Shortly after we left Bethlehem, they closed it down. If our journey had been a week later, we would probably still be there, stranded by the coronavirus. We would not even be able to wander round the rather beautiful Church of the Nativity – the oldest church in the country – because it is now locked. Manger Square, I would imagine, is open, because you can’t really close it.
I didn’t catch the coronavirus in Bethlehem, but I did get a rather nasty bout of diarrhoea and had to miss our group’s visit to Old Jerusalem. Annoying, but it could have been worse. I recovered sufficiently to get home in relative comfort.
Funny place, the Holy Land. Who would have guessed that Bethlehem actually adjoins Jerusalem? There is no countryside between – just a checkpoint and a wall. Bethlehem is in Palestine, whereas Jerusalem is mostly in Israel.
We spent quite a bit of time in Palestine (or the Palestinian Territories, or the West Bank), and mostly you wouldn’t know the difference, but of course differences are not always visible. Freedom of movement is not visible. Human rights are not visible.
I’m note sure what I expected in terms of the biblical sites, which were the main reason for our pilgrimage. Basically, if you could build a church on something, there was a church there – or two, or three. This did not really help. The only place they didn’t seem to have built a church was on Lake Galilee, which was as lovely as I expected.
But the most beautiful site was Caesarea Philippi, on the edge of the Golan Heights, almost within arm’s length of both Lebanon and Syria. A low ridge, a huge cave, sparkling water, acres of Roman remains – what more could you want? It is said to be the site where Jesus asked Peter who he thought Jesus was, and Peter’s reply – “You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God” – gains extra power when you realise that they were surrounded by temples to Roman deities and a cave that was supposed to be the entrance to hell.
I suppose what stuck in my mind was not so much the sites – though many were striking – but the distance between them. We are sort of used to the idea of Jesus wandering around, preaching and healing, but he had to make some pretty serious treks. Nazareth may be only three or four miles from Cana, but it’s about 70 miles from Jerusalem and 25 miles from Capernaum, which itself is about 90 miles from Jerusalem. Caesarea Philippi is about 125 miles.
And it’s not just distance. Practically everywhere we went was accessed by steps: it’s a very up-and-down country. The 15-mile road from Jerusalem to Jericho – setting for the parable of the Good Samaritan – drops about 3300 feet – higher than the highest mountain in England. Jericho is the lowest city in the world, at nearly 850 feet below sea level. Not an easy commute, on foot.