Bethlehem Tourist Attractions
Many of the inhabitants of Bethlehem now make their living from the tourist trade. The main sources of income are the manufacture and sale of souvenirs, sacred images and sculpture of all kinds in mother-of-pearl, wood and bituminous limestone ("Dead Sea stone"), embroidered blouses, Crusader jackets and so on, as well as farming and sheep-rearing, craft production and trade.
Biblical traditionBethlehem is first mentioned in the account of the death of Rachel. On her way from Bethel to the south she died in giving birth to her second son Benjamin and "was buried in the way to Ephrath, which is Bethlehem" (Genesis 35,19).Centuries later the widowed Ruth returned from Moab with her mother-in-law Naomi to her home town of Bethlehem. She was gleaning in a field belonging to Boaz when he encountered her. He then married her and she bore his son Obed, "the father of Jesse, the father of David" (Ruth 4,17). In due time David, Jesse's youngest son, was anointed by Samuel in Bethlehem as king (1 Samuel 16,13). Jesus, of the lineage of David, was born in Bethlehem, to which his parents had traveled from their home in Nazareth for a census in the reign of the Emperor Augustus (Luke 2,1-7), and an angel announced his birth to the shepherds in the field (Luke 2,10).HistoryAfter the repression of the Bar Kochba uprising, in 135, the Emperor Hadrian built a temple of Adonis over the Grotto of the Nativity, which is not referred to in the Gospels but is mentioned by Justin Martyr about 155. By around 200 it had become an established place of pilgrimage, and in 325 the Emperor Constantine built a church over the grotto in place of Hadrian's temple. The plan of this church was reconstructed by R. W. Hamilton on the basis of contemporary descriptions and an excavation in 1934. A colonnaded atrium (under the present forecourt of the church) led into a five-aisled basilica with mosaic pavements and marble facing on the walls, from which three steps at the east end led into an octagon at a higher level. This stood immediately above the grotto, into which pilgrims could look down through an opening in the floor. It is not known whether the entrance to the grotto was at the west or the east end. A few decades after the building of the church, in 386, St Jerome, a native of Dalmatia, came to Bethlehem, settled in a cave adjoining the Grotto of the Nativity and composed his Latin translation of the Bible, the Vulgate, there. Thereafter hosts of pilgrims traveled to Bethlehem from many lands, and Jerome recorded that "men sang God's praises in many different tongues". The Constantinian church was destroyed in 529 by rebellious Samaritans. St Sabas, who lived in his nearby monastery, traveled to Constantinople and sought the Emperor Justinian's support for the building of a new church. The Emperor's architect retained the original plan of a five-aisled nave but replaced the octagon by a trefoil sanctuary and omitted the atrium.Miraculously, this church has survived to the present day. The Persians, advancing in 614 against Byzantium, spared it because they took the figures of the three kings from the East clad in Oriental garb in a relief over the entrance for fellow-countrymen. In the time of the Crusaders, who captured Bethlehem before taking Jerusalem, the Byzantine Emperor Manuel had the church thoroughly restored (1161-69). Previously, at Christmas 1100, Baldwin I had been crowned here as the first king of Jerusalem. In the 13th century the Mamelukes also left the church unscathed, but thereafter it fell increasingly into disrepair. In 1479 the roof had to be shored up, and from 1516 onwards the Turks used the marble facing in their buildings on the Temple platform in Jerusalem. In 1670, however, the Greek Orthodox church, with the permission of the Ottoman authorities, began work on the restoration of the church.During the 18th and 19th centuries there were frequently bitter and sometimes violent conflicts between Greek Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian believers, which were still further aggravated by the intervention of the protecting powers, Russia and France. The Sublime Porte sought to settle these conflicts by means of the law on property rights originally introduced in 1757 and renewed in 1852 - a law which has outlived the Ottoman Empire and remains in force to this day.The townBethlehem still retains much of the atmosphere of an Oriental country township, with its Arab markets, colorful bazaar and countryfolk driving their sheep out to pasture.Side by side with this, however, the military presence in this Israeli-occupied area is very obvious. On the roofs of many houses can be seen soldiers on guard with sub-machine-guns, and military vehicles drive through the streets at almost hourly intervals. In the afternoon, when Arab shopkeepers close their shops in protest against the occupation, Bethlehem often looks like a dead town. The only signs of life then are in Manger Square in the town center.
Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity has a well preserved interior that still conveys the essence of the 6th C. The entrance has changed over the years, such that visitors must now stoop to enter the church.
The life of Bethlehem centers on Manger Square, now serving as a parking lot. Visitors arriving in the square will be directed to a parking space by local children and young people - an offer of service which, on security grounds, should not be turned down. Round the square are cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops, a police station and a tourist information office and travel agency. On the west side of the square is the modern Mosque of Omar; the east side is dominated by the Church of the Nativity.
St Catherine's Church
The exit from the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem is by a second flight of steps leading into the north transept. A doorway in the north aisle leads into the neighboring church of St Catherine, built by Franciscans in 1881 on the site of an earlier church. A flight of steps in the south aisle leads down to the northern part of the cave system. To the left is the Chapel of the Holy Innocents, commemorating Herod's massacre of the children of Bethlehem; straight ahead is St Joseph's Chapel; and to the right are the Chapel of St Eusebius, the tombs of St Paula and her daughter Eustochium and the tomb of St Jerome, with whom the two women came to Bethlehem. On the rear wall is the stone bench on which the remains of St Jerome (d. 420) rested until their translation to Rome and burial in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore. To the north is a room in which Jerome is said to have written the Vulgate.
Adjoining St Catherine's Church in Bethlehem is a cloister which originally dated from the Frankish period. It was excavated only in the middle of this century and then rebuilt by an Italian architect, Barluzzi, using the original material. In the cloister garth is a statue of St Jerome on a 2m/6.5ft high column.
From the square in front of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem a street runs southeast between houses and the Greek monastery and its associated buildings. This leads after a five minutes' walk to the Milk Grotto, a cave converted into a chapel (5m/16ft by 3m/10ft by 2.6m/8.5ft) in which the Holy Family are said to have hidden before the flight into Egypt. According to the legend a drop of Mary's milk fell on the floor of the cave and whitened the stone.
To the west of Manger Road (Sderot Manger) in Bethlehem, near St Joseph's Church, is David's Well, a rock-cut cistern. Excavations are being carried out in the area of "David's Wall", which surrounds it.
Museum of Old Bethlehem
A little way northwest of the Mosque of Omar is the Museum of Old Bethlehem, opened in 1972, with a collection of furniture, costumes, craft products and documents which present a vivid picture of 19th century Bethlehem.
From Manger Square in Bethlehem, Paul VI Street runs west to Market Square and beyond this to the commercial districts of the town.
Map of Bethlehem Attractions