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.
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
...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.
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.
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.
Some of the mosques and minarets
are impressive too - this is at Al Khader.
...and crop up in vistas around the town.
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.
...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.
Here's the Catholic monastery village
of Irtas (Artas) in the dusk.
Here's the distinctive spire
of the Syrian Orthodox church.
...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.
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.
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.