Back in the car to Bethlehem, stopping only for what was supposed to be the best shwarma in Bethlehem, but which our digestive systems later decided was the proverbial dodgy kebab. Praise the Lord and pass the Loperamide.
Brought up on a Christmas carol diet of “O little town of Bethlehem”, I found today’s large bustling city a bit of a culture shock. Our two pilgrimage destinations in Bethlehem were Manger Square and Shepherds’ Field; our educational visit was to the Israel’s notorious security / segregation wall.
The car park in Manger Square was surprisingly empty, and once we’d stooped to get through the tiny doorway into the Church of the Nativity it was obvious that pilgrims were thin on the ground. Iyad confirmed that the recent popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East had already led to a drop in numbers. The Church is cavernous and ancient, dating from the sixth century – it certainly ‘feels old’.
Emerging into the sunshine, it was hard to picture what it must have been like in 2002 when a group of Palestinian militants sought sanctuary in the complex. The Israeli security forces laid siege to the area for 39 days, with many casualties, until a resolution was brokered by the Italian government. I bought some postage stamps at a shop in the Square to put on postcards – they were a Christmas Special edition, 1999 – a further sign that trade is none too brisk. Whether the postcards arrive at their destinations remains to be seen.
Iyad then took us for a drive through Bethlehem, visiting the infamous Israeli security / segregation wall. The route of this wall really has to be seen to be believed, snaking backwards and forwards across the landscape to annex a particularly desirable religious site, or agricultural land, or aquifer. Even the Berlin Wall was nothing like this.
Our final stop was Shepherds’ Field in Beit Sahour, a suburb of Bethlehem, “where” (according to tradition) “shepherds watched their flocks by night”. Iyad gave a plausible pitch that this was the correct site: the presence of water and caves would make it a natural choice for shepherds. At night, the flocks would be herded into the back of the caves for safety, while the shepherds occupied the cave entrance, where the air was fresher and their presence would deter predatory animals. So maybe “all lying in a cave” rather than “all seated on the ground”.
So, our tour – which had set out along a path shared by the three Abrahamic faiths – finished in a singularly Christian site. It was time to return to the el Beit Guesthouse for our last night in Palestine. We will have a lot to think about back in the UK.