They file one by one down the narrow steps, gathering around the hallowed alcove where candles hang. Each tourist reverently touches the silver,
14-point star on the alcove's floor. And then, buoyed by the whole experience, they break into "Silent Night, Holy Night."
This is Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity, more specifically. If you want to get at the core of why we're celebrating a new millennium, this is where you want to be - where tradition has it that Jesus was born about 2,000 years ago.
Bethlehem is preparing for 2 million tourists next year, but it's hardly the only place in the Holy Land expecting an influx of millennial travelers. Throughout Israel and Palestinian areas - as well as Jordan and Egypt - many sites are proclaiming their connection to the millennium.
It doesn't take long to feel the powerful forces that have shaped the region. At nearly every turn - under a hot sun, amid dry sandy plains and bare mountains - travelers tread on places where history has forever changed course. Israel and the West Bank in particular are loaded with so many attractions you could easily spend weeks here and still not see everything.
Fortunately, Israel has the tourism business down to an art, offering everything from hotels at a range of prices to guided tours that not only show you the sites, but make sure you get back on the bus as well.
Make a beeline for Jerusalem
No trip to the Holy Land would be complete without a visit to Jerusalem, a crazy quilt of sites sacred to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This tourist capital bustles with diversity: Visitors come from all sorts of far-flung locales and share space with resident Jews, some in dark suits or modest dresses, and Muslims, many of whose women are identifiable by smooth head coverings.
Although it isn't necessary to wear these traditional clothes, it is best to dress conservatively or risk being denied admission to key sites.
Most of Jerusalem's treasured landmarks are in the walled Old City, which is divided into Armenian, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim quarters. Although the place measures less than half a square mile, allow at least a day to wind through all its nooks and crannies. Everything is accessible by foot - cars aren't permitted for the most part.
To get an overview, you can start at the Citadel, a defensive stronghold for centuries. It houses exhibits about Jerusalem's history and also affords breathtaking views of the Old City and beyond.
Close by is a landmark many millennium travelers will be making a pilgrimage to: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which claims to be the site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. It's also the end point of the Via Dolorosa - the route through the Old City that Jesus is believed to have taken to his crucifixion.
You also won't want to miss a complex on the other side of the Old City. Here is the holiest site in Judaism, the Western ("Wailing") Wall. Practically on top of it is the Dome of the Rock, a mosque renowned for its dazzling golden top and colorful mosaics. It's the traditional site where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son and the Prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven.
Amid all these hallowed places where emotions can run high, security can be extremely tight. Expect your bags to be searched to gain entry to many places, and don't be too fazed by the number of machine guns hanging loosely around soldiers' necks. Even more precautions will be in place during the coming year.
An ideal way to see other locales in the Holy Land is by tour bus. It can be reassuring to have a multilingual guide lead the way, even though English is widely spoken and is used in conjunction with Hebrew and sometimes Arabic on many signs (and menus).
"They do a good job of counting everybody and making sure everyone is with the group," says Sandra Nolen, on a bus excursion to northern Israel.
Although she and her husband are far away from their familiar surroundings of Midland, Texas, they feel safe, Mrs. Nolen says.
Nazareth, Jesus' boyhood home
For many tourists here, safety is a prime concern, given the high tensions among different constituencies. For example, Nazareth, a key site for millennium travelers, has been under strain as Muslims have proceeded to build a mosque just steps from a Christian site.
Yet the day the Nolens visit the town, which is the boyhood home of Jesus, there is no trace of unrest.
Nevertheless, some tourists are less than impressed with what awaits them here: the Basilica of the Annunciation, the traditionally accepted site where, according to the Bible, the angel Gabriel told Mary she would bear a son. The Roman Catholic church on the site was inaugurated in 1969, and in the view of tourist Martin Badenhorst, from Durban, South Africa, it is "the worst of '60s Catholic [church] architecture."
On the other hand, the church, one of the largest in the Middle East, embraces artistic styles from around the world - depicting a Mary of different ethnicities.
The excursion through northern Israel also visits one of Jesus' baptism sites (several places claim to be where John the Baptist anointed Jesus).
This site - the Yardenit one - is tourist central. From the parking lot, where there are plenty of extra-long spaces for buses, visitors can wind through a souvenir shop on their way to the Jordan River, which is outfitted with a concrete bank and railings.
Jordan -a land of landmarks
Whereas Israel has a fair amount of greenery, Jordan has a much more barren landscape. The scene is a stark reminder of who has water in the Middle East - and who doesn't.
But what Jordan lacks in water, it makes up for in a surprising number of landmarks. About 60 archaeological sites appeal to mainstream tourists (thousands of sites draw more specialized interests). There are some 100 significant biblical sites and 60 to 70 noted Islamic sites. In addition, the country claims to be the only place all the prophets passed through.
Jordan, in fact, has been a crossroads through the centuries, and numerous occupiers and wanderers - including Greeks, Romans, Crusaders, Ottomans, and the British - have left their mark here.
"You can walk right through the story of civilization," says Rami Khouri, a noted writer and publisher in Jordan.
Yet Jordan is only beginning to tap into this tourist potential. The country, already known as one of the safest places for foreign travelers in the Middle East, has targeted 2000 as its launching pad for a more robust tourism industry.
In Jordan, begin in Amman
A logical starting point for Jordan travel is the capital, Amman. The city is built on terraces and has a striking white appearance because most buildings are white limestone.
Most attractions are south of Amman, although the more-fertile north offers treasures, too. Keep in mind that it can take hours to travel between some points of interest. And the roads aren't always easy to negotiate - day or night. A better option is to find a tour, which can be booked in the US or Jordan.
One selling point that Jordan is using for the Year 2000 is the scheduled opening late next spring of another Jesus baptism site. The area has been demilitarized recently, thanks to the 1994 peace agreement between Jordan and Israel.
Workers there have uncovered several ancient churches and other structures, which apparently commemorated Jesus' baptism. The site also lays claim to Elijah's Hill, where, the Old Testament declares, the prophet ascended into heaven on a chariot. Even though a few members of the media and others have had a sneak preview of the site, much remains to be done before it is ready for the public.
Jordan has several other biblical landmarks that are expected to draw considerable crowds during the millennium year. Not far from the baptism site is Mt. Nebo, where Moses caught his first glimpse of the Promised Land and also died. And in Madaba, a town between these two sites, a Greek Orthodox church houses a sixth-century mosaic map of the Holy Land.
Even if religious sites are your main goal, you won't want to miss some of Jordan's other tourist attractions. At the top of many itineraries is Petra, an ancient city whose design is unlike any other. Its rose-red sandstone faades, of awesome classical detail, were carved into the area's imposing rock formations by the Nabataeans, an Arab people who settled here over 2,000 years ago.
Petra's most famous attraction is the ornate Treasury, which was featured in the movie "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade." Yet this is only the first landmark that greets visitors at Petra, overflowing with tombs, baths, temples, and more. Lace up your walking shoes (and be prepared for them to pick up lots of Petra dust), and plan to spend at least a day here.
A rival to Petra is Jarash, an ancient Roman city whose beautiful ruins will give you many places to clamber around and explore. Highlights include classical columns, majestic gateways, and two theaters - one seating 1,600 and the other 3,000. Other destinations in Jordan include Aqaba, a resort town on the Red Sea, and Wadi ("Valley") Rum, a desert with magnificent rock formations.
At all these attractions, Anglophones will feel at home since English is Jordan's second language (its first is Arabic). Jordanians are eager to welcome all their visitors, in fact. When I was in Amman, my cab driver pulled up to a roadside stand to buy a soda for himself and he bought me one, too - for free.
He even got the brand right.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society