Occupied West Bank
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
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
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.
The Church of the Nativity.
To view any photo at full
size, click on the photo with the left mouse button.
Door of humility
Byzantine mosaic floor
Icons and shrine
Crusader angel mosaic
by Israeli bullets
hole in roof from Israeli seige, 2002
The place where
Christ was born
location of the manger
entrance to the
cloisters with statue
of St Jerome, Israeli
bullet holes in wall
St Catherine's church
statue of Blessed Virgin
with bullet holes in neck
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This page was updated on 26 November 2007.
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