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10 Cool Facts About Bethlehem

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‘Tis the season of lights, Santa Claus and gift wrap. It's that time of year when Bethlehem once again becomes a hot news story around the globe. The real town of Bethlehem, that traditional site of Jesus' birth, still stands only a few miles from Jerusalem, but these days it's mostly Arabs who live there, not Jews.

10 interesting facts about Bethlehem that you might not know, from entering Palestinian Territory from Israel to culture, sites and souvenirs.

Every Christmas eve faithful Christians gather at Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity to worship. For many it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to commemorate Jesus' birth in the city where he was born. Maybe it's on your bucket list as well. If so, to ensure you get the most out of your visit, here are a few things about Bethlehem that you should know before you go, from entry, to culture, to sites and souvenirs.

1. Carry your passport.

This is an official border. Most tourists fly to Israel and visit Bethlehem on a day trip from Jerusalem (8 km away) or Tel-Aviv. Regardless of entry point, everyone has to pass through a guarded checkpoint with passport in hand.

Another thing: Don't take photos of the checkpoint, or aim your camera in the direction of the checkpoint. It's a standard security procedure. (You can take all the pictures you want after you enter the territory.)

2. Bethlehem is actually called Beit Lechem.

Translated, its name means “House of Bread” (Hebrew) or “House of Meat/Flesh” (Arabic). Enjoy the delicious food, and be prepared to spend your entire time in Bethlehem completely stuffed. This is a culture that knows how to feed its guests.

This is a spread of appetizers before lunch. You must have some Arab food - it is one of the things to do in Bethlehem

3. The most visited site is the Church of the Nativity.

The church has seen its share of renovations and additions but all the improvements were built around the original structure. It is the oldest Church in the Holy Land still in use and one of the oldest churches in the world.

Ask about top sites in Bethlehem Israel and the birthplace of Jesus is #1. It's called Church of the Nativity. This is a shot of the ancient columns along the sides inside the. church.
Incense smoke has built up on the upper parts of these columns – the lower parts are worn from people touching them while visiting.

4. The Grotto of the Nativity, traditional site of Jesus' birth, is beneath the church.

A 14-point silver star embedded in white marble marks the exact spot where Jesus was actually born. At least, that's what they say. There are always really long lines to see the star, so if you don’t care that much about seeing the actual star, you can opt to visit a different part of the grotto via an alternate route.

Entry to a chapel, with Sancta Helena written above the doorway.

5. The Grotto of the Nativity was originally a cave.

Some scholars believe that this cave was originally a cultic shrine to the pagan god Adonis-Tammuz (lord Tammuz), stating that the word Bethlehem could also mean “House of Lahmu.” (Lahmu was the serpentine gatekeeper in pagan lore.)

On the other hand, Jerome claimed that it began as a shrine to Jesus and was later rededicated to Tammuz. Read this article for more about that.

6. The church is jointly controlled by three Christian denominations.

Each of them — Armenian, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic — controls a different part of the basilica, but nobody gets special treatment. All have equal access to the Grotto.

7. Bethlehem is also the traditional burial site of Rachel.

Bethlehem is also a pilgrimmage site due to Rachel's tomb. Rachel was the favorite wife of Jacob, grandson of Abraham. According to the Bible, he was renamed Israel and his 12 sons became the heads of the 12 tribes of Israel.

8. Bethlehem is famous for its olive wood carvings,

and plenty are available all over town, at prices far better than you can get anywhere else. (Be sure to haggle!)

[easyazon_image align=”center” height=”436″ identifier=”B01LXJ5HXV” locale=”US” src=”” tag=”awsi09-20″ width=”500″]

Even better deals can be found on the street, where people hawk huge bottles of water for $1.

9. Muslims rarely patronize non-Muslim businesses

To do so would result in being ostracized socially. Both family and community are extremely central to Arab culture. Because of this, many Christians and other non-Muslims rely on income from tourists and others in a similar situation.

10. Merchants are willing to take U.S. dollars

as well as Israeli shekels. This means you can buy souvenirs without worrying about exchange rates. Have fun shopping!

Tip: Bethlehem is a short trip from anywhere in Israel. Click here to read about our day trip Bethlehem.

 If this article was useful, you can thank us without paying a dime by using these links to make your plans. Some of these companies will pay us a referral fee, at no extra cost to you.


Want a private tour?

Get Your Guide offers affordable, custom tours to Bethlehem from all over Israel. Two tours to consider:


Learn more:

  • Prepare your taste buds with our list of 8 Healthy Middle Eastern Foods You Must Try.
  • You can read more about the church’s history and its layout here.
  • I thought this book offers fascinating insights: [easyazon_link identifier=”0312534817″ locale=”US” tag=”awsi09-20″]Walking Israel: A Personal Search for the Soul of a Nation[/easyazon_link]

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to over 50 countries. Her insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages has inspired her to create As We Saw It with her husband Dan, a professional photographer. Her goal is to make travel easier for others and to offer a brief escape to another land.

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5 thoughts on “10 Cool Facts About Bethlehem

  1. Very good advice indeed. We would also include reading up on the Palestinian struggle in order to prepare for many of the messages on the wall along the walk to the border crossing. There is also Omar Mosque that is worth a quick visit – they hand out head coverings if you don’t have one. We will never be able to hear the song “O Little Town of Bethlehem” again without imaging the actual town of Bethlehem now. 🙂

  2. Thank you for this very rare insight into the ancient city of Bethlehem. It’s definitely a big attraction for the Christians all over the world. We wanted to go to Israel several years ago, but gave up because of the unstable political environment there.

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