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The following day, Amir (our incredible guide) dropped us about ten minutes from Jerusalem, at the West Bank Border (Palestinian Authority Territory). Israeli law doesn't allow Israelis to pass this point, so he arranged for us to be picked up by a Palestinian driver from the Bethlehem Souvenir Center Co. The shop provided us with transportation and a guide for free. The only catch was that we had to go into their store at the end of the tour. There was no pressure to buy anything (at all), but everyone does (including us) because the experience at the church is so amazing you want keepsakes to remember it. FYI: You can pay with your credit card, U.S. Dollars, Euros or the territory's currency, which is Jordan Dinar or the New Israeli Shekel.
CROSSING THE BORDER
Palestine isn't a country yet, so there's no real border crossing or stamps to add to your passport. Actually, no one looked at our passports or stopped us. An Israeli guard peaked into our vehicle on the way in and out and that was it.
CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY
Our driver was very friendly and he took us five minutes from where he picked us up, at
Bet Jalla, to Bethlehem. We met up with our guide a block from the Church of the Nativity. You've probably heard of it since it's one of the most famous in the world. They broadcast Christmas Eve mass from here to all over the world and it's also one of the oldest continuously operating churches. The structure was built over the cave that tradition marks as the birthplace of Jesus. It is a combination of two churches: one is the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem and the other is the Church of St. Catherine. There's also another denomination presiding there, the Armenian Apostolic.
HISTORY OF THE CHURCH
The first basilica built here was completed in 333 AD. It burned down in the Samaritan Revolt of 529 AD and was rebuilt in its present form in 565 AD by the Emperor Justinian I. To enter through the main door requires going through the Door of Humility built by the Turks. The door was built so low (it only goes up to about my chest) to prevent locals from rushing in on their horses. It thereby forces them to dismount and, perhaps unintentionally, pay their respects as they bow to enter.
WHERE JESUS WAS BORN
The highlight, of course, is touring around the grotto beneath the basilica, which enshrines the site where people believe Jesus was born. A 14-point silver star, set in the marble floor under an Armenian Apostolic altar, marks the exact spot. The other altar in the crypt, about 15 feet away, marks where Mary laid the newborn baby in the manger and that's maintained by the Roman Catholics. There was an Eastern European tour group down there and they were singing “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in their native tongue which added even more reverence to the atmosphere.
It's difficult to convey what I felt when I went down the stairs to see the exact spot where Jesus was born. Words can't describe it, but for sure I will never forget it. It's still difficult for me to fathom that I saw the actual place that I've been told about countless times. It never really seemed real. From now on, hearing the stories and attending midnight mass at Christmas will have a newer and more profound meaning for me.
I was nervous about going to the West Bank; the only thing I knew about it was from the violent images on T.V. Someone told me it's like Tijuana, so I almost didn't even go. But that's not the case at all. I felt safe. One kid tried to sell me gum, and one teenager hassled me to buy postcards, but that's it. Everyone I saw seemed happy. It was just every-day life taking place; kids going to school, women shopping and men selling beans on the side of the road. I also saw a bunch of nice houses – nothing like what's portrayed on the major networks.
There's really not much to do in the West Bank, so basically it's a two-hour trip. Besides seeing the church and getting olive wood souvenirs, the other place of real interest is the wall that Israel put up that the Palestinians are upset about. I have no opinion, but many Israelis I spoke to say it really has helped with the suicide bombings. So if that's what it takes, so be it.
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SOME OF LAST WEEK'S READER AIR-eMAIL
I've been reading your very useful newsletters for some years now and, reading your reports from Israel, I was delighted you had such a good time in my country and especially in my home town of Jerusalem. David O - Jerusalem
Loved it, can't wait for more! Lee R - Northbrook, IL
I'm enjoying your description of your trip to Israel. Have you seen this Western Wall live feed? It's fantastic. There are 3 different feeds, and you can literally hear what's going on: TheKotel.org. Ms. Rivkah T - Airmont, NY
I have just finished absorbing (with a big smile on my face, every word of your boarding of the Seabourn Odyssey (I am a little behind catching up on your adventures!). My husband and I have enjoyed many cruises; none of them on Seabourn. They are a little out of our price range. So, thank you for taking me on your adventure. I now feel as though I have been there. Loved seeing everything that you experienced and look forward to reading more about your cruise! You had me at 'walk-in closet'! What a wonderful way to travel, isn't it? Patricia C - Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
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