bethlehem, town of bethlehem

Exploring Bethlehem's Ancient Architecture and Religious Celebrations

December 10, 2010
by Sarah Amandolare
Bethlehem is an intriguing destination any time of year, but especially during the Christmas season. The city’s historic churches and squares enchant visitors, while its ancient architecture and meandering footpaths lend a truly old-world atmosphere. Learn about Bethlehem’s most revered spots, and get insight into modern life in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem Travel Advice

Lonely Planet’s Bethlehem Travel Guide provides historical background on the city, as well as advice for navigating the “ancient footpaths” leading through it. The guide also covers the essentials: restaurants, entertainment and sights. According to Lonely Planet, Bethlehem “is one of the most continuously inhabited places in the world, with residents as far back as the Paleolithic era.” Modern day Bethlehem is “distinctly Christian,” although some residents are Muslim or Christian Palestinian Arabs.

Sacred Destinations provides a guide to “Event[s] in the Life of Jesus” with corresponding locations in Bethlehem.

Traveling Safely in the West Bank

A trip to Bethlehem, a Palestinian city in the West Bank between Jordan and Israel, shouldn’t be entered into lightly. As Gadling’s Matthew Firestone explains, security issues in Palestinian territories and Israel can change on the hour. Therefore, he advises seeking “local advice” rather than following guidebooks to the letter.

That said, “traveling in the West Bank is a lot safer than the media would have you believe,” according to Firestone. He offers up advice for taking a bus from East Jerusalem to Bethlehem, and gives helpful tips, such as hiring a local guide for security and educational purposes.

Palestine also refers to the Gaza Strip, where recent civil war between the Fatah and Hamas factions heightened tension in an already perilous area, and where security remains elusive. Read articles about Gaza in The New York Times.

Daily Life and Christmas in Bethlehem

Watch a few short videos taken in Manger Square, Bethlehem, revealing morning coffee habits, New Year’s Eve celebrations and local restaurants, courtesy of Tripfilms.

Scared Destinations describes a Christmas in Bethlehem, highlighting celebrations of Protestants and Catholics, as well as Orthodox and Armenian celebrations. Throughout the holiday season, you’ll find the typical trappings of Christmas, including colored lights, markets and theater. But in Bethlehem, the celebrations last longer than usual, encompassing different denominations’ celebrations.

In 2008, The Wall Street Journal included in “Pictures of the Day” a photo taken in Bethlehem at Christmas. The image is of Palestinians marching and playing bagpipes near the Church of the Nativity.

The Church of the Nativity

The Church of the Nativity draws visitors from around the world, but its age is beginning to show, and historians fear for the structure’s stability.

According to Abigail Tucker, writing for Smithsonian Magazine, the Church of the Nativity was constructed “around A.D. 330 by the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine,” and since then has survived all manner of “invasions, regime changes, fires, earthquakes” and the siege of Bethlehem in 2002.

The wear and tear, to say the least, is significant. But the main issue of concern among historians and conservationists are rivaling “claims of custody” of the church, between Greek and Armenian Orthodox churches and the Roman Catholic Church. Disagreements have prevented efforts to restore the deteriorating structure. The Palestinian Authority recently attempted to step in, which some see as a good sign, Tucker explains.    

Sacred Destinations provides details about specific architectural features of the Church of the Nativity, including wall mosaics, the Door of Humility and the Grotto of the Nativity. Photos of the interior and exterior of the church accompany information on the history of the church, such as early evidence of Christ’s birthplace. Mentions of the Church of the Nativity in the Bible are also explained. 

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