Only six miles south of Jerusalem you will find Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth and a site of invaluable significance to the Christian world. Bethlehem remains to this day a prime destination for tours to the Holy Land and Christian tours to Israel.
Despite Bethlehem's proximity to the Israeli city of Jerusalem, it is situated in the West Bank and officially under Palestinian jurisdiction. Though the city houses one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, and is home to the largest Palestinian Christian community in the Middle East , its Muslim population has gained much power over recent years, attempting to push the Christian community to migrate elsewhere.
However, Bethlehem's stout Christian community remains in tact, gaining much of its strength from Christian travel and tourism.
The Church of Nativity in Bethlehem
Built by Constantine the Great in 330 AD over the Holy Crypt - a cave or grotto known in Christian tradition as the exact birthplace of Jesus - the Church of Nativity is the oldest existing church in the world. The Church of Nativity is visited by thousands of believers each year, making it one of the foremost destinations for tours to the Holy Land.
The Church of Nativity encapsulates in it two cathedrals, both run by the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic denominations in conjunction with one another. The main cathedral, known as the Basilica of Nativity, may be entered through the "Door of Humility" which, as its namesake indicates, is built slightly underground so as to humble the believer entering into the church.
Staircases on both sides of the basilica lead visitors from the main level down to the Holy Crypt where Jesus' precise place of birth is marked by a golden star engraved into the marble altar.
Unlike the Roman basilica architecture of the main cathedral, the adjacent cathedral, known as the Church of St. Catherine, is ornately Gothic in style. The Church of St. Catherine is administered by the Roman Catholic denomination, and it is here that the Archbishop of Jerusalem conducts the famously extravagant Midnight Mass on Chrisman Eve.
Bethlehem artists produce a wide range of Christian-themed crafts. For the many tourists who frequent Bethlehem, hand-crafted Nativity sets made of genuine olive-wood are available in all shapes and sizes.
Miniature versions of the Nativity scene are also sculpted into charms and other jewelry and can be found in many souvenir shops alongside crosses, salt from the Holy Land and even Blessed Water.
Shopkeepers are oftentimes the artists themselves. They are usually friendly and will customize your purchases if asked. So when visiting Bethlehem, make sure you don't forget to pick up a keepsake or two from this unforgettable city.