This article was first published in the Christmas 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine
Bethlehem often seems to exist more in the imagination than in reality. I first visited in 1999 as part of a whistle-stop tour of Israel. Like most visitors, we were bussed to the Church of the Nativity for a 30-minute guided tour. An hour later we were back at the hotel in nearby Jerusalem without having set foot on the streets of Bethlehem beyond the church.
As the coach left Bethlehem that day, through an urban sprawl covering the rugged hills of the central West Bank, I wondered what lay beyond the guided tour. Who were the people that lived there? What was the reality behind the iconic image on our Christmas cards?
Gradually I came back to visit in ever longer stays. The more time I spent, the more I was fascinated by Bethlehem’s multi-layered history and vibrant modern society. Today I’m writing a book about the city and co-ordinating a team of people working on a digital museum that will bring its unique urban culture to new public audiences.
Through this work I’ve come to know a city that is quintessentially Palestinian yet curiously cosmopolitan. It was never explained to me in that first trip that we had left Israel upon entering Bethlehem. But the town is decidedly beyond the ‘green line’ that separates Israel proper from the Palestinian territories it has occupied since 1967. The sounds and smells of Bethlehem are unmistakeably Arabic. Spice markets and vegetable hawkers line narrow alleyways, and the call to prayer rings out from pencil-thin minarets.
But this Arabic personality also includes a large Christian population who strongly identify as Palestinian Arab and historically form the majority of Bethlehem’s inhabitants. The ringing of church bells and the passing of processions honouring local saints are equally common sounds and sights.
The deep-seated integration of Christian and Muslim life in Bethlehem is a reminder that sectarianism has not always defined the Middle East. Many of the saints those processions revere are also sacred to local Islamic tradition and you’ll routinely find Muslims praying at the town’s nominally Christian shrines.
And there is certainly no shortage of shrines. First among them is the Church of the Nativity, standing over the cave widely held to be the birthplace of Christ. Built in the early 4th century AD as part of Roman emperor Constantine’s embrace of Christianity, it was rebuilt in AD 565, making it one of the oldest functioning churches in the world.
To avoid crowds of day-trippers, visit the church in the early morning when you can really contemplate its sanctity. While staying in the adjoining Franciscan hostel, the Casa Nova, I would venture down to the crypt at 7am to listen to Armenian monks performing their prayers in a series of hypnotic chants. Even as a non-Christian, I was moved by this ancient ritual.
Venturing beyond the church, you come across a beguiling array of other shrines. Some, like Shepherd’s Fields or Rachel’s Tomb, are major sites within Christian, Jewish and Islamic scripture. Others are more quirky and unique to Bethlehem. At the Milk Grotto Chapel – a cave Mary is held to have turned white after spilling a drop of breastmilk when feeding baby Jesus – local women make fertility prayers.
At the tiny Orthodox Church of al-Khadr just outside the city, Muslims and Christians still make sacrifices to Saint George who is believed to have lived in the area – a decidedly Palestinian saint in these parts.
To me, the interesting thing about these sites is not the shrines themselves, but the people who use them. Bethlehemites are a fascinating mixture of devout traditionalism and modern innovation. In the 19th century, they travelled to all corners of the world selling distinctive ‘Holy Land’ devotional objects that are still carved and sold in the town today. Their migrations produced a large Bethlehem diaspora still present today, especially in South America.
This has made Bethlehem a strikingly cosmopolitan society. The city’s architecture has been shaped by these global connections. Beautiful mansions built in the early 20th century dot the city’s urban landscape, combining European and Islamic styles in their elaborate facades.
You need to spend proper time in Bethlehem to appreciate its magic. It’s a surprisingly easy place to visit and a great starting point for finding out about life in the Palestinian territories. In a way, Bethlehem belongs to all of us, and the locals – always welcoming, warm and open – really make you feel that.
Jacob Norris is a lecturer in Middle Eastern history at the University of Sussex and is currently writing a book about Bethlehem.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
Bethlehem has a Mediterranean climate with warm summers and mild winters. Springtime sees the surrounding hills at their most beautiful, covered in wild flowers after the winter rains. Christmas is an experience to remember, although pricier and very crowded.
While there is no Palestinian airport, international passport holders can move freely in and out of the West Bank via Israel or Jordan. Direct flights to either take around five hours, with the bus to Bethlehem then taking 2–3 hours. When coming from Jordan, expect long queues at the Israeli-controlled Allenby Bridge crossing into the West Bank, but less so if entering directly from Israel.
What to pack
Clothing will depend on the season, but long sleeves and full-length trousers/dresses are required for visiting religious shrines.
What to bring back
Bethlehem is awash with religious souvenirs, some of which come from the city’s renowned artisan workshops. The city is also famous for its colourful, embroidered dresses, scarves and jackets.
A historian’s treasure trove – Peter O’Reilly
Beautiful city, with lovely people – Susan Derderian