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Bethlehem (also referred to as Bayt Lahm) is known the world over as the birthplace, as described in the Bible, of Jesus Christ and also of David (king of Judah and Israel). The town is located in the Palestinian West Bank near Jerusalem. Although occupied by Israel from 1967, the Middle East peace process enabled the town to be transferred to Palestinian rule at the end of 1995. The photographs on this webpage were taken during a visit in early 2018. Whilst trips to visit Bethlehem’s tourist sights are available from Jerusalem (including offers from friendly Taxi drivers), access in this case was on foot. It was possible to park an Israeli hire car (insurance not covering the Palestinian Territories) in a nearby residential street and walk into the town. The West Bank is cut off from Israel by the so-called Israeli West Bank Barrier (see below). Entering from the Israeli side was simple enough, accessing (in this case) via a one-way turnstile gate, although returning from the West Bank (again on foot) involved going through security checks and passport control. It is therefore worth mentioning that when entering Palestine in this manner, to ensure passports are carried upon one’s person.

Above: Manger Square in the heart of Bethlehem

Originally known as Aphrath, the town’s name of Bethlehem means "house of bread" in Hebrew and Aramaic. The settlement is also referred to as Bethlehem-Judah, to avoid confusion with another Bethlehem (mentioned in Joshua) in the territory of the tribe of Zebulun. The Old Testament’s first mention of Bethlehem is in Genesis, as the place where Rachel (wife of Jacob) was buried. The book of Ruth mentions it later becoming the home of King David’s ancestors and 1 Samuel specifies it as the home of David himself. In the book of Micah, the town is mentioned as the birthplace of the future Messiah. The Gospels (except for that of St Mark) claim the town of Bethlehem to be the birthplace of Christ and so to Christians the world over, it is regarded as a holy place of particular significance. In the old town is sited one of the oldest churches in the world, the Church of the Nativity which was built by Constantine the Great, emperor of Rome on the site of Christ’s birth (the Nativity).

Manger Square and the Old City

Taking its name from the manger where Christians believe Jesus to have been born, Manger Square lies in the centre of Bethlehem and is the focal point for the city's Christmas celebrations. During the festive period, a large Christmas tree is placed here and on Christmas Eve, crowds gather around the square to sing Christmas carols. Midnight Mass is then celebrated at the Roman Catholic Church of Saint Catherine, which stands next door to the Church of the Nativity (see below). Because some churches follow the Julian Calendar liturgically whilst others follow the modern Gregorian Calendar, Christmas Day here is celebrated on different days; the Nativity is celebrated on 7th January for the Orthodox followers and 25th December for the Roman Catholic Church.

On the western side of the square stands the Mosque of Omar, which is the Old City's only mosque. Named after the 2nd Muslim caliph, Omar Ibn al-Khattah, it was built in 1860 on land granted by the Greek Orthodox Church. Near Manger Square's western side is also situated the Old Bethlehem Museum which is located in a typical Palestinian home of the 19th century. Central to the square on its northern side is to be found the Palestinian Peace Center, a Cultural Centre that offers many services to different sectors of the society. Its goal is to "promote and enhance Peace, Democracy, religious tolerance and diversity within the spirit and values of the Palestinian Culture".The Peace Center Restaurant here offers both Middle Eastern and International cuisine and receives excellent reviews (both from the author of this webpage and on TripAdvisor®). The streets leading towards Manger Square have names relating to the Christian faith such as Nativity Street, Manger Street, Shepherds Street, Star Street and Pope Paul VI Street. In particular, the latter two, alongside the narrow alleyways which connect these makes one feel like they have stepped back in time, with exotic storefronts along the narrow limestone paving.


Manger Square (above) is mainly pedestrianised, thanks to renovation work which was carried out just before the turn of the millennium designed to relieve it from traffic congestion. The square is a focal point for people to meet. In 2002, Israeli defence forces began what was known as “Operation Defensive Shield”, an unprecedented invasion of Palestinian towns to “defeat the infrastructure of Palestinian terror in all its parts and components”. This widespread counter-terrorism operation followed a wave of deadly suicide bombings and terrorist attacks in Israel. Here, in the centre of Bethlehem, around 200 local people, mainly civilians and policemen, alongside some armed activists and Christian clergy became trapped between advancing Israeli forces and took refuge in the Church of the Nativity. The church became the site of a five-week stand-off, known as the Church of the Nativity Siege. It finally ended after an agreement was made for 13 militants to be sent via Cyprus to various European countries and another 26 to be sent to Gaza. In 2013, manger square was the scene of a more positive event, when it was used as the start and finishing line of the Palestine Marathon. Other sites to look out for in the Old City include the Milk Grotto Chapel (see lower down the page), the 19th century Lutheran Christmas Church, the International Center of Bethlehem (or Dar Annadwa, a Lutheran-run cultural centre), St Mary's Syrian Orthodox Church and the Souq (Market), established in 1929 and known to locals as the Green Market, which is located just west of Manger Square. Some general photos from the Old City can be seen in the thumbnail gallery below. These exclude the main sights described thereafter [click on an image to enlarge]:

Church of the Nativity

Located on the eastern side of Manger Square, the Church of the Nativity (above) is formed of a basilica constructed over the cave or grotto that is traditionally held to be the birthplace of Jesus. Ground-breaking of the early Romanesque building commenced in the year 325 and it was completed in 565. Despite being reconstructed in the 6th century (under the Roman Emperor Justinian I), a large part of the original church is still present in the building seen today. Inside, the shrine marking the spot of Christ’s birth is the focal point for a daily stream of visitors, tourists and pilgrims from all branches of Christianity alike. The church is shared between the Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, Roman Catholic and other minor churches. Today, it is maintained by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. The site is considered very sacred to not only Christians, but also to Jews and Muslims. Under the title “Birthplace of Jesus: the Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem”, the site became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2012, and is the first such site listed under Palestine. Photographs of the exterior and interior are shown in the thumbnail gallery below [click on an image to enlarge]. As can be seen, at the time of the visit featured here (early 2018), it has been undergoing reconstruction work in recent times; restorations by the Palestinian Government commenced in 2010:

Milk Grotto Church

The Church of the Milk Grotto (Grotto of Our Lady) is a Catholic chapel which was constructed in 1872 on the site of a former Byzantine church (which dated from around the 5th century). It is located a short distance south of the Church of the Nativity. According to Christian tradition, this is the place where the Holy Family found refuge during the "slaughter of the innocents", before they were able to flee to Egypt. The chapel’s name comes from the story that a "drop of milk" of the Virgin Mary fell on the floor of the cave here whilst she was breastfeeding baby Jesusand this changed its colour to white. Inside the chapel can be seen three caves and part of the mosaic floor of the original Byzantine structure. The site on which the chapel stands has been a centre of Christian pilgrimage since ancient times and some couples come here to visit the cave areas in the hope that it will help with their infertility. The thumbnail gallery below shows photographs from outside and inside the chapel [click on an image to enlarge]:

Bethlehem Water Spring

The structure shown in the photo below contains a water spring and dates back to the Ottoman period. It was built as part of a larger project implemented by the Ottoman government during the 1530’s in order to rehabilitate Qanat es-Sabeel (The Aqueducts of Jerusalem); the aqueduct that provided water from King Solomon’s Pools in Artas to the city of Jerusalem. The water spring here, known as Bethlehem Water Spring, or simply Al-Ein, is one of many water outlets that provided water to the settlements located along Qanat es-Sabeel. Up until the early 20th century, the spring here remained the only fresh water source for Bethlehem and served also as a gathering point for the women who came here to collect water for their households. Rehabilitation of the site here was implemented in 1998 by the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities and the UN Development Programme, with finances provided by the Government of Japan.


The West Bank Barrier

As mentioned near the top of this webpage, Bethlehem is located in the Palestinian West Bank and is separated from the Israeli side by the West Bank Barrier. The term used here is as per the BBC style guide. However, there are several other names used to describe it including the separation wall or fence and security fence (in Hebrew) and the wall of apartheid (in Arabic).

The barrier is some 440 miles (708km) in total length and considered by Israel as a form of security against terrorism. However, the Palestinians consider it a form of racial segregation. The barrier was built during the Second Intifada (Palestinian uprising against Israel) which began in September 2000. As was the case with the Berlin Wall, which also formed a physical segregation between citizens, the barrier here, dividing Bethlehem from Jerusalem, is in the form of a wall which has effectively been turned into a vast canvas for street artists, both local and from further afield. Some photographs of the West Bank Barrier in Bethlehem are shown in the thumbnail gallery below, followed by the final section of this webpage, which is about one of the more internationally famous street artists who has been attracted to the area, the British artist Banksy.

One other point of note here is one of Bethlehem's other famous sites, Rachel's Tomb, is completely surrounded by the separation barrier and thus visiting it is difficult. Rachel was the wife of Jacob and it is said in the Book of Genesis that he 'set a pillar upon her grave' when she died here in childbirth.


Banksy is an artist from Bristol in the UK, known for his particularly stencil-based (for speed) street art. His thought-provoking works focus on antiauthoritarian subjects including war, child poverty and the environment. Whilst maintaining his anonymity for several reasons, including avoiding being prosecuted for vandalism, there have been several theories as to his identity as well as potential sightings of him published in the British media. Despite this well guarded identity, Banksy first came to the public's attention in the first half of the 1990's and as he received wider acclaim, his publicised work began to cover areas further afield; one of the locations he has focused on outside of the UK is the Palestinian Territories. His distinctive iconography has appeared in several locations around the West Bank since 2005, when he spayed nine stencilled images along the barrier, including a young girl being carried over the 8 metre high wall by balloons, a ladder reaching over it and a window on the grey concrete giving a view of scenic mountains in colour. Since then, Banksy has been credited with helping to bring more tourists into Bethlehem.


Above: Works by Banksy in Bethlehem seen on this visit included Peace Dove (upper left) Angels (bottom), and Stop and Search (upper right). The latter is now covered in glass and enclosed within a shop.

Further to his street art, in 2017 Banksy opened up a hotel in Bethlehem. Named the "Walled Off Hotel" (a parody of Waldorf Hotels), the hotel is sited only 4 metres from the wall with almost all of the rooms facing the grey graffiti-strewn concrete structure. The hotel claims to offer the “worst view of any hotel in the world”. This offbeat boutique hotel contains rooms which offer the chance to literally sleep "inside a work of art" with customised guest rooms which vary depending on price. For those on a budget, no-frills  military barracks-style dorms have lockers, shared bathrooms and complementary earplugs. At the upper-end of the price-range, the Presidential Suite claims to be palatial in style and equipped with "everything a corrupt head of state would need", including a rooftop terrace, a 4-person hot tub, a tiki bar and an in-room movie theatre.

On opening, the Walled Off Hotel come up against some criticism with one Palestinian graffiti artist suggesting it is making a ‘Disneyland’ of the [Israeli] occupation and issues concerning a local business called the Banksy Guest House which had already opened in Bethlehem a decade earlier. It is possible to visit the hotel's Piano Bar as a non-resident, soaking up the atmosphere, whilst taking in the quirky and carefully thought out decor, as it is to view the hotel's gallery, which sells Palestinian art, and a museum which highlights the history of the region and Western interference in it. Photos taken from a (non-resident) visit can be seen in the thumbnail gallery below [click on an image to enlarge]:

Related Pages on this Web Site:

Dead Sea
Golan Heights and Mount Bental
Sea of Galilee (Lake Tiberias)

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