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This article is about the city in the West Bank. For other articles with this name see Bethlehem (disambiguation).
The Church of the Nativity, a Bethlehem Landmark
The Church of the Nativity, a Bethlehem Landmark

Bethlehem (Arabic بيت لحم "house of meat"; Standard Hebrew בית לחם "house of bread", Bet léḥem / Bet láḥem; Tiberian Hebrew Bêṯ léḥem / Bêṯ lāḥem) is a Palestinian city in the West Bank and a hub of Palestinian cultural and tourism industries.

The city has great significance to the Christian religion as it is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth. The traditional site of Rachel's tomb, which is important in Judaism, lies at the city's outskirts. Bethlehem is also home to one of largest Palestinian Christian communities in the Middle East. It lies about 10 km (6 mi) south of Jerusalem, standing at an elevation of about 765 m (2 510 ft) above the sea, thus 30 m (100 ft) higher than Jerusalem. The Bethlehem agglomeration also covers the small towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, the latter also having biblical significance.

The Church of the Nativity, built by Constantine the Great (A.D. 330), stands in the centre of Bethlehem over a grotto or cave called the Holy Crypt, which according to Christian tradition is the place where Jesus was born. This is perhaps the oldest existing Christian church in the world. Close to it is another grotto, where Jerome the Latin father is said to have spent thirty years of his life in translating the Scriptures into Latin. (See Vulgate).

Bethlehem University
Bethlehem University

Bethlehem is home to Bethlehem University [1], a major Roman Catholic institution which was founded under the direction of the Vatican.




The city, located in the "hill country" of Judah, was originally called Ephrath (Gen. 35:16, 19; 48:7; Ruth 4:11). It was also called Beth-lehem Ephratah (Micah 5:2), Beth-lehem-judah (1 Sam. 17:12), and "the city of David" (Luke 2:4). It is first noticed in Scripture as the place where Rachel died and was buried "by the wayside," directly to the north of the city (Gen. 48:7). The valley to the east was the scene of the story of Ruth the Moabitess. There are the fields in which she gleaned, and the path by which she and Naomi returned to the town. Here was David's birth-place, and here also, in after years, he was anointed as king by Samuel (1 Sam. 16:4-13); and it was from the well of Bethlehem that three of his heroes brought water for him at the risk of their lives when he was in the cave of Adullam (2 Sam. 23:13-17). But it was distinguished above every other city as the birth-place of "Him whose goings forth have been of old" (Matt. 2:6; comp. Micah 5:2). Afterwards Herod, "when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men," sent and slew "all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under" (Matt. 2:16, 18; Jer. 31:15). Some researchers believe that these New Testament references actually relate to Bethlehem in the Galilee, and not to this town.

Roman and Byzantine periods

Interior of the Church of the Nativity
Interior of the Church of the Nativity

The city was wrecked during Bar Kokhba's revolt (132-135 AD) and the Romans set up a shrine to Adonis on the site of the Nativity. Only in 326 was the first Christian church constructed, when Helena, the mother of the first Christian emperor, Constantine, visited Bethlehem.

During the Samaritan revolt of 529, Bethlehem was sacked and its walls and the Church of the Nativity destroyed, but they were soon rebuilt on the orders of the Emperor Justinian. In 614, the Persians invaded Palestine and captured Bethlehem. A story recounted in later sources holds that they refrained from destroying the Church of the Nativity on seeing the magi depicted in Persian clothing in one of the mosaics.

Arab rule and the Crusades

In 637, shortly after Jerusalem was captured by the Muslim armies, the Caliph Umar ibn al-Khattab visited Bethlehem and promised that the Church of the Nativity would be preserved for Christian use.

In 1099, Bethlehem was captured by the Crusaders, who fortified it and built a new monastery and cloister on the north side of the Church of the Nativity. The town prospered under their rule. On Christmas Day 1100 Baldwin I, first king of the Frankish Kingdom of Jerusalem, was crowned in Bethlehem, and that year a Latin episcopate was also established in the town.

In 1187, Saladin captured Bethlehem from the Crusaders, and the Latin clerics were forced to leave. Saladin agreed to the return of two Latin priests and two deacons in 1192. However, the town suffered from the loss of the pilgrim trade. Bethlehem was briefly returned to Crusader control by treaty between 1229 and 1244. In 1250, with the coming to power of Rukn al-Din Baibars, tolerance of Christianity declined, clergy left the town, and in 1263 the walls of the town were demolished. The Latin clergy returned to the town over the following century, establishing themselves in the monastery adjoining the Basilica, and in 1347 the Franciscans gained possession of the Grotto of the Nativity as well as the right to administer and maintain the Basilica.

Bethlehem under the Ottoman Empire

During the years of Ottoman control from 1517 on, custody of the Basilica was bitterly disputed between the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches.

From 1831 to 1841 Palestine was under the rule of Muhammad Ali of Egypt. During this period the town suffered an earthquake as well as the destruction of the Muslim quarter by troops, apparently as a reprisal for a murder. In 1841, Bethlehem came under Ottoman rule once more, and so it remained until the end of the First World War and the imposition of the British Mandate on Palestine.

20th Century

In the 1947 resolution by the United Nations General Assembly to partition Palestine, Bethlehem was included in the special international enclave of Jerusalem to be administered by the United Nations. Jordan occupied the city during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. Many refugees from areas captured by Zionist forces in 1947 - 1948 came to Bethlehem, setting up encampments in the north of the city near the road to Jerusalem and on the hillside to the south between the city and Solomon's Pools. These later became the official refugee camps of Beit Jibrin (or al-'Azza) and 'A'ida (in the north) and Deheisheh in the south. This influx of refugees changed the demography of Bethlehem considerably.

Jordan retained control of the city until 1967, when Bethlehem was captured by Israel along with the rest of the West Bank.

On December 21, 1995, Bethlehem became one of the areas under the full control of the Palestinian Authority. It is capital of the Bethlehem district. The current population of the town is about 40,000. The Christian population is no longer the majority, but a special statute requires that the mayor and a majority of the municipal council must nevertheless be Christian.

Recent events

Church of the Nativity Siege

With the escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Bethlehem has been the site of many confrontations. In May 2002, during an Israel Defense Forces raid into the city, a number of locals (some of whom were armed) fled into the Church of the Nativity. According to senior Tanzim commander Abdullah Abu-Hadid, the church was specifically chosen due to its abundant supplies of food, water, and as a focal point for international outcry Citation needed. It became the site of a 5-week stand-off. The number of people inside was estimated between 120 and 240 including at least 40 gunmen. Several groups of civilians were allowed out of the church during the 5 week siege [2]. During the siege several Palestinians inside the church compound were shot dead by Israeli snipers. The siege ended with an agreement for 13 militants to be sent via Cyprus to various European counties and another 26 to be sent to Gaza. The rest were set free. The IDF stated that 40 explosive devices were found and removed from the compound after the standoff was concluded. [3]

Movement restrictions

Main entrance into Bethlehem, July 2005
Main entrance into Bethlehem, July 2005

Bethlehem, Beit Sahour and Beit Jala are currently surrounded by Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks, with the main road to Jerusalem cut off at Rachel's Tomb. Bethlehem residents are only allowed into Jerusalem, the main social, economic and religious centre of the region, with special permits that are usually refused. Travel to other parts of the West Bank is also impeded and sometimes prevented. The city has periodically been placed under strict curfew, preventing residents from leaving their homes. Muslims and Christians are no longer allowed to visit the holy site of Rachel's Tomb.

The construction by Israel of the West Bank barrier has had a severe impact on Bethlehem. The barrier runs along the northern side of the town's built-up area, within metres of houses in 'A'ida refugee camp.

Demographic change

Bethlehem's former mayor, Hanna Nasser, says an estimated 2,000 Christians in Bethlehem have emigrated during the period of 2000 - 2003. Fifty years ago, Bethlehem was overwhelmingly Christian. Today, it has a Muslim majority. [4]

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