Follow the Star
The city of Bethlehem is holy to both Christians and Muslims. It is acknowledged as the birthplace of Jesus Christ or, in Arabic, Issa, who is known as the Son of God in Christian belief and a divinely inspired prophet to Muslims. The Church of the Nativity, a Byzantine basilica, was built by Helena (the mother of the Emperor Constantine), to commemorate Jesus’ birth. It is built on top of a cave where, according to a tradition first documented in the second century AD, Jesus was born. It was first dedicated in 339 AD.
The city itself has a long pre-Roman history documented first in the fourteenth century BC in the Amarna letters. Archaeological evidence from the Chalcolithic period, Bronze, and Iron Ages show that the earliest human presence was on the eastern slope of the city’s central hill, and in the middle of the fields of Beit Sahour. It was probably here that the Iron Age city lay, but by the tenth to eighth centuries BC, the town was located on the high ridge of today’s Bethlehem in the area of gardens around and east of today’s Nativity Church. At this early period the caves beneath the church were still in use. By 700 BC, the town had lost some of its significance but became an important centre once more during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, when the construction of the Jerusalem aqueduct meant part of its water was diverted to the city.
Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem at the end of Herod’s reign determined the destiny of the town. Under Constantine, the first Christian emperor, the Church of the Nativity was built as one of three imperial churches in Palestine. At the end of the fourth century AD, Saint Jerome settled in Bethlehem and built two monasteries with the help of St. Paula. The Church was destroyed in 529 AD and was rebuilt on a much grander scale under Justinian, and this structure remains essentially the church that stands today. The city was depicted on the Madaba mosaic map in the 6th century AD.
The Church is the central feature of Bethlehem, and is surrounded by other important sites related to Christ’s birth. Among these is the Milk Grotto, an irregular cave hewn in the soft limestone, located southeast of the basilica, where according to Christian traditions, Mother Mary nursed baby Jesus while hiding there from Herod’s soldiers. The shepherds’ fields, where the angel of the Lord is believed to have appeared before the shepherds bringing them the good tidings of the birth of Jesus, are roughly 2 km east of Bethlehem. There are two competing sites: one belonging to the Roman Catholics, and the other to the Greek Orthodox Church.
Bethlehem’s old town is the place where a wide range of religious and traditional activities take place. The Patriarch Route, which runs along Star Street, is the route of a religious parade, which passes through each year during Christmas celebrations. The Nativity Square hosts a grand celebration each year, marking the anniversary of the birth of Christ.
The Church of the Nativity
The oldest church in the Holy Land that is still in use, the original was constructed under the patronage of Constantine’s mother, Helena, who came on a pilgrimage to Palestine in 325 AD to investigate the sites associated with the life of Jesus Christ, revered since the early days of Christianity.
Helena chose the Grotto of the Nativity, the traditional birthplace of Jesus, as the site for the huge basilica, which was completed in 339 AD. Inside the Church, two sets of stairs on either side of the main altar lead down into the grotto, the site where Jesus was born. A silver star embedded in white marble and bearing the Latin inscription ‘Here of the Virgin Mary Christ was born’ marks the site. In 2010 a Palestinian presidential committee was established to restore the roof of the church, in bad need of repairs. In 2012, the Nativity Church and the Pilgrimage Route were inscribed on the World Heritage List.
According to tradition, the Milk Grotto is where Mother Mary nursed baby Jesus while hiding from Herod’s soldiers before going to Egypt. Located southeast of the Basilica, it is an irregular Grotto hewn out of soft white rock. It is believed that some drops of Mary’s milk fell onto the rock, turning it white. Revered by Christians and Muslims, the milk-white rock is known for its healing powers and reputed ability to make nursing easier for women.
Mar Saba Monastery
Built into the rock overlooking the Kidron Valley, 15 km east of Bethlehem, this magnificent monastery is a spectacular sight when it first comes into view. It preserves a way of life unchanged since the time of Constantine, and maintains a tradition of not allowing women to enter. The great monastic leader Saint Saba (439-532) AD, the monastery’s namesake, founded the site in the Byzantine period.
A small village located in a fertile valley, 3km south of Bethlehem. The name Artas is derived from the Latin word hortus meaning Paradise, It was likely named for its lush plants and rich soil. The village is also home to many ruins, including a Crusader convent, the foundations of a Crusader church, a castle as well as several Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, and Crusader sites. Artas has a breath-taking view of the spectacular Convent of Hortus Conclusus (closed garden) and the surrounding hills with their terraced green fields.
Hidden among pine trees in a small valley 4km south of Bethlehem, Solomon’s Pools consist of three huge rectangular reservoirs of stone and masonry that can hold 160,000 cubic meters of water. Although tradition attributes these to King Solomon, the pools almost certainly date from the time of Herod, and may have been conceived by Pontius Pilate. In the past, the reservoirs collected spring and rainwater and pumped it to Bethlehem and Jerusalem. They continued to function until the time of the British Mandate.
Qalat Al-Burak, an Ottoman fortress dating back to the seventeenth century is located near the pools, built to protect their water sources.
Herodion ( Jabal Al-Furdais)
Built in a circular shape on top of a hill 6km southeast of Bethlehem, this fortress includes the remains of a huge palace built by King Herod for his wife in 37 BC. The palace contained a luxurious, round-walled building, fortified chambers, baths, and terraced gardens. Herodion fort hill dominates the landscape of the area, and offers an impressive view of the Dead Sea from its peak.
This historic town, whose name means “Place of the Night Watch”, in reference to the Shepherds who keep watch over their flock by night, lies 1km east of Bethlehem. In the past, the Canaanites inhabited its numerous caves, and today it is the home of many churches and convents. Churches now mark the sites of Shepherds Field, the Field of Ruth and the Well of the Lady.
Located in the town of Beit Sahour 2 km east of Bethlehem, this is the site where the angel of the Lord is said to have appeared before shepherds bringing them good tidings of the birth of Jesus. Joined with a multitude of heavenly hosts, the angel sang ‘Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth, Peace among men.’
Saint Theodosius’ Monastery
Built by Theodosius in 500 AD, the monastery is located west of the historic village of Ubediyyeh, 12 km east of Bethlehem. A white-walled cave marks the burial site of Saint Theodosius, and tradition has it that the wise men rested here after God warned them in a dream that they should not return to Herod.
Al-Baryiah: The wilderness of the mountain desert, caves and monasteries
The Al-Bariyah area is a semi-arid zone, with a mountainous desert habitat. Essentially a treeless, thin-soiled, arid and dramatically eroding limestone plateau, it is dissected by a valley (a wadi) draining towards the Dead Sea. It lies in the rain-shadow of the central highlands, and is classified as a hot area that receives very low annual rainfall (recently between 400 mm to 150 mm from west to east).
Its unique geological formation, bio-geographic location, and an abundance of water from flash floods and permanent springs, a natural diversity exists within this desert habitat that is rare, if not unique. Birdlife International calls the area one of the most important bird areas in the region, and one of the major migration routes for many bird species worldwide.
El-Bariyah is also rich in cultural heritage. Archaeological investigations have shown continuous occupation in different parts of it, extending from the Lower Palaeolithic period to modern times. Evidence of habitation in early prehistoric times (100,000- 10,000 BC) is particularly well-attested along the north side of Wadi Khareitun where three caves –Iraq Al-Ahmar, Umm Qala, and Umm Qatafa— once provided homes in a wooded landscape overlooking a river. Umm Qatafa, across the wadi opposite the Old Laura Monastery, is the site where the earliest evidence of domestic use of fire in Palestine was identified.
Throughout its history Al-Bariyah has been a place to take refuge, as Jesus himself experienced during his ‘40 days and 40 nights.’ After the growth of Christianity, hermits began to inhabit caves in the area, and built a series of monasteries which subsequently formed a monastic centre. During the Islamic period, a series of shrines (maqams) were established in the area, including Khan al-Ahmar and Maqam an-Nabi Musa. These sites are important places on the Muslim pilgrimage route to Mecca.
King David’s Wells (Biyar Daoud)
Located north of Bethlehem, David’s Wells mark the site where David’s men broke through a Philistine garrison to bring him water.
This quaint town 2km west of Bethlehem is an old Canaanite city whose name in Aramaic means, ‘grass carpet.’ Today it is the home of a theological seminary and several old churches and convents, of which the Church of Saint Nicholas, with its square tower and golden dome, is the most famous. The Salesian Monastery of Cremisan, housing a school and a library, is at the edge of the town, and is reputed for its excellent wine. Beyond the Cremisan winery, Beit Jala is known for its first-rate olive oil.
Located up a steep hill, the town is cooler in the summers than either Bethlehem or Jerusalem, and coupled with its attractive scenery, made it a popular summer resort.
St. George’s Church– Al-Khader
It was built in 1600 AD and rebuilt in 1912. The pilgrimage is in honour of Saint George (in Arabic al-Khader), the soldier monk who slew the dragon; he is venerated for being able to ward off the evil eye. Islamic tradition has it that he left his native Lydda, where he was born, and settled here in this village which bears his name. Muslims and Christians come together annually on St George’s feast days
(5 May-6 May), to celebrate their common protector, to whom many different blessings are attributed. Saint George is also the patron saint of farmers, travellers and the mentally sick. According to a popular belief, lunatics were chained to a ring in the walls of the courtyard here in order for them to be delivered from their insanity due to the intervention of Saint George.
Masjid Bilal (Rachel’s Tomb)
This small building marks the traditional Tomb of Rachel, Jacob’s wife. It is considered holy to Christians, Muslims, and Jews. The present sanctuary and mosque were built during the Ottoman period and are situated on the Jerusalem-Hebron Road near Bethlehem’s northern entrance.