Bethlehem is a Palestinian city in the central West Bank, approximately 10 kilometers (6 mi) south of Jerusalem, with a population of about 30,000 people. It is the capital of the Bethlehem Governorate of the Palestinian National Authority and a hub of Palestinian culture and tourism.
According to the New Testament, Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth. The town is inhabited by one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, though the size of the community has shrunk in recent years due to emigration. The city is also believed to be the birthplace of David and the location where he was crowned as the king of Israel. The city was sacked by the Samaritans in 529 AD, during their revolt, but was rebuilt by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. Bethlehem was conquered by the Arab Caliphate of ‘Umar ibn al-Khattāb in 637, who guaranteed safety for the city’s religious shrines. In 1099, Crusaders captured and fortified Bethlehem and replaced its Greek Orthodox clergy with a Latin one. The Latin clergy were expelled after the city was captured by Saladin, the sultan of Egypt and Syria. With the coming of the Mamluks in 1250, the city’s walls were demolished, and were subsequently rebuilt during the rule of the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottomans lost the city to the British during World War I and it was to be included in an international zone under the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. Jordan occupied the city in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, and it was subsequently occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. Israel has retained control over the entrances and exits to Bethlehem, though day-to-day administration has been under the purview of the Palestinian National Authority since 1995.
Modern Bethlehem has a Muslim majority but is also home to one of the largest Palestinian Christian communities. The Bethlehem agglomeration includes the towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, as well as the refugee camps of ‘Aida and Azza. Bethlehem’s dominant economic sector is tourism which is particularly high during the Christmas season as the city is a Christian pilgrimage center, being home of the Church of the Nativity. Bethlehem has over thirty hotels and three hundred handicraft work shops, employing several of the city’s residents. Rachel’s Tomb, an important Jewish holy site, is located at the entrance of Bethlehem.
In order to get to Bethlehem, we took a bus literally 15 minutes from Jerusalem to the Israeli-Palestinian border. There we left our Israeli guide, walked over the border, and were greeted by our Palestinian guide. Israelis do not enter the West Bank territories for fear of kidnapping. Once we were over the other side, it was an exciting but somewhat nerve racking experience. During our time over the border, there were some “issues” which led to the border being closed for a very short amount of time.
The Church of Nativity
The Church of Nativity contains a star where pilgrims come to touch and hope for the Lord’s blessing. There is also an altar for the three wise men who gave Jesus gifts of gold, frankinsense and myrrh. Finally there is an altar where baby Jesus is believed to have been swaddled and cradled. A truly surreal and spiritual experience!