The city was first mentioned in 1350 BCE and has been, in one state or another in constant use since. and Palestine, with Bethlehem in particular has a wide range of tourists and is highly dependant on the income. Most tourists come for a few hours for for a day trip, a much smaller number stay in one of the thirty hotels.
Souvenirs are a major source of revenue from tourists, with over three hundred stores selling handicrafts.
During the Christmas period, when I was there, is the busiest time of the year, as Christians and general tourists make a pilgrimage to the Church of the Nativity, as has been going on for somewhat less than two thousand years.
Currently, a wall stands around Palestine, and entry to and from the area is controlled fully by Israel. Transit is easy for international visitors. But harder for Palestinians, who have to have their own styled numberplate and their access to certain roads is curtailed.
The wall is 26 feet tall, and of a dirty grey concrete. It is a wall that only highlights the divides.
Walled Off Hotel
Opened by Banksy and offering the “Worst view in the world” and with one of the worst puns, the hotel faces the Israeli wall. Slingshots and security cameras decorate the walls. Signs of history and politics that have defined the region.
Next door to the hotel is “Wall-Mart” where tourists can buy stencils and paint to brighten up the wall and leave their own message on the divide.
Church of the Nativity
The most popular, spiritual and significant place in Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity, site of a great many pilgrimages over a great many years.
Considered by many to be the birthplace of Jesus the Nazarene, it was originally constructed in 327 CE by Constantine the Great and his mother Helena, and has remained basically unchanged since its reconstruction after a fire by Emperor Justinian in 565.
Entrance is via a small, low door, there to prevent mounted troops rushing the site, and to allow pilgrims to come in. Inside there is the Grotto of the Nativity, underneath the altar accessed via stone steps.
The basilica is maintained by the Greek Orthodox Church. A portion of the roman floor can be seen, though it is also often covered to protect it. The remaining floor are flagstones added later. The columns are ornamented heavily, and carvings are all around the church.
An outer courtyard sees heavy use during the Christmas period for carol singing.