Manger Square Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity

31st May  8AM local time 6AM ( BST)  This is our first full day in Israel. Getting ready for breakfast, already the sun is hot, and I have to have the air conditioning on in the room. I was woken by the heat at 4AM and had to put on the air con despite the noise it makes, it is better than being slowly cooked in the room.

31st May 9.35AM ( Central European Time) 7.35 ( BST)
We are leaving Netanya to Tel Aviv driving South and now starting to head East across the spine of the country towards the hills of Judea. The bus climbs towards the  foothills of Jerusalem, stopping on the road to Emmaus then on to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity.
Netanya beach is a long thin strip of sand down the whole coast. I took some photos of the view from my room on the 16th floor, spectacular! I had a good nights sleep last night going down by 10.30PM. I had been nodding off during devotions last night. I woke at 7.30 AM feeling refreshed.
The room is basic, it has air conditioning which is a great boon. The shower is excellent once mastered. The water is hard and saline and reminiscent of other Mediterranean resorts I have been to. The food is very good, it is a Kosher hotel, so there are certain restrictions on what can and cannot be served ( ie at dinner) last night no milk was served with coffee. (This is due to Deuteronomy 14:21 (NIV)  “ But you are a people holy to the Lord your God.Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk..” There is no problem with milk at breakfast, as long as meat is not served with it.
As I write this, we are driving through the plain of Sharon, leaving Netanya and on the road to Tel Aviv. Very rich fertile soil on either side of the road. This is a toll road, and is very modern and efficient. The road system and vehicles are more reminiscent of the American system than British, ( ie no roundabouts!). I notice that most of the cars are white in colour presumably to reflect the glare of the sun.

11.15AM ( CET) 9.15 AM ( BST) Emmaus
Luke 24:13-15 (NIV) “Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. 15 As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them……”

My family back home are waking up and getting into the routine of another day….and I am on the Road to Emmaus…..
We are touring the Bethlehem area today, but en-route we stop at the excavations of Emmaus. There is not much to see, but nevertheless I am in bits!  I feel very moved as Glynn reads the famous old passage from Luke 24 ” and they knew him in the breaking of bread..” . Peggy and I are in tears, to think we are here where HE walked. To a great extent you have to divorce yourself from the modern sophisticated Israel and let the Word speak.

( Peggy and Calumina at  Emmaus)

We are now climbing away from the coastal plain and into the Judean hills towards Jerusalem. Our guide Moshe is very knowledgable and articulate. We stop en-route to Bethlehem at an arab town called Abu Ghosh. This is the biblical Kiriat Jearim where the Philistine’s left the Ark of the Covenant before it was transported to the temple in Jerusalem.

‘ And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the Lord and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. And they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the ark of the Lord. ‘ 1 Samuel 7:1 (ESV)

It is also home to the most bizarre shrine in Israel. A gas station we stopped at has been turned into a shrine paying homage to the king ( of rock n roll) ELVIS and so huge statues of Elvis abound here.


DJ Smith at the ‘Elvis’ Gas station Abu Ghosh

 We had lunch at Ramat Rahel ( Rachel) – a Kibbutz just outside Jerusalem , the name symbolic of Rachel’s Tomb, the famous shrine between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

We are now about to enter Bethlehem, being given strict warnings both from Glynn & Moshe to stick together as we get out of the bus, and enter into Palestinian controlled Bethlehem. We have to leave behind Moshe & our driver Yudah who being Israelis are barred from Palestinian territory. It is with a certain trepidation we alight from the bus and walk past the Israeli check point manned by soldiers who look like schoolboys.

2.35 PM Local Time ( 12.35 BST) I write in my journal very relieved to be back on the bus, and back in Israel again. We went to Bethlehem, to Manger square to see the Church of the Nativity.
Bethlehem is awful, we had to go through an army checkpoint and from there into frightful Arab taxi’s , a uniform dusty yellow, battered Mercedes literally falling apart. DJ remarked to the taxi driver ” It’s a nice day!” – and got a stream of arabic for a reply. As the temperature rarely dips below 25c at this time of year  I suppose it is always a ‘ Nice Day’. Hardly any of the vehicles we saw in Bethlehem , or most other West Bank or Arab towns could be called road worthy by British standards. Before we ever got into the taxi’s we had to run the gauntlet of hawkers selling trinkets, scarves, postcards, beads, hats, David flutes etc. The hawkers and urchins hardly see any tourists now, so we got the full treatment. Young boys who should be in primary school swarmed around us like flies.

Donald John Smith at the Church of the Nativity , Manger Square Bethlehem


The Church of the Nativity is a huge sprawling old Crusader church, which has been fortified in some ways, even to the extent of having the doorway lowered so as to stop Arabs riding their camels into the church. It is situated in manger square, an area dominated by the much smaller but more strident Mosque of the Mullah Omar. As we make our way across manger square the Imam in the Mosque lets rip through loudspeakers situated in the minaret towering over Bethlehem.

The church of the nativity is controlled jointly ( but unequally!) by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian churches.
The Orthodox have control of the Grotto of the nativity, the supposed place of the birthplace of Christ. The Church of the nativity is  full of icons ( 17 in total) Greek Orthodox, and is actually OK! Didn’t freak me out at all, it was just good to get respite from the hawkers . After leaving the grotto of the nativity where Glynn insisted on us having a short worship service, ( wonder what the orthodox thought of that? ). To finish we sang the Christmas Carol, “O Come let us adore Him”. After leaving the Grotto of the Nativity and the Orthodox jurisdiction ( I know it is ridiculous isn’t it?), we went into the adjoining church of St Catherine which is under RC jurisdiction. The name itself attracted me to it. Although very Roman Catholic inside, it isn’t as freaky as the Iconostasis of the Grotto next door. We pass through this church & go outside into a courtyard . The sunlight is so intense here after the gloom of the churches that my eyes literally close with pain, and as we stumble back into manger square, it takes a while for my eyes to readjust.

The grotto of the Nativity – Church of the nativity Bethlehem.

Back into the awful taxis and to a shop to be fleeced by those who have taken us into Bethlehem. Outside more urchins wait for us. 
At the checkpoint we have to walk past the Israeli soldiers and are given preferential treatment in comparison to the many Palestinians who are kept queuing there. The urchins follow us to the bus.

We are now on our way to Ein Karem ( the supposed birthplace of John the Baptist) This is really a suburb of Jerusalem, and it is hot just now.

5.45 PM local Time 3.45 PM BST
We have visited the scripture garden  at Ein Karem and had a most instructive guided tour/ sermon ! from a wonderful German Christian lady called either Alfie or Ellie. She was really full of the Holy Spirit, and brought the Bible to life for us, from the ordinary plants, shrubs trees, and practices of Israel . She explains to us the process of olive oil manufacture, and its reference in scripture, she shows us a genuine tomb from the biblical era and many other interesting and enlightening facts from the natural world of the Bible. , Who says women shouldn’t preach?

Making our way back to Netanya . All around us the star of David flag flies, proud symbol of the state of Israel.  There are very young looking Soldiers with M16 rifles everywhere, even the hotel had security at the door with 9mm Glock automatic pistols at their hip. We were all checked with a handheld metal detector every time we entered the hotel. ( DJ left his camcorder on the bus earlier, he got it back later). Arrived back at our hotel in Netanya tired sweaty, but thankful for the day we have had.

After  our evening meal and devotions led by Glynn, most of us went to our rooms to sleep. Feeling very tired.  Israeli TV is terrible. I think it has much in common with most other European TV stations I have seen, most of the channels were just utter rubbish.