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Bethlehem is the place where Jesus came into this world in 6 BC. The city is nestled in attractive hill country 11 km south of Jerusalem. It has a population of over 22,000, half Moslem and half Christian. It is surrounded by green and fertile fields planted with vine and olive trees. The town became a place of pilgrimage early in the second century AD, and today, in the modern age of tourism, Bethlehem has become the star of destinations for international visitors from all parts of the world. It is one of the world’s most celebrated places with all the accompanying commercialism this implies.
The historic and religious diversity of this ancient Palestinian town is apparent everywhere. Its architecture is characterized by cultural diversity and dominated by mosques and churches, a symbol of the intermingling of the region’s people. The Arabic name of the city means “house of meat” and in Hebrew “house of bread”. Bethlehem is thought to have been inhabited since the Stone Age, but its origins are lost in history. The first mention of the city in the Bible is in connection with the death of Rachel.
Bethlehem did not gain the importance it holds today until the Edict of Milan of AD 313, by which Emperor Constantine legalized Christianity. Only then were Christians able to emerge from their clandestine status. During the Byzantine period, Bethlehem was a walled city with two towers: it figures in the famous map of Madaba and in the accounts of early pilgrims. Many monasteries and churches were erected in the flourishing town.
During the Moslem Period, the sites revered by the Jews and Christians were protected. In 638, Omar Ibn al Khattab prayed in the southern apse of the Church of the Nativity: the Mosque of Omar with its fine minaret opposite the church commemorates this gesture. With the Crusader invasion of 1099, Bethlehem was captured by Tancred. It became the site for the crowning of Crusader kings and enjoyed royal flavour. Salah al-Din’s forces recaptured Bethlehem in 1187, but the Ayyubid Sultan al-Kamil returned it to the Crusaders who held it until they were finally ousted from the country by the Mamluks in 1291.