6 Best Sights in Bethlehem, Around Jerusalem and the Dead Sea

Church of the Nativity

Fodor's choice

The stone exterior of this church marking the traditional site of the birth of Jesus is crowned by the crosses of the three denominations sharing it: the Greek Orthodox, Latins (Roman Catholic, represented by the Franciscan order), and Armenian Orthodox. The blocked, square entranceway dates from the time of the Byzantine emperor Justinian (6th century); the arched entrance (also blocked) within the Byzantine one is 12th-century Crusader; and the current low entrance was designed in the 16th century to protect the worshippers from attack by hostile Muslim neighbors.

The interior is vast and has benefited from a recent renovation that revealed exquisite gold-tiled mosaics on the walls. In the central nave, a large wooden trapdoor reveals a remnant of a striking mosaic floor from the original basilica, built in the 4th century by Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor who first embraced Christianity. Emperor Justinian's rebuilding two centuries later enlarged the church, creating its present-day plan and structure, including the 44 red-stone columns with Corinthian capitals that run the length of the nave in two paired lines.

This is the oldest standing church in the country. When the Persians invaded in 614, they destroyed every Christian church and monastery in the land except this one. Legend holds that the church was adorned with a wall painting depicting the Nativity, including the visit to the infant Jesus by the Three Wise Men of the East. For the local artist, "east" meant Persia, and he dressed his wise men in Persian garb. The Persian conquerors did not understand the picture's significance, but "recognized" themselves in the painting and so spared the church. In the 8th century, the church was pillaged by the Muslims and was later renovated by the Crusaders. Patches of 12th-century mosaics high on the walls, the medieval oak ceiling beams, and figures of saints on the Corinthian pillars hint at its medieval splendor.

The elaborately ornamented front of the church serves as the parish church of Bethlehem's Greek Orthodox community. The right transept is theirs, too, but the left transept belongs to the Armenian Orthodox. The altar in the left transept is known as the altar of the kings, because tradition holds this to be the place where the three Magi dismounted. For centuries, all three "shareholders" in the church have vied for control of the holiest Christian sites in the Holy Land. The 19th-century Status Quo Agreement that froze their respective rights and privileges in Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Tomb of the Virgin pertains here, too: ownership, the timing of ceremonies, number of oil lamps, and so on are all clearly defined.

From the right transept at the front of the church, descend to the Grotto of the Nativity, encased in white marble. Long lines can form at the entrance to the grotto, making the suggestion of spending just an hour to see the church an impossibility. Once a cave—precisely the kind of place that might have been used as a barn—the grotto has been reamed, plastered, and decorated beyond recognition. Immediately on the right is a small altar, and on the floor below it is the focal point of the entire site: a 14-point silver star with the Latin inscription "hic de virgine maria jesus christus natus est" (Here of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was born). The Latins placed the original star here in 1717 but lost control of the altar 40 years later to the more influential Greek Orthodox. In 1847 the star mysteriously disappeared, and pressure from the Turkish sultan compelled the Greeks to allow the present Latin replacement to be installed in 1853. The Franciscan guardians do have possession, however, of the little alcove a few steps down on the left at the entrance to the grotto, said to be the manger where the infant Jesus was laid.

Milk Grotto

Fodor's choice

Legend has it that when Mary stopped here to nurse the baby Jesus, a drop of milk fell on the floor in this cavelike grotto and the walls turned white. The grotto and the church above are beautiful, especially just before sunset when the light catches the stained-glass windows.

Shepherds' Field

Fodor's choice

Just east of Bethlehem is the town of Beit Sahour, famous in Christian tradition for the Shepherds' Field, where herdsmen received the "tidings of great joy" that Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Luke 2). The same fields are also said to be where the biblical Ruth the Moabite, daughter-in-law of Naomi, "gleaned in the field" (Ruth 2:2). Local Christians disagree about where the real Shepherds' Fields are, and two chapels and gardens give rival interpretations, complete with rival Byzantine relics. Entrance is free to both.

The Greek Orthodox Der El Rawat Chapel is a small white building with a charming red dome. Inside, bright paintings of the Stations of the Cross cover the walls and soaring ceilings. A mosaic dating to a 5th-century Byzantine church lies just outside. A Catholic church—Shepherds' Field of the Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land—is a short walk away. This tiny, minimalist chapel built over a cave is tucked away in a lush garden, with walking paths surrounded by soaring pines and bright aloe plants. Outside are a number of souvenir stores and coffee shops.

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Church of St. Catherine

Built by Franciscans in 1882, Bethlehem's Roman Catholic parish church incorporates remnants of its 12th-century Crusader predecessor. Note the bronze doors with reliefs of St. Jerome, St. Paula, and St. Eustochium. From this church, the midnight Catholic Christmas mass is broadcast around the world. Steps descend from within the church to a series of dim grottoes, clearly once used as living quarters. Chapels here are dedicated to Joseph, the Innocents killed by Herod the Great, and to the 4th-century St. Jerome, who wrote the Vulgate—the Latin translation of the Bible—supposedly right here. St. Catherine is adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, and accessible by a passage from its Armenian chapel. Next to the church is a lovely cloister, restored in 1949. A small wooden door (kept locked) connects the complex with the Grotto of the Nativity. The church is open daily, with Mass at 7:15 am Monday through Saturday and at 7:30 am on Sunday.

Manger Square

Bethlehem's central plaza and the site of the Church of the Nativity, Manger Square is built over the grotto thought to be the birthplace of Jesus. The end of the square opposite the church is the Mosque of Omar, the city's largest Muslim house of worship. The square occupies the center of Bethlehem's Old City and has a tourist information office, several good souvenir shops, and restaurants where you can drink a coffee while people-watching. On Christmas, it fills with lights, street food hawkers, Palestinian marching bands, and merrymakers in Santa hats under a towering tree.

Rachel's Tomb

The Bible relates that the matriarch Rachel, second and favorite wife of Jacob, died in childbirth on the outskirts of Bethlehem, "and Jacob set up a pillar upon her grave" (Genesis 35:19–20). There is no trace of that pillar, but, for centuries Jews, Christians, and Muslims venerated the velvet-draped cenotaph inside the building as the site of Rachel's tomb. Palestinians call the site the Bilal Ben Rabah Mosque, and a Muslim cemetery lies beside it.

Today, the site is a concrete-enclosed Israeli enclave punched into Bethlehem and only accessible from the Israeli side. Visitors, especially Jewish women, come to pray for good health, fertility, and a safe birth. Some pilgrims wind a red thread seven times around the tomb, and wear snippets of it around their wrists as a talisman. Note that men and women are separated here and have different entrances. Superbus 163 runs from Jerusalem's Central Bus Station to the tomb.

Rte. 60, Israel
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Rate Includes: Free, Closed Sat. and Jewish holidays