Bethlehem

Overview

Introduction

Just south of Jerusalem, in Palestinian territory, lies the town of Bethlehem, the setting for many biblical events, including the birth of Jesus, Rachel's death and the discovery of David, the future king of Israel.

Access to Bethlehem is through a series of security checkpoints on the short drive from Jerusalem. The Israeli tour guide will have to hand you over to a Palestinian tour guide at the border crossing. The town is under total Palestinian control; its tourist infrastructure suffered greatly during the Intifada violence and is only starting to recover. Many of the town's Christian natives have left because of infighting with their Muslim neighbors, and the town is now almost entirely Muslim, although it welcomes Christian tourists.

The historical sites are all near Manger Square. The Basilica of the Nativity is said to be the oldest continuously used church in the world. The original church was built in AD 325 over a grotto that's thought to be the spot where Jesus was born (the manger where the Magi viewed the child was close by—a chapel marks the spot). The current structure dates from a sixth-century rebuilding, although it was extensively repaired in the 12th century by Crusaders.

Other important points include St. Catherine's Church, built by the Franciscans in 1881, which is connected to the basilica. Wood carvings of the 14 Stations of the Cross line the walls. If you're there at noon, you'll see the procession to the basilica and underground chapels conducted by the Franciscan fathers.

Nearby, the Greek Orthodox Mar Saba Monastery displays the body of St. Sabas and is carved partly out of a canyon. It's off-limits to women.

Bethlehem is also important for Jews, and one especially significant spot is the Tomb of Rachel, which lies close to the entrance of the city. The building in which the tomb is housed is divided into two sides—one for men, one for women.

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