Christmas in Bethlehem
First a quick note. This article is for anyone and everyone. I write from the perspective of a traveler who enjoys historic sites, architecture, and culture. I hope people of all faiths will enjoy this article. Bethlehem is fascinating as a travel destination. This vibrant city houses residents of multiple religious beliefs. Christians are a minority in Bethlehem today, but tourism is the city’s primary industry. Many Christian tourists visit in the context of Bethlehem as a pilgrimage site. It’s noteworthy that the city has tremendous historical and architectural appeal, regardless of a visitor’s religious beliefs. And in many ways sites like Manger Square celebrate religious tolerance. Christmas is the most popular time for visitors. The city responds with festive holiday decorations and brilliant lights, particularly around Manger Square.
Bethlehem is located in the West Bank, Palestine. It’s about 6 miles south of Jerusalem. Manger Square is centrally located in the city. It’s named for the manger where Jesus is traditionally believed to have been born, at the Grotto of the Nativity. The most dominant, and the most beautiful, structures in Manger Square are the Mosque of Omar and the Church of the Nativity, where the grotto is located. The Mosque is named in honor of Omar ibn-al-Khattab, second Caliph of Islam. The Greek Orthodox Church donated land for the current Mosque, constructed in 1860. The square feels like a tribute to peace among religions, given this fascinating history and the proximity of the houses of worship to each other. This square serves as a popular gathering place for locals and tourists of all religions. It’s a peaceful place, and a celebration of coexistence.
Church of the Nativity
The Church of the Nativity is established as a UNESCO World Heritage site. And for good reason! The Byzantine Emperor Constantine commissioned the Church, built in 339. Fire destroyed the original structure during the Samaritan revolts. But Emperor Justinian re-commissioned it in 533. Justinian made a tremendous architectural mark on the Empire. His most well-known commission may be the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. Here on the Nativity, two bell towers from the Byzantine period are now gone, casualties of the Crusades. Emperor Justinian was particularly fond of mosaics, brilliant gold, and elaborate ornamentation. His aesthetic proclivities are well apparent here. The magnificent artwork on the walls is meticulously preserved and uniquely breathtaking.
The Grotto of the Nativity
The Grotto of the Nativity is located within the Church of the Nativity. The divine site is marked by a silver star. It’s traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. You’ll find it under the main alter, drawing the faithful to intense prayer and devotion. According to UNESCO, it “commemorates the birth of Jesus and attests to seventeen hundred years-long tradition of belief that this grotto was indeed the birthplace of Jesus Christ.” (UNESCO). Although the Church attracts very large crowds of tourists, this spot feels tranquil, a place for silent reflection.
Bethlehem is a GREAT place to find bargains. Prices are extremely low. This is particularly true in the open-air street markets. Sure, you’ll find your share of tacky souvenirs and cheaply-made wares here, like anywhere else. But you can also find many wonderful hand-crafted items here. Bethlehem offers some particularly fine textiles. Just like in much of the Middle East, haggling is expected and encouraged. So don’t be shy! I greatly enjoyed strolling along the quaint streets. I was surrounded by charming sandstone buildings while browsing the local wares and chatting up the friendly locals. These streets are particularly peaceful in the evening, when the tourist crush from earlier in the day has departed. U.S. dollars and Euros are widely accepted.
Peace and Good Will to Everyone!
Thanks for reading! If this article got you into the Christmas spirit, check out my post about German Christmas in Frankenmuth, Michigan here! And if you’d like to do some more Christmas shopping, check out my travel lover’s gift guide here! Finally, if you haven’t joined me already on my video tour of Bethlehem, you’ll find it at the top of this post! I’ll walk you through Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity!