Bethlehem is a Palestinian city located in the central West Bank, about 10 kilometers south of Jerusalem.
It is thought the original name was Beit Lachama, from the Canaanite god Lachama. The earliest mention of the city is in the Amarna correspondence c.1350-1330 BCE as "Bit-Lahmi". The Hebrew Bible identifies it as the city David was from and where he was crowned as the king of Israel. The New Testament identifies Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus. The city is inhabited by one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, although the size of the community has shrunk due to emigration. Bethlehem was destroyed by the Emperor Hadrian during the second-century Bar Kokhba revolt; its rebuilding was promoted by the Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, who commissioned the building of its great Church of the Nativity in 327 CE. The Church was badly damaged by the Samaritans, who sacked it during the Samaritan Revolt in 529, but was rebuilt a century later by the emperor Justinian I, in very much its present form.
Church of the Nativity
This is the oldest church in the Holy Land still in use. The original church was constructed under the patronage of Constantine’s mother, Helena, who came on a pilgrimage to Palestine in 325 AD to investigate the sites associated with the life of Jesus Christ which had been revered since the early days of Christianity. Helena chose to the Grotto of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, as the site for the huge basilica which was completed in 339 AD.
Inside the Church, two sets of stairs on either side of the altar lead down into the Grotto, the site where Jesus was born. A silver star embedded in white marble and bearing the Latin inscription “Here of the Virgin Mary Christ was born” marks the site.
According to tradition, the Milk Grotto is where Mother Mary nursed baby Jesus while hiding there from Herod’s soldiers before going to Egypt. Located southeast of the Basilica, it is an irregular Grotto hewn out of soft white rock. It is believed that some drops of Mary’s milk trickled, turning the rock white. Revered by Christians and Muslims alike, the milk-white rock is famous for its healing powers and reputed ability of making nursing easier for women.
This vast esplanade between the Mosque of Omar and the Church of the Nativity constitutes the tourist centre of Bethlehem. The square as well as much of the Old city underwent renovation from 1998 to 2000.
The Old City
Pope Paul VI Street, which is in the center of the town, leads down to Manger Square in the heart of the Old City. The numerous convents and churches built by European religious congregations have firmly marked the urban landscape, but Bethlehemis above all an oriental city. The neighbourhoods around Paul VI Street, and the popular Star and Farahiya Streets offer visitors a model of Arab architecture typical of the Ottoman era.
It is located in the town of Beit Sahour 2km east of Bethlehem. This is the site where the angel of the Lord appeared before the shepherds bringing them the good tidings of the birth of Jesus, joined with a multitude of heavenly hosts, who sang ” Glory to God In the Highest and on Earth, Peace among men”.
St. Theodosius Monastery
Built by Theodosius in 500 AD, the monastery is located east of the historic village of Ubediyyeh 12km east of Bethlehem. A white-walled cave marks the burial site of St. Theodosius. Tradition has it that the wise men rested here after God warned them in a dream that they should not return to Herod.
St. Saba Monastery
A drive of about 6 kilometers east of Shepherd’s Field down a winding road takes you to the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Mar Saba. The founder, St. Saba, came from Cappadocia in the fifth century. There are legends about St. Saba having lived in a cave with a lion for many years. St. Saba died at age 94, and his corpse is still preserved in the Church at the monastery. The monastery has 110 rooms, though today there are only a few monks residing in it.
Built in a circular shape on top of a hill 6 km southeast of Bethlehem, this fortress includes the remains of a huge palace built by King Herod for his wife in 37 BC. The palace contained luxurious, round walled buildings, fortified chambers, and baths and terraced gardens. Fort Herodion hill dominates the landscape and offers an impressive view of the Dead Sea.
Rachel’s Tomb – Belal’s Mosque
This small building marks the traditional Tomb of Rachel, Jacob’s wife. It is considered holy to Christians, Muslims, and Jews. The present sanctuary and mosque were built during the Ottoman period and are situated on the Jerusalem-Hebron Road near the northern entrance of Bethlehem.
Hidden among very tall pine trees in a small valley 4 km south of Bethlehem, Solomon’s Pools consist of three huge rectangular reservoirs of stone and masonry that can hold 160.000 cubic meters of water. Although tradition attributes these to King Solomon, the pools almost certainly date from the time of Herod, and may have been conceived by Pontius Pilate. In the past, the reservoirs collected spring and rainwater and pumped it to Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
St. George’s Church– Al-Khader
Every year on May 5, there is a pilgrimage to theal-Khader Church, which was built in 1600 AD and rebuilt in 1912. The pilgrimage is in honor of Saint George (in Arabic al-Khader), the soldier monk who slew the dragon; he is venerated for being able to ward off the evil eye. Islamic tradition has it that he left his native Lydda, where he was born, and settled here in this village which bears his name. Muslims and Christians come together annually on this day to celebrate their common protector, to whom many different blessings are attributed. Saint George is also the patron saint of farmers, travelers and the mentally sick.
The Mosque of Omar
Located at the corner of Paul VI Street and Manger Square, the mosque was built in honour of the second Caliph, Omar Ibn al-Khattab. A companion of the Prophet Mohammed and his father-in-law, he entered Bethlehem after taking Jerusalem and prayed in the southern aisle of the Basilica of the Nativity. However, he guaranteed that the Basilica would remain a Christian place of worship in the Pact of Omar, which stipulated that Muslims would be allowed to pray here only individually and which prohibited calling for prayer (al-Adan) from the church walls.