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Bethlehem in the Holy Land

The name was first mentioned in the Old Testament as a city nearby where Rachel, Jacob’s wife, was buried. The name “Bethlehem” means “house of bread”, and is the Hebraic word for “Ephrath” meaning “fruitful” which is the way that Bethlehem was first referenced in the Book of Genesis. Bethlehem is mentioned in the Book of Ruth as Naomi’s hometown, to where she chooses to return after the death of her husband and two boys in Moab and to where Ruth accompanies her.

Entrance to the Church of the Nativity
The entrance to the Church of the Nativity near Manger Square

Bethlehem is the city of birth for first two kings of Israel- Saul and David.

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.

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod…” (Matthew 2:1)

History of Bethlehem

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 a 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.

Major Highlights within Bethlehem

Church of Nativity

Travelujah Nativity Church Bethlehem

The monastery was originally commissioned in 327  AD by Constantine the Great and his mother Queen Helena and rebuilt in 565 by Justinian the Byzantine Empire and since then has over gone numerous additions. The church is structured in the shape of a cross, and  is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. It is a major Christian holy site, marking the traditional place of Christ’s birth. Adjacent to this Church is the Church of St. Catherine.

Milk Grotto

Travelujah Milk Grotto Bethlehem

Only a few minutes walk from Manger square is the Milk Grotto, a place where the Holy Family took shelter during the Slaughter of the Innocents, hiding there from Herod’s soldiers. Above the grotto is a Franciscan Chapel. Prior to going to Egypt, Mary nursed Jesus in this small grotto. It is said that a drop of the Mary’s milk fell on the floor of the cave, turning the rock white and giving rise to the chalky white stone. People from around the world believe in the fertility powers of the chalky rock and many will travel to this cave simply to scratch of some of the residue, which is later consumed by mothers or placed under their pillow by mothers to be.

Old City of Bethlehem

Travelujah Old City Bethlehem

In the center of Bethlehem sits the Old City, an interesting place to walk around and stroll through the narrow streets and take in the decorations that adorn the old buildings which are now homes of many locals.
Follow the Star Street – the ancient way followed  by Joseph and the Virgin Mary to the Grotto of the Nativity. The street leads to King David Wells.

Bethlehem Museums

International Nativity Museum
International Nativity Museum of Bethlehem is one of the richest and valuable collections of cribs in the Holy Land. The Museum has a collection of over 200 Nativity representations of different styles and dimensions. It is located in the ground floor of the historical Salesian convent of Bethlehem. The variety of the cribs exposed, originating from all around the world, creates a rhapsody of customs, liturgy and rituality from all continents and ethnic groups.
Olive Oil Museum
Al Bad Museum for Olive Oil production is situated in the Old City of Bethlehem.  The building which houses the museum dates back to the 19th century. The museum houses many ethnographic and archaeological artifacts showcasing the entire process of oil production. Furthermore, the exhibit highlights the many uses for oil such as lamps, medicine, food, soap and  cosmetics.
Palestinian Heritage Center
The Palestinian Heritage Center aims to preserve and promote Palestinian Cultural Heritage, especially the art of embroidery. The PHC has a great collection of traditional Palestinian dresses and antique items of everyday use. It also participates in fair trade of hand-made embroidery, crafted by women from villages and refugee camps around the city of Bethlehem.

Banksy Art

banksys graffiti wall near Bethlehem
Bankys graffiti on the separation wall

Banksy is a pseudonymous for an Bristol, England-based graffiti artist, political activist, film director, and painter famous around the world who has self published several books. In August 2005, Banksy painted couple images on the Israeli West Bank barrier, including an image of a Christmas tree surrounded by a wall in Bethlehem and many more. Tourists from all over the world see his artwork while visiting Bethlehem.





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Manger inside Church of Nativity

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