The town called Bethlehem in English is known as
לחם, "The House of Bread") in Hebrew and
"The House of Meat") in Arabic. However,
it seems likely that both meanings have been retrofitted
onto what was originally the House of Lachma, the Mesopotamian
god of fertility. The area has been settled since 50,000 BC and
there is some evidence that the town is mentioned in the Egyptian
Amarna letters (1400 BC). The Old Testament Book of Ruth
(c. 1150 BC) has the first certain reference to Bethlehem; it tells the
story of Elimelech and Naomi, purportedly Bethlehem's first settlers.
Still, Bethlehem remained a small town in the shadow of mighty
Jerusalem, and according to most estimates
it had some 300 to 1000 inhabitants at the time of the event that gave
Bethlehem its fame, namely the birth of Jesus.
Somewhat surprisingly, aside from noting that the Nativity indeed
took place there, the New Testament virtually ignores
And things didn't change immediately afterwards: wrecked during the
Bar-Kochba revolt (132-135 AD), the Romans set up a shrine to
Adonis on the site of the Nativity. Only in 326 was the
first Christian church constructed, when Helen, the mother of
the first Christian emperor, Constantine, visited Bethlehem.
Afterwards it grew slowly but steadily, achieving its pinnacle
as a strong fortified city during the Crusader era, but the
Ottomans razed the fortifications and reduced Bethlehem back into
the village it was 2000 years earlier.
The setback proved only temporary, and despite the turbulence of the
20th century the town has now grown to an estimated 184,000
inhabitants. On December 21, 1995, Bethlehem became one of the
areas under the full control of the Palestinian Authority.
In the city itself, 41% of the population is Christian, while 59%
Bethlehem is located only a few kilometers south of Jerusalem,
within the West Bank territory occupied by Israel, in an "Area A"
zone administered by the Palestinian Authority.
A long snake of a town, the main road is
Manger Street, which stretches from Rachel's Tomb (and the
road to Jerusalem) all the way to Manger Square, the focal point
of the city, flanked by the Church of the Nativity on one side and
the Mosque of Omar on other. The old town and souq, which are
best navigated on foot, stretch up the hill from Manger Square.
Undoubtedly the top attraction in Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity,
a veritable citadel built on top of the cave where Jesus was
allegedly born. While the core of the layout largely corresponds
to Emperor Justinian's plans from 540 (the very first incarnation
being destroyed in a 536 riot), the church was first heavily
fortified by the Crusaders and then trashed (mostly through neglect)
by Mamluk rule. An earthquake in 1834 and a fire in 1869 didn't help.
Today, the structure is mostly sound but somewhat dark
and gloomy in appearance, only the adjoining Franciscan Church
of St Catherine (dated 1881 and the site of the yearly
December 24 midnight mass broadcast around the world) being
in excellent shape. The actual site, in the Grotto of the Nativity,
is accessible from inside the church. (The tomb of famed
theologian and Bethlehem resident St. Jerome is also in the
Grotto.) Entrance to the entire complex
is free, but in the high season be prepared for massive crowds
and hour-long waits for entry into the Grotto.
Trailing a distant second for most visitors is Rachel's Tomb,
the tomb of the matriarch Rachel, wife of Jacob and mother of Benjamin
(Genesis 35:19-20). Holy to all three faiths, the Tomb has been
the site of a few ugly confrontations and is currently
barricaded off entirely, entry being possible only for Jews.
This is not too great a loss though, as not only is the structure
unimpressive, but the site's authenticity is also dubious.
Minor sights include the Milk Grotto Chapel, where Mary
supposedly spilled a few drops of breast milk while feeding Jesus,
cavern milky white. The Mosque of Omar is in active use, so
no entry unless you're Muslim, but it is probably the prettiest
building in the center. The old town is also good
for a stroll if you haven't seen an Arab city before. While the
souq isn't a match for Jerusalem's, it's much less touristy and
the sellers are less aggressive.
Ever since the start of the al-Aqsa intifada Bethlehem has been
more or less under siege. Terrorists have infiltrated the nearby
town of Beit Jala in order to shoot at the Jewish
settlement of Gilo across the valley, and the IDF's reprisals
have been quite
heavy-handed. On one occasion, tanks rumbled down Manger Street,
(probably intentionally) wrecking most of the storefronts along
the way and many of the decorations set up for Pope John Paul II's visit
in 2000. The Paradise Hotel, never quite worth its name but
one of Bethlehem's largest and most popular hotels just the same,
was accused of harboring snipers, so it was shelled, set on fire
and consequently completely gutted as punishment.
While this was exceptional, frightened by the violence elsewhere
in the West Bank tourists have disappeared almost entirely
and on a recent visit we had the entire Church
to ourselves. Alas, this has crippled the local economy (which is
almost entirely dependent on tourism), with the result that much
of Manger St. is a shuttered ghost town. (Only the old city,
populated by locals, remains as lively as ever.) Until peace
returns the situation seems unlikely to change.
The other threat facing Bethlehem (from the Palestinian point of
view) is continuous encroachment of Jewish settlements on the
area, leaving Bethlehem cut off from the rest of Palestine.
Half of the Bethlehem district has already been taken over, and the
planned expansion of the settlement of
Har Homa (Abu Ghuneim to the Arabs) will chew up another 400 acres.
Your options are by bus, by shared taxi (Hebrew sherut, Arabic servees)
or on foot. Arab bus 22 runs from East Jerusalem to Bethlehem,
but the trip is unnecessarily long at 40 minutes; shared taxis
from Damascus Gate will get you there in half the time for a
few shekels. Hardcore pilgrims often prefer to walk (and in happier
times there has been a large procession at Christmas), at a brisk
pace the trip is doable in 2 hours but there are plenty of ups and
downs along the way and the summer heat is fearsome.
Note that there is an Israeli military checkpoint on the road
connecting the two towns. All travelers are subject to questioning
and searches; as usual, Israeli cars can pass almost freely while
Palestinians will be scrutinized closely. If checkpoint security
is ramped up, buses and service taxis may be delayed or cancelled
Bethlehem 2000, Palmyra Press, 1998
Lonely Planet Israel (4th ed), 1999