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Palestine FlagBethlehem, Palestine

Occupied West Bank

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Bethlehem is Palestine's third largest city, with a population of 30,000. The town is a commercial centre and is also home to one of Palestine's largest universities. However, it is best known as the birthplace of Christ and the site of the Church of the Nativity.

No matter what position Bethlehem occupies in the secular life of Palestine, it will be forever associated in Western thought with events which may or may not have taken place there 2000 years ago. As the birthplace of Christ, Bethlehem occupies a special place in the hearts of Christians around the world. Although the town's population is now majority Moslem, it still home to 54 churches and a number of Christian schools, hospitals, hospices, and other ecumenical institutions. The populace cannot be blamed for taking advantage of biblical connections, almost every shop in the city centre sells religious souvenirs (many produced in workshops around the town) and icons, but fortunately Bethlehem has managed to avoid the worst excesses of the raging commercialism of Jerusalem's Old City.

Some 3,000 years before Mary and Joseph arrived to change the course of world history, it was a Canaanite village. The original name of the town was Beit Lahama, literally House of the God Lahmo. In modern Arabic this has become Beit Lahm (House of Meat). The town may have been mentioned in the Amarna letters, 14th century BC correspondence between the Egyptian governor of Palestine and Pharaoh Menhotep III. Certainly it was an important stopping point for travellers between Syria and Egypt in this era.

Mary and Joseph probably arrived in Bethlehem in 5BC, during the reign of Herod. For Christians, the cave or stable was a place of worship well before the end of the 1st century. Unfortunately this freedom of worship was stopped by Hadrian who, in 135 AD, built a Roman temple over the site. In 1187 European Christians were again denied the right to worship at one of their holiest shrines by Salah-e-din, who expelled them from Bethlehem in retaliation for their mistreatment of Moslems in Jerusalem. In 1263 the Mamelukes banished all Christians from the town. The Ottoman sultans also banished them from the 16th century on.

Between periods of persecution, Christians enjoyed times of power in Bethlehem. In the Byzantine era, after a visit by Queen Helena in 326 AD, the town became a major pilgrimage destination. Following the arrival of St Jerome in 384 it became a monastic center. A second period of Christian domination came with the Crusaders in 1099. Many Crusader kings chose to be crowned in Bethlehem rather than in Jerusalem.

Relations between Moslems and Christians have not always been bad here. After the caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattib conquered Jerusalem in 637, he visited Bethlehem and signed an agreement with the local ecclesiastical authorities allowing Moslems to pray within the church. Pope Paul VI, the first pope since St Peter to visit Bethlehem, came in 1964. Shocked at the poor living conditions of the Palestinians, he called for the establishment of institutions to improve quality of life for the local population. Bethlehem University was founded in 1973 as a direct result.

In March and April 2002, the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) reoccupied Bethlehem and other cities in the West Bank. Several hundred local residents and Palestinian fighters took refuge in the Church of the Nativity. During Israeli attempts to storm the sanctuary, extensive damage was done to priceless mosaics, statues, stained glass, and other religious artifacts as well as structural damage to the roof and walls, and several priests and monks were seriously wounded.

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The Church of the Nativity.

To view any photo at full size, click on the photo with the left mouse button.


Door of humility

mosaic floor

Byzantine mosaic floor



Greek transept

Greek transept




Icons and shrine


Crusader angel mosaic


Angel damaged
by Israeli bullets

hole in roof

hole in roof from Israeli seige, 2002

grotto entrance

Grotto entrance


The place where
Christ was born


location of the manger

franciscan cloisters entrance

entrance to the
Franciscan Cloisters


cloisters with statue
of St Jerome, Israeli
bullet holes in wall


Franciscan cloisters


door to
St Catherine's church

St Catherine's

St Catherine's

Blessed Virgin

statue of Blessed Virgin
with bullet holes in neck

Click on this link to see photos of Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.

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Click the links to see the other pages in the Palestine section.

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This page was updated on 26 November 2007.

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This site was edited using Nvu and Style Master.

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