Chapter 13/19 of book SEE JERUSALEM by INAM R SEHRI
BIRTHPLACE OF THE HOLY JESUS
Bethlehem [in Hebrew, the town is House of Bread and in Arabic, it is House of Meat] is a holy site for Christians of all sects around the world BUT the city is also significant to Jews because it is the burial place of Rachel [Prophet Joseph (Yousaf) AS’s mother] and the birthplace of King David [prophet Dawud AS]. Nabi Samuel anointed David king in Bethlehem; I Sam. 16:1-13 is referred.
Here the Church of Nativity, one of the oldest churches in the world in continuous use, is the focus of Christian veneration in this city.
A long snake of town, the main thoroughfare of Bethlehem is Manger St which stretches from Rachel's Tomb to the Church of Nativity and the Mosque of Omar. The city is also known for what was originally the House of Lachma, the Mesopotamian god of fertility; the area stands settled since 3,000 BC. The city itself has a long pre-Roman history documented first in the 14th century BC in the Amarna letters. The Old Testament Book of Ruth [1150 BC] has also got reference to Bethlehem.
In year 326 AD, when the Christian church was constructed by Helen, the city had about 1000 inhabitants; but in year 2000 AD its population was estimated as 184,000. The city, just 10 kms south of Jerusalem, was turned over to the Palestinian Authority on 21st December 1995 as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement. In the city itself, 40% of the population is Christians while 59% is Muslim. Although Arabic is the language of Bethlehem's inhabitants, English, is widely spoken and understood.
Manger Square in Bethlehem is the focus of activity; Christmas is celebrated here not once, but three times a year. The traditional Western celebration begins on 24th December, the Greek Orthodox mark their Christmas on 6th January and the Armenian observance is on 19th January each year.
However, Bethlehem is more than just a religious town - it is now a tourist hotspot; cafes and sweet shops all around, Knafeh [warm cheese topped with sugar] and Baklava are special treats. And at night the streets become full of hungry tourists with some of the best falafel and hummus they will ever taste.
Like Jerusalem, Bethlehem is also a safe place for tourists; it is a hidden gem of the Holy Land. Nearly all travellers arrive via Jerusalem so an Israeli military checkpoint stands on the road connecting the two locations. Tourists are free to enter Bethlehem and back to Jerusalem multiple times without any restrictions BUT making sure your passport with visa-slip is with you to be shown while you exit the Palestinian areas.
By bus: There is Arab / Palestinian bus station nearby the Damascus Gate [Bab el-Amoud] that host buses going to various Palestinian cities including Bethlehem. These buses continue to operate in normal way even during Shabbat and other Jewish holidays when Israeli public transport does not run. Before embarking it is better to ask the driver about his destination; the average trip length is 30 minutes.
In Bethlehem the bus drops you on main Manger Street from there you can either cab to the Church or just walk 15 minutes up the hill. To return Jerusalem use the same rout back and wait for the bus at the same point where you were dropped off. Shared taxis also leave from the Arab Bus Station and manage the trip in 20 minutes. Make sure to agree on a price before going into a taxi any where around. Israeli soldiers often check your passport on the bus, particularly when heading back into Jerusalem, but it's quite painless.
THE CHURCH OF NATIVITY:
The birthplace Church is undoubtedly the top attraction in Bethlehem, an authentic citadel built fortress-like on top of the cave where Jesus was born. It remained sacred place for all but first time got wrecked by Romans during the Bar-Kochba Revolt [132-35 AD]; they set up their shrine to Adonis [lover of the goddess Aphrodite] here.
This CHURCH was first erected by St Helen, mother of the Byzantine Emperor Constantine-I [Helena was the same lady who also caused construction of Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem] in year 339 AD BUT got destroyed in the riots of 536 AD though parts of which survived below ground and four years later, Emperor Justinian got it re-built. Then the Persians invaded this area in 614 AD but they left the church intact. King Edward IV of England donated wood from English oak trees for the ceiling - also the lead to cover the roof. An earthquake in 1834 and a fire in 1869 damaged it again; however, the continuous repairs kept it good.
The entrance, The Door of Humility, into the Church is a low doorway that has its own legends; the most approved one is that the height of the door was designed to prevent non-believers from entering the church on horsebacks. The Church is divided into five naves by four rows of Corinthian pillars with pictures of the apostles on them. The names are written in Greek and Latin and many visitors have carved their own signatures over the centuries. The floor of the nave has a hole that allows you to see what remains of the Byzantine mosaics that covered the original church floor.
The church's interior walls feature medieval golden mosaics once covering the side walls, which are now in large parts lost. There are 44 columns separating the aisles from each other and from the nave, some of which are painted with images of respected saints. The east end of the church consists of a raised chancel stage, closed by an apse containing the main altar and separated by a large gilded iconostasis. A complex range of sanctuary lamps is placed throughout the entire church. The open ceiling exposes the wooden rafters, recently restored. The previous 15th-century restoration used beams donated by King Edward IV of England.
Grotto of the Nativity, the place where Jesus is said to have been born, is a cave or the crypt of the Church of the Nativity - situated underneath its main altar and accessed by two staircases on either side. The Grotto is part of a network of caves, which are accessed from the adjacent Church St Catherine's. The tunnel-like corridor connecting the Grotto to the other caves is kept locked.
The exact spot where Jesus was born is marked beneath this altar by a 14-pointed silver star with the Latin inscription on it meaning thereby ‘Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary-1717’. It was installed by the Catholics in 1717, removed - allegedly by the Greek Orthodox Sect in 1847 but got re-installed by the Turkish rulers in 1853. The star is set into the marble floor and surrounded by 15 silver lamps representing the three Christian communities: six belong to the Greek Orthodox, four to the Catholics, and five to the Armenian Apostolics.
Roman Catholics are in charge of the Grotto’s Chapel [Manger Grotto], marking the traditional site where Holy Mary laid the newborn Baby. Like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, various Christian sects share control over different parts of the church.
The traditional midnight mass celebrated on Christmas Eve is held in St Catherine's, the Roman Catholic Church next door to the Church of the Nativity. This is also the site of several chapels with their own historic and religious significance. The Chapel of St Jerome is where the Bishop of Bethlehem translated the Old Testament into Latin. The Chapel of the Innocents is devoted to the deaths of the babies killed by Herod. The Chapel of St Joseph is where an angel appeared to Joseph and commanded him to flee to Egypt.
Not far from Manger Square is the Milk Grotto. According to Christian tradition, this is where Mary spilled some milk while nursing Jesus when she was hiding from Herod's soldiers. The milk turned rocks of the cave a chalk white colour. The rock is believed by some to have healing power and to make nursing easier for women. The white powder scrapped from the cave is also sold as a fertility medicine.
Mosque of Omar:
A mosque in active use; quite plain if you see the inside but pretty on the outside. Other pilgrimage sites include the Shepherds' Fields, where an angel appeared to the shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus [Luke 2:8-20].
King [Nabi] David's Wells:
(Biyar Daoud) in King David street, off Manger Square, are three Great Cisterns excavated in the rock in Ras Eftais, an eastern sector of Bethlehem, marking the site where David's army knocked at a Philistine garrison to bring him water; 2 Sam. 23:15 is referred. The cisterns were discovered in 1895. Here The David’s Church is composed of 18 arches with two to six tombs in each. The cemetery was Christian as proved by the inscription found nearby.
The graffiti by famed yet mysterious artist Banksy, drawn on the barrier wall dividing Bethlehem from Jerusalem, has drawn worldwide media attention and is definitely worth a look. There are many other artists' work as well, including a Palestinian version of Guernica. To see this, it is probably best to hire a taxi.
The burial place of the matriarch Rachel, wife of Nabi Jacob [Yaqoob] AS and mother of Nabi Joseph [Yousaf] AS and Benjamin is the second most important historical site for Christians in Bethlehem as per Genesis 35:19-20. It is a holy site in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As a result of the security situation, the Tomb's original structure has been surrounded by an Israeli fortress, barricading it off from Bethlehem. While the original tomb can still be seen in its entirety from within the fortress, access to the tomb is now restricted to those travelling by Egged bus from Jerusalem.
(Ask a taxi driver at Bethlehem's bus station to take you there) A must see! The site of King Herod's man made mountain and his recently discovered tomb. It is located near Bethlehem. Once at Bethlehem's bus station [called mujamma], negotiate a price with a taxi driver who will take you to the site, wait for you there, and drop you back off at the Bethlehem bus station. ₪150-200 may be reasonable; better to go with friends and split the cab cost.
Church of Nativity in Bethlehem  @ inamsehri.com
Inside the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem  @ inamsehri.com
Church of Nativity in Bethlehem  @ inamsehri.com
Floor of original Byzantine Church  @ inamsehri.com
Connecting door of St Catherine Church to
the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem 
Entrance to Church of Nativity in Bethlehem 
Inside St Catherine Church in Bethlehem  @ inamsehri.com
Inside St Catherine Church in Bethlehem  @ inamsehri.com
Omar Mosque in Bethlehem 
Inside St Catherine Church in Bethlehem 
Nabi Dawud Wells in Bethlehem-1  @ inamsehri.com
Nabi Dawud Wells in Bethlehem-2  @ inamsehri.com
Milk Grotto in Bethlehem-1  @ inamsehri.com
Milk Grotto in Bethlehem-2  @ inamsehri.com
The cave in the Church of Nativity where holy Jesus was born.
Courtesy: vicbethlehem @ bethlehem - wordpress.com [Dec 2011]
Entrance to the cave [Grotto] where holy Jesus was born.
Bethlehem City Map
Nabi Yousaf's mother [Rachel]'s tomb in Bethlehem
Image by El-A'gora  Courtesy: wikimedia