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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 (and particularly the Gospels) 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 . 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 drawcards for the Palestinian 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 Millenium 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 occupation 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. (less...) (more...)
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Points of Interest in Bethlehem
- the Church of the Nativity, Manger Square - undoubtedly the top attraction in Bethlehem, a veritable citadel built fortress-like on top of the cave where Jesus was born to Mary. It is one of the oldest churches in the world. The first incarnation of the building was erected on the orders of the Roman Emperor Constantine I (the Great) in 330 CE. While the layout largely corresponds to Emperor Justinian's plans from 540 CE (the first building having been destroyed in a 536 riot), the church was first heavily fortified by the Crusaders and then degraded (mostly through neglect) under Mamluk rule. An earthquake in 1834 and a fire in 1869 didn't help. Today, the structure is mostly sound but somewhat dark and gloomy in appearance, only the adjoining Franciscan Church of St Catherine (dated 1881 and the site of the yearly December 24 midnight mass broadcast around the world) being in excellent shape. The actual alleged site of Jesus' birth, is located in an cave in the church (the original Manger where Jesus was born was a cave, not a shed, as popularly depicted). There is a star marking the exact location of Jesus' birth in the cave. The original Manger with the star marking Jesus' birth site is called the Grotto of the Nativity, and is accessible from inside the church. (The tomb of famed theologian and Bethlehem resident St. Jerome, who spent his life translating the Bible, is also in the cave with the Grotto.) Entrance to the entire complex is free, but in the high season be prepared for massive crowds and hour-long waits for entry into the Grotto. There are usually accredited tour-guides waiting at the entrance of the church who offer to give tours to groups/individuals. Makes sure to agree on a price before taking the tour.
- Rachel's Tomb, the burial place of the matriarch Rachel, wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin is the second most important historical site in Bethlehem. (Genesis 35:19-20). It is a holy site in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As a result of the security situation, the Tomb's original structure has been surrounded by an Israeli fortress, barricading it off from Bethlehem. While the original tomb can still be seen in its entirety from within the fortress, access to the tomb is now restricted to those travelling by Egged bus from Jerusalem.
- the Shepherds' Fields - "While shepherds watched their flocks by night..." - rival locations in the Bethlehem suburb of Beit Sahour claim to be the site of the angel's visitation to the shepherds mentioned in the Gospels:
- the Orthodox Shepherds' Fields Here you will also find open excavations of an old Byzantine church.
- the Catholic (Latin) Shepherds' Fields
- Minor sights include the Milk Grotto Chapel, where Mary supposedly spilled a few drops of breast milk while feeding Jesus as she hid before the Holy Family's escape to Egypt, turning the cavern milky white. It is open all day. The white powder scrapped from the cave is also sold as a fertility medicine inside the chapel.
- the Mosque of Omar A mosque in active use. Rather plain and uninteresting on the inside but somewhat pretty on the outside.
- Solomon's Pools Three huge Herodian-era stone carved reservoirs capable of holding 160,000 cubic meters of water. They are located in a pine tree forest about 3 km from Bethlehem in a beautiful hiking area called the Artas Valley. In Artas, there is also the very beautiful Italian Order of the Sisters of Mary of the Garden built the Hortus Conclusus Convent and as well a Palestinian Folklore museum. Artas village also boasts an annual lettuce festival.
- King David's Wells King David's Wells (Biyar Daoud) in King David street, off Manger Square, are three Great Cisterns excavated in the rock in Ras Eftais, an eastern sector of Bethlehem, marking the site where David's army broke through a Philistine garrison to bring him water; "Oh that someone would give me water to drink from the well of Bethlehem" (2 Sam. 23:15). It is believed by some that under the adjacent Church of St. David is where the King is buried (as opposed to the traditional tomb in Jerusalem). The cisterns were discovered in 1895. The church rested on a vast Necropolis composed of 18 Arcosolia with two to six tombs each. The cemetery was Christian as proved by the inscription. The Catholic Action Club lies on the site of one of the cisterns.
- the Old City is also good for a stroll and shopping if you haven't seen an Arab city before.
- The graffiti by famed yet mysterious artist Banksy, drawn on the barrier wall dividing Bethlehem from Jerusalem, has drawn worldwide media attention and is definitely worth a look. There are, I think, many other artists' work as well, including a Palestinian version of Guernica. To see this, it is probably best to hire a taxi.
- Herodium (Ask a taxi driver at Bethlehem's bus station to take you there). A must see! The site of King Herod's man made mountain and his recently discovered tomb. It is located near Bethlehem. Once at Bethlehem's bus station (called the mujamma), negotiate a price with a taxi driver who will take you to the site, wait for you there, and drop you back off at the Bethlehem bus station. 150-200NIS should be reasonable, better to go with a group of people and split the cab cost.
- The Monastery of St. George/ Al Khader (Al Khader village). Visit the village of Al Khader beside Bethlehem to see the Monastery of St George (a very important Christian Saint for Orthodox Christians, also called "Mar Jeriess" in Arabic). The monastery is said to hold relics from the saint that posess healing powers-especially for mental illness. The monastery was used in the 19th century as a psychiatric facility to treat mental illness by using St George's relics. The site is also venerated in Muslim tradition as the setting for the Muslim prophet Al Khider's teachings. In mid-April or early May (it goes by the Julian calendar), the town (both Muslims and Christians) holds a festival for St.George that is worth seeing
- St Elias Monastery. Visit the St Elias Monastery, an ancient Orthodox Christian monastery built over the ruins of a Byzantine church is located on the outer edge of Bethlehem. It is surrounded by beautiful surroundings that remind one of what Bethlehem's scenary may have looked like in Biblical times.
- Monastery of Mar Saba (15 km from Bethlehem), ☎ 277 3135. 8AM-5PM. The monastery of Mar Saba is located only 6km frm St. Theodosius and 15 km from Bethlehem. Few of the Byzantine desert monasteries can match the serenity and beauty this monastery. Clinging to the cliff face of the Kidron Valley, this immense and spectacular Greek Orthodox Monastery evokes a thrilling shock when its first comes into view in the midst of a desert landscape. The Monastery is named after Saint Saba (439-532 CE) who settled in a cave opposite the actual site in complete seclusion that lasted some 5 years. Built into the rock, Mar Saba represents a way of life unchanged since the time of Constantine. The body of Saint Saba can be seen in the principle church while his tomb is paved in the courtyard outside. The first church founded by Saint Saba is marked by the Chapel of St Nicholas.
Although Mar Saba is reputed for its hospitality to strangers, women have never been allowed to enter. Hence women can enjoy a glimpse of the chapel and building from a nearby two storey tower known as the Women’s Tower.
- Monastery of St. Theodosius, ☎ 050 282 447. The Monastery of St. Theodosius (also known in Arabic as Deir Dosi) is located about 12 Km east of Bethlehem. Founded by St. Theodosius in the late 5th to early 6th century stands on the site where the three wise men rested on their way back from visiting the Infant Jesus in Bethlehem. The original monastery was destroyed during the Persian invasion. St. Theodosius died in 529 CE and at that time there was said to be some 400 monks living in the Monastery who were massacred by the Persians during the invasion of 614 CE. The Monastery was restored in 1893 by the Greek Orthodox Church and it encompasses the remains of an old Crusader building. Today the Monastery is inhabited by a dozen Greek Orthodox monks. A white-walled cave marks the place where the founder, St. Theodosius is buried. 8AM-3PM.