Bethlehem, State of Palestine

Bethlehem cityscape, dotted with churches. Photo Creative Commons License Tamer Shabaneh.

Perched on a hill at the edge of the Judean desert just 5 miles south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem is the childhood home of the biblical King David. It is also the birthplace of Jesus Christ and has been a major site of Christian pilgrimage since the construction of the Church of the Nativity in the 4th century AD. The town has been a monastic center for almost as long. In the 5th century AD, St. Jerome built a monastery here and with the aid of local rabbis translated the Old Testament into Latin from the original Hebrew for the Vulgate, the standard Latin translation of the Bible used by the Roman Catholic Church. Bethlehem flourished until Crusader times, but the following centuries witnessed a great reduction in population, reversed only after the 1948 war with the arrival of thousands of Palestinian refugees.

Since 1995, Bethlehem has been under the control of the Palestinian National Authority, which has initiated a program of economic recovery and tourism. Despite the huge number of pilgrims and chaotic urban growth, Bethlehem retains an authentic atmosphere, especially in the central area around Manger Square and in the souk just to the west. The souvenir shops are filled with kitsch religious objects but also carved olive-wood crib scenes that local craftsmen have produced for centuries. No visitor should miss the ancient Church of the Nativity on Manger Square, and the town's other main sights also deserve a visit.

Church of the Nativity
This is a major Christian holy site that marks the traditional place of Christ's birth. It is also one of the oldest surviving Christian churches, commissioned by Emperor Constantine.
Tomb of Rachel
The burial place of the biblical matriarch Rachel, wife of Jacob. For Jews it is the third holiest site after the Temple Mount and Tomb of the Patriarchs.
Church of St. Catherine
This Catholic church adjacent to the Nativity Church marks the appearance of Christ to St. Catherine of Alexandria, and may incorporate the monastery of St. Jerome.
Umar Mosque
This 12th-century mosque was built by Saladin's son in honor of Caliph Omar, who prayed on the steps of the nearby Church of the Holy Sepulchre instead of inside.
Milk Grotto
According to tradition, Mary nursed Jesus here and spilled a drop of milk, turning the ground white. Christian and Muslim women collect stone scrapings from the cave for fertility.
Shepherds' Fields
Fertile fields identified since ancient times with the shepherds who saw the Star of Nativity. There are two rival locations, one run by the Greek Orthodox and the other by the Franciscans.