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Geography of Israel: Bethlehem

Located some five kilometers south of Jerusalem (east of the Jerusalem-Hebron Road), the biblical city of Bethlehem (Heb,. Beit Lehem, House of Bread) is first mentioned in Genesis 35:19, which records that Rachel died in childbirth near Bethlehem on the way to Efrata, and that Jacob set a pillar over her grave. (The site of Rachel’s Tomb, just outside Bethlehem, is a Jewish holy place, and to this day a place of pilgrimage and prayer.) However, Bethlehem is best known in Jewish tradition for its associations with King David, and in Christian tradition as the birthplace of Jesus.

Archeological surveys indicate that during the First Temple Period the walled town was located in the area of the Basilica of the Nativity, and that the caves beneath the Basilica could have been used as extensions of private dwellings (as storerooms, stables, etc.). This use of caves and rock-cut chambers was common throughout the region until recent times. One of these caves was enshrined in the 4th century as the traditional site of the Nativity.

The present Basilica is the oldest surviving consecrated church in the world. It was built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian (527-565) on the site of an earlier basilica erected by the Emperor Constantine in 325.

The Justinian structure has twice been saved from destruction. In 614, according to later accounts, the Persians spared the Basilica because they interpreted mosaic images of the Three Wise Men on the facade of the church as representations of Zoroastrian priests (magi). In 1009, the Basilica was again saved when local Muslims prevented the destruction ordered by the Fatamid caliph Hakim.

However, the fortunes of the town itself have fluctuated. The Anglo-Saxon pilgrim Saewulf, visiting in 1109, reported that everything had been destroyed "except the monastery of the Blessed Virgin Mary". Two hundred years later, the English traveler Sir John Maundeville found "a little city, long and narrow and well walled".

Today, various Christian denominations, including some Protestant groups, maintain social and educational institutions in the town. The most notable of these is the Roman-Catholic-affiliated Bethlehem University.

Since December 1995, following the signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement, the Palestinian Authority has been responsible for civil affairs, internal security and public order in Bethlehem. The current population of the town is about 50,000, of whom an estimated 40 percent are Christians.

As in centuries past, tourism and the manufacture and sale of religious souvenirs major sources of income.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry