What pops up in your mind when thinking about Christmas? Many might recall presents, decorations, family and a big festive meal. Few think of the less fortunate, about solidarity and communion.
Fewer think of the place where it all began: Bethlehem. With the Basilica of the Nativity, the Milk Grotto and Star Street, the town offers visitors the unique experience of seeing with their own eyes where Jesus was born more than two thousand years ago.
Where Bethlehem is and how to get there
Bethlehem is only 10 km from Jerusalem, just under half an hour by car. Although the two cities are very close, an 11-metre high, 150 km long separation wall, with towers and checkpoints, makes travelling tedious.
Built in 2002 during the Israeli army’s siege of the Basilica of the Nativity complex, the wall separates the Palestinian territories of the West Bank from Israel.
Today it is also a great outdoor artpiece: the concrete has become a blank canvas for street artists protesting against apartheid. These include the famous Banksy, who has created some of his most iconic works here.
Tourists and pilgrims, however, will have no difficulty in visiting the city of Christmas: public transport to and from Jerusalem is very frequent. All you have to do is remember to carry your passport as you are crossing a military border.
Old Bethlehem and modern Bethlehem
The history of this town is lost in time. Ancient sources, however, attest to its existence as early as 1400 BC, in the Bronze Age, and the Bible links it to the very important figure of David. Jesus is therefore a direct descendant of the shepherd boy who defeated Goliath and became king.
Today, Jesus’ fellow citizens are about 30,000. Of these, just under half are Christians. The municipality of Bethlehem is home to three Palestinian refugee camps, mostly inhabited by Muslims. They come from the surrounding villages displaced in 1948 with the birth of the State of Israel.
The Christian presence in the place where Salvation originated remains a constant, so much so that, by statute, the mayor must be Christian. Bethlehem has more bell towers than minarets and the Latin community is the largest.
The Basilica of the Nativity
Was Jesus born in a cave or a stable? Both! In ancient times, the two often coincided: animals were kept in stables made out of natural caves over which dwellings were built.
This kept the animals safe and the heat produced by their breath rose upwards to warm the living quarters. The Grotto of the Nativity, venerated as early as the first century AD, must have seen a scene very similar to the one just described.
It is the heart of the complex of the Basilica of the Nativity, a five-nave Constantinian building dating back to 330 BC, one of the oldest in the Holy Land together with the Holy Sepulchre. To enter the church, which is shared by the Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Latin communities, you will have to pass through the ‘door of humility’, a very low stone portal that forces you to bow down as a sign of respect for the place where Jesus was born.
The fascinating history of the church has been reconstructed thanks to the ‘Bethlehem Back in Time‘ project, an in depth study of the various phases of the building’s life. The research is the backbone of the restoration of the mosaics, roof and stained glass windows that began in 2003 following the basilica’s inscription on the UNESCO list of sites.
Around the basilica: Star Street and Dar Al Majus
The sights of Bethlehem are certainly not limited to the Church of the Nativity. Manger Square will transport you to the lively life of the city centre with its many shops, cafes, colourful souk and Arab market.
If you continue along Star Street, the oldest of the roads that led pilgrims to the old town, which, according to tradition, follows the route taken by the Three Kings to pay homage to the baby Jesus, you will be spoilt for choice with souvenirs made of olive wood and mother-of-pearl.
If you want to visit the Shepherds’ Field, where the Angel announced the birth of the Lord, and the Milk Grotto, where women invoke the Virgin Mary to combat infertility and obtain abundant milk for their children, you should spend the night in Bethlehem.
At night, the town is tremendously reminiscent of a nativity scene and immersing yourself in the Holy Land at the time of Jesus becomes easy. Accommodation can be found in the guest houses of Dar Essidieh and Dar al Majus, the home of the Three Kings.
The latter, as well as being a charming little guest house with a large terrace overlooking the square and the basilica, will soon be joined by our new Community Home, a support centre for the local community where pilgrims can immerse themselves in the story of Faith and Salvation that has characterised the city of Bethlehem for over 2000 years.