By Antonio Malara
Even though Bethlehem is located in the land of Palestine, my story about this city begins once again in Amman. In fact, the visit to the places of worship of the holy land, first Bethlehem and later Jerusalem, was the final part of the trip to Jordan. On the last day and a half we saw the most important things related to Christianity and in this post I will talk about the visit to Bethlehem where we essentially visited the Basilica of the Nativity, the place where Jesus Christ is supposed to have been born.
We left Amman very early after having breakfast and the journey to Bethlehem was not only long but also articulated because it involved the passage of two state borders. The first stop on the border between Jordan and Israel was the final farewell to the beautiful land of Jordan and to our friendly and informative guide. In reality the procedures were not simple, it seems to me that we filled out some papers and moreover the guide had to make a real personal report on us. He told us this with irony that if he had said that there was a suspicious type during the trip, the border guards would have detained him for further checks. Obviously nothing happened and in general the delivery of the modules and the passage from the Jordan to the Israeli bus took place between handshakes and exchange of contacts with our guide.
Back on the road on the new bus and in the modern land of Israel I began to organize my ideas for those last days and in reality even in this case I knew little or nothing about what I was going to visit. To be precise, I only knew a couple of them; the Western Wall and the separation wall between Israel and Palestine. From an early age the great Western Wall has always fascinated and intrigued me when I saw those people in the form of reverence in front of it. At the time I didn’t know anything about religion, I only saw people with a hat and strange braids who rhythmically moved their heads towards the wall. Even if it was a strange thing for me, it still fascinated me like all the things that were not common in my culture and that were done with dedication. While on the bus I imagined only the western wall, I discovered that in reality that morning we were going to visit the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem-Palestine, so I would have seen the separation wall first. Just before arriving at the border of the two states, the gray wall appeared and Don Valerio, didn’t know why, he did not want us to photograph it, more than anything else we had to keep order on the bus in view of the checks. These checks were the worst I've ever done, for several reasons. Once the bus stopped us at the border, two soldiers got on and examined all of us one by one, looking us straight in the eye. It was a tension-based control, that harsh climate could have betrayed any of those who might have bad intentions. Even if there was a lot of tension, personally what I felt was pain for those poor and very young soldiers. They could have been little more than twenty years old and almost certainly they had never seen anything in the world except their tortured land made up of useless wars and submission by the most powerful. The wall itself was proof of this, built by Israel officially to protect and avoid clashes, it has always been interpreted as discriminatory by the Palestinians. It is a long and sad story of the two peoples and I don’t have the sufficient knowledge to be able to talk about it further. What I saw, however, was two boys with a frozen expression on "who goes there?", a tension that was probably transmitted from generation to generation, a sad attitude of those who always have to defend themselves from the enemy. I have never been tense during the checks, I just hoped that one day those young people could take off their uniforms and start enjoying freedom together with other people. Once the delicate operation was over, we entered Palestine, there disobeying Don Valerio, I took several photos on the wall with the telephone, as a reporter but with the utmost respect for everyone and everything, including ideologies.
We arrived in Bethlehem at about 12 AM and I remember that after leaving the bus we walked a slight uphill road to reach the Basilica of the Nativity. Right at the top where the road began to go down, we turned right and after a few steps we arrived in a large square. On the left there was the basilica which, however, was not quite what I expected so that at first I was attracted more by the mosque that was located beyond the square on my right. The Basilica was made up of high walls where in the middle of them there was the bell tower which, however, was just a little higher than the top of the walls. There was no real facade and at first glance it gave me the idea of a defensive wall rather than a basilica. Afterwards, looking closely, I noticed a crane and a giant tarp covering part of what must have been the roof. I understood that there were renovations but I don’t think that once completed they had changed the aesthetic aspect of the structure much, which therefore remained a very unique work for me. Outside there were many groups of people, however we only entered after about five minutes following the line. Access was via a small door and once inside, the presence of large scaffolding on the aisles and a large slab on the ceiling confirmed my suspicion that there was some restoration work inside. Certainly they were working on the roof because in the distance I could see that the part above the altar was totally in wood, I don't know if it has already been restored or not. Even inside the aspect of the Basilica confirmed its singularity. In the distance I could see the apse formed by a huge frame where many paintings were set. This large cornice was surmounted by a cross and from the ceiling hung many large chandeliers and many similar ornaments. With all due respect, he gave me the impression of those antique shops where a crazy seller has lots of stuff all randomly placed in the shop, despite this I appreciated that originality. Under the aisle we lined up and there I was told by one of the group what we were going to see.
Just under the cross was the Grotto of the Nativity where a silver star symbolized the exact spot where Jesus is supposed to have been born. We stood in line under the right aisle for about forty minutes and as we advanced I tried to photograph the particularities of the Basilica. On the walls there were many paintings of different types, they seemed to be placed in a somewhat disordered sequence, as if the paintings had been placed there to cover the remaining space. From the ceiling hung other smaller chandeliers and an infinite series of censers that went from one side to the other. However, what attracted my attention the most were the paintings hanging from the columns of the aisles which, even if unsightly, they had 3D effects. In particular, there was one depicting the face of Jesus that was impressive for the effect he had. It was made in such a way that according to which point you looked at it, it could give the impression that the image of Christ was crying or not. I tried to photograph it in the best way possible but I think it came out a hybrid photo, because the position I was in while standing in line.
Just below the cross and above the crypt there was a painting that symbolized the virgin with the child and an ornamental curtain open in the center covered the small staircase leading to the cave. This was not very big and we went down a few people at a time, then in turn we passed in front of the silver star, this too was "protected" by an ornamental curtain. Down there you felt the sacredness that was given by the silence and the devotion of the visiting faithful, personally I don't think I felt the same emotions as the others but they indirectly made me perceive the importance of that precise space, symbolized by the silver star.
We went out of the Basilica about ten minutes after visiting the crypt and once again I had a new and unique experience despite my misinformation about the places visited. Also in this case I knew little or nothing about the site to visit but thanks to the right people who informed me step by step of things that I should have known previously, I was able to experience important places from a historical-religious point of view, but with awareness.
At around 1:30 PM we headed for the bus to reach the restaurant, there on the road that this time was downhill an episode happened to me that at that moment seemed superfluous and tied to chance but which years later made me reflect on the hypothesis of parallel universes and the alternative future. I will write something about it but not now, maybe at another time by updating this post. The restaurant was always in Bethlehem, we got there at about 2 PM and had lunch in an even better climate than in Jerash. Also in this case our visits would have continued in the afternoon but in general there was relaxation and cheerfulness, after lunch we also smoked the hookah and for me it was the first time. We stayed there for about an hour but this seemed like a very long time because it was spent in carefree and with the right company, eating well and in a wonderful location.
Pictures: Antonio Malara
Camera: Nikon D800