Tiberius as we piled our baggage back into Moti’s van. We would be leaving the area to make our way towards Jerusalem where we would spend the next three nights in another hotel. However, we did stop at many places of significance before we arrived in Jerusalem.
Arrival in Cana and Visit to the ‘Wedding Church’:
The first stop of the day was the small town of Cana where Jesus is said to have performed his first public miracle—the Changing of Water into Wine at the Wedding Feast. A church has been built at this spot and, to reach it, you need to park quite a distance away and find your way on foot to the entrance.
Like most of the churches in Israel, this one is built of stone. Its façade is Portuguese in conception for it has a wide three-arched entry portico, a balcony over it and twin steeples that flank a statue of Christ at the very center. When we arrived, first thing in the morning, we found masses of people in the small front yard of the church. Inside, the altar is distinctive for two things: the lovely painted altarpiece depicting Jesus at the Wedding Feast being approached by his mother who requested his help when the wine ran out. The second aspect is the lovely stone jars that were and are still used to store wine in the Middle East that are placed high on the altar as decoration and as a means of recalling Jesus’ extraordinary powers.
Downstairs in the crypt, reached by flights of stairs, we saw a wine jar of the kind that might have been used during the original wedding feast. It was enclosed in a glass showcase which leads visitors to believe that it might have been one of the originals that held the water that was converted to wine. However, there are no signs to indicate this at all. A few steps up, one comes across the ruins of the home in which the wedding feast took place—now preserved under a glass floor. We did not get to hear Mass in this church and we were amazed by the vast numbers of people that came and went as the morning flew by.
All along the route to the church, there are wine vendors selling wine and other souvenirs that commemorate the miracle. Taking back wine from Cana as gifts is a common occurrence but surprisingly none of the members of our group bought any.
Off to Beit Alfa Synagogue and Hefzi Bah Kibbutz:
Our next stop was at the Beit Alfa Synagogue which dates back to the 6th century BC and which is distinctive for an incredibly well-preserved large mosaic floor. This treasure was unearthed in the 1920s when the members of the Hefzi Bah Kibbutz were digging an irrigation channel to water their plantations.
We watched a really wonderful film that explained the finding of the mosaic and the history of its creation. Attributed to one Marianos and his son Aninas (Hanina), it depicts the bust of a central female figure surrounded by the signs of the zodiac—a deeply revolutionary idea for its time (being pagan in its conception). In other panels, the mosaic depicts the sacrifice of Isaac as well as other aspects of the Torah that were well-known to the Jews of that era.
The Beit Alfa antiquities are smack-bang in the middle of the Hefzi Bah Kibbutz—which is a uniquely Israeli cultural concept of communal living. It was initiated in the late 19th century in an attempt to bring members of the Jewish community together in shared labor. Mainly agricultural, kibbutzes still function all over Israel. They offer permanent or temporary stays for Jews who wish to contribute their labor in exchange for their keep. I was hoping that we could take a walking tour of the kibbutz, but all we managed was a short drive in and out of the place that gave us a glimpse of cows in the barn and the milking sheds through which the kibbutz keeps itself commercially afloat.
Exploring the Ancient City of Bet Shean:
We next drove to Bet Shean National Park for more glimpses of archeological excavations in Israel and the treasures that they have thrown up. To my enormous surprise, once we passed by the entrance, I found myself in a whole excavated city such as the ones I had seen at Delos in Greece and Pompeii in Italy.
Known as Scythopolis and excavated in the 1960’s, the site offers a very good glimpse into the kind of thriving city that existed before Christ’s birth. Of particular interest was the main road or Palladius Way flanked by columns—all that remains of the grand forum which would have had shops doing thriving trade on either side of the thoroughfare. We also saw an excavated semi-circular amphitheater (similar to the one we saw in Caesarea) that has been retained in its original condition with no attempt made to refurbish it. The remaining columns on the stage and at the sides give indications of the lively theatrical performances that would have been held here. It reminded me very much of the one I saw in Taormina in Sicily recently. We then moved on to the Bath House—a very important part of Roman cultural life when baths were weekly communal activities. We saw the solarium (ingeniously heated by the presence of upturned terracotta pots which would have been filled with water and left to heat up in the sun), the frigidarium or cold pool into which bathers would take a brief plunge and then the sauna area in which they would sweat all the toxins from their bodies. The classical ruins offered wonderful photo ops—we took several with fallen Corinthian columns with their elaborate acanthus leaf motifs behind us—a result of the successive earthquakes that downed many of the ancient structures. Finally, one of the most intriguing parts of the ruined Roman town were the public latrines—we had been made familiar with the concept of public defecating in Caesarea and we saw the same concept here too. People sat in rows with no doors to offer privacy. At Bet Shean, they had running waters and an impressive sanitation system for we saw water faucets in the shape of lion’s mouths and stone basins into which the water flowed with waste taken directly towards the sea. Overall, Bet Shean offered a wonderful opportunity to linger in the vast acreage of an excavated city that would have been a prosperous thriving town in ancient times and which offered us a glimpse into the lifestyle and culture of the ancient Romans.
Lunch at Café Café and Entry into Jerusalem:
We stopped en route at a small café called Café Cafe where we ordered coffee, cool drinks, salads and sandwiches for lunch before we undertook the long drive to Jerusalem.
We had a whole lot of traffic when entering Jerusalem after a fairly long drive. It was quite difficult for me to look at the miles of barbed wire barricades everywhere and the walls snaking their way throughout the city—aimed, of course, at keeping out Palestinians who are perpetual terror suspects. The scenario was especially ominous for us, in the US, as we have just elected a President whose platform was the building of a wall between Mexico and the USA. There was not a lot of time to linger in the city (where we would spend more time in the next three days) as we were dodging traffic to get to the Palestinian-controlled West Bank where Bethlehem is situated. This was our next port of call and Moti was keen to get us there before it turned dark.
Entering the Palestinian West Bank to visit Bethlehem:
Being an Israeli, Moti cannot enter the West Bank (in the same way that Palestinians are not allowed to enter Israel). Hence, he drove us right up to the border and then handed us over to a group of Palestinian guides who would escort us through the main points of interest in Bethlehem. Our group was divided into two: some of us went in one van and the rest went into another. Moti stayed behind at the border crossing and would reunite with us later.
A Visit to an Olive Wood Carving Establishment:
It rather annoyed me that having just arrived in Bethlehem and being eager to get to The Church of the Nativity and given the paucity of time, the first place the guide took us was an olive wood carving establishment so that we could buy their wares. The rationale for this illogical move was that we could buy items from the shop and touch them to the spot of Christ’s birth which would render them ‘blessed’. Needless to say, prices in the shop were absurd—as the mark-up is usually 40% that goes directly to the guides who escort groups to these shops. Apart from buying magnets and postcards and other small items, none of us brought anything large. I guess we were too eager to get to Jesus’ birthplace and felt impatient at the unnecessary detour. Furthermore, the expected olive wood carving demonstration, that we were to receive as part of this detour, was not offered and did not occur—so, in other words, a sheer waste of time.
As getting to the site took longer than expected, we felt rushed through the entire visit to Bethlehem, which was really one of the highlights of our travels as it was the site of Jesus’s birth. According to the Bible, Caesar Augustus (the same emperor after whom the city of Caesarea is named) called for a census requiring every man to get registered in the town of his birth. Since Joseph came from the house of David, it was towards Bethlehem that he made his way from Nazareth, on a donkey. But Mary was close to labor and it was in the midst of a town in which they were strangers that they looked for a room so that she could deliver her child. As the census had brought large numbers of strangers flooding into town, there was no room at the local inn—and Joseph found a kindly person who directed him to the stable where Mary had her baby.
Inside The Church of the Nativity:
The exact spot of Jesus’ birth is now to be found in a church known as The Church of the Nativity. As in the case of all ruined places of significance that we had seen, two thousand years of construction history places these spots today deep underground (as so much building has occurred on top of them). So, to access Jesus’ birthplace, you need to enter The Church of the Nativity—which is really three churches: one is a very ornate church, decorated in the Greek Orthodox style (as the prelates of the Greek Orthodox Church are the custodians of Christian sites in the Holy Land), the second is in Russian Orthodox style and the third is the small Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria, Egypt.
Our first stop was the manger which is in the current Greek Orthodox Church. The entrance was a very low and narrow door which, we were told, was deliberately created to keep rampaging Muslims out of Christian holy places during the Crusades. It was under heavy renovation (which, I have to say, completely took away all charm, solemnity and spirituality from the venue for me). Imagine going into a superbly elaborate church that stands over the actual spot at which Christ was born—and imagine it covered with ugly scaffolding, its walls, murals, statuary, chandeliers, everything enrobed by awful sheeting. I was terribly disheartened by this scene. The female guide (whom I thought was simply the worst guide I have ever had) spoke a smattering of words, so fast and so hastily and so briefly and without the slightest emotional involvement as to leave me feeling even more dissatisfied. She explained that the renovation has been undertaken for the first time in a hundred years and is expected to continue until the end of the year. However, being that the condition of the renovation was far from complete, she was almost certain it would stretch way into 2017. At any rate, the grandeur of the building was completely lost on us as everything was shrouded in cloth or in scaffolding. I felt bitterly disappointed as this was supposed to be the piece de resistance of our travels.
Eventually, we joined vast groups of people who entered the sanctum sanctorum of the church and descended down a few steps—again through what seemed like a concealed secret door. When the steps ended, we found ourselves in a dark and narrow room where the focal point was a small white marble niche whose importance was emphasized by the presence of a multi-pronged silver star surrounded by silver altar lamps. In order to worship at this spot, we had to bend in the niche, one at the time, to kiss the glass disc in the center of the silver star—which was the spot on which Christ was born.
As might be imagined, this setting was deeply solemn and since there was no indication of any refurbishment in this area, it evoked all sorts of emotion of deep reverence. Needless to say, many of us were so deeply moved by the sight and the act of kissing the spot that we were in tears. As if this were not enough, just a few steps away was another low altar which, we were told, denoted the spot at which Jesus’s mother Mary laid him after he was born. These parts of the building used to be stables and it was here that Mary created a manger for her child after wrapping him in swaddling. In this portion of the church too, Greek Orthodox design is very plainly evident. I must add that our guide did not come down with us into this part of the church but stayed rooted upstairs—so we were very much left to our own devices at some of the most important sites in our travels—another deeply disappointing aspect for me.
I would have liked to linger longer in this room, but we were rushed out by the guide who wished to usher us off to the next-door Church of St. Catherine. On the way out, I managed to get a couple of pictures of the massive silver chandeliers in the sanctuary, as the guide pointed out a part of the original mosaic floor of the Byzantine church that was constructed on this site before the current grander one that was built in the middle of the 19th century.
Visiting the Church of St. Catherine:
St. Catherine’s Church is beautiful. It is built around a cloistered courtyard of sand colored sandstone. In the center, on a high pedestal, is a statue of St. Jerome, who dedicated himself to the intellectual life. He translated the Bible and spent 35 years in a cave which now forms part of the crypt of the church. There is an altar dedicated to him in a small shrine in the crypt. There is also a stained glass window that depicts God inspiring him from above as he produces the long scroll which formed his manuscript. Once again, it disappointed me that we did not get the services of our guide in this church. She sat with her friends and waited outside for us. I found that all the other groups entering the crypts were accompanied by their guides. I do believe that we missed out on noticing a lot of significant details because our guide did not go along with us to these important venues.
Exploring the West Bank:
By this time, it was getting dark outside and our guide was keen to move us along. Vasanti protested and said that she wanted to walk around the town of Bethlehem a little bit and get a feel for the place as she did not believe that she was receiving much of an impression from merely seeing the churches. The rest of the group agreed with her, but the guide was concerned because Moti was waiting for us at the border. She called him to find out if we could linger and, eventually, we came to the conclusion that we should have about 20 minutes on our own to wander about a bit and then return to our vehicle. Llew and I used the opportunity to go out and buy some small souvenirs from the local shops. The others made their way to the main street outside the church and also did some shopping. At this point, Llew handed over the sun of $100 to be shared by the three guides. Needless to say, some of us found this amount (recommended by Moti) to be far in excess of what was deserved by them.
This was the only time we would spend at the West Bank and it would have been nice to have a while longer here. The atmosphere was remarkably different from anything we had noticed in Israel. As far as my observation went, it was decidedly Islamic in its ethos. Crowds (mostly men) were dressed quite differently—in far more traditional Middle Eastern garb than we had seen in the rest of Israel. While I did not feel unsafe, I did feel a bit uneasy—simply because we had no escort with us. The center square had just seen a Christmas performance of some sort and the entertainers were leaving. A huge Christmas tree filled the square but it had not yet been decorated.
We met Moti as planned at the border and got out of our temporary vehicles and into Moti’s van. He then drove us to our new hotel in Jerusalem—a rather long drive filled with traffic snarls. However, we did reach our hotel called Hotel Arthur which we found to be right in the midst of a most ‘happening’ area—surrounded by shops, gelato parlors and loads of restaurants, it was easy for us to find a place to eat. We chose a Middle Eastern restaurant where we ate grilled chicken and kebabs for dinner. Just a short while later, we walked back to our hotel and called it a night.