By Anita Krishan
As I walk through a narrow passage with towering concrete walls lined with watchtowers, cameras and barbed-wire fencing, I get a feeling that I am walking into a prison. I shudder, wondering whether I would be back in a few hours as my tour guide had made me believe. After all, I’m in one of the most disputed territories in the world – the West Bank. Thousands have died in the wars and terrorist attacks in the region.
My passport is held in my right hand, open on the relevant page. The scrutiny of two eyes, a crisp click, and I’m past the window of a grim-faced young man in the military fatigue of the Israel Army. At the end of the dingy passage, I reach open ground.
It is once again completely surrounded by barbed wires, and I perceive the distrust and conflicts we humans are so adept at creating. Such walls and boundaries exist everywhere on our planet and are projections of our selfishness and egotism. I wonder when the concepts of peace and cooperation will be adopted by us.
Even after so many wars, destruction on a colossal scale, and the holocaust, the human race is still far away from harmonious coexistence.
I have crossed over from one country into another, each waging war against the other ever since the independent State of Israel was declared in 1948. Palestinians have refused to recognise Israel or even negotiate any peace process with it. The result: death, destruction, displacement of people, terrorist attacks, and misery for the common man who lives on the edge every day.
These reflections are so incongruous to the purpose of my visit. I am at one of the world’s holiest places: Bethlehem – Jesus Christ’s birthplace. My reaction to the place clashes with the spiritual disposition I started this tour with. My mind toils with these thoughts while I wait for my husband. The graffiti on the walls begins to somewhat distract me. It is mostly dedicated to the political situation between Israel and Palestine.
Our tour guide in Jerusalem had dropped us at Israel’s border. We were assured that a guide would pick us up at Bethlehem. His promise is validated the moment we step out, as a Palestinian man accosts us. “I’m the guide for your half-day tour of Bethlehem,” he announces. I am impressed by the perfect synchronisation between the tour operators of the two enemy countries. “You’ll have no problem with your Indian passport. Only Israeli citizens are not allowed to cross over,” our guide, Amir Naser, responds to my query. My paranoia mysteriously evaporates as we walk out of the prison–like conditions.
Once inside the holy city—the vibrant and beautiful Bethlehem—my peace returns. The aura created by the multitude of worshipers, praying with single-minded devotion, has its effect on the ambience. About one million foreign nationals visit Bethlehem every year. We drive through the busy streets. At the Manger Square, the crowds are unbelievable. “Mostly tourists,” Amir announces. This must be a tourist friendly and safe city, I think, and feel absolutely at ease. The atmosphere and religious fervour starts to have its effect on me too.
The Grotto of the Lady Mary
We begin by visiting the chapel ‘Grotto of the Lady Mary’, commonly known as the ‘Milk Grotto Chapel’, tucked behind the Nativity Square. We walk through the Milk Grotto Street and up a gentle slope to reach the chapel. Some believe that it was here that Jesus Christ was born in a manger. According to a biblical legend, while nursing Baby Jesus, a few drops of Mother Mary’s milk fell on the rocks, turning the colour of the soft limestone from its yellowish–brown to a creamy white. We walk through the Franciscan chapel, and down the steps, to reach the caves hollowed out of soft white rock. The beauty down here is stunning. There are figurines of Mother Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus tucked in crooks, in hidden corners where one can sit in calm retrospection, and the impeccable lighting makes the whole experience simply overwhelming.
The Church of Nativity
Once out of the sacred chapel, we have a quick glimpse of ‘The Shepherds Fields’ that surround the area and move on towards the main cathedral, the Church of Nativity. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the oldest churches in the world, and is built above the cave where, according to Christian beliefs since the second century, Jesus Christ was born. The Church is managed by Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic authorities. It is beautiful and ornate. The aura of sanctity, the heady fragrance of burning incense escaping from the priests’ censers, the resonating chants of hymns, it all coaxes me into tranquil submission.
Queues and queues of people are waiting patiently to visit the holy ground of Christ’s birth. “At times, people have to wait for as long as five hours to reach the holy spot,” Amir proclaims. He’s right. I had met a couple at the hotel the previous day who had spent four hours waiting. But they had taken a full day tour. “We don’t have that much time! We must head back in an hour and a half, at the most.” Amir senses my disappointment and smiles. He directs us to follow him. We are his obedient pupils. Criss-crossing through narrow corridors, and then briskly down an ancient looking staircase at the back of the cathedral, we reach a small door. Amir knocks, and a priest peeps out and smiles at Amir.
We are ushered in and directed towards a spot marked by a silver star on the floor. It has a Latin inscription: ‘Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ was born–1717’.
I am overtaken by extreme emotion. I can’t believe that I am at one of the holiest spots in the world. I bend down to touch the star.
Once out, I realise that we had taken a sensible decision while taking a half-day tour; the decision influenced by a paucity of time. After purchasing crosses and manger replicas at a souvenir shop for my Christian friends, we are dropped at the Israeli check post. I walk through it without any trepidation this time.
The Old City of Jerusalem
We are picked up on the other side of the West Bank and in half an hour dropped at the foot of the small hill on which is situated the old city of Jerusalem. We walk up through the old cobbled stone streets, through ancient-looking narrow gates, and into the heart of the city. We only have time to visit a few selected sites here. We head for the church of the Holy Sepulchre, the site of the last journey of Jesus of Nazareth; where he was crucified and buried, and rose again on the morning of Easter Sunday.
As I walk up through the cobbled stone street, I begin to visualise the track when Jesus Christ had walked on it, carrying the cross. Scenes from the movie ‘The Passion of the Christ’ begin to float in my head and my steps slow down. My heart is bogged down by human cruelty and mercilessness.
Once inside the church, we reach the Greek Orthodox section, and we head towards the altar and the sepulchre. Its decors are ornate, colourful, and rich . . . golden, silver and reds. As I touch the holy tomb, I experience strange inexplicable emotions.
Close to the tomb, many pilgrims are hovering around a cracked stone slab. I come to know that this was installed in 1555, and it is believed that it was on this slab that Jesus’ body was laid after it was taken off the cross and anointed. A vase with candles marks the spot where his head had rested. Some historians claim that the slab was purposefully cracked to discourage the Ottoman looters, while others believe that it was excavated in this state. I notice a few ladies rubbing their hands on it. On closer examination, I realise they are holding pieces of jewellery; a bracelet or a necklace. I am suddenly overtaken by an impulse. I remove my wedding ring and rub it on the slab and then it goes back on my finger.
A quick visit to the Wailing Wall and the Al Aqsa mosque, and our tired legs suggest that we retreat to our hotel.
The Dead Sea
The next day we visit the Dead Sea. I am quite eager to experience floating in this hypersaline lake, having salinity 8.6 times more than normal ocean waters. “It’ll be fun to sit and read a book in the buoyant water,” I tell Arvind.
Once inside this lake, which is 50 Kilometres long and 15 Kilometres at its widest point, I decide to get some beauty treatment with the famous Dead Sea salts, and scoop up a handful of mud to rub on my skin. In the process, my ring slips off my finger and falls into the waist-deep sea. I can’t see through the water. I dive after it and begin a frantic search mission. My desperation mounts after a few minutes of futile hunting that also results in dark, intensely muddy water surrounding me. There is no way I can see the floor of the sea to find my ring now. I’ve also badly disturbed the pebbles, rocks and mud by now. I abandon my search and stand limp and disheartened in the water. Arvind is watching me from a distance and wondering what I am up to. He’s enjoying floating, and he signals me to come join him. I smile weakly at him. I’ll have to later confess that I lost my diamond wedding ring in the Dead Sea.
I have never believed in miracles, but this time, I silently pray. “One last time, God, and then the ring is yours.” I bend and scoop up a handful. I can’t believe my eyes! The ring is sitting on top of the scooped mud and gravel, shinier than before. And as I gaze at my cupped hands in amazement, my eyes fill up with tears.
Anita Krishan is a published author, an ardent poet, educationist, and environmentalist.