The town of Bethlehem lies within the territory assigned to the tribe of Judah. At that time, it was very fertile country, situated on an impressive ridge, 2700 feet above sea level and approximately six miles south by west from Jerusalem. Known for its beauty and terraced hills, covered with vines and fig trees, the surrounding valleys yielded abundant harvests of grain.
According to the Bible, Jacob buried Rachel near the gate of Bethlehem and it was the town that both Ruth and David called home.
The area to the east of the city is believed to be the area in which shepherds were “keeping watch o’er their flocks by night,” according to the Bible. Several churches have been built to, in effect, memorialize this event. And, even now local shepherds are frequently seen tending their flocks in this same area–including on Christmas eve.
The following is no doubt the most famous scripture regarding Bethlehem:
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Though sparsley populated in Jesus’ day, Bethlehem now has a population of 22,000, with Christians constituting 18% of the population. In the early 1900s, it was 90% Christian. In 1990, Christians were still in the majority, representing 60% of Bethlehem’s population, but the Christian population dropped down to 40% by 2000.
Bethlehem is surrounded on three sides by the West Bank wall and its most famous attraction is the Church of the Nativity, which was built on the site at which Christians believe Jesus was born. This particular building is the oldest standing church in the Holy Land. Originally built by Constantine’s mother in the 4th century, Emperor Justinian overhauled the current structure in the 530s. It appears that it was spared destruction by Persians in 614 because they saw the depictions of the Magi on the walls. Click here for more information on on the Church of The Nativity.
Christian tradition, perhaps as early as the second century CE, identified a cave as the site of Jesus’ birth. About 338 CE Constantine, the Roman emperor and his mother, Helena, built a church over the grotto and In 527 Justinian the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire resettled in Bethlehem, his reign was one of great prosperity and expansion of churches. The site of the Nativity is a central pilgrimage destination for Christians from all over the world.
Bethlehem was a city of importance to the Crusaders, who conquered it in the year 1100. Over years of wars between the Crusaders and the Muslims the city was destroyed, and then subsequently rebuilt. The Turks destroyed the city in 1244, but the church somehow escaped, Bethlehem was rebuilt once again.
When finally the Crusaders were driven from Palestine in 1291, the Moslem rulers used the holy places for political and financial ends. Although Bethlehem was still nominally endowed, collection of revenue from the land was impossible. In 1332 Pope John XXII wrote to Edward III of England, to David II of Scotland and to Simon of Meopham, Archbishop of Canterbury, asking them to help the bishop of Bethlehem to regain his interest and so enable him to return to Bethlehem and carry out repairs. It seems little was done.
Decay and destruction proceeded over the years as a result of fighting between the local Christian and Muslim residents.
The Population of Bethlehem today is made up of Christians and Moslems. Among the Christians: Catholics of Latin, Syrian, Malachite, Armenian and Maronite rites and Orthodox of Greek, Syrian and Armenian denominations. Protestants are present in the Judean town.
As a result of the Six-Day War, Bethlehem came under Israeli rule.
In December 1995, the town of Bethlehem reverted to Palestinian control. Israelis still have access to Rachel’s tomb, on the northern outskirts of the city. Unfortunately, occasional outbreaks of violence continue to occur between Palestinian demonstrators from Bethlehem and Israeli troops stationed outside the city’s limits.”
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