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11 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Bethlehem

Famous for being the place of Jesus Christ's birth, celebrated in Christmas carols and hymns down through the centuries, the bustle of modern Bethlehem can be a surprise for some visitors. The major sightseeing attraction here is the Church of the Nativity, and for anyone - religious or otherwise - who has ever celebrated Christmas, it really is a must-do. Afterwards, complete the experience by standing on Shepherd's Field, which has incredible panoramas across the surrounding countryside. Then journey on to the marvellous Mar Saba Monastery with its domes that seem to have sprung organically from the sheer cliff face.

1 Church of the Nativity

Church of the NativityChurch of the Nativity

Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity is the town's most famous sight. Said to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, a church has sat here continuously since Byzantine Emperor Constantine built a chapel on this spot in the 4th century AD. This was superseded by a 6th-century basilica commissioned by Emperor Justinian, which was again built over by the Crusaders in the 12th century. The central doorway shows this overlap work of many centuries with the original door surround and the relief-decorated architrave of Justinian's church still in place. The Crusaders reduced the size of the entrance, inserting a doorway with a pointed arch and walling in the upper part of the original one. Later, the doorway was further reduced in order to prevent the Mamluks from riding into the church on horseback. It is now only 1.2 m high so that visitors must bend down on entering. Inside, the interior has essentially preserved the tranquil monumental trappings of the 6th century. In the north transept, are the Armenian Altars of the Virgin and the Three Kings; in the south transept is the Altar of the Circumcision, which belongs to the Greeks. From the south transept, a finely-carved doorway gives access to the stairs leading down to the Grotto of the Nativity; the actual place where Jesus is said to have been born is marked by a silver star. For Christian pilgrims, this tiny grotto is a place of deep religious significance and the major highlight of a visit here.

The clerestory of the church's nave is borne on four rows of eleven monolithic columns with Corinthian capitals. Two openings in the floor allow visitors to see mosaics on the floor of Emperor Constantine's church of AD 325 which is 60 cm below the present floor level. Paintings from the Crusader period have been preserved on the columns and on the clerestory walls. On the south side are depicted the ancestors of Christ, while on the columns, there are pictures of figures of saints and Baldwin I's (first King of Jerusalem in the Crusader era) helmet.

Hours: Open daily 5am-8pm

Admission: Free

Location: Manger Square

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2 St. Catherine's Church

St. Catherine's ChurchSt. Catherine's Church

Next door to the Church of the Nativity is St Catherine's Church, built by the Franciscans, over an earlier church, in 1881. A flight of steps in the south aisle leads down to the northern part of the cave system underneath. To the left is the Chapel of the Holy Innocents, commemorating Herod's massacre of the children of Bethlehem, while straight ahead is St Joseph's Chapel. To the right are the Chapel of St Eusebius, the tombs of St Paula and her daughter Eustochium, and the tomb of St. Jerome who is heavily connected to the church and said to have written the Vulgate (Latin translation of the bible) while living in a cave here. On the rear wall is the stone bench on which the remains of St. Jerome rested until they were taken to Rome for burial in the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore.

Location: Manger Square

3 Milk Grotto

Milk GrottoMilk Grotto

This cave-chapel is said to be the site of where the Holy Family hid before their flight into Egypt. According to the legend, a drop of Mary's blood fell on the floor of the cave and whitened the stone. Many people believe that a visit here aids fertility, and so, the tiny 5-m by 10-m grotto is a favored pilgrimage destination for women who have trouble conceiving.

Location: Milk Grotto Street

4 Manger Square

Manger SquareManger Square

Manger Square is the hub of modern Bethlehem with cafes, restaurants, and souvenir stores all surrounding this central plaza. The Church of the Nativity dominates the eastern side of the square, while the Mosque of Omar is on the western side. Although the mosque is modern (built in 1860) it has a lovely story attached to its name. It's named after the Caliph Omar whose Arab armies conquered Byzantine Jerusalem. After taking the city, he traveled here to Bethlehem and prayed inside the Church of the Nativity, declaring that Christians would be free to practice their faith and pray at this important Christian shrine.

Location: Manger Square

5 Old Bethlehem Museum

The Museum of Old Bethlehem is a treasure trove of costumes, furniture, and household objects that allow you to picture 19th-century Bethlehem. There are some wonderful old black and white photographs of the town that are worth a visit on their own. For tourists looking for a unique gift from the Holy Land, the Arab Women's Union sells beautiful traditional embroidery here.

Location: Star Street

6 Shepherd's Field (Beit Sahour)

Shepherd's Field (Beit Sahour)Shepherd's Field (Beit Sahour)

Wondering where those shepherds watched their flocks by night? The field beside the village of Beit Sahour is widely recognised as the site of the Shepherd's Field in which the birth of Jesus was announced by the angels. There are a couple of interesting churches, including a Greek Orthodox Church where in 1972 archaeologists excavated a 4th century church with a beautiful mosaic pavement. The field where the shepherd's stood has fine views across the surrounding countryside.

7 Mar Saba Monastery

Mar Saba MonasteryMar Saba Monastery

This historic old Greek Orthodox monastery is a magnificent sight squeezed between the almost vertical rock walls of the Kidron Gorge. Saint Sabas (born in AD 439) was a native of Cappadocia. In AD 457, he entered a Jerusalem monastery, but left in AD 437 to seek solitude in the Kidron Valley. Mar Saba Monastery was founded by him in AD 492 on the slopes of the gorge opposite the cave where he used to dwell. Sabas gained a great reputation, not only in Palestine, but also in the capital of the Empire, Constantinople (modern Istanbul). At the great age of 90, he travelled to that city and persuaded the Emperor Justinian to rebuild the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. After his death in AD 532, at the age of 93, his tomb became a place of pilgrimage. During the 8th century, the monastery found further fame by becoming home to John of Damascus, considered the greatest theologian of his day.

Only men may enter the actual monastery, but women can climb a hill to the right of the monastery up to the tower in which female visitors used to be accommodated. There are excellent views over the domes of the monastery complex from here. Male visitors who enter the monastery can see the tomb of St. Sabas in the domed cruciform church, which also has rich icons and wall paintings. They can also see the gruesome skulls of the monks slaughtered by the Persians in AD 614.

Location: 18 km from Bethlehem

8 St. Theodosius Monastery

St. Theodosius is another Cappadocia priest who ended up in the Holy Land. He began this monastery in AD 476, and during its hey-day, the cloisters here were home to a population of 400 monks. St. Theodosius Monastery was destroyed by the Persians in AD 614 and only reoccupied and rebuilt by Greek Orthodox monks in 1900.

9 Herodium

HerodiumHerodium

The conspicuous landmark of Herodium Hill (like a volcano with its summit leveled off) was given its characteristic form when Herod built a fortified palace here. Herod had the summit cut away and dug out, creating a circular plateau surrounded by a double ring of massive walls and towers. Excavations here have brought to light a garden laid out in a peristyle court, residential apartments, baths, and a synagogue.

From the top of the hill are wonderful panoramas extending eastward to the Dead Sea and northward to the Mount of Olives. The double ring of fortifications can still be easily seen, while the circular area within the walls is divided into two equal halves; the eastern side, a column-filled garden area, and the western side occupied by residential buildings. At the foot of the hill are the excavated remains of the lower town built by Herod to house his courtiers and servants, which covers an area of 15 hectares.

Location: 11 km southeast of Bethlehem

10 Solomon's Pools

Solomon's PoolsSolomon's Pools Kai Hendry

The road that runs to Hebron from Bethlehem passes three large open cisterns, on the left, known as Solomon's Pools. Built in ancient times, they were used to provide water for Jerusalem. A reliable tradition dates them to the reign of Solomon in the 10th century BC.

Location: southwest from Bethlehem

11 Hebron

Historic Hebron plays an important role in religious history for Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike. It's here that you find the Tomb of the Patriarchs (also known as the Ibrahimi Mosque to Muslims, and the Cave of Machpelah) where the Prophets Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are buried. The skyline of town is dominated by this massive structure with its ancient walls built by Herod the Great and Islamic era battlements. Inside are the some of the most sacred shrines in the world. To the right as you enter, are the cenotaphs of Jacob and his wife Leah, while just to the rear are the cenotaphs of Abraham and Sarah. Beyond the forecourt is the mosque prayer hall with the richly-carved minbar set up by Saladin in 1191. In the prayer hall are the cenotaphs of Isaac and Rebecca. The right-hand part of the hall was assigned as a place of prayer for Jewish visitors in 1967. To enter, you must dress modestly and be prepared to go through heavy security.

After visiting the Tomb of the Patriarchs head to Hebron's vibrant outdoor market where you can pick up some gorgeous ceramics and glass work by this town's famed artisans. It's a bustling, colourful place packed with fresh produce and interesting objects. Hebron's Old City district is also a fascinating place for a wander with its cache of preserved Mameluke era buildings. Unfortunately, the Old City has been the center of much violence between Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the past, which is why the authorities have moved the market out of its original Old City location.

Location: south from Bethlehem

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Other Notable Attractions

Rachel's Tomb

Fenced in by Israel's security wall, on the outskirts of town, is the tomb of Rachel (revered by Jews, Christians, and Muslims) who died giving birth to Benjamin. The present domed structure dates mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries, and the small vestibule contains a mihrab (Muslim prayer niche) built in 1841.

Al-Khader Church

The village of Khadr is home to a Greek Orthodox Church dedicated to St George (Al-Khadar in Arabic).

Location: 4 km from Bethlehem

Monastery of St. Elias

The Monastery of St. Elias (Elijah) was originally built in the 6th century, rebuilt by the Crusaders during the 11th century, and again by the Greek Orthodox in the 17th century. There are fine views over Bethlehem from here.

Location: 2 km north of Bethlehem

Artas

The little village of Artas is set in a lush green valley and is home to the Hortus Conclusus Nunnery below the village.

Location: 7 km south of Bethlehem

History

Religious Accounts

In the Old Testament, Bethlehem 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). It later appears again as the birthplace of Jesus Christ in the New Testament gospels: "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).

By around AD 200, the Grotto of the Nativity had become an established place of pilgrimage, and in AD 325, the Emperor Constantine built a church over the grotto (where a Roman temple built by Emperor Hadrian had stood since AD 100). The plan of this first 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.

A few decades after the building of the church, in AD 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. Thereafter, hosts of pilgrims traveled to Bethlehem from many lands, and Jerome recorded that "men sang God's praises in many different tongues". Constantine's church was destroyed in AD 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 AD 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 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.

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