The southern half of the West Bank has two major centres, Bethlehem and Hebron. The two cities are connected with Jerusalem by a main road which continues to Beersheba in the Negev. Along this route and just off it there are scores of sites reflecting the area’s historical traditions, as well as Palestinian villages, refugee camps and many Israeli settlements redolent of more current events. Local Palestinians are not permitted to use the usual road to Bethlehem via Jerusalem unless they possess a valid permit issued by the Israeli military authorities. They may, however, travel to Bethlehem on the difficult Wadi alNar (Valley of Fire). This is one of the by pass roads around Jerusalem and the other Palestinian cities, constructed by Israel in the late 1980s and especially after the signing of the Oslo accords in 1993.

A Brief History

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 alKhattab 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 alDin’s forces recaptured Bethlehem in 1187, but the Ayyubid Sultan alKamil returned it to the Crusaders who held it until they were finally ousted from the country by the Mamluks in 1291.

 The City of Bethlehem

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”.

Tourism and pilgrimage are an important source of income for the city and its people, they have brought growth to Bethlehem. The town owes much of its prosperity to the manufacture of religious objects made from olive wood which you can watch being made in the town’s workshops. Bethlehem also has a long tradition of  skilled stonemasons, working the high quality stone that comes from quarries in the vicinity.

Manger Square

Bethlehem’s famous Manger Square is in the centre of town in front of the Church of the Nativity. The square used to be a giant parking lot, but underwent major renovations in preparation for the year 2000 celebrations. The police station which used to block the view of the church has been demolished, and a new more friendly building has been built in its place -, it is called the Bethlehem Peace Center (see culture and activities section, below). Romantic as Manger Square might sound, sitting in one of its cafes, your attention is more likely to be caught by the massive and modern municipality building, and the countless souvenir shops and the camera clicking tourists, rather than by the Church of the Nativity itself.

The Church of the Nativity

The forbidding fortresslike church in the centre of the modern city of Bethlehem, facing Manger Square, is basically the original building of Constantine, as enlarged and restored by Emperor Justinian (AD 527565). It is thus one of the oldest churches in the world, though not one of the most beautiful.

The identification of this holy site and many other Christian sites in the Holy Land is, in large measure, due to the Roman Emperor Hadrian. In order to suppress any Jewish inspired messianic movement following the BarKokhba Revolt (AD 132135), Hadrian paginated all known JudaeoChristian holy places including the Grotto of the Nativity. Since Christians started visiting Christ’s birth place early in the 2nd century AD, Hadrian decided to erect a shrine to Adonis over that grotto. Far from deterring Christians from revering the site, he affirmed it as the birth place of Christ. In the 4th century, when Constantine reunified the Roman empire under the flag of Christianity, the shrine of Adonis was demolished and replaced by a church.

It was Constantine’s mother, Queen Helena, who initiated the construction of the great basilica over the cave of the Nativity in AD 327. The Queen embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in AD 326 to investigate three sites which had been revered since the early days of Christianity: the site of Jesus’ burial at Golgotha, the Cave of the Disciples on the Mount of Olives and the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

The first church was destroyed by the Samaritans in 529, but Emperor Justinian ordered Helena’s original church to be rebuilt in such splendour, size and beauty that none even in the holy city should surpass it. The church has survived since the late 6th  century, it even escaped the Persian invasion in 614. It was restored by the Crusaders.

The surviving mosaics on the side walls and floor, dating from restoration of 116569,  show how splendid the church must once have been. It was repaired again in the 15th century, but after that period, the church fell into decay gradually. The Ottoman Turks removed some of its marble in the 17th century, and its lead in the 19th century.

Control of the church has more than once led to physical warfare, most significantly in 1852, when Napoleon III, who considered himself successor to the French Crusader King Louis IX, proclaimed the entire church complex as a French property. This brought him into conflict with Russia, which supported the rights of the Eastern Orthodox Church. That was one of the chief causes of the Crimean War (1853-1856) between the Ottoman Empire, France, and Italy on one side and Russia on the other.

Originally, the Nativity Church had three entrances, two of them are bricked up now while the one door remaining is only 120 cm high. It is called the Door of Humility, and it is too small and out of scale with the importance of the church. The door was the main door of Justinian’s Church, which used to be a grand door, more than 3m high. One can still see traces of the original arch above the door. It was lowered by the Crusaders during the Middle Ages and further restricted during the Ottoman era, either to prevent Mamluk horsemen from entering the church on horseback, or to force visitors to show respect by bowing upon entering the small passageway. There were suggestions and even plans to open a second door for the church in preparation for the year 2000 celebrations, but that had never materialised because of conflicts of interest between the different denominations in the church.

The vestibule behind the entrance leads directly into the main hall of the basilica, which is divided into a central nave and two aisles separated by two golden coloured columns of local stone. On the inside, the church is divided by four rows of columns in reddish limestone. The wooden ceiling is made of stout English oak, a gift from King Edward IV. Beneath the protective floor of the church, fragments of the beautiful mosaics of the church built by Justinian are to be seen. Only a small part of the floor can be seen.

Two sets of stairs on either side of the altar lead down into the Grotto of the Nativity,

the site where Jesus is said to have been born. A fourteen pointed silver star embedded in white marble marks the exact spot. Candle lamps burn day and night above the altar. The original star was placed here by the Roman Catholic Church in 1717 but was removed by the Greeks in 1847 and replaced by the Turkish government in 1853. It bears an inscription reading: ‘Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary’. In another corner of the grotto is the Chapel of the Manger, where Christ was laid. Visiting the grotto can prove to be a difficult and lengthy process at times.

The Nativity complex was later expanded by several chapels and monasteries. The Armenian Monastery is accessed by a small door in the southern wall of the basilica. It dates back to the Byzantine period and underneath it are the tombs of the Innocents, the children who were slaughtered by Herod after the Holy Family left to Egypt. “Then Herod sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under” (Matthew 3:16). Nearby is the impressive Greek Orthodox Church, dedicated to Saint Joseph, the father of Christ. Here he had a dream in which an angel appeared, warning him to flee to Egypt to safeguard the child Jesus from Herod’s anger. The small door in the northern wall of the basilica leads to the Franciscan Church of Saint Catherine.

This tranquil medieval church was built on the site where Christ is said to have appeared to St. Catherine of Alexandria. It was built in 1881, and it is from here that Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is televised and broadcasted world wide. Underneath this complex is the Tomb of Saint Jerome, a Dalmatian priest who arrived in Bethlehem from Rome in AD 386 and secluded himself in a cave near the Grotto of the Nativity to study the Bible. Here he translated the Old Testament from Hebrew to Latin, a translation which was to become the official Bible of the Roman Catholic Church for the next 1500 years. Jerome died in AD 420, and his tomb lies here.

The Church of the Milk Grotto

This church is only five minutes walk southeast of Manger Square, along the Milk Grotto Street. One version of the story behind the site says that the Holy Family was hiding here during the Slaughter of the Innocents: alternatively, they made a hurried stop here during the flight to Egypt, and in the rush Mary let a drop of her milk fell to the ground while she was nursing, and made the rock turning from red to white. Christians and Moslems alike have since believed that visiting the rock increases nursing mothers’ milk and fertility.

King David’s Well

King David’s Well marks the site where David’s followers broke through Philistine lines in order to fetch him drinking water from the well. He then offered the water as a sacrifice to God. The three large cisterns are the only monument in Bethlehem to the famous king who was born here.

Bethlehem contains all kinds of religious institutions representing every Christian denomination. Egyptian Copts, Armenians, Assyrians, Greek Arabs, Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans and Lutherans, all have their own churches and worship in their own ways. Christmas is celebrated three times here: on December 25th by the Catholics and other western churches. The Greek Orthodox and other Eastern Orthodox churches, whothat follow the Julian calendar, celebrate Christmas on January 7 th , while the Armenians who keep to the Eastern calendar celebrate on the 6 th of January.

The real charm of the city is to be found in the side streets away from the centre and the pilgrim sites. The Market (souq) up the stairs, along Paul VI Street, offers more earthly delights and is yet surprisingly untouched by the ravages of tourist commercialism. Here, you can find anything from plastic utensils to handmade jewellery and handwoven rugs.