This aerial photograph shows the main road to Bethlehem from the north (Jerusalem). The modern city stretches out from the historic center in all directions. Today Bethlehem is controlled by the Palestinian Authority and has a population of about 22,000 not including the suburbs of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour.
From the North
Shepherd with Flock
The area to the east of the city is traditionally believed to be the area of the fields of the shepherds “keeping watch o’er their flocks by night.” Several churches have been built to commemorate this event. Even today local shepherds can be seen tending their flocks in this same area (even on Christmas eve!).
The entrance to the famous church in Bethlehem is remarkably unimpressive. The large courtyard is perfect for priests, pilgrims or tourists, but most noticeable are the vendors. Palestinian police now patrol the area. Buses no longer are allowed to enter the square, but instead are directed to a large parking structure.
This building is the oldest standing church in the Holy Land. Originally built by Constantine’s mother in the 4th century, Emperor Justinian rebuilt the current structure in the 530s. It was apparently spared destruction from the Persians in 614 because the invaders saw the depictions of the Magi on the walls. Local Muslim-Christian friendship is believed to be why the church was not destroyed during al-Hakim’s rule in 1009.
Underneath the present floor are beautiful mosaics of the earlier church. The church built at the direction of Constantine’s mother was octagonal in shape, typical of Byzantine memorial churches. Before the Roman empire converted to Christianity, the area was a sacred grove of Thammuz.
The Birth Cave
Early tradition places the birth of Jesus in a cave. Scripture doesn’t mention the existence of a cave, and skeptics note that many biblical events were commemorated in caves (more convenient for pilgrims to be sheltered from sun and rain?). But it is also true that many houses in the area are built in front of caves. A cave could serve a household well by providing shelter for the animals or a place of storage.
Place of Birth
According to tradition, Mary gave birth to Jesus at the place of where the star is located on the floor. The tradition that the birth was in a cave is one of the oldest Christian traditions. Justin Martyr mentions it in the mid-2nd century, as does the Protoevangelium of James (also 2nd century). Origen notes that the cave of Jesus’ birth was pointed out in his day and no doubt this was the same place where the Byzantine church was erected.
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Bethlehem (Ancient Sandals) Overview of the historical and archaeological significance of Bethlehem, including a location profile, with an interesting article on the birth of Jesus. Includes a neatly organized, though short, photo gallery.
History of Bethlehem (Holy Land Network) A succinct article on the history of Bethlehem. Also includes a photo gallery with briefly annotated pictures.
Bethlehem, Palestine (Bethlehem 2000) A brief article on the history and present condition of the city, written to commemorate the Bethlehem 2000 celebration. Includes a couple of pictures of the modern city and a map of walking tours.
The City of Bethlehem (Bethlehem Municipality) A number of good pictures and articles on the city, its history, and the sites located in and around it. Sites include the Church of the Nativity, the two proposed locations of the Shepherds’ Field, and Rachel’s Tomb. The website also has a couple of photo galleries of the city and the Church of the Nativity.
Places to Visit—Bethlehem (Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities) Pictures of places in and around Bethlehem including the Church of the Nativity, The Shepherd’s Field, and Rachel’s Tomb. All of the sites in Bethlehem are the traditional locations and not necessarily the actual locations of the events.
Bethlehem (Bethlehem Organization) A brief article on the city which provides some statistics on the population of the modern city and its refugee camps. Unfortunately the site contains many links that no longer work.
Pictures: Bethlehem and Surroundings (Franciscan Cyberspot) More than 40 pictures of the city and its sites available for download in either low or high definition.
Brief history of Bethlehem (Bethlehem Peace Center) An overview of the city’s history from the Canaanite period to the present day with one picture of the modern city.
Bethlehem (Virtual Israel Experience) An informative article about the Church of the Nativity, Rachel’s Tomb and a couple of neighboring sites.
Bethlehem (Catholic Encyclopedia) An encyclopedia article on the city and its history. Includes a history of the early tradition that Jesus was born in a cave.
Bethlehem (Crystalinks) An article about the city and the Christmas story with a few photographs and drawings.