Whether or not you believe Jesus was born in a manger in Bethlehem, a vacation to the Holy Land isn’t complete without a visit to this ancient city just outside Jerusalem.
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The earliest known reference to Bethlehem is in the Amarna Letters, which date back to 1,400 B.C. Despite the fact that its modern name means "House of Bread" in Hebrew and "House of Meat" in Arabic, scholars believe the place actually gets its name from Lachmo, the Akkadian god of fertility. This is one reason why it is believed to be the city of Ephrata mentioned in the Bible, since Ephrata literally means “he who fertilizes” in Hebrew.
The town has been conquered and re-conquered for millennia. Nowadays it is under control of the Palestinian Authority. Foreign passport-holders are allowed to cross in, but if you carry an Israeli passport, do so at your own risk: Despite the fact that many Israelis continue to enter the so-called "Area A," the law actually prohibits them from doing so.
Two different checkpoints offer access to Bethlehem for travelers coming from Jerusalem. With the security wall, the 10-minute drive actually takes closer to half an hour. If you don't have your own vehicle, you can take a taxi for NIS 180 or a shuttle bus from Damascus gate.
Bethlehem is small enough to be explored in a single day, but hotels here tend to be cheaper than digs in Jerusalem, making an overnight visit a tempting option.
The old city is small but packed with marvelous churches, an Arab market and plenty of gift shops, but only one mosque. Its focal point is Manger Square, where the famed manger of lore is said to have held the newborn Jesus Christ, according to the Gospel of Luke.
The impressive, Ottoman-period Omar mosque sits on one side of the square. Across the street is the Bethlehem Church of the Nativity. Both are must-sees and visitors can hook up with regular tours if they prefer a guided explanation to these holy historical sites.
About 20 minutes by foot from Manger Street is the massive security wall, which abuts the city limits. It has looming Israeli pillbox guard towers watching over the streets below, but the wall itself is a large open museum of street art. Take some time to look over the fantastically varied graffiti here, which ranges from ugly, crudely-painted slogans to superb, sophisticated political murals. Evocative, stirring pieces from the famed street artist Bansky are a particular highlight.
Bethlehem is a small, safe city, known to be a tourist-friendly haven in an otherwise fraught region. If you're interested in combining your tour there with a deeper exploration of Palestinian life under political control, there are several organizations that offer guided tours of the borderlands of Bethlehem, focusing on human rights violations and day-to-day struggles of Palestinian West Bank residents.
Regardless of whether you stay in Bethlehem or venture beyond, remember that despite the fact that the area is safe and the people are friendly, it's a good idea to refrain from speaking Hebrew or showing Zionist sympathies.
You will need your passport to enter Israel on your way back, so don’t forget it.