Church of the Nativity
This is the oldest church in the Holy Land still in use. The original church 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 which had been revered since the early days of Christianity. Helena chose to 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 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.
According to tradition, the Milk Grotto is where Mother Mary nursed baby Jesus while hiding there 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 trickled, turning the rock white. Revered by Christians and Muslims alike, the milk-white rock is famous for its healing powers and reputed ability of making nursing easier for women.
This vast esplanade between the Mosque of Omar and the Church of the Nativity constitutes the tourist centre of Bethlehem. The square as well as much of the Old city underwent renovation from 1998 to 2000. Many events throughout the year take place here, culminating in Christmas Eve, or eves, since the birth of Jesus is celebrated three times: on December 25 by Catholics, January 7 by the Orthodox, and January 19 by Armenians. There are frequent cultural exhibitions, concerts and conferences at the Bethlehem Peace Centre at the square (Tel: 02-276 6677 ww.peacecenter.org) and at the nearby International Centre of Bethlehem (www.annadwa.org, Tel: 02-2770047) just off the square, housing the Al-Kahf Gallery and the Dar Annadwa Arts & Crafts Centre (open daily except Sunday 9:30-19:00) which are well worth a visit.
The Tourism Office (Tel: 02-276 6677) and a bookshop (most books in English) also selling some souvenirs are on the ground floor of the peace centre.
The Old City
Pope Paul VI Street, which is in the center of the town, leads down to Manger Squarein the heart of the Old City. The numerous convents and churches built by European religious congregations have firmly marked the urban landscape, but Bethlehemis above all an oriental city. The neighbourhoods around Paul VI Street, and the popular Star and Farahiya Streets offer visitors a model of Arab architecture typical of the Ottoman era.
Dar Mansour, the ” House of Mansour” (Star Street), is a good example of the architectural style of bourgeois homes at the end of the nineteenth century. Contrasting with the activity of the town’s main arteries, the sleepy narrow side streets run between houses arranged in close clusters on the steep slopes around theOldCity. Most of these alleyways have stone stairs that are sometimes overhung by passageways in order to connect two dwellings belonging to the same family.
One of the distinctive features of the houses in Bethlehem is their orientation. Despite the fact that the houses are arranged around a closed space, the traditional interior courtyard often has a liwan (a vaulted living room open on one side) looking out over the cultivated land. The tremendous variety of architectural openings, doors, windows and the liwan greatly adds to the picturesque charm of oldBethlehem.
It is located in the town ofBeit Sahour 2km east of Bethlehem. This is the site where the angel of the Lord appeared before the shepherds bringing them the good tidings of the birth of Jesus, joined with a multitude of heavenly hosts, who sang ” Glory to God In the Highest and on Earth, Peace among men”.
St. Theodosius Monastery
Built by Theodosius in 500 AD, the monastery is located east of the historic village of Ubediyyeh12km east of Bethlehem. A white-walled cave marks the burial site of St. Theodosius. Tradition has it that the wise men rested here after God warned them in a dream that they should not return to Herod.
St. Saba Monastery
A drive of about 6 kilometers east of Shepherd’s Field down a winding road takes you to the Greek Orthodox Monastery of Mar Saba. Built into a cliff, it has a spectacular view overlooking the gorge of theKidronValleyand was part of the grand tour of Palestine during the 19th century. The founder, St. Saba, came from Cappadocia in the fifth century. There are legends about St. Saba having lived in a cave with a lion for many years. St. Saba died at age 94, and his corpse is still preserved in the Church at the monastery. The monastery has 110 rooms, though today there are only a few monks residing in it. The monks are friendly and hospitable, but long-established tradition prevents the entry of women, who must enjoy the scenery from outside.
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 luxurious, round walled buildings, fortified chambers, and baths and terraced gardens.Fort Herodion hill dominates the landscape and offers an impressive view of theDead Sea.
Rachel’s Tomb – Belal’s Mosque
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 the northern entrance of Bethlehem.
Hidden among very tall pine trees in a small valley 4km south ofBethlehem, 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.
Qalat al-Burak, an Ottoman fortress dating back to the 17th century is located near the pools. The fortress was built to protect Solomon’s Pools water source.
St. George’s Church– Al-Khader
Every year on May 5, there is a pilgrimage to theal-Khader Church, which was built in 1600 AD and rebuilt in 1912. The pilgrimage is in honor 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 this day to celebrate their common protector, to whom many different blessings are attributed. Saint George is also the patron saint of farmers, travelers 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.
(Jerusalem-Hebron Road, al-Khader Gate; Tel: 02-274 3233, daily8:00-12:00 and 15:00-19:00. Free entry).
The Green Market
The Green Market has existed since 1929 on the square opposite the Syrian Orthodox Church. Tradesmen and farmers from the Bethlehem area and even Hebron come here to sell their fresh produce. This picturesque spot was renovated in 1999 as part of the Bethlehem 2000 project.
The Mosque of Omar
Located at the corner of Paul VI Street and Manger Square, the mosque was built in honour of the second Caliph, Omar Ibn al-Khattab. A companion of the Prophet Mohammed and his father-in-law, he entered Bethlehem after taking Jerusalem and prayed in the southern aisle of the Basilica of the Nativity. However, he guaranteed that the Basilica would remain a Christian place of worship in the Pact of Omar, which stipulated that Muslims would be allowed to pray here only individually and which prohibited calling for prayer (al-Adan) from the church walls.
Located south of the Church of Nativity and in close proximity to Manger Square, Anatra Quarter is a prototype of the hosh clusters, housing complexes of small-scale harmonious buildings of similar colour and texture with residential, commercial and institutional functions.
Arab Women’s Union Museum
Visit the Arab Women’s Union Museum just off Manger Street. In this museum you will find recreated a diwan (a traditional living room) and displays of traditional clothing, jewelry, old photos, and personal items from the British Mandate era. A tour of the museum offers a taste of the gracious refinement Palestinian families enjoyed in the pre-1948 era.
Palestinian Heritage Center
At the entry to Bethlehem, the centre has a small museum (one may try on traditional Palestinian clothing), and a gift shop with extremely beautiful embroidery work, among other products. The proprietress who is an embroidery expert, will gladly present her collection.
Location: At the crossroads of Manger and Caritas streets.
Open Monday-Saturday, 9:00-21:00, free admission; Tel: 02-274 2381. One can arrange a display of traditional costumes.
The Olive Press Museum
The olive press (al-Najajra Street) is the only press conserved in the OldCityand dates back to 1792. It is a reminder of the all-importance of the olive tree in the life ofBethlehem and ofPalestine as a whole.
Ibdaa Cultural Center
In Arabic, idbaa means” creativity”. Inaugurated in 1995, the centre offers a wide range of activities (day-care centre, bookshop, Internet centre, oral history project, to name a few). Ibdaa also owes its reputation to the 60 young people in its famous folk dance troupe. It is a good place to meet foreigners, who come to learn more about the situation of the refugees, their status, rights and claims. The centre has recently started to show documentary or fictional films about Palestine and has an Internet centre ($1 per person), a restaurant and hostel rooms.
Tel/Fax: 02-277-6444, http://www.dheisheh-ibdaa.net; hostel rooms
Al-Liqa’ Center for Religious & Heritage Studies
Founded in 1983 by Palestinian Muslim and Christian community leaders, Al-Liqa’ (“the meeting” in Arabic) aims at furthering dialogue between the different religious communities. It organizes and participates in frequent conferences and publishes a newspaper in English: Al-Liqa’ Newspaper focuses on issues such as the Palestinian historical heritage and the religious patrimony of Muslims and Christians.
Address:Jerusalem-Hebron Road, Tel: 02-274 1639, email:firstname.lastname@example.org; open Monday-Friday 8:00-15:00, Saturday 8:00-14:00).
Committees for the Refugee Camps
These committees provide visitors with an overall view of the situation of Palestinian refugees; they also organize visits and contacts in Aida, Beit Jibrin and Deheisheh camps to explain the role citizens’ committees play in the internal organization of the camps.
Approximately two kilometers west of Bethlehem is Beit Jala, a town set among olive groves and vineyards with stunning stone masonry and a spectacular view of Jerusalem. The town’s unique location and moderate weather make it a popular summer destination for visitors in search of a clean, peaceful environment and beautiful scenery. In recent year, Beit Jala has become well known for its modern hotels and good restaurants, which offer a variety of food to please different tastes. Olive oil is one of the town’s main products. It has a unique taste characteristic of the trees in the area. One of the most important sights in Beit Jala is the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas, established in 1925 and named for the patron saint of Beit Jala.
Beit Sahour is located southeast of Bethlehem. It is the scene of the fields of olives, well-known as Shepherd’s Field, the place where the angel announced to the shepherds the birth of Jesus Christ. There are two points of interest here: a Franciscan chapel, and a Greek Orthodox church that was built over a cave in the fifth century. There also are some exceptionally old olive trees in the field. While in the town, be sure to ask about theBeit Sahour Municipality Folklore Museum.
Wadi Artas is a fine example of the fertility of Palestinian valleys. Its ideal landscape calls to mind the paradise lost, said to have been King Solomon’s garden, which was said to have inspired The Song of Songs, or Song of Solomon, in the Old Testament “A garden inclosed is my sister, my spouse. A spring shut up, a fountain sealed. Thy plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits;” (Song of Solomon 4:12-13). The name Artas, more recent, is derived from the Latin hortus, or “garden”. Nowadays, the Convent of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Garden and the Convent Hortus Conclusus symbolically associate the image of Mary with her virginity and fertility.
Located just above the mosque, is The Artas Folklore Centre (Tel/Fax: 02-276-7467) which was created to preserve the local rural heritage and contributes to the preservation of customs and traditional practices, by producing documents on Palestinian culture and collecting archives. The Palestinian Ethnographic Centre (museum) is a fascinating part of the project. It is responsible for several old houses, recently renovated, on a site inhabited for thousands of years. In addition to a tour of the homes and museum, the Centre will also serve a traditional Palestinian meal and organize an evening with folk music and dancing (for a minimum of 10 people).
The Artas Lettuce Festival takes place every year from March 21 to April 11, featuring Palestinian Dabka (folk dancing) contests and horse races.
A Stroll in Wadi Artas, from Qal’at al-Buraq to Herodion
Spring is without question the best season for a walk in Wadi Artas, when the scenery is at its greenest and flowers are everywhere. It is an easy three-kilometre walk in the wadi to Solomon’s Pools. Between the second and third pool, one finds the old pumping stations first installed by the Germans, and then by the British at the beginning of the last century. The road traverses a hill where there are ruins of a Roman village called Khirbet al-Khoch, which some think was the biblical villageof Etam. Herodion is located twelve kilometers away from Artas.
Every spring, the centre organizes day excursions to al-Buraq and Herodion or half-day excursions to the nearby mountains. (For details: -Artas Folklore Centre – Tel/fax: 02-276 7467).