The city of Bethlehem is holy to both Christians and Muslims. It is acknowledged as the birthplace of Jesus Christ – who is known as the Son of God in Christian belief and as a divinely inspired prophet by Muslims. The Church of the Nativity, a Byzantine basilica, was built by Helena (the mother of Emperor Constantine) to commemorate Jesus’ birth. It is built on top of a cave where, according to a tradition first documented in the second century AD, Jesus was born. It was first dedicated in 339 AD.
The city itself has a long pre-Roman history that was first documented in the fourteenth century BC in the Amarna letters. Archaeological evidence from the Chalcolithic period and the Bronze and Iron ages shows that the earliest human presence was on the eastern slope of the city’s central hill, and in the middle of the fields of Beit Sahour. It was probably here that the Iron Age city lay, but by the tenth to eighth centuries BC, the town was located on the high ridge of today’s Bethlehem, in the area of the gardens around and east of today’s Church of the Nativity. During this early period the caves beneath the church were still in use. By 700 BC, the town had lost some of its significance but became an important center once more during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, when the construction of the Jerusalem aqueduct meant that part of its water was diverted to the city.
Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem at the end of Herod’s reign determined the destiny of the town. Under Constantine, the first Christian emperor, the Church of the Nativity was built as one of three imperial churches in Palestine. At the end of the fourth century AD, Saint Jerome settled in Bethlehem and built two monasteries with the help of Saint Paula. The church was destroyed in 529 AD and was rebuilt on a much grander scale under Justinian; this structure remains essentially the church that stands today. The city was depicted on the Madaba mosaic map in the sixth century AD.
The church is the central feature of Bethlehem, and is surrounded by other important sites related to Christ’s birth. Among these is the Milk Grotto, an irregular cave hewn in the soft limestone, located southeast of the basilica, where according to Christian traditions, Mother Mary nursed baby Jesus while hiding there from Herod’s soldiers. The Shepherds’ Fields, where the angel of the Lord is believed to have appeared before the shepherds, bringing them the good tidings of the birth of Jesus, are roughly two kilometers east of Bethlehem. There are two competing sites: one that belongs to the Roman Catholics, and another that is the property of the Greek Orthodox Church.
Bethlehem’s old town is the place where a wide range of religious and traditional activities takes place. The Patriarch Route, which runs along Star Street, is the route of a religious parade that passes through during every Christmas season. Manger Square hosts a grand celebration each year, marking the anniversary of the birth of Christ.