Bethlehem: An Essential Stop on Every Holy Land Tour

Perched on a hill at the edge of the Judean desert just 5 miles south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem is an essential stop on every Holy Land tour package. It is the childhood home of the biblical King David. It is also the birthplace of Jesus Christ and has been a major site of Christian pilgrimages since the construction of the Church of the Nativity in the 4th century AD. Bethlehem flourished until Crusader times, but the following centuries witnessed a great reduction in population, reversed only after the 1948 war with the arrival of thousands of Palestinian refugees.

touring bethlehem

Since 1995, Bethlehem has been under the control of the Palestinian National Authority, which has initiated a program of economic recovery and tourism. A long snake of a town, the main thoroughfare of Bethlehem is Manger Street which stretches from Rachel's Tomb (and the road to Jerusalem) all the way to Manger Square, the focal point of the city. Manger Square is flanked by the Church of the Nativity on one side and the Mosque of Omar on the other. The Old Town and the souq (market), which are best navigated on foot, stretch up the hill to the west from Manger Square. Despite the huge number of pilgrims and chaotic urban growth, Bethlehem retains an authentic atmosphere, especially in the central area around Manger Square and in the souq. Because of its history, Bethlehem must be included on every Minnesota Holy Land tour in order to make the tour complete.


Entering the Church of the Nativity
Entering the Church of the Nativity

the church of the nativity: the birthplace of jesus

Entering the church that marks the site of Christ’s birthplace means having to stoop low. The only doorway in the fortress-like front wall is just 1.2 meters (approximately 4 feet) high.

The previous entrance to the Church of the Nativity was lowered around the year 1500 to stop looters from driving their carts in. To Christians, it seems appropriate to bow lowbefore entering the place where God humbled himself to become man.

Today’s basilica, the oldest complete church in the Christian world, was built by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It replaced the original church of Constantine the Great, built over the cave venerated as Christ’s birthplace, and dedicated in AD 339.

the grotto of the nativity  

The Gospels do not say that Jesus was born in a cave, but there are written references to the Nativity cave as far back as AD 160. Even today in the Judean hills, families live in primitive houses built in front of natural caves used for storage or to shelter animals.

When the original Church of the Nativity was built, the cave was enlarged to make room for pilgrims, and a silver manger was installed.

Persians invaded Palestine in 614 and destroyed many churches. They spared the Church of the Nativity when they saw a mosaic on an interior wall depicting the Three Wise Men in Persian dress.

The Grotto of the Nativity

When Unesco put the Basilica of the Nativity on its list of world heritage sites in 2012, it was deemed to be endangered because of damage due to water leaks. A $15 million restoration of the church’s roof, walls and mosaics began in 2013; it is still continuing.

It should be noted as well that although Bethlehem is a Palestinian town, it is also a tourist-orientated town. Because of Bethlehem's immense potential as a tourism magnet, the Palestinian Authority maintains a constant tourist police presence in the city. Bethlehem is a safe place for tourists to visit, and tourist numbers are increasing to this hidden gem of the Holy Land.

Here at Faith Travel Experts, we can customize your Holy Land Tour package to include Bethlehem and the surrounding areas. 

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