Here are some shots from our friend Larry Bell and his most recent trip with Ya’lla Tours.
These city walls, built by the Ottoman sultan Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century, are only the latest fortifications to protect our mystery city. The city and its walls were destroyed in 587BCE during the Babylonian siege and much of the population was deported to Babylon. When the Persians took control of the region some 50 years later, the exiled citizens were allowed to return and the walls were rebuilt. The walls were extended in the 2nd century BCE by the Hasmonean dynasty and by Herod the Great and his son Agrippa in the following century or so. The city and its walls were destroyed again in 70CE, this time by the Romans, who occupied the city and renamed it Aelia Capitolina. The Roman walls built over the following four centuries were destroyed in an earthquake in the 11th century. The walls went up and down again several times more, with invasions and occupations by the Islamic Fatimid and Ayyubid dynasties and Christian crusaders. The existing walls have stood, more or less as they are today, for 400 years.
Can you name that city?
See below for answers.
In Orthodox Christian tradition, on the day before Easter, a flame emanates from the tomb of Jesus in the Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem. Crowds of worshippers gather to partake of the miraculous fire.
Redemption, resurrection, renewal, promise and freedom are themes of our current season. Over the ages, countless traditions have marked the springtime miracle of life bursting forth from seemingly cold, dead earth.
I’m thinking of three traditions in particular, two of which are probably obvious to those of us in the West, Passover and Easter. This year, the week of Passover overlaps Christian Holy Week, the period between Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday. To add a hint of scandal, I’m also thinking of the ecstatic Dionysian Mysteries of ancient Greece. All three involve breaking free of physical and spiritual bondage of some sort and emerging as a more complete, connected and authentic individual, community member and earthling.
Passover celebrates the liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, led by the divinely chosen but less-than-willing Moses. They are reborn as a nation and set on a path by the Lord to the Promised Land. The physical redemption of the Israelites is honored during the 7-day holiday and it is also a time of spiritual redemption. Along with house cleaning of the soul there is house cleaning of the house. The Israelites left Egypt in a hurry and, unable to wait for bread to rise, they took unleavened bread to sustain them on their journey. A big part of Passover tradition is to rid the home of all traces of leavened stuff and anything that might consider leavening if given the opportunity. Cupboards and pantries are cleansed of breads and pastries, pastas and most grains and, for good measure, the whole house is usually given a major spring cleaning.
Easter celebrates the resurrection of Jesus, a sign of redemption and liberation from death. Through Jesus we are shown that death is not an end but a new beginning, a passage to another life. Easter symbols are all about fertility and new life – eggs, chicks, bunnies, Easter Lilies…
Dionysian rites were held in the spring across the Greek and Roman world. Dionysus was associated with the season of rebirth because he was a twice-born god. His mortal mother Semele died while pregnant with Dionysus when she insisted that Zeus, the father of her baby, appear before her in his full godliness. Semele was not equipped for such a sight and perished instantly. Zeus provided the fetal Dionysus a substitute womb inside his thigh, from which Dionysus was born again some time later.
There were also strong liberation themes in Dionysian rites, which were characterized by wild abandon. Dionysus was god of the vine and wine was used to break down restrictive social barriers and inhibitions. Celebrants drank and danced into tranced-out frenzy, transcending the mundane world to be spiritually unified with the god. Woohoo!
Bethlehem is located in the West Bank, about 6 miles south of Jerusalem in the Judean Mountains. It’s home to one of the largest Arab Christian communities, now about 40% of the population, but once around 85%. It’s a small city of about 25,000, with tourism as the main industry.
Besides being the traditional birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem is the birthplace of King David and the site of the tomb of Rachel. Rachel’s tomb, on the edge of town, attracts Jewish and Muslim pilgrims, but Bethlehem’s star attraction, by far, is the Church of Nativity in Manger Square, in the center of town.
The original church was built upon orders from the Roman Emperor Constantine’s mother Helena around the year 327. The emperor Justinian rebuilt the church a couple hundred years later, and that church still stands, the oldest church still in use in the Holy Land. Beneath the church is a cave believed to be the actual spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. The earliest written accounts of Jesus being born in a cave date from the 2nd century, but the oral tradition is likely much older. Many houses in the area are built up against caves, which were used for storage and animal shelter.
Was Jesus really born in Bethlehem? Most scholars think not. Two of the four Gospels, Matthew and Luke, place the nativity in Bethlehem, although the details differ. The other two Gospels, Mark and John, don’t address Jesus’ birth at all. According to Jewish tradition, the Messiah would be descended from King David, and David was born and raised in Bethlehem. Accordingly, the prophet Micah foretold that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. It could be that the writers of Matthew and Luke symbolically placed Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem in reference to that prophecy. Journalistic accuracy was not intended or expected.
Personally, I don’t think it matters where exactly Jesus was born, but I do find it interesting to think about the context in which the Gospels were written and their intended audiences. Although they carry an eternal message, the form that message takes tells us a lot about the world of the first Christians. Matthew cites the genealogy of Jesus back through David and ultimately to Abraham. That would have been meaningful to a Jewish audience. Luke’s genealogy goes right back to Adam to encompass all of humanity and he exults the newborn Jesus as savior of the whole world, not only of the Jews. Luke was writing for a Greek, gentile audience.
Getting to Bethlehem is easy, just a short drive from Jerusalem. Tourists pass through an Israeli check-point from Israel to the West Bank Palestinian Territories. Israelis are not allowed to enter, so if you’re on a guided tour, a Palestinian guide will meet you on the other side.
Christmas Eve Midnight Mass is held on December 24-25 at the Roman Catholic St. Catherine’s, next door to the Church of Nativity. Tickets (no charge) are required to attend the service. Christmas is celebrated in Bethlehem on January 6-7 for the Greek, Coptic and Syrian Othodox Churches and on January 18-19 for the Armenian Orthodox Church.
The Mount of Olives looks out on Jerusalem’s Old City from the east. In purely geographical terms, it shelters Jerusalem from the Judean Desert and catches and directs precious water toward the city. It was once covered in olive trees, but not so much any more.
For 3,000 years the Mount of Olives has been Judaism’s most sacred burial ground. Some 150,000 Jews are buried there, including biblical prophets and revered rabbis. The Kabbalistic Zohar text tells that when the Messiah comes, the Mount of Olives will be his first stop and on that day, the righteous will rise from the dead.