Bethlehem’s past is as diverse as its present and can accurately be captured in its nomenclature. As an ancient Canaanite settlement, it was better known as “Bit Lahmi” and records indicate the presence of a temple built to the Canaanite god of fertility, Lachama, underneath the present day site of the Church of the Nativity. Later renditions of its name perpetuate its nature as a place of sustenance and nourishment. In Hebrew, the name, Beit Lehem means “House of Bread” and in Arabic, Bet-Lahm, means “House of Meat”.
Today, Bethlehem retains a distinct level of diversity that is unique to the surrounding West Bank region. Bethlehem is home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, though emigration has made a significant dent in the Christian population. Historically the city was majority Christian, but now Christians make up about 15% of the population of the now predominantely Muslim city. Drawn together by a shared history and a tourism based economy, the inhabitants of Bethlehem continue to live and work side by side with a commitment to maintaining the city’s vitality. Pilgrims, journalists, NGO workers, clergy and locals brush shoulders on the narrow sidewalks of this hilly city.
Bethlehem is known for its traditional Palestinian crafts, including carved olive wood figurines, with Christmas nativity scenes being the most popular. The city fully comes to life on Christmas Eve, with a famous midnight Mass, Christmas market, and parties in the streets. Manger Square, a large open plaza that opens onto the Church of the Nativity and Mosque of Omar, is at the heart of Bethlehem. Visitors can find restaurants, access to the historic Old City market, tourist information, and the Peace Center, a visitor center with a lovely bookshop and a museum of creches from around the world.
Bethlehem’s sacred status has been upheld over the centuries by the many peoples who have passed through, settled or conquered it. While it may be known most popularly as the traditional site of the birth of Jesus, it is also the setting for a plethora of other important historical happenings. Both Jews and Christians know it as the City of David and can find historical and biblical references to the site as early on as the Book of Samuel. Much later, Jerome traveled here to begin his translation of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures into the Latin Vulgate, making the city into a great monastic center. Still later, scholars have found evidence of Bethlehem as a venerated site by the subsequent Muslim, Crusader, Mamluk and Ottoman groups that inhabited its boundaries.
While here, be sure to duck into the Church of the Nativity. Justinian commissioned the current structure in the 6th Century, replacing the original site dedicated by Constantine’s mother Helena in the 4th Century. After visiting the church, make your way to either of the Shepherd’s Field sites to envision the setting of the angels’ announcement to shepherds about the birth of Jesus.
Continue on to the Pools of Solomon. The oldest of these magnificently large open-air cisterns dates to the 2nd Century and acted as retention pools for the aqueducts bringing water from the surrounding region and delivering it to Jerusalem. Growing in size over time, its list of commissioners includes Pontius Pilate and Herod the Great. Still further outside the city, you will find the Herodian, one of many 1st Century fortresses built by the Hasmonean client king, Herod the Great. Climbing to the top of this manmade mountain will give you a fantastic view of the surrounding region and insight into Herod’s own egocentric megalomania.