Bethlehem is the place of Christ’s birth but also a thriving modern Palestinian city. Today visitors can travel to Bethlehem to see the exact place where Jesus was born. To reach Bethlehem tourists in Israel must go through a border crossing into the Palestinian Authority of the West Bank and travel past places like the Inn of the Good Samaritan and Shepherds’ Field where shepherds watched their sheep on the night of Jesus’ birth. Once in Bethlehem tourists can visit historic churches built to mark specific Biblical sites.
Bethlehem in the Bible
Bethlehem features in the Old Testament as the birth place of King David; it is also where Rachel was buried when she died in childbirth giving birth to Benjamin (Genesis 35:19). In the Bible the city is referred to as Beth Lechem – House of Bread; the City of David and as Ephratah. Bethlehem is mentioned many times in the Bible, for example in Ruth; Genesis; Joshua; Samuel I; Judges and John. The New Testament’s Book of Luke and of Matthew tells the story of the Nativity. Joseph and Mary, who was pregnant, traveled from their hometown, Nazareth in the Galilee to Bethlehem, near Jerusalem. They made the journey because of a census that required each citizen to return to their ancestral town to register. As Joseph was from the House of David he needed to return to Bethlehem, the City of David. When the couple arrived they found the city overflowing with visitors and no accommodation was available. As Luke tells us: “Mary laid Jesus in a manger as there was no room in the inn.”
Less than a century after Jesus’ death tradition had established a site in Bethlehem that was believed to be the place of Jesus’ birth. Many houses at the time had an adjacent cave that was used for storage and to house animals and so a cave became the venerated site of the nativity. In the 4th century St Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine took it upon herself to travel through the Holy Land authenticating Biblical site. In 326 she commissioned a church to be built in Bethlehem around the nativity cave. A part of the floor mosaic of this original church can still be seen in the present Church of the Nativity. St Helena’s church was replaced in 530 by a larger structure which has survived. Under the Crusaders two kings were crowned in this church and it was completely redecorated in 1169. Despite later looting under the Ottomans, fires and an earthquake the Church of the Nativity has survived.
In modern times Bethlehem came under the British from 1920 to 1948 when the British Mandate was in place. The UN 1947 partition resolution included Bethlehem in the international enclave of Jerusalem which would be administered by the UN. However just a few months later Jordan captured the city in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and controlled the region until the Six Day War in 1967 when Israel captured the West Bank including Bethlehem. Israel administered the city until 1995 when the Oslo Peace Accord placed Bethlehem within the Palestinian Authority West Bank and Israel withdrew from the area.
Today Bethlehem is home to Muslim and Christian Arabs who live mostly in harmony. The city’s economy depends largely on tourism as well as traditional products and handicrafts like Middle Eastern jewelry, olive wood carvings, olive oil, marble and religious objects.
Manger Square – This is the first stop for Christina visitors to Bethlehem. The square is bordered by the Nativity Church; Mosque of Omar and the Palestinian Peace Center. Manger Square is the site of a festive gathering each Christmas Eve of Christians from across the globe who come to celebrate Christ’s birth.
Church of the Nativity – Also known as the Basilica of the Nativity this church is built around the Holy Grotto of the Nativity, the oldest continually worshipped Christian site. Although originally built in the 4th century the present structure dates back to 565 with additions made later by the Crusaders. Highlights of the church include the Door of Humility; a small entrance to the church that requires visitors to bow down as they enter. It also served a practical purpose during the Ottoman era when looters couldn’t fit their carts through the doorway. The church’s wide nave is flanked by 44 columns painted with Crusader images and the walls are adorned with murals. There are two Greek Orthodox altars and an Armenian altar dedicated to the Three Kings (three wise men). The Chapel of the Manger is a Roman Catholic shrine with 12th century mosaics. The Grotto of the Nativity lies beneath the church and is reached down a flight of stairs. A silver star marks the place where Jesus was born. A door connects the Church of the Nativity to the Church of St. Catherine.
Church of St Catherine – Alongside the Church of the Nativity stands another historic church marking the site where Christ is said to have appeared to Saint Catherine of Alexandria. It was here that Christ is said to have predicted Catherine’s martyrdom when she was burnt on a wheel (hence: Catherine Wheel) at Mount Sinai in c.310. The church was dedicated in 1347; mentioned in records in the 15th century and enlarged in 1881. The church is flanked on two sides by a Franciscan monastery where there is a beautiful cloister restored by Barluzzi using 12th century capitals and columns from the monastery. Visitors to the church can descend a flight of steps to caves where there is the Chapel of the Holy Innocent; St. Joseph’s Chapel; Chapel of St. Eusebius; the Tomb of St. Paula and her daughter Eustochium and the Tomb of St. Jerome. Jerome is said to have translated the Bible in one of the church’s subterranean caves in 386AD.
Milk Grotto – Also called the Grotto of Our Lady and the Chapel of the Milk Grotto. It was here that the Holy Family took refuge when escaping from Herod’s decree to kill all new born males (Massacre of the Innocents). As Mary nursed baby Jesus a little of her of milk is thought to have dropped to the ground turning the cave surfaces white. A 5th century Byzantine chapel once stood here and the present chapel dates back to 1872.