Bethlehem

For other places with the same name, see Bethlehem (disambiguation).
The Church of the Nativity

Bethlehem (Arabic: بيت لحم, Beit Lahm Hebrew: בית לחם Beit Lechem) is a small city located some 10 km (6 miles) south of the Old City of Jerusalem within the West Bank, in an "Area A" zone administered by the Palestinian Authority.

The "little town" of Bethlehem, mentioned in any number of Christmas carols, attracts pilgrims worldwide on account of its description in the New Testament (and particularly the Gospels) as the Biblical birthplace of Jesus, whom Christians believe to be Messiah and Son of God. The Church of the Nativity, one of the oldest churches in the world, is the focus of Christian veneration within the city. Modern textual analysis has almost universally drawn the conclusion that Nazareth, the place where Jesus spent most of his later life and the home town of Joseph and Mary was probably his actual birthplace, but that has not lessened the draw of this city for Christian pilgrims.

Bethlehem is also revered by Jews and Muslims as the birthplace and home town of David, Biblical prophet and King of Israel, as well as the traditional site of Rachel's Tomb (on the outskirts of the town).

Although also home to many Muslims, Bethlehem remains home to one of the largest Arab Christian communities in the Middle East (despite significant emigration in recent years, resulting in a growing Muslim majority) and one of the chief cultural and tourism drawcards for the Palestinian community. The Bethlehem agglomeration also includes the small towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, the latter also having Biblical significance.

Building up to the Millennium in the year 2000, Bethlehem underwent a massive largely foreign-funded project called Bethlehem 2000 in hopes of turning Bethlehem into a major tourist destination comparable to destinations such as Jerusalem or Tel Aviv in tourism infrastructure. Unfortunately a year later, the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation occurred and the ensuing violence, including a standoff between Palestinian fighters holed up in the Church of the Nativity and Israeli troops, scuttled these tourism efforts. Although tension remains high in Israeli-Palestinian relations, violence is a thing of the past in Bethlehem and many in Bethlehem hope to continue on where Bethlehem 2000 started them off.

This article also covers nearby towns, including Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.

Understand

Orientation

Bethlehem

A long snake of town, the main thoroughfare of Bethlehem 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. Manger Square is flanked by the Church of the Nativity on one side and the Mosque of Omar on the other. The Old Town and the souq (market), which are best navigated on foot, stretch up the hill from Manger Square.

The name means "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 5,000 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 Naomi, who left Bethlehem during a famine, and later returned with her daughter-in-law Ruth. 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 Bethlehem. 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 (as of 2000) 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% is Muslim. Christians used to be a large majority but their numbers have declined throughout the 20th century. Although Arabic is the language of Bethlehem's inhabitants, English, French and other languages are widely spoken and understood by many people in Bethlehem.

It should be noted as well that although Bethlehem is a Palestinian town, it is also a tourist-orientated town.Because of Bethlehem's immense potential as a tourism magnet, the Palestinian Authority maintains a constant tourist police presence in the city. For example, if escalations in violence are occurring in Southern Israel and the Gaza Strip, this does not mean that trips to other Palestinian cities such as Bethlehem should be seen as unsafe Bethlehem is a safe place to visit for tourists to visit and tourist numbers are increasing to this hidden gem of the Holy Land.

Get in

Artwork displayed in the Church of the Nativity

Nearly all travellers arrive via Jerusalem. Since Bethlehem is administered by the Palestinian Authority, an Israeli military checkpoint stands on the road connecting the two locations. If entering from Jerusalem, one must pass through the "Rachel's Crossing" Israeli checkpoint into Bethlehem. One simply flashes his/her passport to an Israeli soldier, places his/her bags into an x-ray machine, and then walks through a metal detector, much like airport security, to get into/exit Bethlehem. As with all areas under Palestinian Authority control, Israeli law forbids Israeli citizens to enter unless they receive approval from the Israeli Civil Administration. Currently, groups of peace-supporting Israelis are applying to the Israeli Civil Administration to make monthly, coordinated visits to Palestinian cities in order to meet with and make friendly relations with Palestinians in Palestinian cities. For more information, visit the Humanisty Website. Tourists are free to enter and exit the checkpoint to Bethlehem and back to Jerusalem as many times as he or she would like without any restrictions. Make sure you bring your passport with your Israeli-issued tourist visa to enter and exit the Palestinian areas.

By car

Be careful if using a hire-car, as most rental companies in Israel make it clear that the car has to be used, and remain, on Israeli soil.

By bus

There is an Arab bus station nearby Damascus Gate that goes to various West Bank Palestinian cities (if you have trouble finding the bus station, ask a local). Arab bus 231 runs from the Arabic bus station nearby the Damascus Gate ("Bab el-'Amoud") in East Jerusalem to Beit Jala in the border with Bethlehem. The average trip length is 30 minutes and costs 6.80 NIS. This bus takes you straight into Bethlehem without needing to stop at a checkpoint. On the way back, you may expect a border check of your passport on the bus (so DO bring your passport) and a small delay to do the checking. After you cross the border, tell the driver where you're headed and he'll let you know what the best stop is to get off (maybe about 10 minutes after entering the border). From there you can either cab to the main area (Manger Square, Church of Nativity), or just walk. If you are going to the Nativity church, you can take the bus until the last stop, and walk left through Pope Paul VI street until Manger Square. It's all straight, just make sure to take a left at the Lutheran church.

Shared taxis (sherut/servees) leave from the Arab bus station nearby Damascus Gate and manage the trip in 20 minutes.

Minibus 24 also leaves from the Arab Bus Station near Damascus Gate, it costs 5 NIS and runs directly to the Bethlehem Checkpoint and back. Make sure to bring a passport. It may also be the case that you are waved through without any inspection. From the checkpoint, you can either walk half an hour or take a taxi to the center of Bethlehem (25shekels), which is about 3 km away.

On foot

Devoted 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.

Get around

For first time visitors it is best to travel by taxi. Bethlehem is a small city so taxi rides are extremely cheap. From the checkpoint to the Church of the Nativity (and anywhere within Bethlehem city) it should cost no more than 20 shekels (NIS). To travel from Bethlehem to its neighboring suburbs of Beit Sahour or Beit Jala, it should be no more than 25-30 NIS. To travel to any of the destinations located outside of these areas (such as Herodium, any of the surrounding Monasteries or Solomon's Pools) it's advisable to negotiate a price with a taxi driver at the Bethlehem bus station. Many taxi drivers are willing to take you to a site, wait there while you tour a site and then take you back to Bethlehem for a negotiated price. Whenever negotiating a taxi price, always say the lowest price you think would be reasonable for the trip, and bargain with the driver from there. The driver will start as high as he thinks he can charge and bargain down for you.Make sure to agree on a price before going into a taxi.

See

The Catholic site of the Shepherd's Fields in Bethlehem's Beit Sahour suburb

Do

The scenery around Bethlehem-perfect for hiking!

Learn

The All Nations Cafe organizes summer caravans where internationals can learn about the social, political and cultural fabrics of life in and around Bethlehem.

The Holy Land Trust organizes tours of many cities in Palestine for both politically inclined tourists and religious tourists. They are also able to organize homestays with local families and or short term/long term volunteer opportunities in the Bethlehem area for willing participants.

The Bethlehem Bible College offers Bible study courses in English, Arabic, and other languages

Buy

A spice shop in Bethlehem's souq

While Bethlehem's souq is a lot smaller than Jerusalem's, it is much less touristy and the sellers are less aggressive and very friendly, many even offer potential customers coffee and tea. The Palestinian Authority doesn't charge a sales tax, so Bethlehem's shopkeepers charge much less for souvenirs. Bethlehem is a perfect place to practice those bargaining skills that you were hoping to try out!!

In peaceful times, Bethlehem's traders do a roaring trade in souvenirs for pilgrims to the town. In the current situation, the tour operators prefer to quickly hustle their guided groups in and out of the Nativity Church without allowing them time to look around Manger Square. Often, at the end of the tour, they will take their groups to a pre-selected souvenir shop and charge the owner of the shop a big commission for the sales made to the tour group. That means most smaller souvenir shops here are blessedly free from pilgrims, and also that the smaller shops are in desperate need of business. They remain, however, substantially less aggressive than Jerusalem's sellers. Souvenir shops in Bethlehem are much, much cheaper than in Jerusalem- with all the same selection (surprisingly, many Bethlehem souvenir shops even have Jewish themed souvenirs). One must venture out of Manger square to the souvenir shops on Manger Street and also in the market place beside Manger Square past the Mosque of Omar. The smaller looking souvenir shops offer the best deals and very friendly service. Bethlehem is an awesome place to get all your Holy Land souvenirs for much, much cheaper than you would get them in Israel. If a price is listed in USD, it's a hiked price for tourists, so don't hesitate to bargin for a much lower price (you will almost always get a lower price if you ask for it).

You must visit the Milk Grotto Church which is two minutes away from the Nativity Church. On your way up there, look for an Olive Wood factory located on the Milk Grotto Street, with the name Christmas House Olive Wood Factory . The guys there can provide you with an amazing tour of their workshop and you can see how they hand carve things from the olive trees, a must see. Very friendly Christian family, and they also have a gift shop, where you can find really unique gifts. Also they have another gift shop right in the manger square next to the peace center building.

Just off Manger Square on Milk Grotto Street there are a number of souvenir shops selling various religious gifts and Bethlehem's famous olive wood carvings.I found the Tabash Nativity Store friendly, not pushy, and willing to give discounts. They will also offer you a free Turkish coffee.

Visit one of Bethlehem's four refugee camps for traditional Palestinian handicrafts, handmade olive oil soap, and beautiful embroidery.

Eat

Taybeh beer-a Palestinian beer brand from the village of Taybeh nearby Ramallah

Drink

The Cremisan Monastery/Winery in Bethlehem's suburb, Beit Jala

Enjoy the atmosphere and hang out with friends for dinner or a few drinks at Bistro lounge bar in Beit Jala.

Visit the famous Cremisan Cellars Winery located in the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Jala. This Winery, also the site of the ancient Cremisan Monastery, is on a hilltop and offers a spectacular view of the valley below it and as well of the surrounding Jerusalem and Bethlehem area. A must visit for any wine enthusiast! Cremisan Cellars.

Sleep

The problem of finding somewhere to stay as encountered by Mary and Joseph are long gone in Bethlehem. There are many options to choose from. Because Jerusalem is often the place where tourist stay rather than Bethlehem, Bethlehem's hotels offer much cheaper rates than Israeli hotels in order to entice tourists to stay in Bethlehem rather than just do a day tour of the historic sites and then quickly leave back to Israel. Bargaining for a cheaper hotel price usually works in Bethlehem. Feel free to email/phone numerous Bethlehem hotels for quotes and compare the prices, it definitely saves you money rather than staying in an overpriced Jerusalem hotel. Note, for phone numbers in the Palestinian territories, there are two area codes: 972 and 970. If one of the area codes don't work for a contact number, try the phone number again using the other area code.

Go next

Herodium mountain-about 6km from Bethlehem

Bethlehem is a good base for visits to nearby Herodion (or Herodium), a fortress built by Herod the Great and located some 6 km to the south-east of the town. Herodion can be reached by taxi from Bethlehem costing about US $20 (150-200 NIS) for a round trip. The Herodion is administered by the Israel Nature & National Parks Protection Authority .

Bethlehem's bus station is also a great starting point to get to other cities in the Palestinian territories. Located at the bottom floor of the bus station are numerous "Serveeces" (Palestinian Sheruts) that drive to cities such as Hebron, Ramallah and Jericho.

Battir — a settlement some 5km west of Bethlehem is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as Palestine: Land of Olives and Vines – Cultural Landscape of Southern Jerusalem

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