I travel on roads flanked by high, concrete walls often accompanied with barbed wire. There are military checkpoints manned by soldiers armed with large guns. Somewhere between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Nathan, my Israeli driver, abruptly pulls his van over. I jump out quickly switch to an old car driven by his Palestinian friend.
I think I'm in a John le Carré novel set in "Checkpoint Charlie" between cold war East and West Berlin. We speed towards Bethlehem in the central West Bank with a population of about 50,000 people including many thousands of refugees, their economy primarily tourist-driven.
"We used to come and go freely, but now with the peace, we can go only half way," Nathan said. "This is your idea of peace, I think."
In the front seat of Ali's dilapidated Chev, I notice a strange array of icons attached to his dashboard - a religious card depicting the virgin Mary and child, a two-dollar American bill (most Americans think unlucky) and the Jerusalem cross also known as the Crusaders' cross, consisting of a large Greek cross surrounded by four smaller Greek crosses, one in each quadrant, on the papal banner given to the Crusaders by Pope Urban II for the First Crusade. The four smaller crosses symbolize either the four books of the Gospel or the four directions in which the Word of Christ spread from Jerusalem.
We meander down a steep valley flanked by myriad tourist shops. We stop and Adel jumps in to serve as my guide, which is fine because Ali doesn't speak English. We pass a mosque and arrive at Manger Square, a large paved courtyard in front of the celebrated church, where crowds gather on Christmas Eve to sing carols in anticipation of the midnight services. I gaze around and spot Casa Nova, a Franciscan home for pilgrims. There is a bell tower and multiple crosses perched high above on the ancient stone walls. Behind us is the Peace Center Coffee Shop, a minaret and crowds toting cameras and backpacks. A huge Jerusalem Cross fitted with loudspeakers sits atop the entrance wall. Below hugging the wall are the bases of columns and assorted fractured parts seemingly tossed aside. We make our way down a long walkway to the unpretentious Church of the Nativity, stooping through a minute entrance, appropriately named the Door of Humility.
The dim church is packed with pilgrims and tourists. Because I have scant time, (we must soon reconnoitre with Nathan) with an enormous queue lined up to visit the cave below where Christ was born, resourceful Adel takes me to the exit. As people emerge, I make my way in backwards. Adel has earned a good tip.
The church is in rough shape after earthquakes, looting, Israeli-Palestinian skirmishes and inadequate funds for restoration. The cradle of baby Jesus in the grotto or cave that is called the Holy Crypt is long gone, much safer now in Rome. I content myself also with viewing a replica14-pointed silver star (the original stolen) labelled, "Here Jesus Christ was born of a virgin."
Mosaics that date from the 12 century are painted on the walls, one depicting 'doubting' Thomas, but they are faded, extremely dirty and almost impossible to decipher. Some remaining original marble mosaic flooring is viewed from upturned wooden floorboards above. Wooden rafters look likely to collapse. This holy place is a muddle of disorder.
Pilgrims swarm about, captivated by large gilded icons and a complex array of hanging lamps throughout. King Edward IV of England donated lead to cover the roof, later melted down for ammunition by the Ottoman Turks.
Five aisles of dingy Corinthian columns and an apse in the eastern end along with the sanctuary make this the oldest continuously operating Christian church (actually a basilica) in the world. Commissioned in 327 AD by Constantine and his mother, Helena, three churches are now grouped inside: Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic. In 1881, the Catholics added the Church of St. Catherine, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, and in contrast, it's bright, well preserved and empty.
Here, I discover the Cloister of St. Jerome, who translated the bible from Aramaic to Latin, his large sculpture clutching a skull, the symbol of mortality. There is also a striking stained glass painting of St. George, Bethlehem's patron saint as he dispatches a dragon.
Adel whisks me from the bulging crowds to a preferred tourist shop where I am greeted as a long lost friend and warmly served with tea. There are innumerable carvings in olive wood of innumerable religious icons and myriad jewelry, but I leave empty handed.
The old city with its population of 5,000 consists of eight quarters, laid out in a mosaic style, forming the area around Manger Square. It's 73 kilometers northeast of Gaza and the Mediterranean Sea, 75 kilometers west of Amman, Jordan, 59 kilometers southeast of Tel Aviv, Israel and 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem, an island of sacred ground, truly in the middle of non-stop geo-political turmoil. I'm glad I came to witness this site, if only for 60 minutes.
In 2012, the church complex became the first Palestinian site to be listed as a World Heritage Site. Perhaps that significant designation will also bring funding for much needed repairs that will allow tourists and pilgrims a richer experience.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review, Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine.