Welcome to the birthplace of Jesus!

Bethlehem known to many as the birthplace of Jesus, is not only famous solely for this. In a time period of approximately 1000 years, Bethlehem witnessed the births of many central religious figures. Including David who was crowned as the second king of Israel, and a couple of centuries later, Mary birthed Jesus Christ in a cave just outside Bethlehem.

Visiting the Holy Land without seeing Bethlehem is like going to Paris and skipping the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre. For any pilgrim planning to visit Israel, it is essential to gain a deep insight into the origins of Christianity. In this article, we want to give you a summary of the significance of Bethlehem, as well as tips about the famous landmarks to help you prepare for your trip.

Visiting Bethlehem with Daniel (Video)

General Information about Bethlehem

Bethlehem is situated 10 km south of Jerusalem and nestled 775 meters above sea level at the southern tip of the Judean Mountains. Bethlehem consists of an old city, where the religious landmarks congregate in eight quarters, and the modern section. Seven of these quarters are Christian, and the last one is a Muslim Quarter. Of the total population of over 25,000 people, approximately 5000 live in the old city.

The first inhabitants were the Semitic-speaking Canaanites, who settled here during the 3rd Century BC. The city has gone under the influence of many civilizations due to its strategic location, from the Semitic Canaanites to Israelites, Roman, Byzantine, Mamluk, and Ottoman.

The name Bethlehem has many interpretations, but the most common one is the house of bread, which refers to the fertile fields in the area. The production of corn, almond, fruits, and olives was widespread since the settlement of Canaanites. Ephratah was another name for Bethlehem, as the Book of Micah used it to emphasize the fertility of the place.

What to see in Bethlehem

Many of the places referenced in the Bible are open to pilgrims and visitors wanting to reconnect with the origins of Christianity. Here is a list of the most prominent landmarks you should visit while in Bethlehem.

Church of the Nativity

Your Bethlehem excursion should start at the site widely accepted as Christ’s birthplace. The original church was erected by Constantine the Great on top of the cave where Jesus was born. Later, Emperor Justinian renovated and expanded the church to its current size and design.

As the oldest complete Christian church, the Church of Nativity astounds its visitors at every step. Most importantly, you can still visit the cave – also known as the Grotto of the Nativity – underneath the church. Here, you will find the marble manger with a star mark, where Mary placed Jesus after the delivery. The mosaics and ornaments of the church are equally iconic, as they delicately illustrate the birth, as well as the angels that carried the news, and the early church councils.

Church of St Catherine

Adjoining the Church of Nativity, you will find the Parish Church of St Catherine of Alexandria. She was the daughter of Emperor Maximian, who was against the Christian belief and tyrannical against the Christians during the 4th century. The church was dedicated to St Catherine for her attempts to challenge her father at the cost of life. Her father ordered her execution, and angels carried her body away after her death, becoming one of the fourteen saints in heaven. That’s why the church is among the most-visited pilgrim sites in Bethlehem.

Inside the church and the monastery, you can find out more about her life. Perhaps the most striking part is the Catherine wheel, a torture wheel intended for St Catherine’s execution. According to the story, the wheel broke as the commanders of Maximian were tying her on it.

St. Jerome’s Cave

The Grotto of Nativity was not the only holy cave in Bethlehem. Translating the Bible was an intricate task, so St Jerome spent 30 years of his life in a cave to do it in the most accurate way possible. Here, he prepared a version of the Bible that survived to the present day.

To access St Jerome’s Cave, you need to enter the Church of St Catherine and take the stairs to the chambers where he lived. The cave consists of two rooms, one of which he used as his workplace with a chapel. It might feel small and claustrophobic in the first place, but you will learn a lot about St Jerome’s life, and your respect for him will multiply.

The Church of The Holy Innocents

The prophecy of the Messiah and the birth of Jesus didn’t come without bloodshed. After hearing the prophecy about the King of the Jews, Herod the Great executed all the male infants under the age of two with hopes of killing Jesus. Today, the cave next to St Jerome’s Cave is known as the burial place for those infants.

Chapel of Milk Grotto

The Grotto on the West Bank of Bethlehem is yet another holy cave. Before traveling to Egypt to escape Herod’s rage, Joseph and Mary stopped inside the cave so that Mary could breastfeed Jesus. As the traditional story explains, the drops of Mary’s milk turned the marbles white.

The first church was built during the 4th century, while the Franciscans expanded it and ran renovations. There is also a modern chapel erected in 2007, where you will find carvings and crafts that pay respect to the Mother of God.

Besides being a pilgrimage stop, Milk Grotto receives a lot of visits from pregnant women or those wanting to conceive a child.

Interested in finding out more about this place? 
We made a complete guide about it!
Check it out here!

Tomb of Rachel

As we mentioned previously, Jacob’s wife Rachel died while giving birth to Benjamin in Bethlehem. Today, you will find a white dome-shaped tomb at the site described as the place of her burial by the book of Genesis. According to Jewish tradition, Rachel’s teardrops created an extraordinary power in the tomb. That’s why women having health problems during pregnancy often pay a visit to find strength.

The Shepherd’s Field

The field between Bethlehem and Beit Sahour bore witness to the first announcement of angels about the birth of Jesus. The first people to hear of it were the shepherds watching over their flock. After exploring the old town of Bethlehem, you can organize a day trip to Beit Sahour to visit the churches erected at the possible sites of the Annunciation.

Interested in finding out more about this place? 
We made a complete guide about it including a video tour!
Check it out here!

Mar Saba Monastery

Mar Saba is a greek orthodox monastery. The walled complex is built on a cliff of the Kidron creek – between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, just outside the city of Bethlehem.

The place itself is breathtaking. It is as if time stood still since the 5th century when it was built. It is considered to be one of the oldest monasteries active nowadays, with 20 monks living inside it.

BIBLICAL HISTORY

The first biblical mention of Bethlehem goes back to the return of Jacob to Palestine when his wife Rachel died. She was one of his two wives and the mother of Joseph and Benjamin. She passed away during difficult labor to Benjamin and was buried outside Bethlehem on the road to Efrat, according to Genesis 48:7.

As we stated previously, Bethlehem bore witness to even more biblical figures, including the first two kings of Israel, Saul (1 Sam. 9:1 to 13:22) and David (1 Sam. 16:1-13). Although the first mention of the relation between David and Bethlehem wasn’t until the book of Samuel, Bethlehem is widely known as the City of David. Many of the events that took place here changed the course of history for David, including his coronation by Samuel (1 Sam 16:1-13). Besides David himself, his mighty men and relatives had close ties to the city, including Asahel and Elhanan.

Bethlehem’s biblical significance increased further with the prophecy about the birth of the Messiah, as explained in the books of Micah, John, and Matthew. For example, Matthew 2:6 compares the Messiah to a shepherd of people in verse “And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people in Israel.”. Of course, we can see how this prophecy was fulfilled later with the birth of Jesus Christ.

Although there is still much to discover about the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the Gospel of Luke has precise references to the incident. Luke states that Joseph, a descendant of David, traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem with his wife Mary. The Gospel of Luke describes the birth of Jesus in the following verse “…She gave birth to her first-born Son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the place where travelers lodged.” (Luke 2:4,7). Upon his birth, an angel announced to the shepherds, who traveled to Bethlehem to pay homage while spreading the news.

Despite ongoing debates about the Cave Theory, Bethlehem gained recognition as the birthplace of Jesus nonetheless ever since the early church, especially because the cave where Jesus was born got referenced by the Gospel of James.

Important note for Visitors

If you are on a pilgrimage tour, you will most likely land in Tel Aviv to enter Israel. Visiting Bethlehem from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem means that you will cross the border into Palestine. So, you will need your passport while crossing the border checkpoint.