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About Bethlehem


About Bethlehem

Bethlehem or Beit Lahem is a small conurbation of several old historic towns and villages which became joined up after a flood of refugees came to the area during the Nakba or Disaster of 1948 - mainly from the area of what's now Israel between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The main old towns are Bethlehem itself, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala, with villages such as Duha, Al Khader and Irtas, and refugee camps such as Deheisheh and Aida. Its population is around 100,000.

At the separation wall near Rachel's Tomb, Bethlehem
The Old Town of Bethlehem, from Beit Jala

The landscape around Bethlehem is impressive.
Here we're looking east over the Judaean Desert.

Welcome to Bethlehem! Here's some graffiti
on the separation wall close to Rachel's Tomb

This is the Old Town of Bethlehem
as seen from Beit Jala

Looking over Bethlehem toward the Judaean Desert, from Beit Jala

...yet there are disturbing views too.
This is the separation wall at Rachel's Tomb
- it comes right into town, following a ridiculous course which makes no natural sense. Much of it is financed by American taxpayers.

Looking over Bethlehem to the south and the desert
Looking over the separation wall around Rachel's Tomb, with the Judean Desert behind

Bethlehem is located on a high plateau.
This is the view from near Beit Sahour.

Bethlehem's old Christian churches
puncture the skyline.
This is the Lutheran church.

Looking over the Old Town from the south side of Bethlehem
Bethlehem from near Beit Sahour
Bethlehem Old Town

Bethlehem Old Town is friendly,
hospitable and historic. These are mostly houses from the Ottoman period, together with Bethlehem's Syrian Orthodox church.

Yet Christianity and Islam
coexist happily side by side.

In Bethlehem Old Town

Some of the mosques and minarets
are impressive too - this is at Al Khader.

The Nativity Church and Omar Mosque in Bethlehem

...and crop up in vistas around the town.

Mosque, Al Khader, Bethlehem

This is the Mosque of Omar in central Bethlehem. The original mosque was built by the Caliph Omar, who led the Muslims invading the area soon after the passing of Mohammed 1,500 years ago.

Yet it's a functional town too,
with shops, businesses and industry.

The Omar Mosque, Bethlehem
A shopping street in the Old Town of Bethlehem

...and fascinating alleyways, stairways,
nooks and crannies.

A street in the Old Town of Bethlehem
Bethlehem has lots of stairways - it's located on top of a series of hillls
A street in the Christian quarter of the Old Town of Bethlehem

The Old Town has many old streets...

A stairway in Bethlehem's Christian quarter
Steps in the Old City of Bethlehem, leading up to the market
Bethlehem is socially a safe and quite friendly city
In Bethlehem Old Town

But most of all, I like the people.

He's pensive
Some of Bethlehem's many matriarchs!
Salam alekum!

The population includes Bedouin

Bedouin discussions at Manger Square, Bethlehem
Some Bedouin meet a local Christian trader

...and Palestinian Christians, many of whom
are descended from Greeks of 2,000 years ago
or Europeans who came in the times
of the Crusades...

...and refugees from what is now Israel,
especially from around Jaffa and Ramleh,
who came mainly in 1947-48 during the Nakba,
the Disaster, when the British Mandate ended
and the Israelis took what became Israel.

Christian Bethlehemites
The separation wall at Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem

Here's the Nativity Church, lit up for Christmas.

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, at Christmas
The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, at Christmas
The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

 Here's the Church of the Nativity,
traditionally the site of the birth of Jesus.

Armenian Christmas (mid-January) in the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

...and a Greek Orthodox priest
talking with one of the vergers.

Here are Armenian Christians
celebrating their mid-January
Christmas in the Nativity Church...

Greek Orthodox monk at the Church of the Nativity
Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Here's the Catholic monastery village
of Irtas (Artas) in the dusk.

Here's the distinctive spire
of the Syrian Orthodox church.

The Catholic section of the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
The village and monastery of Irtas, just outside Bethlehem, Palestine
The Syrian Orthodox church, Bethlehem

This is the Catholic part of the Nativity Church.

The monastery at Irtas, outside Bethlehem

...and Mary and Jesus at Irtas
(with the village mosque behind).

This is Cremisan Monastery near Beit Jala.
The separation wall is being built
right across its lands.

And here's Irtas monastery...

Mother Mary and the Mosque, seen from the monastery at Irtas, outside Bethlehem
Cremisan monastery, Bethlehem

This is an overview of the Old Town.

The Mosque of Omar, Manger Square, Bethlehem, at Christmas
Bethlehem Old Town
Bethlehem Old Town, with Beit Jala in the distance

Here's the Mosque of Omar in Manger Square.
When the Muslims invaded Bethlehem in 635,
Omar decided not to change the Nativity Church
into a mosque, knowing it would lead sooner
or later to religious conflict, so the mosque
was built over the square instead.
A wise decision.

Donkeys are still in use - in case the oil is stopped

Life goes on in Bethlehem...

People gathering in Manger Square, Bethlehem
Modern Bethlehem

Beit Sahour.

This is Deheisheh refugee camp.

Busy street in Bethlehem
Beit Sahour
Deheisheh refugee camp, Bethlehem
Beit Sahour

Looking toward Al Khader
(and the Israeli settlement of Efrat back left).

Southern Bethlehem, with the illegal Israeli settlement of Efrat on the far left

We miss you!

Come to visit Bethlehem sometime!

Bethlehem, with the Herodeon behind
Bethlehem from the north east
Bethlehem Old Town

Al Khader and, behind,
the Herodeon (an ancient site
and once a fortress-palace of King Herod).

Bethlehem's fate has always been bound with that of Jerusalem, only 10km away, especially through Christian connections. But it is nowadays separated and sealed off by the separation wall and a phalanx of Israeli settlements built as part of the Greater Jerusalem project, pushing in on Bethlehem and making it crowded, unable to expand.

Nowadays it is very different from Jerusalem, which is a polarised, edgy and intense city. Bethlehem is homely, friendly and welcoming, a motherly kind of place. It's one of the more liberal and cosmopolitan of Palestine's towns. It goes back thousands of years. It is located high up, around 2,700ft (800m), on a plateau surrounded by impressive landscape.

Its most famous site is the Church of the Nativity, the traditional site of Jesus' birth, where there is a significant pilgrimage each Christmas. Western (Protestant and Catholic) Christians, Greek and Russian Orthodox and Armenian Christians have different dates for Christmas. Three Christmases!

Though traditionally Christian-majority, Bethlehem is now 90% Muslim, by dint of the enormous immigration of refugees around 1948 and the emigration of Palestinian Christians since then, mainly to the West. Christians and Muslims get on notably well, even though they are visibly different ethnic groups with different histories. Palestine and Bethlehem also have a considerable secular population who, in the religious fervour of recent decades, have tended to get upstaged and overlooked.

I love this town and, if I could, I would live here. But, until Palestine gains sovereignty over its own affairs, this is not possible.

NEXT: Jericho, the world's oldest city

Or to read a chapter from the book about Bethlehem, click here

© Copyright Palden Jenkins 2011. All text and photographs on this website are copyright Palden Jenkins.
You may not use these pictures in print or on websites without  permission of the author.  
The book's website is at www.palden.co.uk/pop

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