We got an early start this morning, hopping on the bus after a quick breakfast and heading back into Jerusalem. Our agenda for the day began with a visit to the Temple Mount, where the Dome of the Rock is located (the site where it is believed that Abraham was about to sacrifice Isaac, or, as the Muslims believe, Ishmael.) We were not allowed to take anything religious into the site-we could not take our Bibles, hymn sheet music, or anything. I wore what I thought was a modest shirt-three quarter length sleeves and a simple scoop neck-but was asked to cover myself with a shawl when we walked through the checkpoint, as were many of the others in our group. This checkpoint is a special area for non-Muslims, and it is just a single gate. There are 12 or so other gates around the Mount where Muslims may enter.
As you can tell, the Mount is a Muslim-controlled area of the city. I have learned since I have been here that Israel is a land of many divisions. I'm not sure how or when, but at some point in negotiations the Jewish people in Jerusalem agreed to give the Temple Mount area over to the Muslims. (And let me clarify-when I say Temple Mount, it is a pretty self-explanatory term. The original temple of Solomon was right on the spot and slightly northward,and it is on the top of a large hill/small mountain.)
Here is Taylor walking in front of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, which our guide Rami tells us is the 3rd holiest site in the world for Muslims:
And here is the Dome of the Rock close up. The dome is made of real gold. We were not able to go inside, because since the year 2000, non-Muslims are no longer allowed inside the dome. There is a person at the gate with whom you must speak, and if you do not have identification as a Muslim, or you cannot say a certain prayer, in Arabic, you will be turned away.
Here is another interesting tidbit-archeologists are almost positive that they have identified the original spot where the Holy of Holies would have been in Bible times, and they have placed a cupola over this spot. When Jewish people come into the area of the Dome of the Rock, they make sure to stay a large distance away from this place. Here is a picture of Taylor and me in front of it:
And me (in my shawl, no less!) with the Mount of Olives, easily viewed from the Temple Mount, in the background:
And then, on to Bethlehem! And as you can see here, so much for that "o little town" business....Bethlehem grew up! Today there are three large sections of the city, and I'm not sure how many inhabitants, but there are a lot!
Our first stop was the Church of the Nativity, which is widely known and believed to be built over the birthplace of Jesus.
I find it humbling and quite appropriate that to get into this church, one has to bend down very, very low.
We waited in line for quite a while to get to the exact spot of Christ's birth. It is also widely believed that Mary gave birth in a cave because it would have been the most appropriate place for her to go for privacy that was right around the inn. We waited in line and proceeded down some extremely steep steps that led down to the exact spot, which we were all allowed to bend down and touch:
As you see in the picture above, the Greek orthodox church has decorated the area and the cave, but the floor inside that hole that you see is the cave floor itself.
After some time of reflection in the church, we headed out for lunch to what our guide informed us was the best falafel restaurant in the world!
And I have to admit...it was delicious!! If you are not familiar with falafel, it is basically ground up chickpeas mixed with parsley, cumin, coriander, and garlic, and then fried in olive oil. The guys in the restaurant were nice enough to show me how to make it! I know what Taylor is going to be asking for when we get home!
Then it was back to a church right next to the church of the nativity, called St. Catherine's church.
Another interesting tidbit I have not yet mentioned-at almost all of these holy sights we have visited, there have been two churches-one Greek Orthodox and one Catholic. It seems that each church wishes to lay claim to the specific sites. In some places, such as Cana, the churches each claim to be built over the specific site, in that case the place of Jesus' first miracle. In other cases, such as Jesus' birthplace, there is little to no doubt that the exact spot has been identified. In this situation, the other church has historical significance as well. The catholic St. Catherine church has access to the front part of the same cave that houses Christ's birthplace. This particular area is dedicated to all the children who were executed by King Herod in an attempt to kill Jesus.
Our last Biblical site of the day was the Shepherds' Field.
There was a church here in the little park dedicated to the fields:
We all went inside and sang actually some Christmas Carols! A lady not with our group walked out into the center and videoed our singing. The tiny church is quite beautiful, with mosaics depicting the Christmas story on each wall.
We even found a replica of Dr. Mumbower, one of our ministers, on the wall! Ha! If you know this guy, I'm sure you are laughing!
Here is a picture of our crew in one of the nearby caves:
We spent some time shopping today in a really cool olive wood shop, owned and operated by some local Christians. Contrary to what you might think, Christians comprise only about one percent of the population in this area. Unfortunately I didn't take any pictures there...I was too busy getting some goodies for my family! :)
Our last stop of the day was the Bethlehem Bible College, where we learned about some local Palestinian Christians and their ministry.
Tomorrow we head to Masada and take a dip in the Dead Sea!