The birthplace of Jesus. But also a town in Palestine. Two thousand years ago it was inhabited by Jewish people and occupied by the Romans. Today it is inhabited by Christian and Muslim Palestinians and military occupied by Israel.
For this podcast episode I travel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem on the road that Mary and Joseph took, according to the local tradition. The road of the patriarchs or the Hebron road. I approach Bethlehem by car, but the military checkpoint that Israel built on the Hebron Road, is closed. I am in front of an 8 meters high wall and there is no way in. The taxi driver tells me that I can drive around and take the bypass road. This is a road that is made for the Israeli settlers that live in the settlements on Palestinian land.
I turn around and take the other road. I cross another checkpoint that is open. Most of the cars continue straight. But I go to the left, down towards Beit Sahour. The place where according to the story, the shepherds were in the field at night when the angel appeared. The angel who told them about the birth of Jesus.
The road goes up from Beit Sahour, the fields of the shepherds, to the mountain on which Bethlehem is built. I am meeting Fadi Ghattas (Greek Orthodox), Georgette Loussi (Roman Catholic) and Dani Aqleh (Evangelical). All three are students at the tour guide program of the Bethlehem Bible College. They tell me that the checkpoint has been closed since September. It was closed due to a Corona lock down and has never been re-opened since then.
We are at the beginning of Star Street. This street is the continuation of the main road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem inside the town towards the center. It is called Star Street after the story of the maggi or the three wise men or the three kings, that came to pay honor to Jesus. It is also the street that Joseph and Mary took on arrival to Bethlehem.
They were looking for a place to stay. In the western interpretation of the Bible story, they were looking for an inn and everything was full. Palestinian Christians say that the culture of hospitality means that Joseph and Mary were looking to stay with family members. Joseph’s family was from Bethlehem. He had relatives there. But because there were so many people in town, the upper rooms, the good rooms for the guests, were already taken. So they were offered to stay in the lower part of the house. The part that is connected to a natural cave. The area where the animals stay. But we will get to that later when we arrive to the ‘grotto of the nativity.’
House of bread
The name Bethlehem can be explained in several ways. Some scholars relate it to the ancient deity Lahmu, god of fertility. Others explain it as the Canaanite word for bread. The house of bread. It is a fertile area and people used to grow barley and wheat. In today’s Arabic language it means house of meat (lahme is meat). Not a surprise if you know that in the fields down from the hill on which Bethlehem is built, the shepherds were herding sheep for the Temple in Jerusalem. Special sheep that could be used as sacrifices in the Temple.
Christmas in Bethlehem
In Bethlehem there are three Christmases. The Catholics, or Latins as they are called, celebrate Christmas on the 24th of December. The Latin Patriarch arrives from Jerusalem to Bethlehem by car. Because of the protocols, he is allowed to cross through the checkpoint over the Hebron Road. He does not have to take the way around through the checkpoint. Twice a year for the Latins and twice for the Orthodox, on Christmas and Easter, the Israeli army opens the gate that blocks the Hebron Road. The patriarch is accompanied by a great number of Christian scout groups when he passes through Star Street towards the Nativity church. The scout groups play drums, wind instruments and, surprisingly, bagpipes! A remnant of the British Mandate period that lasted between 1917 and 1947. Palestine was under British mandate and the bagpipe was introduced and never left from the ceremonies.
The same scenario can be witnessed on the 7th of January when the Orthodox Christians celebrate their Christmas. And on the 19th of January it is time for the Armenian Christians to celebrate their Christmas. This is because the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem still abides by the ancient Julian calendar. There is a large Armenian community in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, a result of the genocide on the Armenian people in 1915.
Other Christian refugees that found refuge in Bethlehem is the Syriac community, in Arabic they are called Syriani. They have their own church in Bethlehem, close to Star Street, and their church service is still in the Aramaic language, the language that Jesus used to speak.
Muslims and Christmas
Muslim Palestinians enjoy the Christmas time with the Christians. They come to watch the big Christmas tree on Manger Square, they enjoy the festive atmosphere and they join the celebrations on the 24th of December. According to the Koran Mary gave birth of Jesus (Issa in Arabic) in Bethlehem under a palm tree. The exact location is not known and there has never been a place venerated by Muslims as birthplace of Jesus. But they do recognize Jesus as an important prophet.
Opposite the Church of the Nativity is the Omar mosque. It is named after Omar ibn Al Khatab. He was the one who led the armies that conquered Palestine in the 7th Century. When he arrived to Jerusalem and Bethlehem he was invited by the Christians to pray in their churches. He is said to have prayed inside the Nativity Church. He was aware that this could be a risk. That future Muslims would claim the site as being a Muslim holy site. So he decreed that Muslims could visit the Nativity Church only as individuals and pray inside as individuals but not in groups.
In front of the Omar mosque are two palm date trees. It feels very symbolic to be here between the Church of Nativity and the date trees at the Omar mosque.
We are on the Manger Square, named after the manger in which Mary lay Jesus after she wrapped him in cloth. The traditional Western picture of this scene is in a wooden stable. In Palestine, however, the animals were not held in wooden stables. Wood is not a material that is widely available in this part of the country. But what WAS available naturally in the landscape, was caves. Natural caves in the limestone rocks. Many people built their homes close to a natural cave. The cave would give extra space for storage and for the animals.
When the Roman emperor Constantine and his mother Helena became Christians they decided to visit the Holy Land. Especially mother Helena was looking to find all the locations from the bible stories and build churches to honor and commemorate those places. She built several important churches. These Byzantine churches did not survive the attacks of the Samaritans, the Persians, the Fatimid caliph Hakeem and the earthquakes. But they indicated to later generations the early places of veneration.
The first church was built in octagon shape, a very symbolic shape, with eight sides, symbolizing rebirth and resurrection. The number eight is mentioned many times in the Bible in that respect. The octagon building, or martyrium in Latin (martyrion in Greek) was a ‘witness’ to an important religious event.
The church we see today has elements of the time of renovation by emperor Justinian, of the Crusaders, renovations in later times and the most recent renovation that were completed in 2019.
Grotto of the Nativity
Under the sanctuary of this church is a grotto. A cave. It takes 14 steps to go down into that cave. And down in the cave is a 14 pointed star on the ground. This star indicates the place of Jesus’ birth. The number 14 is not random for Christian believers. It is the number of generations between Abraham to David, from David to the exile of the Jews under the Babylonian Empire, and another 14 from that time another 14 generations until Jesus, considered the Messiah. There are also 14 stations of the cross in Jerusalem. Those are places that commemorate events that happened during the trial, condemnation, the passion and crucifixion of Jesus.
You just have to turn around and then you look at another important place inside the Nativity grotto, the place where Mary lay Jesus in the Manger. While the birth place is under the custody of the Orthodox, this is the place where the Latins can pray.
Inside most of the important holy sites in Bethlehem and Jerusalem there are strict rules about which Christian denomination is responsible for which part of a Church or chapel. After lots of problems the Ottoman Sultan issued a decree in 1757 that divided the places between the different groups. This was confirmed in the Status Quo in 1852. This also means that nothing inside these buildings can be changed or moved without the consent of all the different groups. This has turned out to make it very hard for renovations to take place or changes to be made.
Bethlehem under Covid 19
Since March the town of Bethlehem has suffered incredibly from the absence of tourists. Bethlehem is very much dependent on tourism. Think about the tour guides, bus drivers, souvenirs shops, hotel owners, cafe and restaurant owners, travel agencies and all the related businesses and the employees.
This year Christmas in Bethlehem is not going to be anything like any other years. The Christmas tree lightening was sad. There were only a handful of people allowed on the Manger Square. The rest was watching the performance on the stage, the speeches and the fireworks from home. There was a live broadcast.
Since 11 December Bethlehem is again in lock down due to the Corona virus. This lock down is in place until 2nd of January 2021. That means that the Patriarch will arrive this year to Bethlehem with only a few scout groups playing the drums and bagpipes and a small number of only local Bethlehemite Christians attending. Christian Palestinians from Nazareth, Ramallah, Taybeh, Zababdeh and other parts of Palestine, will not be able to attend.
Christmas in Bethlehem podcast
That is why I decided to do a special Christmas in Bethlehem podcast. To give everyone the chance to hear about Christmas in Palestine from locals. This way we can enjoy the sound of the drums and bagpipes, the walk through Star Street and the serenity of the Nativity grotto, from the comfort of our homes.
Merry Christmas everyone! We just hope and pray that next year we will be able to celebrate again in the streets. And maybe next year YOU will come and join us for Christmas in Bethlehem.
Bethlehem Icon Centre: https://www.bethlehemiconcentre.org/
Fadi Kattan the chef: https://instagram.com/fadi.f.kattan
Fadi Ghattas, singing Little Drummer Boy: https://instagram.com/fadi.e.ghattas