Away in a manger
A visit to Christ's humble birthplace at Christmas is balm for the senses, writes John Costello
Standing in the small, cramped, limestone cave, I feel almost claustrophobic. It bears no resemblance to the traditional barnyard-style mangers on display in churches and houses around the world, but even for a non-believer it is hard to ignore the sacredness of this place.
As pilgrims drop to their knees to kiss the silver star inlaid in the marble floor, the rattle of rosary beads echoes around the tiny grotto. Like thousands of other believers, they have journeyed to the spot where Jesus Christ was born to pay homage to their Messiah this Christmas.
Outside the Church of the Nativity, the sky is crystal blue, the sun intense and the heat heavy. A chaotic hum engulfs Bethlehem. Cars weave through potholed streets, horns blare and voices shout. The temperature all around is intense, as this small, crowded town becomes the focal point for those seeking to reconnect with the true meaning of the birth of Christ.
Bethlehem was likely just as chaotic over two thousand years ago when Mary and Joseph's gruelling trek took them across the hills of Galilee to the town nestled just beyond Jerusalem. The Bible depicts a scene of crowded hostelries full of people obeying Roman Emperor Augustus's demand to return to their place of birth to take part in the tax census.
During these turbulent times Mary and Joseph eventually found a peaceful resting place in a cave below an innkeeper's house. This simple grotto, used as a stable to keep animals, would soon bear witness to the birth of Jesus Christ.
The dominating walls of the Church of the Nativity now surround this very site. This is the world's oldest continuously operating church, originally built in 326AD when the Roman Emperor Constantine sent his mother, Helena Augusta, to oversee its construction. In the 6th Century during the Samaritan revolt it was burnt to the ground and rebuilt by Emperor Justinian.
I stoop to enter the church through the Door of Humility, a mere four-foot high, built to thwart invaders on horseback and force those who enter to bow down in reverence.
In the centre of the main nave the original mosaic 4th-Century floor, discovered during renovations in 1934, can be seen through a wooden panel. Evidence of the turbulent history of this church is visible all around. It was the only major church to escape destruction during the Persian invasion of 614AD and its fortress-like appearance on the outside tells of the ongoing struggles between a succession of Moslem and Crusader armies vying for control.
To take in Bethlehem's religious sites at this time of year, you should give yourself plenty of time. Thousands of tourists, pilgrims and clergy converge on Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity to celebrate Christmas. This sees Bethlehem's 2,750 hotel rooms booked solid for the entire week surrounding December 25.
The relative peace in the West Bank over the past number of years has seen tourist figures rise and the town is rapidly constructing more hotels to meet demand.
More than 100,000 visitors are expected to have visited Bethlehem during the Christmas season, up from about 90,000 last year, according to Israeli government figures.
Nestled beside the Church of the Nativity you will find St Catherine's Church, built on the site of Christ's appearance to St Catherine of Alexandria and his prediction of her martyrdom in 310AD. The existence of the church was first recorded in the 15th Century, but traces of a 5th-Century monastery also exist on the site.
To the south-east is the Milk Grotto (Magharet Sitti Mariam), where Mary is said to have nursed Jesus while hiding from Herod's soldiers during the Slaughter of the Innocents, before fleeing to Egypt. While visitors won't have to journey on the back of a donkey to arrive here, they will have to pass through the eight-metre-high West Bank Barrier, the impenetrable concrete wall separating Palestinians and Israelis. This is an imposing reminder of the intensity of the conflict that still troubles this part of the world.
But while tensions with Israel remain strong, the Christian community, accounting for 30pc of the city's population, also faces pressure from its Muslim neighbours. Even among the 1pc of Christian Palestinians there are divisions between Orthodox, Catholics, Melkites, Syriacs, Lutherans, Armenians and even the odd Protestant Evangelical.
However, tourists are welcomed by all and any feeling of tension as you pass quickly through the fortified border flitters quickly away.
While there is plenty to see during the day, Bethlehem's true Christmas magic comes alive at night.
The first day of the Novena of Christmas sees the lighting of the Christmas tree in Manger Square, followed by singing and a fireworks display. Nights leading up to Christmas Day host several concerts, while choirs join together to sing carols on Christmas Eve.
The ultimate Bethlehem experience is the annual Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity on Christmas Eve, where hundreds pack the church to celebrate the birth of Christ.
In an era where Christmas is arguably more defined by commercial activity than spiritual, a visit to Bethlehem is guaranteed to provide a tonic for the senses.