(Note: Bill and Lynda Boyle recently returned from a trip to the Holy Land. These are a few of their experiences.)
The birthplace of the Prince of Peace is, quite often, not a peaceful place.
In ancient times, Bethlehem was an isolated, small village in a dusty corner of the Holy Land. Today, the city sits at the intersection of the most complicated question facing the modern world: peace in the Middle East.
Bethlehem is just six miles from the Old City of Jerusalem and as they have grown to more than 500,000 residents, the cities have grown as close as Provo and Orem in Utah.
A wall of separation divides the merging metropoli. The wall provides a sense of security to the residents of Jerusalem and creates a bitter sense of isolation to the residents of Bethlehem.
In 2006, when we last visited the Holy Land, the residents of Bethlehem were isolated and angry. The new wall had not only separated them from Jerusalem, but it had separated them from tourists, the most important part of the Bethlehem economy. Our 2006 visit to Bethlehem was tense, dark and full of despair.
A lot has changed in the past three years. Our recent visit to Bethlehem was in marked contrast to the 2006 visit. While the wall of separation is still there and still looms large, the tourists have returned and a sense of hope is felt in the air.
When we mentioned that the Palestinians seem happier than in 2006, one Palestinian friend shrugged and said, “Well, you get used to living in jail. A person who is happy by nature will be happy, even in jail.”
Jimmy knows more Utahns than many Utah residents. For nearly 30 years, the Palestinian Arab has owned Jimmy’s Bazaar, an olive wood shop that provides Holy Land products for the San Juan Record.
Jimmy’s business has grown dramatically in recent years and he now has two factories in the Bethlehem area creating beautiful olive wood statues.
One afternoon, he took us to Bethlehem to see his factories. Since we have U.S. passports and were in a private car with Israeli license plates, passing through the wall of separation was quick and efficient.
Shwarma for lunch
Our first stop was lunch. Shwarma is a pita bread sandwich filled with wonderfully cooked meat. Unfortunately for my taste buds, in the past 20 years the traditional lamb in shwarma has been replaced by turkey.
While turkey is preferred over lamb in many dishes, to be frank, it is a rather pathetic substitute for lamb in shwarma.
The exotic blend of spices and sauces just doesn’t quite do the trick with turkey. I hoped that we could find lamb shwarma because the Feast of the Sacrifice was approaching and it traditionally requires each Muslim family to sacrifice a sheep and donate it to the needy. However, our nine-time zone quest in search of perfect lamb shwarma was doomed for failure.
After lunch, we headed to the Church of the Nativity, the oldest intact Christian Church in the Holy Land. The Church sits over the traditional Grotto of the Nativity, the spot which has been worshipped for centuries as the location where Jesus Christ was born.
We all love the wonderfully simple story of the Nativity. It began in most humble circumstances with a frightened young couple, some farm animals, shepherds from surrounding hills and a choir of angels. The story is familiar and universal and tells a wonderful tale that we all can relate to on a very personal level.
The history of the Church of the Nativity, in contrast, is a sad tale of human ambition. Wars have been fought over the site, literally. The Crimean War was triggered, in part, by ownership issues surrounding a gold star that sits over the traditional site of the birth of Christ.
Less than a decade ago, a militant Palestinian group took over the church. The result was a time consuming, bloody siege that only increased the hatred and animosity between the two entrenched sides.
The site was identified by Katherine, the mother of Constantine the Great, who was the first Roman Emperor to embrace Christianity.
Several hundred years later, Persian invaders destroyed many of the Christian churches in the Holy Land. They did not lay waste to the Church of the Nativity because it honored the Wise Men from the East (Persia). The ancient church has been venerated for 1,700 years. The accumulated grime of centuries of use is evident.
A beautiful and simple event took place in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago. While many of you will envision those times in coming days, it may be surprising to hear that it takes some imagination to envision the simple birth of a baby in the ancient trappings of the Church of the Nativity.
After visiting the Church of the Nativity, Jimmy took us to one of the olive wood factories in Beit Sahour (literally, House of the Shepherds). The little community, adjacent to Bethlehem, is home of the Shepherd’s Fields and the olive wood industry.
It takes time to create an olive wood statue. Of course, several years are required for the slow growing trees to reach the perfect age. Then the wood is cut and aged for three years before it hits the lathe. An enormous lathe rough cuts 16 statues at a time in a dusty room that would make an OSHA regulator salivate.
Then the rough statues are turned into art by a team of carvers. Afterwards, the wood is sanded and finished and what was once a stump of wood becomes a treasured reminder of Bethlehem of long ago.
Nativity sets are the primary output, but the number of products has grown in recent years. A wide variety of statues and ornaments are available at the San Juan Record.
We also have wooden boxes which contain a widow’s mite, an ancient coin from the Holy Land. Don’t worry, they come with a statement of authenticity. As far as I know, the BLM has no jurisdiction over Holy Land artifacts.