Is Israel the birthplace of mankind
From the Kaanites to the birth of Christ
In the course of its 5000-year history, Bethlehem has been ruled by foreign powers time and again. It was not always peaceful.
Around 3000 BC, Bethlehem was founded as a settlement by the Kaanites. For many centuries the Egyptians ruled the country, in which the Philistines gradually settled, who probably came from Crete.
Even then, Bethlehem was considered a strategically important place - many travelers on their way to Egypt stopped here. By 1200 BC, the Philistines finally got the upper hand. They called the land Palestine.
In the Old Testament, Bethlehem is mentioned in the first book: Abraham's son Jacob was on his way to Hebron with his wife Rachel. At Bethlehem, Rachel gave birth to a son and died immediately after birth. Her grave can still be visited today.
In the 8th century BC, the prophet Micah foretold the birth of the Messiah (Micah 5: 2). The new ruler would be born in Bethlehem. But opinions already differ when it comes to the place of birth: While the Gospels speak of Mark and John of Nazareth, Luke tells the story that almost every child knows: Joseph and Mary came to the census in Bethlehem, where Jesus was born.
What everyone agrees on is that Jesus was probably not born in a stable, but in a cave. The Church of the Nativity was built in Bethlehem around the year 326 and is still one of the oldest churches in Christianity and one of the most important sites for Christians all over the world. Thousands of pilgrims visit them every year, especially at Christmas time.
The actual birth grotto is located in the basement of the five-aisled basilica. A 14-pointed silver star, which the Catholic Church had placed on the central axis of the basilica in 1717, marks the presumed place of birth. In 2012, Unesco included the Church of the Nativity and the pilgrimage route in Bethlehem as a World Heritage Site.
Bethlehem is Muslim
Around 30,000 people now live in Bethlehem, which has been part of the Palestinian Authority since 1995. Five years ago around 60 percent of the population were Christians, today it is less than 20 percent, and the trend is decreasing.
The conflicts with the majority of the Muslim population keep making headlines. The often lamented discrimination, but also Bethlehem's poor economic situation, lead many Christians to emigrate.
There is also a curiosity in the city administration that causes resentment among the population: both the mayor and his deputy must be Christians. The Muslim majority can elect their representatives to the city council, but they cannot be appointed by the head of the city. So say the law.
The city has been completely closed to Jewish Israelis since 2000. It was then that the Intifada, the Palestinian uprising against Israel, broke out. There were attacks, kidnappings and military counter-attacks by Israel, of which Bethlehem was not spared.
Historic sites behind the wall
Bethlehem's cityscape is shaped to this day by the various powers that ruled there: These include imposing churches, monasteries and mosques as well as centuries-old houses.
There is a mix of Islamic, Byzantine, Turkish, European and local styles. The center of the city is Manger Square with the Church of the Nativity and - across from it - the Omar Mosque.
Since 2003, however, a completely different building has shaped the city: In the north, the eight-meter-high wall that separates the autonomous region from Israel in Bethlehem runs for around one kilometer. It is supposed to protect Israel from assassins, but it has the disadvantage for the residents and visitors of the autonomous region that they often have to travel very long detours and endure cumbersome controls.
The tourists come back
Tourism has become the most important economic factor for the small town. Around 20 percent of all employees work in the tourism sector. After the start of autonomy in 1995, the construction of large hotels began.
But the outbreak of the Intifada in 2000 - Bethlehem's jubilee year - and the fear of attacks have left their mark: the influx of tourists decreased, the first hotels had to close again as many visitors stayed outside the city to be on the safe side. The restaurants as well as the many artisans and traders who live from the sale of the numerous souvenirs were also affected.
It took years for the situation to calm down enough for tourism to revive. The hotels are well used again today, new ones are being built.
For the first time in 2010, 50 Israeli tour guides were given permission by the military authorities to travel to Bethlehem with tour groups. The Israelis are otherwise prohibited from entering the autonomous area.
And until 2010, visitors to Bethlehem arriving from Israel had to change buses and travel guides at the border.
According to the city administration of Bethlehem, more than two million visitors come every year to see the birthplace of Jesus. The main visiting time is of course Christmas - then in Bethlehem, as in biblical times, not a single hostel room is free.
Status: December 17, 2019, 1:55 pm
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