Bethlehem

Every day is Christmas in Bethlehem

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Bethlehem has been so crowded of late that it has been difficult to get groups into the grotto beneath the Church of the Nativity. Yesterday we got in without a hitch. Yay!

The grotto has been the focus of Christian worship for almost two thousand years. Here, a humble stable-cave became a birthing place.

“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no space in the room above for them” (Luke 2:6-7).

The cave pictured above is swathed in tapestries and covers. The focal point at the far end is marked by lights and a star. It represents the place where Jesus was born. To the right is a niche associated with the manger.


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It’s time for you to experience Christmas in a new way. Will you consider joining us on a future trip to Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Nazareth and other sites connected with the ministry of Jesus? Find a trip by clicking the link here or contact me directly at markziese@gmail.com. We are currently working on group reservations for 2022.



Who's your papa?

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The double-headed eagle is a heraldic symbol of the Greek Orthodox Church. It is an ancient motif, used perhaps for the first time by the Hittites in modern day Turkey. It reemerged in the Byzantine Empire and was widely used by the 11th and 12th centuries AD.

The meaning of the two heads with one body is debated. Some suggest it presents the unity of church and state, a principle that guided the Byzantines. Others suggest it represents the dominion of the empire in the East and in the West.

In countries where Orthodoxy has a powerful presence it continue to be used today.

I found this one perched on a rope-stand in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine.


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Pilgrims await their turn (sortof) to enter the grotto at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Tradition suggests that this is place where Jesus was born.

If you are interested in experiencing Bethlehem and a host of other sites for yourself, consider joining us next year. We have open seats for several trips in 2020 and 2021. We are booking new groups for 2022. Shoot me a note at markziese@gmail.com or see our full list of study-travel opportunities at the link here.

Facelift

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Spent a few hours in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem yesterday. The restoration (which is not quite yet complete) is simply stunning. Those who can remember the dark dingy nave of yesteryear will be astounded to see the place today. The new roof is rustic but beautiful. You can see the open rafters of cedar that were hewn and hoisted into positioned in the 14th century. The 44 columns that support that roof were cut from local limestone and polished to a high degree. Now that they’ve been cleaned, you can distinguish them from their white marble crowns decorated in acanthus leaves. Note the scrollwork in the architrave that spans the gaps between the columns.

Keep in mind that this structure has been continually used as a place of Christian worship since the time of Constantine (mid 4th century). That makes it unique in all of Israel-Palestine.

The outline of the present structure was established by Justinian I in the mid-6th century.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was erected over a cave where Jesus was born.

It was the first place in Palestine to be recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.


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The Church of the Nativity is hopping right now as the tourist season is in full bloom.

We have openings right now for a trips scheduled to depart this summer. Write me at markziese@gmail.com for more information or check our full list of study-travel opportunities here.

Sitting room

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Wouldn’t this be a lovely spot to welcome the New Year?

The sitting room at the Jacir Palace in Bethlehem is located in just off the entry door. Note the painted ceilings described in yesterday’s post (see here).

I trust you will find the perfect place from which to say goodbye to 2018 and hello to 2019.

All the best from us at Bible Land Explorer!


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Our next group is gearing up and will be arriving in Israel/Palestine at the start of 2019. We plan to investigate the region of Galilee and walk segments of the Jesus Trail. Follow this journey on our website, or better yet, consider joining us on a future trip! A list of planned group excursions may be found here.

Juliet perch

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“What light through yonder window breaks?”

A Juliet perch adorns the face of the Jacir Palace, Bethlehem.


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Our next group is gearing up and will be arriving in Israel/Palestine at the start of 2019. We plan to investigate the region Galilee and walk segments of the Jesus Trail. Follow this journey on our website, or better yet, consider joining us on a future trip! A list of planned group excursions may be found here.

Palatial

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The dream-home of Suleiman Jacir was built at the turn of the 20th century. This Bethlehem family is remembered for their generosity as well as their successful business in mother of pearl ornaments.

While a core of Christian artisans remains in Bethlehem, Palestine, it is difficult to imagine this commercial heyday. The downward spiral of the fortunes of Ottoman-era merchants accelerated in the period of the British Mandate. Less than two decades after this stone palace was built the family went bankrupt and was forced to sell the property.


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Our next group is gearing up and will be arriving in Israel/Palestine at the start of 2019. We plan to investigate the region Galilee and walk segments of the Jesus Trail. Follow this journey on our website, or better yet, consider joining us on a future trip! A list of planned group excursions may be found here.


A fine centenarian

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I’m usually not one to recommend hotels, but if you do happen to visit Bethlehem in the Christmas season, this is the place to hang your stocking cap. The stately manor at the core of the Jacir-Intercontinental Palace was built in 1910 by a well-to-do Arab Christian family. It is located near Rachel’s Tomb, although one is hard pressed to reach that place from here; Israel’s Great Barrier Wall often makes travel in and out of Bethlehem difficult.

The architecture of the structure is a blend of western and Oriental styles. A citadel-like entrance gives way to a lovely check-in area with a sitting room, a grand piano, and painted ceilings. Beyond this welcome area is an internal courtyard space of three stories.

Over the course of time the Jacir Palace has been a family home, the headquarters for the British army, a hospital, a school for boys, a school for girls, and now a hotel. For more than century it has been a familiar landmark in the community of Bethlehem.

I’ve stayed here only a few times but have always found the rooms, service, and food to be exquisite. I’m no cigar smoker, but if I was, the courtyard would certainly be the place to do it . . . while chatting about things that we gentlemen often chat about: riding, fencing, shooting, boxing, swimming, rowing and dancing.

Okay. You can laugh now.


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We are gearing up for our next walk across Galilee. In January of 2019 we aim to do portions of the Jesus Trail with a small but intrepid group of travelers. I’ll keep you posted. If you are interested in joining another of our 2019 trips, have a look at what we have planned here. If you see something of interest, shoot me an email at markziese@gmail.com. We’ll do our best to accommodate you (although it may not be the Jacir Palace!).

The tree is up!

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The tree is up in Manger Square, Bethlehem!

Actually, its been up for a while. I captured this image a few days after Thanksgiving.

In case you think I’m kidding about the“Manger Square” part, know that it really exists. It is a plaza used for parking and for big events (read Christmas Eve!) in Bethlehem, Palestine. The Square is located directly in front of the Church of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus and the oldest continuously-used church in the world. Now do you get it? “Manger”-square, the Nativity? Ha!

Midnight mass in this plaza on Christmas Eve continues to be an iconic experience. It attracts thousands of worshippers to celebrate, remember, sing, and pray. The gathering is supervised by the Palestinian Authority although access to Bethlehem itself is controlled by the Israeli military.

Compare the Mosque of Omar (on the far right) to the picture I posted the other day (see here).


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Consider this your invitation to participate in a trip of adventure and renewal to the Lands of the Bible in 2019. For a complete list of travel opportunities, see our schedule here. You may also contact me at markziese@gmail.com for more details. We make learning fun, eat good food, sleep in some respectable places, and send you home with memories for a lifetime!

Manger Square mystery?

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I picked up this slide several years ago as part of a anonymous donation to the Cincinnati Christian University. There are no labels so I don’t know the date or place exactly.

I’m guessing this is the plaza known as Manger Square in Bethlehem. The view is toward the west from the area in front of the Church of the Nativity. The minaret is part of the Mosque of Omar and the street running away from the camera is Pope Paul VI.

The mosque confuses me; the lines are different from the mosque seen today. Could this be because the Jordanians renovated the site in the early 1950s? Might that a Jordanian flag on the post?

That’s my best shot. Anyone else have a guess?

If I’ve got it right, the mosque seen here is the one constructed in 1860. It was erected on the footprint of a still earlier structure. According to tradition, the original structure represents the place where Caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattib (7th c AD) prayed when he came to town. Omar was persuaded by a local monk to pray here rather than across the plaza in the Church of the Nativity. The move preserved the church; otherwise it would have likely been converted into a mosque.

Check out the donkeys and the vehicles. Hey, maybe someone can date those vehicles? The donkey?


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A few seats have opened up on our Johnson University Study-Tour to Israel-Palestine slated for March 12-23, 2019. If you are interested in being a part of this high-energy student trip, contact me immediately at markziese@gmail.com. Don’t hesitate. Our roster must be finalized by mid-December. Academic credit is available.




What's the score?

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The concrete wall surrounding Bethlehem is a bitter testimony to one way in which the powerful control the powerless. A little graffiti painted on that concrete suggests another.


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A few seats have opened up on our Johnson University Study-Tour to Israel-Palestine slated for March 12-23, 2019. If you are interested in being a part of this high-energy student trip, contact me immediately at markziese@gmail.com. Don’t hesitate. Our roster must be finalized by mid-December. Academic credit is available.

An enclosed garden

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A few miles southeast of Bethlehem, Palestine, is the village of Artas (or Urtas). It is famous for its springs and watersystems (the so-called Solomon’s Pools) and has a garden-like appearance (see our post to the Wadi Urtas/Artas here). It is a splendid place to escape the heat of a Jerusalem summer.

Just opposite Artas, on wadi slopes, is a convent known by the name al-Banat (“the maidens”). Inside the complex is the Chapel of Hortus conclusus, Latin for “enclosed garden.” The phrase is drawn from the Latin Vulgate’s expressive presentation of the female lover in the Song of Songs.

“You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain” (4:12, NIV).

Christian allegorical interpretations of the Song have linked Mary, the mother of Jesus, to this female character. By miracle, she conceived without having her virginity disturbed. Hence, this notion of a cloister, or the phrase hortus conclusus, has been applied to Mary.

The Convent of al-Banat was founded in 1894 by the Italian Order of the Sisters of Mary of the Garden. Local tradition links the site with a garden of King Solomon.


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A few seats have opened up on our Johnson University Study-Tour to Israel-Palestine slated for March 12-23, 2019. If you are interested in being a part of this high-energy student trip, contact me immediately at markziese@gmail.com. Don’t hesitate. Our roster must be finalized by mid-December. Academic credit is available.

Getting ready for Christmas

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Holy space is strictly arranged in Eastern Orthodox churches. The center part of the building, where the faithful sit or stand, is distinct from the sanctuary, the place of the priests and the altar. Between the nave and the sanctuary is a wall-like structure or iconostasis. Lurking in the word iconostasis is the word icon, a term used of images or depictions. These are often attached to the wall and add to its ornate appearance.

Physically the iconostasis stands between these special spaces although theologically, the iconostasis is considered to be a point of connection. Icons depict saints, apostles, and Christ himself, personalities who unite believers to their God. Doors in the iconostasis allow passage for the priests. A gap left between the top of the iconostasis and the ceiling allows for the communication of words and song.

I’m thinking about such things today as I stand in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (Palestine). Pictured here is the iconostasis in the Greek Orthodox portion of the building. Just below the sanctuary is a cave. Reliable traditions suggests that Jesus was born in this cave.

It is a good place to be with Christmas around the corner!


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I’m in Israel-Palestine right now with a group from Chantilly, Virginia. Today we visited Bethlehem and Beit Sahour, sites associated with the story of the birth of Jesus.

Consider this your invitation to participate in a trip of adventure and renewal. For a complete list of travel opportunities, see our 2019 schedule here. Contact me at markziese@gmail.com if interested.

Vanitas motif

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This statue of Saint Jerome (Hieronymus in Latin) stands on a pedestal near the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine. In life (AD 347-420) Jerome spent many years here, dwelling in the cave where Jesus was born. In that cave he prayed, mentored others, wrote letters, and translated Scripture.

Jerome is often pictured with a human skull nearby. Is this because translation work will kill you? No. It is a vanitas motif: an artistic element suggesting that the things of this world are temporary at best. Death is a inevitable reality that the living must take to heart. It is a common motif in classical presentations of Jerome.

Behind his statue is the façade of the Church of Saint Catherine. This building serves the Catholic parish in Bethlehem.

This photograph was taken by Bible Land Explorer YongLan Ye.


Dr. Mark Ziese, Dean of the School of Bible and Theology at Johnson University, manages the website Bible Land Explorer and teaches regularly in the Biblical heartland. You are invited to join Mark and Vicki for a Mediterranean Cruise aboard the Celebrity Reflection in October, 2018. Onboard lectures will focus on Paul's fourth missionary journey. See the link here for details.

Jumbo pool noodles?

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The waterpark at the base of the Herodium (Jabal al-Fureidis > "Paradise Mountain") is extravagant.

Begin by acknowledging that the site chosen as a pleasure palace by Herod the Great (the baby-killer of the Christmas story) is located on the edge of the Judean Wilderness. Water is in short supply here.

Add to this context an engineering effort that constructed a reservoir twice that of an Olympic-size swimming pool. It was 10 feet deep! In the center was a circular island, likely presented in a classical tholos design. One could swim or even boat to the island in such a desert "lake."

Finish it by surrounding the installation with courtyards. These culminated in rows of columns with Ionic capitals and stucco painted walls.

I wonder where they kept the jumbo pool noodles?

This is extravagance. First century Herodian extravagance.


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Interested in visiting Israel/Palestine yourself?  Pastors, professors, and their spouses are invited to participate in a unique experience. Join us Jan 8-15, 2019, for a rich engagement with the Land of the Bible. Priced at a deep-discount level, this trip introduces leaders to the potential and pitfalls of organized travel.

A presidential visit

We go to Bethlehem; President Trump goes to Jerusalem. We go to Jerusalem; President Trump goes to Bethlehem. You get a sense of it. It wasn't that bad, but we did get a little nervy on the morning Trump was scheduled to pass through the Israeli-built "separation barrier." We discovered that the road in front of our hotel had been sealed off in the night. Palestinian special forces were stationed every 25 meters for as far as the eye could see. Bottom line: we did manage to escape ahead of Trump's entourage, but only after the hotel staff opened a garden gate in the rear of the property. We walked a few blocks and eventually connected with our driver who found a back door out of town.

Yes Virginia, St Nick was in Bethlehem

I pulled on my pack and took an evening hike from downtown Bethlehem to the neighboring village of Beit Jala. There, on the slopes of one of the highest elevated points in old Judea stands a church dedicated to the memory of St. Nicholas. A dome and steeple, crowned in gold, mark the spot. Tradition has it that before he was a jolly giver of gifts, St Nick was a third century hermit. Greek Orthodox believers claim he spent time in worship here, near the place of Jesus's birth. 

Biblically, it has been proposed that Beit Jala is Giloh, the hometown of Ahithophel (2 Sam 15:12).