Pulsing Bethlehem is no longer the little town of Christmas carol lyrics, but holy sites of angels, mangers and Biblical figures are still at the heart of this Palestinian city, 10km from Jerusalem. Whether you’re a pilgrim or not, this culturally significant destination should be on your bucket list. We’ve rounded up the best things to see and do for you.
The Mar Saba monastery resembles an Indiana Jones-style kingdom, carved into a cliff overlooking the Kidron Valley. This Greek Orthodox settlement is occupied by 15 monks, and, so, unfortunately, women are only permitted to enter the Women’s Tower, while men can take a full guided tour. However, the true wonder of the site lies not within the walls but in the exterior setting of the monastery – especially at sunset, when long shadows are cast throughout the canyon.
In the Al-Najajreh Quarter, you’ll find a museum dedicated to an industry that’s 5,000 years old: Palestinian stone-pressed olive oil. The 19th-century equipment on display has been restored to its original glory – minus the donkeys that would have been used to rotate the circular stone and crush the olives. Other exhibits explain how olive oil was not just for cooking, but a resource used in lamps, medicine, soap and cosmetics among many other things.
The Old Bethlehem Museum is located in a typical 19th-century Palestinian home, which features three rooms recreated in a traditional style. In addition to this setting are displays of native costumes, images of early 20th-century Palestine and a 10-minute video from the area showing footage from 1918. Upstairs is an embroidery centre, where crafts by the Bethlehem Arab Women’s Union are available to buy.
As the place said to be where angels appeared to shepherds to announce the birth of Jesus, it’s no wonder the Shepherds’ Field has an ethereal quality. The chapel here is reminiscent of a cave-like shelter, just like the ones the shepherds of the Bible used to rest in on the first Christmas Eve before the angels arrived. The gentle grassy hills help transport you back two millennia to the shepherds’ famously humble lifestyle.
These three ancient reservoirs, southwest of Bethlehem, were named after King Solomon. Between 118 and 179m (387–587ft) long and 8 to 16m (26–52ft) deep, they provided an essential water source to the desert town of Herodium and the city of Jerusalem. You can also see the remains of a British pump station that was later added.
Part of the complex of the Church of the Nativity is this 1347 chapel, which takes its name from St Catherine of Alexandria. It is believed that this is the place where the saint’s future martyrdom was prophesied by Jesus Christ. A highlight is the stained-glass window depicting the nativity scene, above the main altar – but the church is most famous for its Christmas Eve Mass, which is broadcast around the world.
All the products for sale at the Palestinian Heritage Center – including clothing, jewellery, embroidery and homeware – are handmade by Palestinian women, with the profits going to local families in need. The centre also contains a museum of Palestinian culture, featuring a traditional living room, furnished Bedouin tent and a chance for souvenir photographs dressed up in folk outfits. As a celebration of Palestinian heritage, it helps create cultural awareness for future generations.