Tour 4 - South from Jerusalem
Church of the Nativity - Milk Grotto - Bethlehem Bazaar - Rachel's Tomb - Herodion - Solomon's Pools - Hebron - Cave of Machpelah - Mamre - Beersheba - Negev - Eilat
In what follows I assume that you have your own transport, preferably in the form of a hire car. It is quite possible to use a taxi, sherut or even public bus but these are not as convenient and, in the case of a taxi, probably more expensive. The only advantage to a taxi is that you will not be troubled with finding your way or with parking. Wheel clamping is a popular pastime for Israeli police and they make no exceptions for tourists.
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is possibly even more popular than the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, so you should plan to be there as early as possible — 8.30 am would not be too soon. If they won't let you in that early at least you will be first in the queue.
The description here assumes that it is possible to visit these various sites. Since the Jews built the ghetto wall it is not possible to take a private car into Bethlehem or beyond and foolish to even think of taking a hire car with Jewish number plates in. Even travel by public transport is difficult. In addition the Jewish border guards will do all they can to make the visit as unpleasant as possible - presumably to "punish" you for daring to visit a site in Arab territory. You would be well advised to consult Dakkak's over this trip and accept any organised tour they can arrange.
Start from the Jaffa Gate and go downhill into the Valley of Hinnom. As you cross the bridge at the bottom note the field on your right. This is supposed to be Aceldama, the Potter's Field, bought with the 30 pieces of silver that Judas threw down in the temple. In earlier times the tree on which Judas hung himself could be seen (at various locations throughout the city) but sceptical tourists, as opposed to gullible pilgrims, have quenched such pious tales.
This valley gave rise to the Jewish concept of hell, for in Hebrew "Valley of Hinnom" is ge hinnom, more usually rendered as Gehenna. (Islam has copied the idea, for the Arabic word for hell is jehunnam.) Because of a tradition that idolatrous Jews burned their children in this valley, Gehenna became the rubbish dump for ancient Jerusalem. Slow moving fires ate their way through the ever-growing mounds of rubbish and dead animals, while rats scurried among the filth. This gave rise to such vivid word pictures as that in Isaiah 66:24. "They will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me: their worm will not die nor will their fire be quenched and they will be loathsome to all mankind."
Bethlehem is only about eight miles from Jerusalem and the road is quite good so the trip shouldn't take too long (Israelis permitting). Notice, away on your left, an odd shaped hill, like a cone with its tip cut off. This is the Herodion, Herod's fortress cum tomb. He cut the top off the adjacent hill in order to build up this one — which was quite a feat in the days before bulldozers.
In Bethlehem find parking as close to Manger Square as possible. Directly opposite you is the Church of the Nativity, one of the few buildings left standing in Palestine when the Persians invaded in 614 AD, supposedly because a mosaic inside the building depicted the three wise men as Persian magi. According to the legend, the Persians recognised the clothing on the magi and so spared the building. This event was quoted in a ninth century Jerusalem synod to show that God approved of images!
The main doorway has been blocked up to prevent Muslims driving carts into the church. Although the Church of the Nativity was saved by local Muslims in the time of Caliph al-Hakim — since the time of Omar they had been allowed to use the south transept as a mosque — after the Crusades there was less toleration on both sides. The church was systematically looted and much of the marble in the Haram in Jerusalem was taken from this building.
Inside the church notice the oak beams in the roof, which were presented by Edward IV of England. There are trap-doors in the floor of the nave, beneath which you can see mosaics from the original floor level.
There is more mosaic on the walls of the nave. The north wall displayed extracts from various provincial and ecumenical councils while the west wall consisted of a huge Jesse tree on whose branches sat prophets holding texts from their writings which foretold the birth of the Messiah. Very little remains of these decorations.
Notice the strips of matting on the floor. These are not, as you might think, to provide comfort for the worshippers. Like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Church of the Nativity is jointly owned by a variety of denominations whose areas of influence and routes for processions are marked out by these carpets. On more than one occasion Muslim (or Jewish since 1967) police have had to enter the building in full riot gear, to quell the blood-letting going on inside between robed clerics and their acolytes, because somebody has swept up a piece of litter in an area that belonged to another group.
Such goings-on are, of course, a disgrace, but before we leap to condemn let us try to imagine how we would behave if Mormons or Witnesses built a church right next door to one of our churches. While I hope that we would avoid rioting, I rather suspect that we would view any encroachment on our property with the gravest suspicion. Regrettably, while Catholic and Protestant have learned a degree of mutual respect and toleration, the various Orthodox groups remain fiercely intolerant and fervently believe that all non-Orthodox - or even all non-their particular branch of Orthodox - are going to eternal and fiery damnation.
Justin Martyr, who lived about 150 AD and seems to have visited the Holy Land, is the first to report (Dialogue with Trypho 78) that Jesus was born in a cave in Bethlehem rather than the traditional stable. To find that cave go down the nave to the right-hand side of the high altar where you will find a small staircase on the left leading down through a narrow door to the actual Grotto of the Nativity. At the bottom on the left, behind what looks like (and probably is) chicken wire, is the crib or site of the crib.
On your right there is a star set into the floor which marks the actual birthplace. The hole in the middle of the star holds a peculiar sanctity and if you stay until the tourists arrive you may well see the more superstitious inserting their souvenirs into the hole for a blessing. I remember watching with amusement a pair of very sweet American nuns going through this ritual with a large shopping bag of gift-wrapped souvenirs, a process which took some time. The last item was a bulky object about the size of a shoe-box, which would not fit in the hole. There was hurried whispered consultation and then each of the eight corners was jammed into the hole in turn — with the utmost reverence, I might add — presumably to soak up the blessing like a sponge.< /p>
If possible go out of the grotto by the stairs opposite the ones you came down, otherwise walk round the high altar to the other side of the nave. This will bring you out to the Catholic part of the church, altogether lighter and cleaner looking than the Orthodox part. A straight staircase on the right descends to the Cave of the Innocents (behind glass) where the bodies of the children slain by Herod were cast.
Immediately opposite this is another room where Jerome translated the Bible into Latin, the basis of the Vulgate version so favoured by the Catholic church. This is probably the only genuine site in town. The so-called tombs of Jerome, Eustochia and Paula are entirely without historical value.
Return to Manger Square and stand facing the church. A street runs down the right-hand side of the church and on the right, some distance beyond the Church of the Nativity, is the Milk Grotto. A life-size, garishly coloured statue depicts the event the church commemorates. Apparently the Virgin, while feeding Baby Jesus, spilled a drop of milk which instantly turned the grotto white. The fact that all the Judean hills are white limestone is one of those curious coincidences about which only a hardened sceptic would think twice.
When I was here in 1958 little packets of powdered "milk of the Virgin" were on sale in the church and a large notice told the story and informed you that purchasers got so many days off Purgatory. Naturally I, as a wicked Protestant, invested heavily in this marvellous grace. When I returned in 1967 tourism had started and tourists tend to be slightly (but only slightly) less gullible than pilgrims. The story was still there but the packets of limestone powder were hidden away behind a curtain. Last time I was there the notice told the story as something which "some people believe", and the powdered milk was entirely absent.
Return to Manger Square and stand with your back to the church. Facing you on the right is the street leading up to the market. About 100 yards up the street on the left is the antiques shop owned by Kando, the man who bought the Dead Sea scrolls from the beduin in 1947. If you enter you will be served by Kando's son, who still carries on his father's business.
WARNING. The natives here are not friendly. I myself have not had trouble but others I know have had tear gas or similar thrown in their faces. Ladies in particular should not venture up this street alone. Bethlehem, like Nazareth, used to be a Christian town and although the inhabitants were not angels, at least it was friendlier, cleaner and more honest than the surrounding towns. Unfortunately the Muslim population is growing faster than either Jews or Christians, owing in part to greater get-up-and-go on the part of the Palestinian Christians who are leaving in droves for a better life in the West, and is rapidly taking over both towns, with the result that both are becoming less friendly, clean and honest. It is very much to the disgrace of Islam that dishonesty, filth and suspicion should be so closely associated with a religion that otherwise has many fine points.
The traditional souvenir from Bethlehem is a mother-of-pearl brooch with the Star of Bethlehem motif. Olive wood has beautiful grain and many olive wood souvenirs are attractive, but most objects, including the strings of camels so favoured by visitors, are mass-produced in a back room up the street. One wouldn't mind except that they are horribly crude and badly finished.
While you are in the shop ask for advice about visiting the Shepherds' Fields, of which there are three, Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant. It's no good asking an Israeli policeman or tourist officer. He will infallibly assure you that you can go anywhere in Israel. This is undoubtedly true. The trouble is that during the intifada there are a number of places where you will need an armed escort to be sure of coming back.
I remember being in the Jerusalem police station one evening and being assured that I could go anywhere in perfect safety. Right next to me a group of bloodied tourists, injured in a stone-throwing incident on a coach tour, were waiting to be interviewed! You should be aware that a hire-car with "Budget" written all over it is an open invitation to be stoned — and you will probably find somewhere in the small print of the hire agreement a clause stating that you have to pay for the damage, despite the fact that the hire car company will also assure you that you can go anywhere in Israel.
If you can't get to the Shepherds' Fields don't mourn overmuch. Just take a photograph of any convenient field on your way back. Unless you have something identifiable on the skyline no one will be able to tell the difference.
Incidentally, if you should happen to be in Bethlehem at Christmas be prepared for snow! Thanks to global warming, modern winters see less snow than previous years, when six foot drifts could accumulate and every rock be glazed with ice. On December 25 any sensible shepherd would have been snug at home, his sheep gathered around him in his living room. For the same reason neither Herod nor the Romans would have ordered the nation-wide census at this time. The most likely season for a census — and the resultant birth date of Jesus — would have been just before the first crops were planted or after the harvest was gathered in.
Go back to your car and leave Bethlehem. Near the junction where you re-join the main road you will see a small domed building surrounded by barbed wire and concrete blast deflectors, and signposted as the Tomb of Rachel. There are two rooms, in the second of which is a large, cloth-covered "tomb" typical of the east. The actual grave may be in a basement far below the tomb but this cloth covered cenotaph is where you pay your respects. (Do things in this order to escape the crowds of tourists in the Church of the Nativity. Very few of them make it to Rachel's Tomb, so you can safely postpone your visit here until later in the day.)
If possible, hang around until some Jewish women come to "weep for Rachel". Last time I was there a group of laughing women approached, chattering like magpies. As they entered the antechamber they fell silent; as they came through the doorway into the tomb chamber they started to weep loudly with high-pitched keening, tears rolling profusely down their cheeks. Five minutes later they dried their eyes, walked out into the antechamber and began chatting merrily again.
The Herodion is well worth a visit, but accept local advice about the safest time to visit. Morning, when stone-throwing small boys are in school, is usually best. You climb up to the top of the hill and find yourself looking down on a perfectly symmetrical round castle, apparently excavated out of the top of the hill. Herod's palace, complete with mikveh (the old rogue was a scrupulous Jew when it suited him), has been excavated but archaeologists did not find his tomb until 2007. The place was used as a fortress by Bar Kokhba and heavily damaged by Roman siege engines in consequence. It is possible that Bar Kokhba found and looted the tomb as a way of getting Herod to repay his debt to the Jewish nation.
Either the Zealots at the time of the first revolt or Bar Kokhba's men turned the magnificent dining room into a synagogue with benches around the walls. The Zealots may also have been responsible for the small mikveh just outside the synagogue. Byzantine monks turned the hot room of the Roman baths into cells and a bakery and built a chapel in the courtyard outside.
Recent explorations at the Herodion have turned up an extensive system of underground tunnels, dug at about the level of the original hilltop. Where they pass through the artificial part of the mound the tunnels are shored up with timber frames. One tunnel, from the palace to the lower cisterns, was probably dug in 66 AD, the rest date from 132 AD, Bar Kokhba's revolt. They strengthened the defences by enabling the Jews to pass from one part of the palace to the other without exposing themselves to the outside, or to emerge unexpectedly to attack the Romans. Much of the dirt from these tunnels was dumped in Herod's cisterns, to prevent the Romans seeing what was being done. Access to these tunnels can usually be arranged at the kiosk where you purchase your ticket.
From the top of the hill you can make out the foundations of Herod's large palace, complete with racecourse and swimming pool. The road up to the Herodion actually passes through the pool, in which there was a small, circular pavilion.
From Bethlehem you can also (intifada permitting) visit Mar Saba, the most famous of the desert monasteries in Palestine. Follow the road past the Catholic Shepherds' Field and hope for road signs. Bishop Pike, the controversial American who believed in spiritualism, took a wrong turning looking for this monastery and ended up dying of thirst. If you get stuck and die of thirst, well, I did warn you to carry plenty of water. Women are not admitted to the monastery.
In present circumstances I do not advise a private visit to Hebron but local people will be able to give you current advice, which it would be wise to take. There is a settlement of militant Jews in Hebron who tend to treat the Arabs like dirt. Not unnaturally the Arabs resent this and tension runs high. The situation was exacerbated by the "Hebron massacre" when one of these militant Jews felt that his patriotism could be best expressed by running amok with a machine gun during prayers in the mosque. The international outcry that followed forced the Israeli government to implement the plan of granting autonomy to Jericho and Gaza, over which they had been dragging their feet. Shortly thereafter another of these militant Jews shot the prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.
On the way to Hebron (if you go) look out for Solomon's Pools, on the left-hand side of the road where it goes round a sharp bend to the right. The pools are three reservoirs that supplied the temple with water via a couple of aqueducts and may be the pools mentioned in the Song of Solomon.
The hills around Bethlehem are slightly higher than Jerusalem and were therefore tapped in antiquity for their water. The so-called High-level aqueduct starts at Ain Wadi el-Biar and flows through a tunnel 870m long, to emerge half a mile south of Solomon's Pools. It passes through the upper pool and from there it follows the contours past the western outskirts of Bethlehem and Mar Elias, finally vanishing just beyond Ramat Rahel.
The Low-level aqueduct starts much further south at Ain Kuzibeh and follows a tortuous route around the contours of every wadi on the way to Jerusalem. At one point it nearly touches the High-level aqueduct, for the Low-level one flows through the lowest of Solomon's Pools before skirting round the east side of Bethlehem. It vanishes just before it reaches the Kidron Valley. A branch channel leads off from this aqueduct to the Herodion.
To give you some idea of the engineering skill involved, the High-level aqueduct starts off at a point 820m above sea level and supplied water to the Temple mount, which is 750m. To cover a distance of 20 kilometres the aqueduct travels 68 kilometres, which gives a mean gradient of 1%. The first 44 kilometres of the Low-level aqueduct (from source to Solomon's Pools) fall a mere 20m, a gradient of 0.45% — and as the crow flies the distance is just 8 kilometres! How the ancient surveyors managed to calculate and maintain these minute angles using their primitive instruments we simply do not know.
We also do not know for certain who built these two aqueducts, but it is likely that the High-level one was built by Herod. Pilate may have been responsible for the Low-level one, using money taken from the Corban fund. Stone "pipes" — socketed rectangles with a round hole bored through the middle — can be seen still in position in a field north-west of Bethlehem, where they formed a siphon over a hill.
There are only two places to visit in Hebron: the Cave of Machpelah and Mamre. The famous oak of Mamre is indeed an ancient tree but most certainly does not reach back to the time of Abraham. It stands below the town in a walled enclosure overgrown with weeds of the prickly variety and really is not worth the time and trouble to visit.
The Cave of Machpelah is enclosed within the el-Khalil mosque (khalil means "friend" and Abraham is known in Arabic as "the friend"), which is built on Herodian foundations, and is not open to visitors. Indeed for a long time the mosque itself was closed to non-Muslims but of course that had to change when the Israelis took over. Tradition says that the Crusaders entered the cave and found the mouldering bones of the patriarchs. They reverently washed the bones in wine, replaced them in the cave and then sealed it with heavy iron clamps which are still in place. Prosaic Israeli archaeologists who entered the cave after the Six-day War found a lot of dust and mould but very little else.
The modern visitor does not enter the actual mosque; the entrance to the cave is sited inside a Herodian courtyard. As you pass through the doorway the cenotaph of Sarah is immediately in front of you with that of Abraham beyond it. Between the two is a modern synagogue. On the right are the cenotaphs of Leah and Jacob. The slightly smaller memorials through the doorway on your left are those of Rebecca and Isaac.
A small cupola just outside the cenotaph of Abraham covers the entrance to the cave, a steep flight of stairs built by Augustinian Canons sometime after 1119 AD. At the bottom, the Israelis report, a narrow corridor leads to a square chamber which has probably been built inside the larger cave. Pilgrims could view this chamber up until Mameluke times when it was blocked because of a superstitious fear of disturbing the spirit of Abraham.
There is a dusty cave somewhere in the town that is claimed by the local Jews to be the grave of Othniel the Kenite. The discerning visitor will know what to make of such a claim.
Having come this far it is tempting to continue on to Beersheba. The road is fairly good, the distance is not great and there are only a few Arab villages along the road. Last time I came this way, in a hired car driven by a friend, a hobbled donkey was chased across the road at the entrance to one village. I would have swerved round the animal and continued on my way but my friend, brought up to the niceties of British driving, stopped. Immediately stones the size of grapefruit started to shower down around us. I shouted to my friend to drive on and after a tense moment while his mind grappled with the situation — sad-looking donkey in front, knobbly-looking stones behind — he did so.
Only our guardian angel and the fact that the Arabs were throwing blind from behind a wall saved us from harm. As we drove out the other side of the village we passed a spot where the road was littered with stones, some the size of footballs, and quantities of broken windscreen. Presumably the people in that car were not so lucky or the road-block was more substantial and less easily avoided.
If you must follow this direct route - and I do not recommend it - drive very fast and stop for nothing. If you are forced to stop, reverse like crazy for at least 100 yards to assess the situation from relative safety. Beersheba is best approached from the coast along a good dual carriageway that runs through Arab-free desert.
Beersheba holds the famous Well of the Covenant, an ancient, stone-lined well whose lip is lined with stones that have been deeply scored by ropes over the ages. When I first visited Beersheba this well stood in open ground in the middle of the weekly camel market and was still in daily use. Last time I couldn't find the camel market and after wrestling with the fiendish one-way system for about half an hour I finally found someone in a car hire place who spoke moderate English. She directed me to a restaurant owned by a Jew who has incorporated the well in the out-door part of his eating house. Hidden behind bars and covered by a rustic arch, the poor thing is a mere shadow of its former self and hardly worth the trouble of visiting the place.
To the north of modern Beersheba is the tel of ancient Beersheba, which these days is better value for tourist money. A cobbled road in remarkable condition leads up to the gates, beside which stands a very deep well, (which may be the well mentioned in the Bible, rather than the one in the camel market). Go through the gate and on the left notice the plastered bench that ran round three walls of a room built into the gateway. Boaz would have sat in a similar room when he bargained for the right to redeem Ruth. Further on there are mud-brick walls standing 6-8 feet high, none of which will last long. These finds are so impressive, so well-preserved and so liable to damage from erosion that they deserve to be protected.
Notice the plaster-lined glacis visible in the sides of the trench that has been dug in the side of the tel. Traditionally such glacis have been attributed to the Hyksos but if Velikovsky's proposed re-dating of the Exodus to the Middle Bronze era is correct this attribution may need to be re-evaluated.
The excavators discovered an Israelite shrine with a horned altar made of blocks of carved stone. This, of course, contravenes God's command that His altars should not be carved but built of undressed stones.
This whole area is known as the Negev or the South. There are a variety of ancient sites to be visited here, such as Arad, the ascent of Akrabim and, of course, Masada. If you do approach Masada from this side you will be able to climb up the Roman sie ge ramp and will also be in prime position for the son et lumiere show (if it is on and in English), but the drive is long and difficult over poor roads and Masada is probably better reached from the Dead Sea side.
One interesting site is Kuntillet Ajrud, a ruin about thirty miles south of Kadesh-barnea. Inscriptions found on the site included dedications to "Yahweh and his Asherah", which may be rendered as "Yahweh and his wife"! Other inscriptions referred to Yahweh, Baal and El. It's nice to know that these people were faithful to Yahweh, even if they did endow Him with a wife.
Of course there is always Eilat with King Solomon's Mines. Unfortunately Nelson Glueck's identification of some ruins there as the place where Solomon smelted copper has not stood the test of time and investigation. Undoubtedly Solomon had a port somewhere in this area but those dramatic cliffs that you see in all the photographs have nothing to do with the Bible.
About the only thing of interest is a small temple or shrine that was dug up at Timna, (not to be confused with Delilah's home town) about twelve miles north of Eilat. This was originally an Egyptian temple to Hathor but was later adapted by Midianites into a shrine that is claimed to have remarkable parallels to the Israelite sanctuary. (See the plan and make up your own mind! Wishful thinking isn't restricted to starry-eyed dumb blondes by any means.) The excavators found a tiny gilded copper snake with ruby eyes which they hailed as some sort of confirmation of the "serpent in the wilderness" story, but of course it is nothing of the kind. It merely demonstrates what we already know from other sources, that many people in the ancient Middle East venerated the snake.
If you have time to spare, an interesting excursion is to cross the border into Egypt at Tabah and go about eight miles south to the romantic Jezirat al-Farun. This tiny island is no more than half a mile off-shore and is thought by some to be the Ezion-geber where Solomon had his merchant fleet. In more modern times it was captured by Renauld de Chatillon and used as a base for his raid on pilgrim traffic in the Red Sea. The fortifications that surround the island are partly Muslim, partly Crusader and partly modern.
With even more time you can visit Sinai, but in the first place that is outside the scope of this book and in the second place I feel that Sinai is best approached as the Israelites did, from Egypt and the west. The road from Nuweiba to Sinai is pretty tame.
Of course Eilat is a pleasant spot to swim, snorkel and get skin cancer, so if that's your scene, head for it. More resolute tourists, keen to visit everything of Biblical interest will head back to Jerusalem for the next tour.
There is also a border crossing between Eilat and Aqaba in Jordan. This makes it possible for you to visit Petra and other sites in Jordan, perhaps returning to Israel via the Jericho crossing. You cannot do this with a hire car, however.