Bethlehem, (Beit Lahem) located six miles (10kms) south of Jerusalem, nestles on two hilly plateaus. Being the birth place of Christ has thrust this small town onto the world stage, with the name conjuring up images of the infant Jesus, the Magi and the shepherds coming to worship.
Most tourists to Israel miss the undiscovered sights of Bethlehem and its surrounding region, and at best only spend an hour in Manger Square at the Church of the Nativity. But to the discerning traveler, Bethlehem offers great adventures. Staying two nights in Bethlehem is not too much to explore its treasures.
In the 13th century, St. Francis crossed the battle-lines of the Crusades in order to experience the wonders of Bethlehem. It is said he had himself locked in the stone Grotto of the Navity all night, and cried from joy. Later to provide children this rich experience of the Manger, he invented the live Christmas crech, with live animals and shepherds surrounding the Christ child.
Bethlehem lies 2,550 feet (765 meters) above sea level. It covers rolling hills, which stretch out eastward to the Judaean Desert. Bethlehem has a population of about sixty thousand inhabitants. The city has barren mountains and limited agricultural produce, mainly olive trees and vineyards.
More than a million pilgrims each year visit the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem. The Christian community in Bethlehem celebrates Christmas on three different dates, December 25, January 6 and 18th.
The people of Bethlehem have developed high quality artisan craftsmanship, mainly mother-of-pearl religious and gift items. Over one thousand different gift items are made from olive wood. Hand embroidery is a special trade mark in Bethlehem. These items are sold to pilgrims and tourists, and spending time shopping in Manger Square or Shepherd's Field is definitely worth it.
Sights around town
The Church of the Nativity:
The construction of the original church was instigated by Constantine the Great's mother Helena, who came on pilgrimage to Palestine in 325 AD to investigate three sites which had been revered since the early days of Christianity. She chose the Grotto of the Nativity, a series of caves, which is the traditional birth place of Jesus.
The huge basilica was completed by Constantine in 339 AD, the octagonal chapel of which was constructed over the series of caves. The Constantinian basilica was destroyed in the Samaritan Revolt of 529 AD. It was replaced by a larger basilica on the same site, slightly different in plan and incorporating diflerent parts of the original building. This basilica was built during the reign of Justinian and was spared destruction at the hands of the Persian invaders in 614 AD.
The church was lavishly restored during the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem (1099-1187) and was the center for the coronations of the Crusader kings of Jerusalem.
On the south side of the altar a flight of steps lead down to the Grotto of the Nativity, in the cave a silver star marks the place where the birth of Jesus is commemorated with the Latin inscription "Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ was born."
On the right of the entrance to the Grotto steps descend further to more caves and chambers, the first of which is said to be the tombs of the children killed in the Massacre of the Innocents when Herod attempted to kill the infant Jesus by killing all the male babies of the area. Another cave contains the tomb of St. Jerome. In the cave next to it, a chapel marks where he translated the Bible, known as the Vulgate, from Hebrew to Latin. In a sense, the Church of the Nativity is the linguistic birthplace of much of Roman Christianity.
The Franciscan church of Saint Catherine was built over these caves in 1881, and it is from here that the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve is broadcast around the world.
The Milk Grotto:
The street running East from Manger Square, along the south side of the Church of the Nativity leads to the Milk Grotto. It is here, according to Christian tradition, that the Holy Family took shelter on their flight to Egypt. A drop of the Virgin's milk fell on the floor of the cave giving rise, it is said, to the chalky stone.
Click here for a walking map of Manger Square, and the immediate area surrounding the Church of the Nativity. Close your browser window to return here.
King David's Wells:
King David wells in King David Street, off Manger Street, marks the site where David's men broke through the Philistine camps to bring him water, "Oh that someone would give me water to drink ffom the well of Bethlehem" (2 Sam 23:15).
Sights in the Area
Located on the right as you enter Bethlehem from Jerusalem is Rachel's Tomb. Rachel, wife of the patriarch Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin died giving birth to her second son. "And Jacob set a pillar upon her grave" (Gen 35:19). Two blocks south on the right is Bethlehem Bible College, of interest to western evangelical Christians.
To the East of Bethlehem lies the village of Beit Sahour where the Shepherds' Field is located, identified as the place where the Angel of the Lord visited the shepherds. "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people" (Luke 2: 8-10). Two chapels commemorate the visitation: the Greek Orthodox Der El Ra'wat and the Roman Catholic Siar El Ghanam.
Beit Jala lies just over a mile west (2 kilometers) of Bethlehem. It is built on a hill, and is the home of four churches, the most famous being St. Nicholas with its square tower and glittering dome. Passing through the town to the top of the hill is the Salesian monastery of Cremisan which houses a high school, a library and is famous for the wine produced by its monks.
Explore away from the beaten path
Thanks to its central geographical location, Bethlehem is an ideal base for day excursions into the surrounding countrya sacred land where religious history is literally all around you.
North of Bethlehem is the imposing St. Elias Monastery, dating from the 6th Century A.D. Nearby are the excavations of the palace of the Kings of Judah (9th-8th Centuries B.C.).
Monastery of Theodosius:
East of Beit Sahour is the Greek Orthodox monastery of Saint Theodosius. According to tradition the Three Wise Men rested here, after "they were warned by God in a dream that they should not return to Herod; they departed into their country another way" (Matthew 2:12).
The Pools of Solomon:
To the south-west lie the Pools of Solomon, three huge ponds, large and deep, which enabled agriculture to flourish in this ancient land as early as the 10th Century B.C., as well as bringing water to Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Also meriting a visit is the Cremisan Salesian monastery, famous for its excellent olive oil and good wine, and located just west of Bethlehem.
Situated on a prominent rise in the hill country southeast of Bethlehem is the Herodium, bastion and burial-place of King Herod. Extensive excavations during the last three decades have revealed large parts of these impressive historic structures, which are now open to visitors. Within view is the village of Tekoa, the home of Amos the prophet.
Mar Saba Monastery:
Dating back to the 5th Century, the Mar Saba monastery richly rewards an excursion into the Middle Eastern wilderness. This awe-inspiring complex, half-hidden in the Qidron Gorge, was an important place of pilgrimage even in Crusader times. To this day, women are still forbidden from entering the ancient complex. However, as compensation they may climb the specially constructed Women's Tower, which offers tremendous views of this extraordinary medley of old buildings, to say nothing of the dramatic scenery of the gorge.
Important Phone Numbers
The phone numbers below contain a "02" local code for dialing Bethlehem from within Israel. If dialing from Bethlehem, drop the "02" prefixes. If dialing internationally, add the country code 972 and drop the "0" of the "02" code.
Police Station: 02-748-222
Fire Station: 02-7410123
Hospital (Al Husein): 02-741-161, 2 / 3
Al-Andalus: 02-741-348, Fax 02-743-519
Bethlehem Star: 02-743-249, Fax 02-741-494
Grand: 02-741440, Fax 02-741-602
Handal: 02-740-656, Fax 02-744-788
Crown Tours: 02-740-911 / 2
Gloria Travel: 02-743-021
Joy Int'l. Travel: 02-647-0330
King David Travel: 02-647-0054
Lama Tours: 02-742-847
Nativity Travel: 02-742-966
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Revised: June 1, 1999