In Bethlehem

By William Ury

Today was a day of rest and visiting Bethlehem with a shorter walk.

In the morning, after a hardy breakfast of hummus and pita bread and olives and thyme, we visited the Shepherd’s Field, which is right near where we are staying, a beautiful place that commemorates the arrival of the angel to tell the shepherds that Jesus is to be born.

What a spectacular day it is — pure blue sky and the light is so beautiful on the stones and the hills! It is hard sometimes to believe that this is also a place of such conflict and darkness. There is a simple stone chapel here that blends in with the land and inside it are lovely frescoes of the scenes of the visitation with the shepherds, the surprise in their eyes and devotion in their hearts. There are many caves here — we entered one that might have been like the one where Jesus was born. In the back of the caves, the custom was to keep the goats and sheep. That may explain why they say Jesus was born in a stable — Mary may have sought privacy in the back of the cave where they kept the animals. Standing in the cave, it was easy to picture the scene in the mind’s eye. Somehow being in these places, it brings it all to life.

From the Shepherd’s Field, we went to visit the Church of the Holy Manger, an ancient structure built over the traditional cave of the birth. The first time a group of Abraham’s Path travelers visited five years ago, there was no one here. Now there are more visitors from all over the world, a good sign for local tourism. In the cave itself, one group stood around in a circle and sang a hymn in Russian — such beautiful voices. There is a metal star set in the stone that marks the birth spot and another place right across where people believe the cradle sat. Imagine all the devotion expressed here over the last twenty centuries by so many thousands of pilgrims, queens and kings, shepherds and priests, women and men and children pouring out their prayers…

We were hosted for lunch at Bethlehem University, a partner on the Abraham Path, filled with students milling around speaking excitedly with their friends. Over two-thirds were young women — it was explained to us that local families preferred to keep their daughters close to home so they send them to B.U. A lot of life here. A young Palestinian-American woman sat with us and peppered us with good questions about the possibilities for tourism in Palestine.

In the late afternoon, we took a beautiful leisurely stroll for an hour or so setting out from Solomon’s Pools, great reservoirs carved in stone that were built back in Roman times or much earlier to give water to Jerusalem. We descended through a lovely valley to the village of Artas where there is a convent of Mary. It is so fertile here that they give it the name the Closed Gardens or the Closed Paradise, a phrase taken from the Bible. It is through this valley they say that King Solomon walked with the lady of his love — and where perhaps he composed the Song of Songs, one of the most inspired pieces of biblical poetry.

Just outside the old convent, we met a nun from India (Kerala), strong and gentle, whose family traces its Christian roots back to St. Thomas, the apostle of Jesus, who, it is said, traveled all the way to India. Yifa, a Chinese Buddhist nun who has joined our party for the walk, posed for a picture with her, the two nuns, Catholic and Buddhist, from India and China, here in Palestine. Such unexpected combinations happen again and again on this path, dissolving boundaries, stereotypes, and reminding us of our shared humanity.