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Bethlehem Sights

Being a place associated with three religions, a number of interesting sites are scattered around Bethlehem. The Basilica of Nativity, one of the oldest churches in the world situated in Manger Square, is the focal point for any visit. Inside the church is the Grotto of Nativity where Mary gave birth to Christ.

Other sites in and around Bethlehem include the St. Catherine’s Church, the Milk Grotto, Rachel’s Tomb (Masjid Bilal), Shepherds’ Field, David’s Wells, Solomon’s Pools, Saint Theodosius Convent, Saint Sabas’ Convent, Herodium, Wadi Kareitoum, Mar Elias Monastery, and Beit Jala.

You may also go for daylong excursions to Jerusalem and Hebron, two of the oldest cities in the world. Besides sightseeing, you must take some time off to visit the local markets. Bethlehem has an uninterrupted tradition of handicraft making and missing the opportunity for shopping these exclusive products would not be a good idea.

Basilica of Nativity
The Basilica of Nativity was built on the very site where Christ was born. The original church, erected in the 4th century by Emperor Constantine, was destroyed in the Samaritan Revolt of AD 529. It was replaced during the reign of Justinian (AD 527-565) by a larger basilica, with a slightly different plan. The present structure is in the shape of a cross measuring 53.9 metres in length and 26.2 metres in width. The paved square in front of the basilica was part of the former atrium. You can see the cornice of Justinian above the entrance and arch of the Crusader entrance further down.

The basilica of the church is divided into five naves by four rows of Corinthian pillars. Every pillar bears the ancient, faded picture of an apostle. Several dozen gilded lamp fixtures hang from the oak ceiling. The floor is stone and wood, with occasional trap-door openings that reveal the original Byzantine mosaic floor beneath. Up front, beyond a magnificent silver-and-gold chandelier, is the Altar of the Nativity, equally ornate with gold-and-silver decoration. The Greek Orthodox occupy the area to the right of the altar, the Armenian denomination the area to the left. Armenian, Greek, and Franciscan priests are responsible for the preservation of the church.
On either side of the altar, narrow stone staircases lead down to the manger, supposedly the scene of Jesus birth. Simply lit by hanging lights, the grotto is in the wall of the cave, marked by a silver star.
Openings=daily from 0600 to 1800 hours.

Grotto of Nativity
Two staircases on the either side of Basilica of Nativity lead down into the Grotto of Nativity which houses the Altar of Christ’s Birth. It is a small rectangular chamber partially lined with marble decorations and measures 12 metres in length and 3 metres in width. The Grotto is adorned by a silver star lit by the light from fifteen silver lamps representing the different Christian communities. Two more altars face each other across the Grotto. The Altar of the Manger is the place where the infant Jesus was laid after he was born. The Altar of the Magi stands at the place where the Magi paid homage to the newborn Son of God. The Grotto is open daily from 0600 to 1800 hours.

St. Catherine’s Church
A flight of stairs from the Grotto of Nativity takes you to the St. Catherine’s Church built by the Franciscans in 1881 on the site of an earlier church. To the left is the Chapel of the Holy Innocents while St Joseph’s Chapel is straight ahead. To the right are the Chapel of St. Eusebius and the tombs of St. Paula, Eustochium and St. Jerome. On the rear wall is the stone bench on which the remains of St. Jerome rested until their transfer to Rome. To the north is a room in which the saint is said to have written the Vulgate Bible.

Adjoining St. Catherine’s Church is a cloister where you can see a statue of St. Jerome on a 6½-ft.-high column.
Openings=daily from 0600 to 1200 hours and 1400 to 1800 hours.

The Milk Grotto
The Milk Grotto is at a short distance to the southeast of the Basilica of Nativity. It was carved of soft white rock with mosaic fragments on the terrace. Legend has it that Virgin Mary stayed in this grotto with the divine child. One day, while she was suckling the infant Jesus, a few drops of milk spilled to the ground. The milk turned the rock white and it became one of the most revered sites of Christianity. The white rock at the grotto is known for its healing powers. Many European churches have taken away pieces of the rock to put in their own churches. Visits made here by nursing mothers are supposed to help their lactation, and packets of the powdered stone are sold as souvenirs.

Openings=daily from 0800 to 1330 hours and 1400 to 1700 hours.

Rachel’s Tomb (Masjid Bilal)
The tomb marks the place where Rachel, the beautiful wife of Jacob, was buried after she died giving birth to their son Benjamin. The tomb is revered not only by the Jews but also by Christians and Muslims. The present mosque, built during Ottoman Empire, is located on the Jerusalem–Hebron road near Bethlehem.
Openings=Sunday through Thursday from 0800 to 1800 hours and on Friday from 0800 to 1300 hours

Shepherds’ Field
Legend has it that it was at Shepherds’ Field where the bewildered shepherds heard the angels singing “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth to men of good will”. Many old and new structures are scattered throughout. The field is situated to the east of the village of Beit Sahour.
Opening Hours:

David’s Wells
These are three great cisterns from which, according to legends, King David longed to drink while fighting the Philistines. To the east lies a church discovered in 1895, decorated with mosaic pavements and Greek inscriptions.
Openings=0800 to 1700 hours

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