Slightly south of Jerusalem is Bethlehem (which means “house of bread” in Hebrew), a small town that became famous for being the birthplace of Jesus as well as King David. However, if you visit Bethlehem today, it is difficult to picture it as the small Jewish town it once was. It is now a somewhat touristy area with a population that has slowly changed from predominantly Christian to Muslim in the last fifty years. It is located in a Section A area of the West Bank, meaning that it is under Palestinian control, and that Israeli citizens are not permitted to enter there. Section B areas of the West Bank have joint-Palestinian and Israeli control, and Section C is where the disputed Israeli settlements are. In order to enter or exit a Section A area, people need to go through checkpoints. However, this is mostly inconvenient for the people who live within the country. The Bethlehem checkpoint is generally not a problem for tourists.
Most tourists who visit Bethlehem go to see the oldest church in the world that is still in use today, the Church of the Nativity. This Church encompasses a small cave that, since the second century A.D., tradition claims was Jesus’ birthplace. The original church was built in 339 A.D. by Constantine the Great’s mother, Helena. However, most of the current church’s structure is from the sixth century A.D., and was built by the Byzantine King, Justinian I. Throughout the centuries, the Church has experienced both damage and restoration. The Church’s most recent drama occurred in 2002 during the Second Intifada, when the Israeli government laid siege on 200 Palestinians who fled into the Church. When UNESCO made the Church of the Nativity a World Heritage Site in 2012, they also placed its status as “Endangered.” However, restoration began after that, and in 2019, this status was removed.
When you enter the Church, you must duck your head, because the doorway is shorter than most doorways. The reason for this is probably to make sure that visitors show respect while entering the sacred space. Because the Church is extremely old, inside is not a showy place with gaudy architecture and decorations. Instead, it is a simple, stone structure with high columns and a high ceiling. To enter the cave, you must descend into a separate part of the Church, away from the main sanctuary. According to my father, when he visited the church in the 1970s, the cave area had a doll in it that was supposed to represent baby Jesus. However, when I visited in 2010, I did not see that. Three groups currently oversee the Church: the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and the Armenian Church.
Right outside of Bethlehem is a spot that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all consider important. It is the alleged tomb of Rachel, the favorite wife of Jacob from the Bible (Genesis 35:19-20). However, like most Biblical sites in Israel, many theories exist as to whether this or other nearby sites are the actual place where Rachel was buried. Unfortunately, I never had a chance to visit Rachel’s tomb.
Bethlehem has never been known for having much there, but it is certainly worth visiting if you are interested in seeing the oldest church in the world that is still in use today. It may not be the most beautiful church in the world, but the ancient stone structure and scent of frankincense flowing through the air provide an experience rarely encountered in the Western world.
Sources and Further Reading
“Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre. http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1433/ (accessed November 30, 2019).
Lidman, Melanie. “Bethlehem’s Declining Christian Population Casts Shadow over Christmas.” National Catholic Reporter, December 29, 2016. https://www.ncronline.org/news/world/bethlehems-declining-christian-population-casts-shadow-over-christmas (accessed November 30, 2019).
“Siege of Bethlehem.” Frontline. https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/siege/etc/cron.html (accessed November 30, 2019).
“The Site of the Birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem (Palestine) Removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger.” UNESCO World Heritage Centre, July 2, 2109. http://whc.unesco.org/en/news/1995/ (accessed November 30, 2019).