Just as the biblical three wise men from the East once did, 15 pilgrims have been traveling across field and fountain, moor and mountain to make it to the Christian Holy Land this Christmas Eve.
Journeying more than 900 miles, the pilgrims, representing seven nationalities from four continents, have been walking from Iraq to Bethlehem for the past three months in what is being called the first re-enactment of the expedition of the three kings — or Magi — 2,000 years ago.
The trip, called “The Journey of the Magi,” is being made on camel and on foot, using the original trade routes that connected the Euphrates River in Iraq to the Holy Land in ancient times.
Needless to say, the journey has had its difficult moments. “It is not easy to ride a camel,” said group leader Robin Wainwright, 59, in November. “We count on Jesus.”
This time though, the pilgrims have been bearing not gold, frankincense and myrrh, but a message of peace, brotherhood and community work.
The latter, called “Gifts of the Magi” includes a daily routine of community and humanitarian projects in the countries they traversed including Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
Sponsored by the Holy Land Trust, an American nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting awareness of the Middle East, the trip was launched in late September in three ancient cities — Hamadam in western Iran, once known as Ecbatana and revered as the site of the tomb of the Jewish heroine Esther; Mosul in northern Iraq, across the Tigris River from the ruins of Nineveh; and Muqaiyir in southern Iraq, once Ur, the early home of the biblical patriarch Abraham.
However, the pilgrims are also conducting a virtual journey, documenting their trip on a Web site that includes daily journal entries, photos, video clips, message boards and resources for parents and educators.
A Cultural Education
One of the goals of the trip is to expose Western Christians to Arab Christians in the Middle East.
“In the Western world, everything we see in the movies, books and newspapers carries a negative image of both the governments and the people of the Middle East,” said Peter Ryan, a journalist traveling with the group. “The people here are friendly, generous, and hospitable.”
Along the way, the pilgrims also intend to increase their awareness of the current conflict that has gripped the Middle East.
Their message and their destination — Bethlehem — could not have been more timely.
The year 2000 is regarded as the 2,000 anniversary of the birth of Christ, and of the journey of the three wise men who came to honor the baby Jesus.
Bethlehem was expected to be a hub of tourist and holiday activity this anniversary season. But the latest round of conflict, which began in September, has, Grinch-like, stolen Christmas from Bethlehem.
In three months of violence, more than 340 people have died, most of them Palestinians.
Access to Bethlehem — which lies south of Jerusalem in Palestinian territory — is controlled by Israeli troops. Vehicles with Israeli plates are not permitted in Bethlehem and tourists have had to switch to Palestinian taxis or simply make it on foot.
The Grinch Who Stole Christmas
And that’s the least of the Christmas troubles plaguing the town where Jesus is believed to have been born. Palestinian shop owners expecting a record tourist season are faced with a once-popular Christmas destination looking like a ghost town.
Manger Square, one of the most popular areas of the city, lies quiet, as does the Church of the Nativity, a church built at the site that tradition holds as the site of the stable where Jesus was born. Many hotels and shops have shut down.
But on Thursday, Palestinian children gathered in Manger Square to display drawings and posters created in response to the conflict. A small child held a sign reading “Stop bombing Bethlehem.”
The weary pilgrims plan to arrive in Bethlehem on Sunday. Bethlehem quietly waits for their arrival.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.