Spotlight on Bethlehem
With Christmas just around the corner, we give you the lowdown on what to see and do in Jesus’ birthplace.
For many of us, December passes by in a flurry of Christmas parties, shopping sprees and glasses of wine. But with so much going on, it can be easy to lose sight of how all the festivities came to be in the first place. For followers of the Christian faith, the 25th of December marks the day Jesus Christ entered the world. And, according to the Bible, he was born to the Virgin Mary and her husband, Joseph, in Bethlehem.
The city, which is about 5 miles south of Jerusalem, has been around since the 14th-century BC, and it’s still going strong today. Over the centuries, everyone from the Romans and the Persians to the Ottomans and the Egyptians has left their mark on the place. So what you get is a holiday that’s packed full of history and culture – no matter what time of year you go.
Here’s our rundown of the don’t-miss sights…
Bethlehem’s centrepiece is the city’s answer to Trafalgar Square. It’s the main stage for all its Christmas celebrations, and, every December, a giant tree is put up in the middle of the plaza. The square is buzzing with activity the rest of the year, too. Locals use it as a meeting place, and holidaymakers gather here to check out the souvenir shops and grab a bite to eat at one of the falafel stalls.
Church of the Nativity
The oldest continually-operating church in the world is said to stand on the site where Jesus was born. You can go inside and take a look at the columns, which are illustrated with pictures of Mary and her son, and the impressive wall and floor mosaics, which feature patterns of birds and flowers. The focal point is the Grotto of the Nativity, where a silver star on the floor marks the very spot where Jesus took his first breaths.
This is where the holy family took refuge during the Slaughter of the Innocents. It’s said that while Mary was nursing Jesus, a drop of milk fell to the ground, turning the whole place white. These days, women from all over the globe come here to pray for children. They scrape away bits of the soft limestone from the ceiling, believing that mixing the powder with milk and then drinking it will bless them with a baby.
A few different fields in the area surrounding Bethlehem lay claim to being the place where the Angel of the Lord visited the shepherds and relayed the news of Jesus’ birth. The one at Kanisat al-Ruwat, a couple of kilometres south of the city, is home to a Franciscan Chapel, which was designed to look like the shepherds’ tent.
The final resting place of the biblical matriarch has been a popular pilgrimage site with Jews and Christians since way back when. In fact, every year on the anniversary of her death, thousands of people turn up to pay their respects. The site is sacred to Muslims, too. In fact, just last year, UNESCO declared it a mosque.
A number of Thomson Cruises itineraries feature a stop at Ashdod, in Israel. From here, you’re within easy reach of Bethlehem. Options include Pharaohs and the Promised Land, which starts from £799 per person, and Egypt and the Holy Land, which starts from £759 per person.