There is some historical evidence (in Josephus and Tacitus) that Yeshua-bar-Yosef ended his life in Jerusalem, given they mention him being sentenced to death by the Roman governor based there, Pontius Pilate. The birth of Yeshua-bar-Yosef at Bethlehem is quite another matter – it is not mentioned outside of the Gospels, except in apocryphal material which looks even more like mythology than they do. There is certainly poetic meaning and no small beauty to be found in the Gospel accounts of the Nativity but as an adult I have never given much credence to them being literal accounts of the birth of a historical man (the same goes for the virgin birth; personally I quite like the Pantera story whilst acknowledging there's no evidence for its historicity). Yet the clearly mythological tone of the Nativity accounts has not prevented Christians, from the earliest times, of mapping out mythic events on the actual land of Palestine and marking places in or near Bethlehem as the site of these events.
A trip from Jerusalem to see these sites in Bethlehem today means a traveller encountering another, far from mythical and all too contemporary story, as Bethlehem lies behind the Separation Wall and visitors must pass through the Gilo checkpoint into the West Bank. We'd booked a half-day coach trip for the visit and our Israeli coach-driver dropped us off at the steel-walled and iron grilled checkpoint which we then passed through to be met by a Palestinian driver on the other side (Israeli citizens are not permitted to travel into the Palestinian territories). The checkpoint is ugly and oppressive but the passage through into the West Bank was quick and simple enough. Driven then towards Jerusalem, we then got a chance to see a the great amount of graffiti which has been done on the Palestinian side, including a dove in a bullet proof vest by Banksy. The Wall on the Israeli side is as your proverbial whitewashed tomb. I will say more about the Wall further down.
We visited three Christian sites in Bethlehem. First, the Milk Grotto purports to be the cave in which the Holy Family rested on the Flight into Egypt. Legend has it that the walls of this cave were once red but a drop of milk from the breast of "the Virgin" spilt onto the floor here and everything was miraculously changed to white. The chalky walls of the cavern are now scraped and the dust sold to women desperate to conceive a child; this small business and the site itself is run by the Franciscans. Our guide was quite serious that this miraculous property of helping conception did indeed exist in the cave's chalk; I remain to be convinced but if it does, I think it's a poor show for the Franciscans to be charging for it. The Grotto itself is a not particularly interesting interior and the modernist chapel constructed alongside it is very featureless; more whitewashed walls…
Nearby another grotto claims to be the cave in which the shepherds were visited by the Angel of the Lord, telling them that the messiah had been born. A small Church has been raised in what is now known as the Shepherd's Fields, The Sanctuary of the Shepherds. This is a small, granite dome the interior of which is decorated by the most tasteless, tacky frescos imaginable – the kinds of things one sees on cheap Christmas cards, with pseudo Pre-Raphaelite angels bearing down on dopey shepherds surrounded by docile sheep; in one of the frescos, an idiot boy shepherd leaps for joy; there's an entirely predictable nativity scene. The Church is in peaceful and well-kept grounds and this is not a bad place to spend some time in quiet contemplation – but how much better would it be if the announcement of the birth of Jesus, who in the gospels comes across as a most unpredictable and positively dangerous character, wasn't being celebrated in such a conventional and anodyne way in the decoration. The grotto itself is a pokey interior decorated by nativity cribs. Inside whilst we were there were a group of South Korean pilgrims being spoken to about the angelic announcement and how it heralds a message about the replacing of the "stony heart" with the fully beating, compassionate human heart which life in Christ can give us. I found this message rather affecting, and was pleased to be reminded of Dylan's lyric Property of Jesus. From the manufactured peace of the Shepherd's field one gets a good view of a nearby Israeli settlement, a kind of monstrously growing, drab Middle Eastern Milton Keynes.
The Church of the Nativity itself is an impressive if ramshackle edifice. One enters, via Manger Square, through a doorway known as the "Gate of Humility" – as only children, dwarfs and midgets wouldn't have to stoop to get through it. Inside one is faced with an impressive if barren Nave, in the floor of which some Byzantine mosaics are exposed, a remnant of the earliest church in this location, built by Constantine's mother Helena. The altar of the church is in stark contract with the nave, a gaudy Greek Orthodox explosion of icons, crosses, cencers and paintings. Beneath this is the Grotto of the Nativity itself, the space claimed to be the stable in which the Christ-child was born.
The Grotto is quite an unpleasant space, in terms of it being thronging with pilgrims and worshippers and therefore cramped and uncomfortable. It has little formal elegance, with the specific locations of various events scattered around and made impossible to see for more than a glimpse as they are covered by the prostrate and praying bodies of the faithful. A silver star marks the spot on which the Virgin supposedly dropped Our Lord, perhaps suggesting that he is a kind of Lone Ranger deputy of the Lord sent to sort, Western style, the bad men out. Given it is such a small and low-ceilinged space and given the throng inside, it is easy to imagine the chaos that must have ensued when the Magi, their servants and the shepherds all barged in to give their praises at the birth; it’s a wonder the baby Jesus didn't suffocate.
Next door to the Basilica is the 19th century Franciscan Church and Cloister of Saint Catherine, the distinguishing feature of which is a large brass showing the Tree of Jesse near the main door. In the cloister, a statue of Saint Jerome presides; high on the cloister wall, bullet holes from the 2002 siege are still visible. Coming back into Manger Square, I was struck by the pall that hangs about the place – it's a World Heritage Site but there's an unease in the air; I later read that the Basilica is in a parlous state of repair which the custodians, infighting amongst themselves, fail to do anything about. Perhaps in this way it is an apt memorial to the birth of a message of Universal Love – falling to bits as folk argue amongst themselves.
Getting back into Israel from the West Bank is not quite so simple as getting in. One travels back through the Gilo checkpoint and to do so, one must join the queue. Most of the people here are Palestinians, who might well have land, work or family on one side and home on the other; they probably have to do this chore of queuing daily. It took a good 40 minutes to get through the checkpoint, as each of the Palestinians much present their papers (a ragged sheet) and undergo fingerprint recognition before the demonstrably bored young Israeli soldiers let them through. One young woman, in the midst of her family, didn't quite know how to finesse the fingerprint procedure – she kept putting her hand on the reader and something about this was wrong; the Israeli soldier grunted and ordered her to do it again. Again and again. She became exasperated and frustrated, clearly in need of some guidance which was not forthcoming from the checkpoint guard; her family tried to help her but it took her a good few tries before she got it right. This was an unpleasant and humiliating moment for her and for her family and I felt embarrassed to see it, especially given the fact that myself and my partner walked through vaguely flashing our British passports, waved through with disinterest by the guard. We were then waved onto a bus for Jerusalem which was also carrying a large part of the Palestinians who had just travelled through the checkpoint. A young Palestinian guy heard our voices and wanted to talk with us in English, seeming very pleased at this chance encounter but before we could engage with him, a taxi driver got on and dragged those of us on the Bethlehem excursion off and into his cab. I wish I'd have stayed on and done the trip with my fellows in the checkpoint queue.
Travelling through the checkpoint reminded me of the weeks I spent directing a couple of musicals with prisoners in Maidstone prison. Twice a day we'd have to go back and forth through security, as well we might, given we'd chosen to work with convicted criminals, many of whom had committed heinous and violent crimes. No matter the realities on the ground in Israel, who could think it not a shame (I use the word with force) that ordinary Palestinians are forced to go through such a daily palaver with moments of humiliation merely because of acts of terrorism the vast majority of them have nothing to do with? That a country might become a kind of holding camp for swathes of its population has to be unsustainable, whatever the rationales. This walling of the Palestinians casts a vast shadow over Israeli consumer society, darkening all of the shopping malls and the beach parties and the markets and the essentially European infrastructure. Where this leaves the Holy sites is a nagging question – Mere tourist traps? Part of the factional, sectarian problem? Remnants and reminders of another Way in the midst of a fallen world? Or all of these things in a complex mesh?