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Bethlehem skyline from the Church of the Nativity.

Bethlehem (Arabic:بَيْتِ لَحْمٍ, lit "House of Meat"; Greek:Βηθλεέμ Bethleém; Hebrew:בֵּית לֶחֶם, Beit Lehem, lit "House of Bread") is a Palestinian city in the central West Bank, approximately 10 kilometers (6 mi) south of Jerusalem, with a population of about 30,000 people.[1][2] It is the capital of the Bethlehem Governorate of the Palestinian National Authority and a hub of Palestinian culture and tourism.[3][4] The New Testament Gospels of Matthew and Luke identify Bethlehem as the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth. The town is inhabited by one of the oldest Christian communities in the world, though the size of the community has shrunk in recent years due to emigration.

The city is the birthplace of David and the location where he was crowned as the king of Israel. The city was sacked by the Samaritans in 529 CE, during their revolt, but was rebuilt by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I. Bethlehem was conquered by the Arab Caliphate of 'Umar ibn al-Khattāb in 637, who guaranteed safety for the city's religious shrines. In 1099, Crusaders captured and fortified Bethlehem and replaced its Greek Orthodox clergy with a Latin one. The Latin clergy were expelled after the city was captured by Saladin, the sultan of Egypt and Syria. With the coming of the Mamluks in 1250, the city's walls were demolished, and were subsequently rebuilt during the rule of the Ottoman Empire.[5]

The British wrested control of the city from the Ottomans during World War I and it was to be included in an international zone under the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine. Jordan annexed the city in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. It was occupied by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. Since 1995, Bethlehem has been governed by the Palestinian National Authority.[5]

Bethlehem has a Muslim majority, but is also home to one of the largest Palestinian Christian communities. The Bethlehem agglomeration includes the towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour, as well as the refugee camps of 'Aida and 'Azza. Bethlehem's chief economic sector is tourism which peaks during the Christmas season when Christian pilgrims throng to the Church of the Nativity. Bethlehem has over thirty hotels and three hundred handicraft work shops.[6] Rachel's Tomb, an important Jewish holy site, is located at the entrance of Bethlehem.


The first historical reference to the town appears in the Amarna Letters (C. 1400 BCE) when the King of Jerusalem appeals to his Lord, the King of Egypt, for help in retaking "Bit-Lahmi" in the wake of disturbances by the Apiru.[7] Since the Jews and Arabs had not yet arrived in the area it is thought that the similarity of this name to its modern forms inidicates that this was a settlement of Canaanites who shared a Semitic cultural and linguistic heritage with the later arrivals.[8]

Biblical era

Bethlehem, located in the "hill country" of Judah, may be the same as the Biblical Ephrath,[9] which means "fertile": There is a possible reference to it as Beth-Lehem Ephratah.[10] It is also known as Beth-Lehem Judah,[11] and "the city of David".[12] It is first mentioned in the Tanakh and the Bible as the place where the Abrahamic matriarch Rachel died and was buried "by the wayside" (Gen. 48:7). Rachel's Tomb, the traditional grave site, stands at the entrance to Bethlehem. According to the Book of Ruth, the valley to the east is where Ruth of Moab gleaned the fields and returned to town with Naomi. Bethlehem is the traditional birthplace of David, the second king of Israel, and the place where he was anointed king by Samuel.[13] It was from the well of Bethlehem that three of his warriors brought him water when he was hiding in the cave of Adullam.[14]

Roman and Byzantine periods

Between 132-135 the city was occupied by the Romans after its capture during the Bar Kokhba Revolt. Its Jewish residents were expelled by the military orders of Hadrian.[15] While ruling Bethlehem, the Romans built a shrine to the mythical Greek cult figure Adonis on the site of the Nativity. A church was erected in 326, when Helena, the mother of the first Byzantine emperor Constantine, visited Bethlehem.[5]

During the Samaritan revolt of 529, Bethlehem was sacked and its walls and the Church of the Nativity destroyed, but they were soon rebuilt on the orders of the Emperor Justinian I. In 614, the Persian Sassanid Empire invaded Palestine and captured Bethlehem. A story recounted in later sources holds that they refrained from destroying the church on seeing the magi depicted in Persian clothing in a mosaic.[5]

Birthplace of Jesus

Two accounts in the New Testament describe Jesus as born in Bethlehem. According to the Gospel of Luke,[12] Jesus' parents lived in Nazareth but traveled to Bethlehem for the census of 6 CE, and Jesus was born there before the family returned to Nazareth.

The Gospel of Matthew account implies that the family already lived in Bethlehem when Jesus was born, and later moved to Nazareth.[16][17] Matthew reports that Herod the Great, told that a 'King of the Jews' has been born in Bethlehem, ordered the killing of all the children aged two and under in the town and surrounding areas. Jesus' earthly father Joseph is warned of this in a dream, and the family escapes this fate by fleeing to Egypt and returning only after Herod has died. But being warned in another dream not to return to Judea, Joseph withdraws the family to Galilee, and goes to live in Nazareth.

Early Christians interpreted a verse in the Book of Micah[18] as a prophecy of the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem.[19] Many modern scholars question whether Jesus was really born in Bethlehem, and suggest that the different Gospel accounts were invented to present the birth of Jesus as fulfillment of prophecy and imply a connection to the lineage of King David.[20][21][22][23] The Gospel of Mark and the Gospel of John do not include a nativity narrative or any hint that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, and refer to him only as being from Nazareth.[24] In a 2005 article in Archaeology magazine, archaeologist Aviram Oshri pointed to the absence of evidence of settlement of the area at the time when Jesus was born, and postulates that Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Galilee.[25] Opposing him, Jerome Murphy-O’Connor argues for the traditional position.[26]

The antiquity of the tradition of Jesus' birth in Bethlehem is attested by the Christian apologist Justin Martyr, who stated in his Dialogue with Trypho (c. 155-161) that the Holy Family had taken refuge in a cave outside of the town.[27] Origen of Alexandria, writing around the year 247, referred to a cave in the town of Bethlehem which local people believed was the birthplace of Jesus.[28] This cave was possibly one which had previously been a site of the cult of Tammuz.[29]

Islamic rule and the Crusades

In 637, shortly after Jerusalem was captured by the Muslim armies, 'Umar ibn al-Khattāb, the second Caliph took control of Bethlehem and promised that the Church of the Nativity would be preserved for Christian use.[5] A mosque dedicated to Umar was built upon the place in the city where he prayed, next to the church.[30] Bethlehem then passed from the control of the Islamic caliphates of the Umayyads in the 8th century, then the Abbasids in the 9th century. Persian geographers recorded in the mid-9th century that a well preserved and much venerated church existed in the town. In 985, Arab geographer al-Muqaddasi visited Bethlehem, and referred to its church as the "Basilica of Constantine, the equal of which does not exist anywhere in the country-round."[31] In 1009, during the reign of the sixth Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, the Church of the Nativity was ordered to be demolished, but was spared by local Muslims, because they had been permitted to worship in the structure's south transept.[32]

In 1099, Bethlehem was captured by the Crusaders, who fortified it and built a new monastery and cloister on the north side of the Church of the Nativity. The Greek Orthodox clergy were removed from their Sees and replaced with Latin clerics. Up until that point the official Christian presence in the region was Greek Orthodox. On Christmas Day 1100 Baldwin I, first king of the Frankish Kingdom of Jerusalem, was crowned in Bethlehem, and that year a Latin episcopate was also established in the town.[5]

In 1187, Saladin, the Sultan of Egypt and Syria who led the Muslim Ayyubids, captured Bethlehem from the Crusaders. The Latin clerics were forced to leave, allowing the Greek Orthodox clergy to return. Saladin agreed to the return of two Latin priests and two deacons in 1192. However, Bethlehem suffered from the loss of the pilgrim trade, as there was a sharp decrease of European pilgrims.[5]

William IV, Count of Nevers had promised the Christian bishops of Bethlehem that if Bethlehem should fall under Muslim control, he would welcome them in the small town of Clamecy in present-day Burgundy, France. As such, The Bishop of Bethlehem duly took up residence in the hospital of Panthenor, Clamecy in 1223. Clamecy remained the continuous 'in partibus infidelium' seat of the Bishopric of Bethlehem for almost 600 years, until the French Revolution in 1789.[33]

Bethlehem — along with Jerusalem, Nazareth and Sidon — was briefly ceded to the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem by a treaty between Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II and Ayyubid Sultan al-Kamil in 1229, in return for a ten-year truce between the Ayyubids and the Crusaders. The treaty expired in 1239 and Bethlehem was recaptured by the Muslims in 1244.[34]

In 1250, with the coming to power of the Mamluks under Rukn al-Din Baibars, tolerance of Christianity declined; the clergies left the city, and in 1263 the town walls were demolished. The Latin clergy returned to Bethlehem the following century, establishing themselves in the monastery adjoining the Basilica of the Nativity. The Greek Orthodox were given control of the basilica and shared control of the Milk Grotto with the Latins and the Armenians.[5]

Ottoman and Egyptian era

From 1517, during the years of Ottoman control, custody of the Basilica was bitterly disputed between the Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches.[5] By the end of the 16th century, Bethelem had become one of the largest villages in the District of Jerusalem, and was subdivided into seven quarters.[35] The Basbus family served as the heads of Bethlehem among other leaders during this period.[36]

Bethlehem paid taxes on wheat, barley, and grapes. The Muslims and Christians were organized into separate communities, each having its own leader; five leaders represented the village in the mid-16th century, three of whom were Muslims. Ottoman tax records suggest that the Christian population was slightly more prosperous or grew more grain as opposed to grapes, the former being a more valuable commodity.[37]

From 1831 to 1841, Palestine was under the rule Muhammad Ali Dynasty of Egypt. During this period, the town suffered an earthquake as well as the destruction of the Muslim quarter in 1834 by Egyptian troops, apparently as a reprisal for the murder of a favored loyalist of Ibrahim Pasha.[38] In 1841, Bethlehem came under Ottoman rule once more and remained so until the end of the World War I. Under the Ottomans, Bethlehem's inhabitants faced unemployment, compulsory military service and heavy taxes, resulting in mass emigration particularly to South America.[5] An American missionary in the 1850s reports a population of under 4,000, 'nearly all of them belong to the Greek Church.' He also comments that 'there is a fatal lack of water' and hence it could never become a large town.[39]

Twentieth century

Bethlehem was administered by the British Mandate from 1920 until 1948.[40] In the United Nations General Assembly's 1947 resolution to partition Palestine, Bethlehem was included in the special international enclave of Jerusalem to be administered by the United Nations.[41]

Jordan annexed the city during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.[42] Many refugees from areas captured by Israeli forces in 1947-48 fled to the Bethlehem area, primarily settling in the what became the official refugee camps of 'Azza (Beit Jibrin) and 'Aida in the north and Dheisheh in the south.[43] The influx of refugees significantly transformed Bethlehem's Christian majority into a Muslim one.[44]

Jordan retained control of the city until the Six-Day War in 1967, when Bethlehem was occupied by Israel, along with the rest of the West Bank. On December 21, 1995, Israeli troops withdrew from Bethlehem,[45] and three days later the city came under the complete administration and military control of the Palestinian National Authority in conformance with the Interim Agreement on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1995.[46]

Second Intifada

During the Second Palestinian Intifada, which began in 2000-01, Bethlehem's infrastructure and tourism industry were severely damaged.[47][48] In 2002, it was a primary combat zone in Operation Defensive Shield, a major military offensive by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).[49]

During the operation, the IDF besieged the Church of the Nativity, where about 200 Palestinian militants took the Church hostage. The siege lasted for 39 days and nine militants and the church's bellringer were killed. It ended with an agreement to exile thirteen of the wanted militants to various European nations and Mauritania.


Bethlehem is located at 31°43′0″N 35°12′0″E / 31.716667°N 35.2°E / 31.716667; 35.2 Bethlehem stands at an elevation of about 775 meters (2,543 ft) above sea level, 30 meters (98 ft) higher than nearby Jerusalem.[50] Bethlehem is situated on the southern portion in the Judean Mountains

The city is located 73 kilometers (45 mi) northeast of Gaza and the Mediterranean Sea, 75 kilometers (47 mi) west of Amman, Jordan, 59 kilometers (37 mi) southeast of Tel Aviv, Israel and 10 kilometers (6 mi) south of Jerusalem.[51] Nearby cities and towns include Beit Safafa and Jerusalem to the north, Beit Jala to the northwest, Husan to the west, al-Khadr and Artas to the southwest, and Beit Sahour to the east. Beit Jala and the latter form an agglomeration with Bethlehem and the Aida and Azza refugee camps are located within the city limits.[52]

Old city

In the center of Bethlehem is its old city. The old city consists of eight quarters, laid out in a mosaic style, forming the area around the Manger Square. The quarters include the Christian al-Najajreh, al-Farahiyeh, al-Anatreh, al-Tarajmeh, al-Qawawsa and Hreizat quarters and al-Fawaghreh — the only Muslim quarter.[53] Most of the Christian quarters are named after the Arab Ghassanid clans that settled there.[54] Al-Qawawsa Quarter was formed by Arab Christian emigrants from the nearby town of Tuqu' in the 18th century.[55] There is also a Syriac quarter outside of the old city,[53] whose inhabitants originate from Midyat and Ma'asarte in Turkey.[56] The total population of the old city is about 5,000.[53]


Bethlehem has a Mediterranean climate, with hot and dry summers and cold winters. Winter temperatures (mid-December to mid-March) can be cold and rainy. January is the coldest month, with temperatures ranging from 1 to 13 degree Celsius (33–55 °F). From May through September, the weather is warm and sunny. August is the hottest month, with a high of 27 degrees Celsius (81 °F). Bethlehem receives an average of 700 mm to (28 inches) of rainfall annually, 70% between November and January.[57]

Bethlehem's average annual relative humidity is 60% and reaches its highest rates between January and February. Humidity levels are at their lowest in May. Night dew may occur in up to 180 days per year. The city is influenced by the Mediterranean Sea breeze that occurs around mid-day. However, Bethlehem is affected also by annual waves of hot, dry, sandy and dust Khamaseen winds from the Arabian Desert, during April, May and mid-June.[57]



Year Population
1867 3,000-4,000[58]
1945 8,820[59]
1961 22,450
1983 16,300[60]
1997 21,930[61]
2004 (Projected) 28,010[62]
2006 (Projected) 29,930[62]
2007 25,266[61]

In the PCBS's 1997 census, the city had a population of 21,670, including a total of 6,570 refugees, accounting for 30.3% of the city's population.[61][63] In 1997, the age distribution of Bethlehem's inhabitants was 27.4% under the age of 10, 20% from 10 to 19, 17.3% from 20-29, 17.7% from 30 to 44, 12.1% from 45-64 and 5.3% above the age of 65. There were 11,079 males and 10,594 females.[61]

According to a PCBS estimate, Bethlehem's population was 29,930 in mid 2006.[62] The 2007 PCBS census, however, revealed a population of 25,266, of which 12,753 were males and 12,513 were females. There were 6,709 housing units, of which 5,211 were households. The average household consisted of 4.8 family members.[64]

According to Ottoman tax records, Christians made up roughly 60% of the population in the early 16th century, while the Christian and Muslim population became equal in the mid-16th century. There were no Muslim inhabitants by the end of the century, with a recorded population of 287 adult male tax-payers. Christians, like all non-Muslims throughout the Ottoman Empire, were required to pay the jizya tax.[35] In 1867 an American visitor describes the town as having a population of 3,000 to 4,000; of whom about 100 were Protestants, 300 were Muslims and "the remainder belonging to the Latin and Greek Churches with a few Armenians".[58]

In 1948, the religious makeup of the city was 85% Christian, mostly of the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic denominations,[65] and 13% Sunni Muslim. By 2005, the proportion of Christian residents had decreased dramatically, to about 20%.[66] The only mosque in the Old City is the Mosque of Omar, located in the Manger Square.[30]

Christian population

The majority of Bethlehem's Christian inhabitants claim ancestry from Arab Christian clans from the Arabian Peninsula, including the city's two largest: al-Farahiyya and an-Najajreh. The former claims to have descended from the Ghassanids who migrated from Yemen to the Wadi Musa area in present-day Jordan and an-Najajreh descend from the Arabs of Najran in the southern Hejaz. Another Bethlehem clan, al-Anantreh, also trace their ancestry to the Arabian Peninsula.[67]

The percentage of Christians in Bethlehem has been steadily falling, primarily due to continuous emigration. The lower birth rate of Christians than Muslims also accounts for some of the decline. In 1947, Christians made up 75% of the population, but by 1998 this figure had declined to 23%.[65] The current mayor of Bethlehem, Victor Batarseh told the Voice of America that, "due to the stress, either physical or psychological, and the bad economic situation, many people are emigrating, either Christians or Muslims, but it is more apparent among Christians, because they already are a minority."[68]

Palestinian Authority rule following the Interim Agreements is officially committed to equality for Bethlehem area Christians, although there have been a few incidents of violence against them by the Preventive Security Service and militant factions.[69]

The outbreak of the Second Intifada and the resultant decrease in tourism has also affected the Christian minority, leaving many economically stricken as they are the owners of many Bethlehem hotels and services that cater to foreign tourists.[70] A statistical analysis of why Christians are leaving the area blamed the lack of economic and educational opportunities, especially due to the Christians' middle-class status and higher education.[71] Since the Second Intifada, 10% of the Christian population have left the city.[68]

A 2006 poll of Bethlehem's Christians conducted by the Palestinian Centre for Research and Cultural Dialogue, found that 90% reported having Muslim friends, 73.3% agreed that the Palestinian National Authority treats Christian heritage in the city with respect and 78% attributed the ongoing exodus of Christians from Bethlehem to the Israeli travel restrictions in the area.[72]

The Hamas government's official position has been to support the city's Christian population, though the party at times has been criticized by some anonymous residents for increasing the Islamic presence in the city by, for example, activating the call to prayer at a previously unused local mosque in a Christian neighborhood. According to the Jerusalem Post, under Hamas, the Christian population faces a lack of law and order which has left it susceptible to land theft by local mafia who take advantage of ineffective courts and the perception that the Christian population is less likely to stand up for itself.[73][74][75]


Shopping and industry

Shopping is a major sector in Bethlehem, especially during the Christmas season. The city's main streets and old markets are lined with shops selling handicrafts, Middle Eastern spices, jewelry and oriental sweets such as baklawa.[76]

The tradition of making handicrafts in the city dates back to its founding. Numerous shops in Bethlehem sell olive wood carvings — for which the city is renowned — made from the local olive groves.[77] The carvings are the main product purchased by tourists visiting Bethlehem.[78] Religious handicrafts are also a major industry in Bethlehem, and some products include ornaments handmade from mother-of-pearl, as well as olive wood statues, boxes, and crosses.[77] The art of creating mother-of-pearl handicrafts was introduced to Bethlehem by Franciscan friars from Damascus during the 14th century.[78] Stone and marble-cutting, textiles, furniture and furnishings are other prevalent industries. Bethlehem also produces paints, plastics, synthetic rubber, pharmaceuticals, construction materials and food products, mainly pasta and confectionery.[79]

Bethlehem has a wine-producing company, Cremisan Wine, founded in 1885, that currently exports wine to several countries. The wine is produced by monks in the Monastery of Cremisan, and the majority of the grapes are harvested from the al-Khader area. The monastery's wine production is around 700,000 liters per year.[80]


Tourism is Bethlehem's primary industry and unlike other Palestinian localities before 2000, the majority of the working residents did not work in Israel.[47] Over 25% of the working population was employed directly or indirectly in the industry.[79] Tourism accounts for approximately 65% of the city's economy and 11% of the Palestinian National Authority.[81]

The Church of the Nativity is one of Bethlehem's major tourist attractions and a magnet for Christian pilgrims. It stands in the center of the city — a part of the Manger Square — over a grotto or cave called the Holy Crypt, where Jesus supposedly was born. Nearby is the Milk Grotto where the Holy Family took refuge on their Flight to Egypt and next door is the cave where St. Jerome spent thirty years translating the Hebrew Scriptures into Latin.[5]

There are over thirty hotels in Bethlehem.[6] Jacir Palace, built in 1910 near the church, is one of Bethlehem's most successful hotels and its oldest. It was closed down in 2000 due to the violence of the Second Intifada, but reopened in 2005.[82]

Economic conference

Bethlehem hosted the largest ever economic conference in the Palestinian territories on May 21, 2008. It was initiated by Palestinian Prime Minister and former Finance Minister Salam Fayyad to convince over 1,000 businessmen, bankers and government officials from throughout the Middle East to invest in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, although Fayyad admitted the territories were "far from the perfect business environment", being directly linked with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Nonetheless, 1.4 billion US dollars was secured for business investments in the Palestinian territories.[83]



Before the establishment of Israel as a state, Bethlehem costumes and embroidery were popular in villages throughout the Judaean Hills and the coastal plain. The women embroiderers of Bethlehem and the neighboring villages of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour were known to be professional producers of wedding costumes.[84] Bethlehem was a center for embroidery producing a "strong overall effect of colors and metallic brilliance."[85]

Less formal dresses in Bethlehem were generally made of indigo fabric and a sleeveless coat (bisht), made from locally woven wool, was worn over top. Dresses for special occasions were made of striped silk with winged sleeves and the short taqsireh jacket, known throughout Palestine as the Bethlehem jacket, was worn over it. The taqsireh was made of velvet or broadcloth, usually with heavy embroidery.[84]

Bethlehem work was unique in its use of couched gold or silver cord, or silk cord onto the silk, wool, felt or velvet used for the garment, to create stylized floral patterns with free or rounded lines. This technique was used for "royal" wedding dresses (thob malak), taqsirehs and the shatwehs worn by married women. It has been traced by some to Byzantium, and by others to the more formal costumes of the Ottoman Empire's elite. As Bethlehem was a Christian village, local women were also exposed to the detailing on church vestments with their heavy embroidery and silver brocade.[84]

Mother-of-Pearl carving

The art of mother-of-pearl carving has been a Bethlehem tradition since the 14th century when it was introduced to the city by Franciscan friars from Damascus.[86] Bethlehem's position as an important Christian city has for centuries attracted a constant stream of pilgrims. This generated much local work and income, also for women, including making mother-of-pearl souvenirs.[87] It was noted by Richard Pococke, who travelled there in 1727.[88]

Present day products include crosses, earrings, brooches,[86] maps of Palestine,[89] and picture frames.[90]

Cultural centers and museums

Bethlehem is home to the Palestinian Heritage Center, established in 1991. The center aims to preserve and promote Palestinian embroidery, art and folklore.[91] The International Center of Bethlehem is another cultural center that concentrates primarily on the culture of Bethlehem. It provides language and guide training, woman's studies and arts and crafts displays, and training.[4]

A branch of the the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music is located in Bethlehem and has about 500 students. Its primary goals are to teach children music, train teachers for other schools, sponsor music research, and the study of Palestinian folklore music.[92]

Bethlehem has four museums located within its municipal borders. The Crib of the Nativity Theatre and Museum offers visitors 31 3D models depicting the significant stages of the life of Jesus. Its theater presents a 20-minute animated show. The Badd Giacaman Museum, located in the Old City of Bethlehem, dates back to the 18th century and is primarily dedicated to the history and process of olive oil production.[4]

Baituna al-Talhami Museum, established in 1972, contains displays of the culture of Bethlehem's inhabitants.[4] The International Museum of Nativity was designed by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for the purpose of showing works of "high artistic quality in an evocative atmosphere".[4]


Christmas rites are held in Bethlehem on three different dates: December 25 is the traditional date by the Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations, but Greek, Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas on January 6 and Armenian Orthodox Christians on January 19. Most Christmas processions pass through Manger Square, the plaza outside the Basilica of the Nativity. Catholic services take place in St. Catherine's Church and Protestants often hold services at Shepherds' Fields.[93]

Bethlehem, like other Palestinian localities, participates in festivals related to saints and prophets that are attached to Palestinian folklore. One such festival is the annual Feast of Saint George (al-Khadr) on 5 May-6 May. During the celebrations, Greek Orthodox Christians from the city march in procession to the nearby town of al-Khader to baptize newborns in the waters around the Monastery of St. George and sacrifice a sheep in ritual.[94]

The Feast of St. Elijah (Mar Elias) is held in a similar way, except the procession is towards the Monastery of St. Elijah to the north of Bethlehem. The feast commemorates the miracles attributed to the saint, a popular figure in Palestine. Prior, to restrictions imposed on the residents by Israel, local Christians used to visit the monastery, bringing various gifts, such as bread, olive oil and candles. The candles would be lit and the oil would be placed in front of icons in the church, while the bread was handed to the monks.[95]


Bethlehem held its first municipal elections in 1876, after the mukhtars ("heads") of the quarters of Bethlehem's Old City (excluding the Syriac Quarter) made the decision to elect a local council of seven members to represent each clan in the town. A Basic Law was established so that if the victor for mayor was a Catholic, his deputy should be of the Greek Orthodox community.[96]

Throughout, Bethlehem's rule by the British and Jordan, the Syriac Quarter was allowed to participate in the election, as were the Ta'amrah Bedouins and Palestinian refugees, hence ratifying the amount of municipal members in the council to eleven. In 1976, an amendment was passed to allow women to vote and become council members and later the voting age was increased from 21 to 25.[96]

Today, the Bethlehem Municipal Council consists of fifteen elected members, including the mayor and deputy mayor. A special statute requires that the mayor and a majority of the municipal council be Christian, while the remainder are open seats, not restricted to any religion.[70]

There are several branches of political parties on the council, including Communist, Islamist, and secular. The leftist factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and the Palestinian People's Party (PPP) usually dominate the reserved seats. Hamas gained the majority of the open seats in the 2005Palestinian municipal elections.[97]

Elected Candidates of the Bethlehem municipal elections of 2005

Rank List Candidate name Religion
1 Brotherhood & Development (PFLP) Victor Batarseh
2 United Bethlehem (Fatah and PPP) Antun Salman
3 Reform (Hamas) Hasan al-Masalma
4 United Bethlehem (Fatah and PPP) Afram Asmari
5 Wafaa]] (Palestinian Islamic Jihad) Isa Zawahara
6 United Bethlehem (Fatah and PPP) Khalil Chawka
7 Reform (Hamas) Khalid Jadu
8 Hope & Labour (Fatah) Zughbi Zughbi
9 Reform (Hamas) Nabil al-Hraymi
10 Reform (Hamas) Salih Chawka
11 Reform (Hamas) Yusuf al-Natsha
12 Brotherhood & Development (PFLP) Nina 'Atwan
13 Brotherhood & Development (PFLP) George Sa'ada
14 Independent Nadir al-Saqa
15 United Bethlehem (Fatah and PPP) Duha al-Bandak


The mayor and the deputy mayor of Bethlehem are required by municipal law to be Christian.[70]

  • Mikhail Abu Saadeh - 1876
  • Khalil Yaqub - 1880
  • Suleiman Jacir - 1884
  • Issa Abdullah Marcus - 1888
  • Yaqub Khalil Elias - 1892
  • Hanna Mansur - 1895-1915
  • Salim Issa al-Batarseh - 1916-17
  • Salah Giries Jaqaman - 1917-21
  • Musa Qattan - 1921-25
  • Hanna Ibrahim Miladah - 1926-28
  • Nicoloa Attalah Shain - 1929-33


According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), in 1997, approximately 84% of Bethlehem's population over the age of 10 was literate. Of the city's population, 10,414 were enrolled in schools (4,015 in primary school, 3,578 in secondary and 2,821 in high school). About 14.1% of high school students received diplomas.[100] There were 135 schools in the Bethlehem Governorate in 2006; 100 run the Education Ministry of the Palestinian National Authority, seven by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and 28 were private.[101]

Bethlehem is home to Bethlehem University, a Catholic Christian co-educational institution of higher learning founded in 1973 in the Lasallian tradition, open to students of all faiths. Bethlehem University is the first university established in the West Bank, and can trace its roots to 1893 when the De La Salle Christian Brothers opened schools throughout Palestine and Egypt.[102]



Bethlehem has three bus stations owned by private companies which offer service to Jerusalem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour, Hebron, Nahalin, Battir, al-Khader, al-Ubeidiya and Beit Fajjar. There are two taxi stations that make trips to Beit Sahour, Beit Jala, Jerusalem, Tuqu' and Herodium. There are also two car rental departments: Murad and 'Orabi. Buses and taxis with West Bank licenses are not allowed to enter Israel, including Jerusalem, without a permit.[103]

Movement restrictions

Main entrance into Bethlehem from Jerusalem, 2005

The Israeli construction of the West Bank barrier has had an impact on Bethlehem politically, socially, and economically. The barrier runs along the northern side of the town's built-up area, within meters of houses in 'Aida refugee camp on one side, and the Jerusalem municipality on the other.[47]

Most entrances and exits from the Bethlehem agglomeration to the rest of the West Bank are currently subject to Israeli checkpoints and roadblocks. The level of access varies based on Israeli security directives. Travel for Bethlehem's Palestinian residents from the West Bank into Israeli-annexed Jerusalem is regulated by a permit-system.[104] Acquiring such permits to enter, what in the past served in many ways as an urban anchor to Bethlehem, has become exceedingly rare since the onset of the violence surrounding the Second Intifada, though Israel has subsequently erected a terminal to ease transit between the two adjoining cities.[47][105]

Palestinians are not allowed to enter the Jewish holy site of Rachel's Tomb, which is on the outskirts of the city, without a permit. Since Bethlehem and the nearby biblical Solomon's Pools lie in Area A (territory under both PNA military and civil administration), Israeli citizens are barred without a permit from the Israeli military authorities.[47]

International relations

Twin towns — Sister cities

Bethlehem is twinned with:[106][107][108]

See also


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  28. In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where he was born, and the manger in the cave where he was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And the rumor is in those places, and among foreigners of the Faith, that indeed Jesus was born in this cave who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians. (Origen, Contra Celsum, book I, chapter LI).
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External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Bethlehem. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.