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The name Bethlehem can be traced back to some of the Jewish sacred books written by the Israelis who took over this region in 1200 BC. At that time, Bethlehem was a walled city and a major trading centre of an ancient caravan route. However, the city’s importance declined after the 10th century BC when Palestine was absorbed by the Babylonians, who deported most of its inhabitants. The city was founded again in about 538 BC when the Persians, then occupants of the region, allowed Jews to return to their homeland.

An event that changed the entire profile of Bethlehem from being a mere trading post to one of the most important pilgrimage centres in the world was the birth of Jesus in the first century BC. Christian gospels say that Mother Mary and Joseph, parents of Jesus, came to Bethlehem from Nazareth to register themselves in a census. As they reached Bethlehem late, they could not find any accommodation and spent the night in a stable. And it was in this stable that on the night of December 24 the Saviour was born, an event that left an indelible imprint on the human race. Some two thousand years ago, it was here in Bethlehem that wise men and shepherds gathered to worship the child who promised peace on earth and goodwill for all.

In the fourth century, the hallowed city also became the seat of preaching of St. Jerome who settled in Bethlehem with a small community of followers. St. Jerome died here in AD 420, with his head resting in the manger where Christ was born.

A new phase in the history of Palestine and Bethlehem started in the mid-7th century, when the region was ruled by Arabs. Rejuvenated by their recent conversion to Islam, the Arabs tried to conquer large parts of Europe, Asia, and North Africa, and Palestine became the first target of attack.

Crusades were the next phase in the history of Bethlehem. Led by the European knights and adventurers, the Crusades marked the increasing influence of Church over politics and a new chapter of bloodbath in the history of Bethlehem. The city remained a part of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem until 1187.

More changes took place in the character of Bethlehem after the Mamluk Turks annexed the region in the 13th century. Christian sacred sites were razed to the ground and pilgrimages to Bethlehem were banned for the next three hundred years. The future was still not so rosy and Bethlehem remained a bone of contention between many empires. In the mid-19th century, Napoleon III challenged the Russian hegemony over this region, as the latter were extending special protective rights over the Christian populace of Ottoman Empire (of which Bethlehem was a part). It was during this time that the Grotto of Nativity was destroyed in a devastating fire.

The last one hundred years were no less eventful for Bethlehem, and the city saw four different powers governing it in succession. While Britain governed the city from the beginning of First World War to the end of Second World War, Jordan and Israel followed suit after the war. As of today, Bethlehem is a part of Palestine, which is trying to usher in a new era for the trouble-torn West Bank.

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