On our fifth and final day in Jerusalem, we headed out to the Damascus Gate to try to find a bus to Bethlehem. During my first year here in Greek school, I was classmates with two Palestinians--a Christian girl and Muslim boy--who grew up together and were themselves close friends.
I had contacted her here in Thessaloniki before we left and it turned out that she was going to be in Bethlehem for the holidays, so we arranged to meet.
Getting to Bethlehem, even though it is only 10 km from Jerusalem, is something of an adventure, though, because it lies with the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. Of course, we were given conflicting information about the best way to get there, and we ended up taking one of the public buses (actually a van). Since it was Saturday, everything Israeli-controlled (including most of the public transportation system) was closed, but somehow there is a parallel portion of the public transportation system run by Palestinians, and that part was open.
So anyway we got on the van which drove us to the checkpoint for the West Bank and then left us. (Some had told us that the bus would go through the checkpoint and take us all the way into Bethlehem.) The van driver motioned for one of his cab driver friends to come over to van and offer us a deal to take us on into Bethlehem. This driver was willing to take us on this 5 minute ride for only 200 shekels (over $25), assuming, I suppose, that we were complete morons. As we walked away, his prices started dropping, but not fast enough.
So we walked through the checkpoint from Israel into the West Bank, which is a mass of very high walls, barbed wire, and machine guns. Above, you can see my dad looking at the graffiti on the walls. I distinctly remember one that read: "Jesus wept for Jerusalem."
Once we reached the other side, there was a huge flock of taxis waiting, and the drivers swarmed us. They offered to take us to all over the place--Mar Saba Monastery, St. George al-Khader Monastery, etc., again at outrageous prices. I wanted to go see Mar Saba, and we had some time before meeting my friend at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, but I couldn't get them to come to a reasonable price, so we asked someone to just take us into Bethlehem. One young taxi driver near the end of the queue volunteered and we were off; the other taxi drivers apparently didn't want to lose their place in line for just a quick, unprofitable ride into Bethlehem.
Once we were in taxi and off, the driver said: "Look, I've been waiting in that line since 6 AM this morning (it was 9:30 then) and I don't want to go back and wait again. How about I take you to Mar Saba for X?" I can't remember exactly how much it was, but after we bargained for a minute, it was a very reasonable price, and we were off.
The road out to the monastery reveals just how desolate the area is. It's just unadorned desert as far as the eye can see. My dad had the taxi driver stop at one point so that he could take a typical photo of the landscape (see above).
There's almost no way we would have found the monastery ourselves in a rented car. They were very narrow, winding roads, and I didn't see any signs in English.
Finally, we arrived at Mar Saba Monastery and the taxi driver agreed to wait for us. The entrance to the monastery is a very small door, and we met this monk (see above) on the other side of the door. Most of the 15-20 monks there are Greek, but we were introduced to one American monk from California. The monk who greeted us at the entrance was very interested in my story as an American convert priest who was studying in Thessaloniki, so I talked to him for awhile. He then pointed us toward the main church, where another Greek monk met us and gave us a tour. Again, this monk was most interested in my story, so I had to tell it again.
Here I am in the cave/cell of St. John of Damascus, where he wrote so many of the church's hymns, services, and treatises defending the faith.
On the left you can see some of the caves in the mountainside that were once home to hundreds of monks.
At bottom in the photo above is an edifice dedicated to St. Sabbas the Sanctified. His incorrupt relics were returned to the monastery by the Roman Catholics in 1965 after nearly 900 years in Italy (they were stolen during the Crusades).
The monastery has an interesting connection to Serbia's own Saint Sava. When St. Sabbas the Sanctified was near his end (6th century), he told the monks to watch for one day in the distant future when an archbishop, a man of God bearing the same name, would come from a far-off western land. The monks were to give this man St. Sabbas' pateritsa (abbot's staff) and an icon of the Panagia. Two hundred years later, St. John of Damascus added his own wonderworking icon of the Panagia Tricherousa (Three Hands) to this inheritance.
When St. Sava of Serbia visited the monastery of his namesake some 700 years after the St. Sabbas' death, the monks had still maintained the prophesy of their founder, and now found its fulfillment in St. Sava of Serbia. This is how the much-revered icon of the Panagia of Three Hands (through which the miracle of the restoration of St. John of Damascus' hand was accomplished) came to reside at the Serbian Hilandar Monastery on Mt. Athos.
Anyway, toward the end of our tour, we ran into an American tourist, who described himself as a doctor with Buddhist leanings. Our tour guide was quite dismayed at this and asked him several questions, which, although his answers were vague, made it seem like part of his family had been Orthodox.
Anyway, we went inside the main church together, and this man was quite moved when the monk showed us the display cases with row after row of skulls of the monastery's monks who had been martyred.
Finally, the monk treated us to a coffee and a loukoumi ("Turkish" delight) and then my dad and I hurried back to our taxi.