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.
Bethlehem 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 as the 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.
Bethlehem is revered by Jews as the birthplace and home town of David, 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 and one of the chief cultural and tourism draw-cards for the 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 occurred and the ensuing violence scuttled these tourism efforts. With the Palestinian uprising and violent clashes between both sides now have been over and done with for quite a few years, violence is now a thing of the past and many in Bethlehem hope to continue on where Bethlehem 2000 started them off.
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.