"O Bethlehem,... from you shall come a ruler who will
govern my people Israel"
Considered to be the birthplace of King David and Jesus of Nazareth, Bethlehem can be described as a small ancient town sacred to Christians, Islam, and Jews. Now a part of Palestine, Bethlehem is located at a distance of just 10 km from the old city of Jerusalem. Like many other settlements in the West Bank region, Bethlehem has been inhabited continuously for thousands of years. Also known as Bayt Lahm in Arabic, the first historic record of this place comes in the 14th century B.C.
As the supposed birthplace of Jesus Christ, Bethlehem is also one of the greatest religious sites in the world. This ensures heavy inflow of tourist traffic making tourism a major source of livelihood for the residents of this region. Some of the major religious sites in this town are Basilica of the Nativity, Rachel's Tomb, and the Milk Grotto Chapel.
What to do
Bethlehem - the name itself symbolises a holy centre. Therefore most of the time here can be spent visiting the various places related to the birth of Jesus Christ. This apart the city offers quite a lot for visitors - shopping, excursions, nature viewing to name a few. Antiquity of the sites and aura associated with them makes the principal attractions here fascinating to look on and observe. But, if you are going to miss the olive trees, vineyards, and small historical villages here, believe that you have missed a lot. The tradition of handicrafts in the city is as old as the city itself; make it a point to go shopping for some of these exclusive products.
City at a Glance
The name was first mentioned in some of the Jewish sacred books written after the Israelis captured this region in 1200 B.C. Bethlehem-a walled city, was also an trading centre then.
Bethlehem declined in importance after 10th century B.C., when the Babylonian Empire absorbed Palestine and deported most of its inhabitants. Book of Ezra says that the town was founded again in about 538 B.C., when the Persians, the then occupants, allowed the Jews to return.
The birth of Jesus, in the first century BC, was the most important event that the town witnessed. According to the Christian gospels, Christ's mother Marry and father Joseph came to Bethlehem from Nazareth (their home) to get themselves registered in a census, but were unable to find an accommodation. They spend the night in a stable somewhere around the town and that was the place where Christ was born.
Bethlehem is also known as the place where St. Jerome lived in a cave near Basilica between AD 384 and 420 till his death. The place was attacked and looted on regular intervals by different empires of its time, but fortunately most of the important structures remained intact from these attacks. From mid 7th century AD, the town was ruled by Arabs, who despite being tolerant towards Jews and Christians, constructed many mosques in the region.
The next phase in the history of Bethlehem started with the Crusades, led by European Knights and adventurous who ruled over this region till 1187 AD, and made it a part of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, but not for long.
The character of this place changed drastically after Mamluk Turks captured the region between 13th and 16th century AD. During this period most of the Christian sites were destroyed and pilgrimage was stopped. In the next phase, Bethlehem was a point of contention between many empires. In the mid 19th century, French emperor Napoleon III challenged the claim of Russian emperors who exerted special protective rights over the Christian populace of Ottoman Empire (of which Bethlehem was a part). But, more important event for the town itself during that period was a fire inside the grotto, which led to its complete destruction, however it was restored subsequently.
During the 20th century AD, four different governments at different points of time administered the town of Bethlehem. First of them were British from the beginning of First World War to the end of Second World War. After that came the successive rule of the King of Jordan and Israel. Presently the town is under control of Palestine Government, which is trying its best to preserve the heritage and importance of the town.
Weather and Best Season to Visit
Ideal weather conditions permit tourists to visit Bethlehem throughout the year. Given a choice however, spring would be an ideal season for this sojourn. Winters are cold accompanied by odd snowfall. Summer temperatures are bearable. January is the coldest of all the months while May is the warmest. Being a round the year destination weather wise, the criteria for selecting an ideal season for visit depends more on the festivities and their timings. Past trend suggests Christmas season to be the favourite amongst tourists.
Basilica of Nativity
Cradle of Christianity, the church is built on the very site where Christ was born. Constructed in a rectangular shape, measuring 53.9 metres in length and 26.2 metres in width - the present structure was constructed and reconstructed in the last millennia. In the front of the Basilica is a paved square. Further down, the cornice of Justinian can be seen above the entrance and arch of the Crusader entrance. Red stone, white marble, and lead form the materials used, for the construction of this marvellous edifice.
Opening Hours: 0600 - 1800 hours
Phone: 02 2742440
Grotto of Nativity
Grotto of Navity measures twelve metres in length and three metres in breath, and is also rectangular in shape. There is a mouth of cistern at the right end, where according to the legends pure hearts can see a star shining.
Opening Hours: 0600 to 1800 hours
St. Catherine's Church
Franciscans constructed this church in 1882 to replace a smaller church at the same site. You can use the stairs from Grotto of Navity to reach this church.
Opening Hours: 0600 to 1200 hours and 1400 to 1800 hours
Phone: 02 2742425
The Milk Grotto
One of the most revered sites of Christianity, it is also known as Maghari al Saiydeh by the Arabs. The grotto is located not far from Manger Square. Legends says that Virgin Merry stayed in this grotto with the divine child and when she was suckling the child a few drops of milk spilled to the ground turning the rocks white. Many European churches have taken away pieces of the rock to put in their own churches.
Opening Hours: 0800 to 1330 hours and 1400 to 1700 hours
Phone: 02 2743967
The tomb marks the place where, Rachel, the beautiful wife of Jacob was buried. The tomb is one of the most revered sites not only of Judaism, but also of Christianity and Islam. It is located on the Jerusalem - Hebron road near Bethlehem.
Opening Hours: 0800 to 1800 hours, except Saturday
This was the place where the bewildered shepherds heard the angels singing "Glory to God in the Highest and Peace on Earth to Men of Goodwill". Many old and new structures are scattered throughout. The field is situated to the east of the village of Beit Sahour.
These are three great cisterns from which, as legends says, King David longed to drink from, while fighting the Philistines. To the east lies a church discovered in 1895, decorated with mosaic pavements and Greek inscriptions.
Opening Hours: 0800 to 1700 hours
Phone: 02 2743277
Other important attractions around Bethlehem include Solomon's Pools, Saint Theodosius Convent, Saint Sabas' Convent, Herodium, Wadi Kareitoum, Mar Elias Monastery, and Beit Jala.
Important Festivals and Exhibitions
Christmas is the most important event in this small town. There is a massive inflow of tourists from all over the world during the Christmas celebrations. Holy mass, carol services, and processions are the major highlights. Christmas is celebrated here on three different days in December and January according to the beliefs of different churches. These apart, various other events and festivities are held in the town throughout the year. Though, it is advisable to visit during the Christmas season to catch the true colour of the town.
One of the world's holiest city and cradle of three different religions, Jerusalem has been crowned as the queen of the world's cities for fifty centuries. The city has been besieged more than fifty times, conquered thirty six times and destroyed ten times. Famous attractions in Jerusalem include: Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Church of Gethsemane, Church of All Nations, Dome of the Rock, Distant Mosque, Western Wall, Garden Tomb, Citadel (Tower Of David), Mount of Olives, Tomb of Virgin Mary, and Bethany.
One of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in the world; Hebron is closely identified with Abraham and is regarded as holy by Christians, Muslims, and Jews. According to the legends, this was the place where Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Leah, and Jacob were buried. The town is situated at a height of around 1000 metres south of Bethlehem. Major attractions here are Old Town, Modern Hebron, Al-Haram al-Ibrahimi, Oak of Abraham, Halhoul, Archaeological Museum, and Dhahriyyeh.
Not many options are available to spend your evenings in this holy city. Better option is to look around in Jerusalem not too far from here.
Shopping can be a nice way to spend time in Bethlehem. Main attractions being religious ornaments, handmade from olive wood and mother-of-pearl, with a painstaking attention on details. Numerous shops in Bethlehem sell world-renowned olive wood artefacts made from the local olive trees. Major artefacts on display are: exquisite olive wood statues, boxes, crosses, and other artefacts.
WHERE TO STAY
You may not find many great accommodation options in Bethlehem and certainly not to cater the large number of tourists that come to visit this place. Jerusalem is a better option if you are looking for some good night's sleep. However, try to make reservations in advance as the festivities continue throughout the year ensures huge inflow of tourists.
WHERE TO EAT
Try the Palestinian and Israeli cuisine while you are visiting this region. Main courses would include a collection of meat, poultry, seafood, and vegetable dishes. A number of restaurants, specialising in this cuisine, are scattered throughout the town.
Air Travel Resources
Nearest airport is Ben Gurion International airport at Jerusalem. It is connected to many places in Europe, Asia, and North America with regular flights. If you want to visit countries in the Middle East then the newly opened Gaza International Airport is a good option.
Land And Water
Buses and taxis are the most convenient land transport mediums and they provide good service in general.
Taxis, buses, and cars are the best mode to move around in this region. They are widely available, cheap, and provide reasonable services. Self-driven cars are also available. It is advised that fares be fixed before hiring any taxi as most of them lack the fare metre facility. Shared taxi services are also available widely.