Bethlehem – Beit Lahem in Arabic (“The house of Lahman – a Canaanite God”) – is about 6 miles south of Jerusalem. Its population used to be exclusively Christian but is nowadays a mix of Christian and Muslim Palestinians. Bethlehem is the home of the Nativity Church (Basilica of the Nativity), built above the cave where Jesus is said to have been born. Poor Bethlehem families used the region’s rocky hollows as dwellings and stables making the 2nd century Christian tradition which places the nativity in a cave plausible, even though Western teachings mention the birth of Jesus in a manger.
The original sanctuary of Nativity Church was built in AD 323 by the Emperor Constantine, at the request of his mother, Saint Helen who supervised the work in AD 326. Nothing remains of the first building except the nave and its four rows of columns.
Every year, Bethlehem is filled with Christian pilgrims who are warmly welcomed. The city is busiest on Christmas eve with the traditional Christmas mass.
Southeast of the basilica, is the Milk Grotto, where according to tradition, the Holy Family stayed before fleeing to Egypt. The walls of this cave were reputed to possess the properties of making suckling easier. In the 19th Century, a church was built by the Franciscans over the chapel dating back from protochristian times located above the cave.
Nearby are the Shepherd’s Fields (Beit Sahour), where it is believed the Shepherds of the Nativity came. Also in this location are ruins of a Byzantine monastery built on top of important military relics from the Herodion period.
Bethlehem is currently under sovereignty of the Palestinian Authority. Olive wood souvenirs are the main product of this city along with olives, olive oil and of course tourism.