The modern city of Bethlehem has around 90,000 people. It's nowadays made up of various historic towns joined together. Bethlehem (Beit Lahem), Beit Sahour (Shepherds' Fields) and Beit Jala are the three main old towns, and other parts include Deheisheh, Al Khader and Duha. There are surrounding villages too, though villages to the north and west are being separated from Bethlehem by the Israeli separation wall.
The original town, now part of greater Bethlehem, goes back millennia. It is perched on a high plateau, with steep valleys on different sides. It is probably the most scenic and atmospheric town of the West Bank, and it has a friendly feeling.
Tradition has it that two rather influential Jews were born here: King David who, by tradition, united the Judaeans and Samaritans into one nation, setting in motion one of the greater periods of the state of Israel; and Jesus, who sought to reform Judaic thinking and ways and, probably without meaning to, started a new faith. So there's a theme here about getting born, and of nurturing mothers. My feeling is that this has always been the case, and this is why David and Jesus were born here. Today, the women of Bethlehem play a key role in society.
Bethlehem was formerly a mainly Christian town but now it is mainly Muslim, due to Christian emigration to the West and the arrival of Muslim refugees during the substantial ethnic cleansing involved in the founding of Israel in 1948.
Bethlehem is significantly walled in to the north and the west, and the wall comes close in to the city. This is because it is close to Jerusalem (10km), and Jerusalem has been pushing our way. A region of Greater Jerusalem has been created, surrounded with settlements impinging into the West Bank. Nevertheless the political artist Banksy calls the separation wall 'the world's largest canvas' - for painting on. He's right.
But to the south and east lie wide-open semi-desert hills, with deep wadis, curvaceous topography and lots of space - this provides relief. Bethlehem is densely-populated - the town cannot expand because the Israelis do not permit development in Area C, which surrounds the town. Property prices have risen dramatically in the last decade, and many people extend their houses upwards.
Bethlehem is nevertheless, and amazingly, a lovable and good-natured town, more a city of peace than Jerusalem. There's an atmosphere of gentle stoicism here, a hospitality which is touching, and a certain abundance of spirit which keeps people going, whatever the odds.
© Text and pictures copyright Palden Jenkins 2011. This is online material supplementing the book Pictures of Palestine by Palden Jenkins. You may print it out in single copies for your own non-commercial use or forward it by e-mail as long as the piece is unaltered and properly attributed to the author. The book's website is at www.palden.co.uk/pop