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Bethlehem history – until 19th century

Contributed by Arab Educational Institute on 30.05.2006:


Until 19th century

Although we do not know much about Bethlehem’s prehistory, archeological expeditions showed the existence of life in the area of the town some 50,000 years ago. In 1934 excavators in Bethlehem found fossilized bones and ivory including remnants of panthers, elephants, hippopotami, rhinos, giraffes, antelopes as well as extinct species. Some of the bones were carved by flint tools pointing to habitation by predecessors of human beings. Other excavations showed stone and iron age remains.

In this overview we will describe the subsequent history of Bethlehem. A word of caution is here in place. The history of Bethlehem, like the history of Palestine, has been greatly influenced by geopolitical factors revolving around the importance of the Eastern Mediterranean area in human history. Many nations fought hard to grasp and hold this strategic crossroad. Following the appearance of the earliest settlers in Palestine, i.e. the Canaanites, and the emergence of the Canaanite City States, wave after wave of peoples conquered and/or settled in Palestine and left their legacy on the already existing culture there. The settlers included: ancient Egyptians, Hyksos, Hittites, Philistines, Hebrews, Babylonians, ancient Persians, Greeks, Egyptian Ptolemies, Syrian Seleucids, Maccabee Jews, Armenians, Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula, Fatimid Moslem Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, Egyptian Mamlukes, Ottoman Turks, Egyptians (Mohammed Ali), Great Britain and Israel. A comprehensive history of Bethlehem and Palestine, which is not the aim of this book, will have to take into consideration the legacies of the afore-mentioned peoples and cultures.

Canaanite settlement

From the Bible we learn about the Bethlehem (“Ephrata”) of the Patriarchs’ times where the wife of Jacob, Rachel, died. Bethlehem is also mentioned in the Tell Al-Amarna letters, dating from the 14th century BC, in which the Egyptian governor of Palestine informed the King of Egypt that a town south of Jerusalem called “Bit-Lahama” had fallen in the hands of the “Kharibus” (possibly Hebrews). The name “Lahama” was a Canaanite adaptation of the Mesopotamian goddess of vegetation and fertility of the same name.

At the beginning of the Iron Age (1200 BC) small clusters of habitation emerged in many parts of Palestine’s hill country. Bethlehem was a Canaanite settlement located two kilometers to the east from the main caravan and army route linking Jerusalem, also a Jebusite/Canaanite settlement that was captured by King David (around 1,000 BC), with the southern part of the country.

Most likely Bethlehem was a modest regional market for grains, fruits, especially olives, and livestock. Its first dwellers – farmers, shepherds and traders – chose a rocky hilltop to live on, the same one upon which the Church of the Nativity would later be erected. A high place ensured better defense against raids by armies and marauders while also providing a view for surveying the neighboring orchards and groves against robbery.

In the centuries before the birth of Jesus Bethlehem remained small. As with other places in the area, the village was severely affected by draughts, hunger and invading armies. Culturally, the population was probably not very different from the neighboring areas with which it kept trade relations. Later, when it was occupied by the Hebrews, one may presume that some of the Bethlehemites started to worship the Jewish God Yahweh instead of the Canaanite Gods.

Birthplace of King David

At moments of emergency Bethlehemites needed to take refuge in the surrounding areas. Already in the Iron Age some people from the Bethlehem area traveled to the lands of Moab to the east. The first person from Bethlehem mentioned in the Bible, Elimelech, was a refugee who married a Moabite. Later on Naomi, Elimelech’s wife, would be accompanied by the Moabite Ruth on her return journey to Bethlehem. As described in the moving story of the Biblical Book named after her, Ruth married Boaz and gave birth to Obeid, who became father of Jesse, and Jesse father of David, the Israelite King.

During the unstable circumstances of the time Bethlehem was probably liberal with regard to intermarriage. One of the minor judges in the Bible, Ibzan, who came from Bethlehem, encouraged his daughters to marry with the Canaanite population.

According to the Bible, the Prophet and Judge Samuel came around 1,000 BC to Bethlehem and anointed David as King in the place of King Saul. Although archeologically speaking we know very little about the reign of the kings David and Solomon (roughly between 1,000 and 900 BC), it is possible that around that time Bethlehem gained in strategic value because of its location at the southern point of entrance to Jerusalem. According to the Bible, Rehoboam, Solomon’s successor in what the Bible describes as the “southern Kingdom,” fortified Bethlehem and made it into a store place for bread, oil and wine.

Nevertheless, the village subsequently shrunk in size, for unknown reasons. It seems that after the Babylonian exile only 123 Bethlehemites returned to their former home. Bethlehem was “the least among the tribes of Judah” in the words of the prophet Micah. Yet, ironically, despite its smallness it was destined to become the birthplace of the descendant of King David, Jesus Christ. Both Luke and Matthew locate the birth of Christ in Bethlehem. The following translations are from the New Jerusalem Bible.


“Now it happened that at this time Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be made of the whole inhabited world. This census – the first – took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria, and everyone went to be registered, each to his own town. So Joseph set out from the town of Nazareth in Galilee for Judea, to David’s town called Bethlehem, since he was of David’s House and line, in order to be registered together with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. Now it happened that, while they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to a son, her first-born. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger because there was no room in the living space. In the countryside close by there were shepherds out in the field keeping guard over their sheep during the watches of the night. An angel of the Lord stood over them and the glory of the Lord shone round them. They were terrified, but the angel said, ‘Do not be afraid. Look, I bring you news of great joy, a joy to be shared by the whole people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you, he is Christ the Lord. And here is a sign for you; you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.’ And all at once with the angel there was a great throng of the hosts of heaven, praising God with the words: ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace for those he favors.’

Now it happened that when the angels had gone from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go to Bethlehem and see this event which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw the child they repeated what they had been told about him, and everyone who heard it was astonished at what the shepherds said to them. As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds went back glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as they had been told.” (Luke 2)


“After Jesus had been born in Bethlehem in Judea during the reign of King Herod, suddenly some wise men came to Jerusalem from the east asking, ‘Where is the infant King of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.’ When King Herod heard this he was perturbed, and so was the whole of Jerusalem. He called together all of the chief priests and the scribes of the people, and enquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, ‘At Bethlehem in Judea, for this is what the prophet wrote:

And you, Bethlehem,

in the land of Judah,

you are by no means the least

among the leaders of Judah,

for from you will come a leader

who will shepherd my people Israel.

Then Herod summoned the wise men to see him privately. He asked them the exact date on which the star had appeared and sent them on to Bethlehem with the words, ‘Go and find out all about the child, and when you have found him, let me know, so that I too may go and do him homage.’ Having listened to what the king had to say, they set out. And suddenly the star they had seen rising went forward and halted over the place where the child was. The sight of the star filled them with delight, and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. But they were given a warning in a dream not to go back to Herod, and returned to their own country by a different way.

After they had left, suddenly the Angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt, and stay there until I tell you, because Herod intends to search for the child and do away with him.’ So Joseph got up and, taking the child and his mother with him, left that night for Egypt, where he stayed until Herod was dead. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken through the prophet:

I called my son out of Egypt.

Herod was furious on realizing that he had been fooled by the wise men, and in Bethlehem and its surrounding district he had all the male children killed who were two years old or less, reckoning by the date he had been careful to ask the wise men. Then were fulfilled the words spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

A voice is heard in Ramah,

lamenting and weeping bitterly:

it is Rachel weeping for her children,

refusing to be comforted

because they are no more.

(Matthew 2)

Two interpretations

Exactly where in Bethlehem was Jesus born? According to a traditional interpretation of Luke’s account, Joseph and Mary came from Nazareth to arrive at a Bethlehem “inn” (in Greek “kataluna”) where they were refused entry because of lack of space.

This version could be true. In fact, the Old Testament testifies that there happened to be an ancient caravanserai near Bethlehem for people who were on their way south to Egypt. According to the Bible, this caravanserai belonged to a relative of one of the generals in King David’s army who had received it as remuneration for a successful military campaign.

Yet there is another interpretation of “kataluna” as well. “Kataluna” does not necessarily mean “inn” but can also refer to a section of a normal house, or “living-space,” as in the translation provided above. Following Luke, who mentions that Jesus was born in a manger, many Bethlehemites think that the Holy Family may have stayed in a house on top of a half-cave used for storing goods and keeping house animals. Such a cave was warm, private and therefore suitable for giving birth. The baby was afterwards laid in the manger normally used by the animals.

The reason why Bethlehemites prefer this interpretation has to do with culture. Mary and Joseph came to Bethlehem because it was the town of their ancestors. This fact makes it for Arabs difficult to believe that the Holy Family would not have been invited by their relatives in Bethlehem. That would run counter to the rules of hospitality for which the local culture is famous. To give credibility to this interpretation, the Bethlehem Museum, close to Manger Square opposite the Church of the Nativity, has opened an old house of the type in which Jesus could have been born.

A place for veneration

After Jesus’ ministry and death, Bethlehem was probably inhabited by Jews, Canaanites, and some early Judeo-Christians worshipping the place where Jesus was born. When the Roman Emperor Hadrian crushed the Jewish revolt led by Bar Kochba in 135 AD, the Jews of Bethlehem were compelled to leave the village, which now became exclusively inhabited by the descendants of the Canaanites. Sometimes called “pagans” or “peasants,” the Canaanites venerated the agricultural deity Adonis above the cave that was designated by the Judeo-Christian community as Jesus’ birthplace. It is possible that Emperor Hadrian reinforced the Canaanite cult to prevent a continuing Christian worship of the cave.

Halfway into the second century, one of the early Christian church fathers, the native Palestinian Justin Martyr of Nablus, knew about a Bethlehem cave as the traditional birthplace of Jesus. It seems to have been one of the earliest places where a local Christian tradition of worshipping persisted.

In 313 AD Emperor Constantine announced Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire. Shortly afterwards the bishop of Jerusalem requested the Emperor to encourage Christian worship at the previously neglected places that commemorated Jesus’ life. Constantine dispatched his mother Helena to supervise church building, especially at the three sites where there were holy caves: the place where Jesus was crucified, the site of Jesus’ ascension, and the nativity cave.

At all these spots Helena built magnificent churches. Local inhabitants pointed out the Bethlehem cave and Helena erected a church devoted to St Mary over it. A large atrium dominated the entrance, and a silver manger was put near the spot where tradition said that Jesus was born. The manger was later to be transferred to Rome, but it is still possible to observe the mosaics that graced the church floor. They are located some two feet below the present ground level.

From the outside, the Church was surrounded by a wall with two towers bordering the only street of Bethlehem that existed at the time (roughly following the present-day trajectory of Bethlehem’s Star Street). People lived within the walls to protect themselves against marauding bands and armies.

In the course of the fourth century, after the newly built churches became known throughout Europe, Christian pilgrimage commenced on a wide scale. Pilgrimage is premised upon the idea that some places are of special holiness to believers and that one gains in devotion by visiting them. Originally the Church fathers and local bishops had dismissed the idea that one place was holier than another. Indeed, Jesus had asserted that He, rather than any holy building, was the Temple, and that He could be venerated anywhere. Yet with the churches and communities of believers present at the sites, it was not surprising that the local bishops and Biblical scholars began to consider pilgrimage as an important way to keep the faith alive.


Some pilgrims stayed at the places they venerated. In 384 AD Jerome, then the most famous Biblical scholar in the Roman Empire, wanted to pursue his studies in a quiet atmosphere, far away from Rome, which was then much troubled by theological quarrels. He was accompanied by two wealthy Roman ladies, Paula and her daughter Eustochium, who used their fortunes to establish a monastery for men under Jerome’s direction, three cloisters for women under the direction of Paula and her daughter, and a hostel for pilgrims. In the fourth and fifth century thousands of pilgrims arrived in the Holy Land.

Visited by pilgrims and monks, the Bethlehem and Jerusalem areas became renowned for the many different nationalities present there. During the great Christian feasts the churches were visited by believers from countries as far as India, Ireland, Ethiopia and Macedonia. The numbers grew so much that the existing monasteries could barely cope with the stream. At one point Paula had to sell the remainder of her estates in the Roman countryside to meet the needs of the pilgrims. In fact, many of them were poor refugees looking for a place to survive.

Between 417 and 420 AD, when Paula and Jerome died, the monasteries and hospice were handed over to their successors. Without Jerome’s and Paula’s charismatic leadership monastic life in Bethlehem slowly declined under the persistent pressure of military attacks. There may have remained a few hundred Christians in and around the fortress-like church walls and towers. At the sight of Bedouin bands or armies, they wisely fled into the countryside to return later when peace was restored.


The political and military picture was not simple. For one thing, not only Christians were the target of attacks. Several Roman emperors oppressed non-Christians, especially when they formed a coherent and assertive force that challenged the regional Roman hegemony. Such was the case with the Samaritans, a religious group who claimed descent from the first Israelites. Burdened by oppression during the reign of Emperor Justinian, Samaritans from Nablus revolted in 529 AD against the Byzantines, invaded Bethlehem and damaged the Church of the Nativity. After Justinian subsequently suppressed the revolt, he gave orders to rebuild the churches. From that time dates the Church as it is presently on view in Bethlehem. The interior was beautifully decorated with, among other things, a kind of reddish stone quarried in nearby groves.

One interesting aspect of the new building was a sculpture in front of the church depicting Mary, baby Jesus and the visiting Wise Men, or the Magi. In the portrayal, the Magi seem to have had a Persian appearance. In 614 AD Persians invaded Palestine, burned the Church of the Holy Sepulcher but spared the Church of the Nativity, reportedly after they saw the images of the Persian Wise Men on the exterior of the Church.

The early Islamic Period

For a brief time Bethlehem remained in the hands of the Persians, but was then re-conquered by the Byzantines. However, the real watershed was the advancement of the Islamic Arab armies from the Arabian Peninsula into the Holy Land in 638 AD, ushering in the Islamic-Arab era. Upon the arrival of the army, the church head of Jerusalem, bishop Sophronios, negotiated a bloodless surrender.

Treading the streets of Jerusalem respectfully, the victorious but pious Caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattab refused to pray in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. If he would have done so, he explained, his disciples would have transformed it into a mosque. Briefly afterwards he peacefully occupied Bethlehem where he made a different arrangement with the bishop. After entering St Mary’s Church, as the present Church of the Nativity was still called at the time, he prayed in its southern apse, in the direction of Mecca. Then he handed over to the bishop a covenant which stipulated that Moslems would be allowed to pray in the church on an individual basis only, and without the muezzin calling them. The Christians would take care for the maintenance and cleaning of the Moslem site in the church. This respectful gesture is nowadays commemorated by the mosque that is located opposite of the Church of the Nativity, called “Mosque of Omar.”

Omar’s arrangement was astonishingly tolerant in the light of the religious and military practices prevalent during the time. In fact, it is known that while during early Islam there were riots between Greek and Latin clergy in the Church of the Nativity about residency rights, there were no problems between Moslems and Christians. The Moslem practice of praying in the Church of the Nativity has persisted up until recent times.

Interfaith relations

There are several indications that the early Islamic era was an interesting experiment in peaceful interfaith relations. The archeological evidence suggests that there was no disruption in the daily life of the Palestinians before and after the arrival of Islam. Bethlehem remained a village of stock raisers and peasants living from olives, figs, almonds, grapes and pomegranates.

Since they were allowed to continue their worship, it seems that initially very few Christians converted to Islam. Christians and Moslems lived side by side. The pilgrim Arculphus described how new places in the vicinity of the Church of the Nativity became venerated by Christians and Moslems alike, including a well in which the Wise Men’s star was supposed to shine, and the tombs of King David and Solomon.

There was also little change in administration. The new Moslem administrators, with their tribal background, had little experience in ruling complex societies, and they needed to learn the trade from the Christians.

Especially remarkable was the scholarly exchange between Moslem and Christian theologians and intellectuals. After the Caliphate’s center moved from Damascus to Baghdad in 750, the new Abbasid generation of rulers encouraged an open dialogue between the religions (including Judaism). This cultural dialogue very much helped to integrate the Greek philosophical treasures from ancient times, well known to Eastern Christians, into Islamic thinking. There was also a rich mutual influence between Christian mystic traditions and the new Islamic mystics, called Sufis, who after 750 AD increasingly gained support among common Islamic believers.

Arabization of Christianity

While Christians had a far-reaching influence on the Islamic culture of the time, the climate of cultural openness stimulated in its turn an Arabization process among the Christians. This process had already started before the advent of Islam, when Christian Arab tribes such as the Ghassanids migrated from Arabia and Syria to Palestine. In fact, the largest traditional clans or quarters in Bethlehem, Farahiyyah and Najajrah, trace their origin to such Christian Arab tribes.

With the advent of Islam, however, the process of Arabization expanded in size and scope. In order to be effective amongst the Christian flock as well as vis-à-vis Moslems, Christian theologians and monks learned Arabic and translated the Bible and ecclesiastical texts from Greek and Syriac (an old language close to the ancient Aramaic) into Arabic, the new lingua franca. The literature produced was often polemical yet with a tone of a chivalrous courtesy. One well-known Christian type of narrative relayed the experiences of monks who, standing in front of the caliph or emir, did not hesitate to explain their reasons to refute Islam, being prepared to die as martyrs for their beliefs. Such apologetics notwithstanding, both Christians and Moslems were often quite sensitive to each other’s holy texts.

The Christian literary and theological production during the Abbasid period (750-1050 AD) was indeed voluminous. It is said that, apart from Latin, there is no other language in which more Christian works have been written than Arabic. The Arabization of Christianity was of great influence in bringing together the different Eastern sects of Christianity that from the fourth century on had emerged due to dogmatic differences. Up to this day Christians from the Holy Land stress Arabness as an intrinsic part of their historical and cultural identity.

Having said this, one should take care not to idealize the picture of Christian-Islamic harmony. During the reign of the Umayyad ‘Umar ibn ‘Abdel ‘Aziz, who was an exception to the rule of a tolerant Moslem-Christian living together, Christians came under pressure. They had to wear special clothes, and were not allowed to mount horses. They were sometimes singled out for heavy taxation at moments when tensions rose between the Caliphate and the Byzantine Emperor. When Christians were encouraged to become Moslems, many only chose to do so out of fear for persecution. The number of monks and nuns who inhabited the Bethlehem convents shrunk to little more than a dozen.

During the reign of the Egyptian Fatimid Caliph Al-Haakim bi-Amar Allah at the turn of the millennium, Christians as well as many Moslems were physically persecuted. Churches were burned, and it was probably only because of the tradition of the local Moslem citizenry of Bethlehem praying in the Church of the Nativity that the church there was not destroyed, a fate the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem did not escape. Despite this, the majority of people living in the Holy Land remained Christian until the latter part of the eleventh century.


The Crusader period signified a new era in the history of the Holy Land. After learning about the destruction of churches by Al-Haakim and the oppressive reign of the Seljuk Turks thereafter, the mood in the West was one of resentment. The feudal European society generated a violence within its borders that was now projected outwards. To legitimize the violence, people spoke about spreading European values and protecting European interests by force. The call of Pope Urban II for a holy war was met by unanimous approval across the cities and power holders ruling Europe. The Crusaders conquered the Holy Land in 1099, making Bethlehem a few days before Jerusalem. While Jerusalem suffered a horrible massacre among the indigenous population (mainly Moslems but also Jews and Eastern Christians), Bethlehem, a small village, was taken without bloodshed.

After its occupation, Bethlehem gained in religious, political and material significance. The Crusader Kings Baldwin I and II crowned themselves in Bethlehem rather than Jerusalem in order to avoid the embarrassment of becoming a King in the city where Jesus wore the crown of thorns. Replacing the hierarchy of the Greek Church, the Latin Church established a bishopric in Bethlehem, and endowed it with goods and lands from several European countries.

Nowadays we know that the Crusaders’ actions managed to put a serious political and moral burden on the history of the Holy Land. The Crusaders’ forceful imposition on the Moslems has had the effect of traumatizing the Moslem and Arab world up until the present time. Later conflicts between the West and the Arab world were bound to be perceived as a restaging of the Crusades. At present, there are many Christians who deeply regret the events of the Crusades.

Recently, in 1999, a Christian group of travelers coming to the Holy Land on foot, like the Crusaders, extended apologies to the Moslem mufti of Jerusalem.

The issue was not only one between Christians and Moslems. The Crusaders also imposed, with the backing of Western powers, a temporal domination of the Latin Church over the Eastern Christian church. This inevitably fostered religious-national divisions that would haunt the future history of the land as well.

Nevertheless, the Crusades brought a temporary prosperity to the Christian population of Bethlehem. Many pilgrims from European countries started visiting the Holy Places. Local commerce flourished. Even Moslems started to come back to Bethlehem, but as visitors, since they were not allowed to stay. The Church of the Nativity was fortified with a new wall and towers. Some of the remainders can still be seen around the present-day Casa Nova building adjacent to the Church. A convent for Augustinians was erected on the place where the Catholic St Catherine Church now stands. The remainders of this convent’s cloister are still on view in St Catherine’s courtyard. In the 1950s, the courtyard was reconstructed by the Italian architect Barluzzi following the model of the Crusaders.

A Greek-Latin mode of cooperation

Although Western Christianity imposed itself upon the East, Eastern Christianity in the Holy Land was certainly not extinguished. Baldwin I realized that without a mode of cooperation between the Latin and Eastern churches it would be impossible to govern the Crusader state. Like his successor Baldwin II, he took an Eastern, Armenian Christian as wife. In 1169 AD the fruits of a strategic reconciliation became apparent in Bethlehem when the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Comnenus, the Latin King Amaury (or Amalric) and the Latin Bishop in Bethlehem, a Norman Englishman named Raul or Radulph, supervised the reconstruction of the Church of the Nativity. This is known from an inscription in the church’s apse, significantly written in both Greek, the language of the Greek-Orthodox church, and Latin, the language of the Western church. Floor and walls were laid with marble, mother-of-pearl and mosaics, and the roof made anew with cedar beams. The church was a visible compromise between Eastern and Western Christianity. For instance, the choice of saints painted on the pillars of the Church represented a balance between Eastern and Western nations. A name of one of the artisans responsible for the work, Basilius Pictor, can be detected on the north wall of the Church.

By then Bethlehem’s population had grown beyond the limits of an agricultural village. Several families specialized in handicrafts such as spinning, weaving and embroidery. A contemporary pilgrim even reported about the presence of some Jewish families who specialized in dyeing.

Saladin and the Mamluks

After the Crusader Kingdom lost its main strongholds in the Holy Land as a consequence of the Battle of Hattin in 1187 AD, Saladin took over Bethlehem. Like Omar Ibn Al-Khattab in the seventh century, he adopted a remarkably tolerant attitude towards the religious presence of the Christians. The Greek-Orthodox were again allowed to take over control of the Church, while a few years later a Latin presence was permitted as well. Moslem guards took a fee from pilgrims entering the Church. Some Armenian construction work was encouraged. When walking from the narthex of the church into the nave, the present-day visitor can see two carved wooden entrance doors, one with an Armenian and the other with an Arabic text, both of them dating from the time of Saladin.

Nonetheless, with the stream of Western pilgrims once again subsiding, Bethlehem became something of a backwater. It was, according to visitors, barely a “sling’s shot long and a stone’s throw wide,” just “thirty mean houses in which Saracens [Moslems] and Christians of the neighborhood live.” In the following decennia, the walls and towers became damaged during various disruptions primarily as a consequence of the internal instability of the Moslem empire. The church and village were severely damaged by the Mongols in 1244.

In the mid-13th century the Mamluk sultan Baybars gained control in Palestine. One measure he adopted was the establishment of the Nebi Musa (prophet Moses) mausoleum in the desert not far from the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. It has been said that, in doing so, he was influenced by the location and appearance of the Mar Saba Monastery. In general, he had less patience with the Christian presence than Saladin. However, the Church of the Nativity miraculously escaped destruction, once again.

The 14th and 15th centuries witnessed a further decline of Bethlehem. For the Mamluks, the Christian places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem were primarily a source of income. Without the presence of a Latin bishop the Franciscans gained the right in 1347 to become custodians of the Holy Land. In a pattern that would become common in the centuries to follow, a European protector paid the Sultan a large sum of money for this favor. Since then, the Franciscans protected the Latin Holy Places and encouraged the construction of local churches. They established themselves in the Augustinian monastery next to the Church of the Nativity.

Their work was initially difficult with the Crusader legacy still fresh. It was only at the end of the 15th century that the Franciscans were permitted to do repair work in the Church. The Church had lost its previous splendid interior under the influence of neglect, pillage and a leaking roof. One pilgrim writing at the time compares the Church with a “barn without hay, a pharmacy without medicine, a library without books.” In 1489 the walls of Bethlehem were destroyed, adding to the general lack of safety.

Ottoman millets

The Turkish or Ottoman period ushered in a new, somewhat more promising era for Christians. After the sacking of Constantinople in 1453 AD, the new empire stretched from India to deep into Europe. Jerusalem and Bethlehem were captured in 1516 AD. The Turkish sultan became the new caliph. The Christian and other religious minorities received a status which was a bit more secure than during the times of the Mamluks when the Christian communities could not own lands and possessions at holy sites such as Bethlehem. In exchange for paying tribute and maintaining law and order in their own circles, they were now left autonomous in matters of civil administration, judiciary and education. Christians came to live under the protection of the Sultan, i.e. in his trust, and for that they paid tribute. The state protected the Christians’ lives and property, an arrangement called “dhimmi.”

The legal arrangement of the autonomy was called “millet.” There were two millets for the Christian minorities; one for the Greek-Orthodox, whose head was held responsible for all Byzantine churches, and another for the Armenian church holding sway over the Eastern churches which had previously seceded from the Byzantine church. In practice this arrangement amounted to the formation of Christian states within the larger Islamic state.

The increased autonomy and security came at a price. The Greek-Orthodox bishop in Constantinople, now renamed Istanbul, was suddenly invested with an immense amount of authority over the Christian communities within and outside the Greek-Orthodox Church. The new hierarchy inevitably encouraged patronage and favoritism. The leadership of the Orthodox patriarchate especially became vulnerable to bribery. During the 16th and 17th century, the position changed hands every few years or so in favor of the highest bidder. At the lower levels of church hierarchy, familial relations were often decisive in appointing functionaries. Psychologically, the system had drawbacks, too. The millets were not allowed to expand beyond their religious communities and their present number of believers. Thus they tended to become somewhat inward looking and conservative.

The Capitulations

The Latin Church was left out of the system. The memory of the Crusades was still fresh, and any new Latin encroachments into the Empire were regarded with deep suspicion. However, what was not possible through the front door could take place via the backdoor. The Franciscan custodians were powerfully protected by the French, and even though the East had lost attraction after the European discovery of America, there were still political games to play. The acquisition of a foothold in the Ottoman areas remained a valuable asset for the Europeans. From his side, the Ottoman sultan considered that tactical deals with European powers could help maintain political strength as well as promote commerce.

The result was the introduction of the system of “Capitulations.” These were contracts whereby traders and other expatriates from European countries were exempted from paying taxes and were granted judicial privileges. Under the system, they could make special arrangements with local native facilitators such as guides, agents and translators. While the system initially served only foreign nationals living in the Ottoman Empire, European powers used it to expand their influence locally. Through the consulates and traders, authority was sought over national and religious groups with whom a special relationship could be maintained for the purpose of gaining a foothold in the empire. This was especially so after the Ottomans passed the peak of expansion and self-confidence, and became weakened from inside by an increasingly corrupt administration.

For Western powers, local Christian minorities were an obvious target to exploit this weakness. The French declared themselves to be the true protector of the Latin Church and the Franciscan presence in the Holy Land. During the 16th and 17th centuries the Capitulations that were agreed upon with the French were regularly renewed and each time the negotiations included the question of Latin authority over the holy places. Through these negotiations, the Franciscans acquired the rights over holy places that the millet system prevented them to have. The Greek-Orthodox, from their side, were supported by the Russian church (the “Third Rome,” after the Italian Rome and Constantinople), while the Armenians were in turn supported by the British and the Russians.

In the course of the Ottoman period the rights to the holy places were subject to renegotiation dependent on the existing balance of power and the bribes offered. The Church of the Nativity frequently passed hands between the Franciscans and Greeks. In the second half of the 18th century, after gaining a military victory over the Ottomans, the Russians were able to deliver majority control to the Greek-Orthodox church in both the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The intervention of the Western powers in the dispute about ownership of the holy sites was a major factor in the developments leading to the Crimean War in the mid-19th century.

The Western powers exploited the system of Capitulations to its fullness. For instance, it was used to gain the right to observe the major Church celebrations in the holy places. Thus, during Easter in the Holy Sepulcher and during Christmas in the Church of the Nativity, a corps diplomatique consisting of European consuls visited mass, a custom upheld until the present day. Nevertheless, the Capitulations system generated bitterness and resentment between the various Christian churches, nourished as it was by the distant historical conflicts between Eastern and Western Christianity dating back to the time of the Crusades and before.

Another input to the international and interchurch rivalry was the secession of several Eastern Christian churches from Istanbul and their integration into the Western Catholic church. Since the 16th century, in the era of Pope Gregory XIII (1572-1585 AD), the Roman church started to establish its first contacts with Eastern Christian sects through the Jesuit and other Catholic missionaries.

It frequently happened that a bishop or other functionary who was at loggerheads with the Greek or Eastern Orthodox church hierarchy defected to Rome, simultaneously bringing all the church members with him. These churches, whether Maronite or Greek-Catholic (Melkite) groups, maintained their hierarchy, liturgy and customs. The Western powers, primarily France, gained a foothold in the Ottoman Empire by claiming representation of such defected Christian minorities.

Advantages and disadvantages

For the local Christians, the system had certain advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, the alliance with foreign powers allowed Christian citizens to open up their horizons; to travel abroad (in some cases they even acquired a foreign passport); to become involved in profitable international commerce, and to gain a measure of international protection. As far as the trade between the Middle East and Europe is concerned, it gradually passed from European traders to their local Christian agents. Due to their knowledge of foreign languages and modern business methods, Christian merchants built a trade network connecting the region with Europe. This eventually led to the emergence of a new social class with direct knowledge of European life, which played an economic and cultural role as a bridge between East and West. Some Bethlehem Christian Arabs who belonged to the Dabdoub, Ja’ar, Jacir and Handal families became in this period active in the import and export business.

On the other hand, the Christian minorities risked becoming vulnerable to political manipulation. They could become alienated from the cultural environment in which they lived and attract suspicion from their Islamic rulers and neighbors. It was a dilemma that would haunt Christians for a long time to come. The Christian groups living in the Middle East provided very different answers. For instance, many Maronites in Lebanon unambiguously chose the Western camp but paid a high price in terms of continuous unstable local relationships. Others would become closely associated with Arab nationalism.

At the heyday of 16th century Ottoman rule, Bethlehem was small and, in general, not seriously affected by these developments. It should be noted, however, that one of the traditional clans/quarters in Bethlehem, the Tarajmeh (Dragomen), traces its origin to Europeans from Venice who settled in Bethlehem and worked for the Franciscans (BUT SEE NOTE OF MR ANTON MANSOUR BELOW). Due to their mastery of European languages, they eventually became dragomen or guides par excellence.

The first signs of Europeanization were already felt with the arrival of the Franciscans in the 14th century. They established a school for handicrafts in the village to support what would later be called the tourist industry. At the end of the 16th century a Terra Sancta school for boys was opened by the same order. In the 17th century the Armenians established a bishopric in Bethlehem, adding to a certain cosmopolitanism. There were pilgrims’ reports that, on their arrival in the village, they were approached by a great many guides and souvenir sellers, both Christian and Moslem. The tourism business became a main source of livelihood for a sector of the population. All this changed the culture of the village. The tastes and preferences of the local people became influenced by the many European pilgrims.

A new roof

One major event affecting Bethlehem was the replacement of the roof of the church in 1670-1. The lead had been stripped in several places and the timbers were rotting. With the financial help of a Greek trader, the Greek Patriarch acquired permission to carry out repairs. The huge loads of timber, landed in the port of Jaffa, were brought by forty oxen on improvised two-wheeled wagons to Ramlah, located halfway between Jaffa and Jerusalem. There they remained until a group of Orthodox Christians from the surrounding villages constructed a special road to facilitate the difficult haul through the mountains. It took five months before the timber arrived in Bethlehem. Then the work was finished by carpenters imported from Greece.

The most urgent problem was security and safety, especially along the pilgrim’s route between Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Hebron. Marauders robbed travelers and abducted women and children to be sold as slaves. Pilgrims needed to pay protection money. Later on, the village of Fawaghreh on the Bethlehem-Hebron road was put in charge of collecting road taxes, a business for which they were so hated that after a particularly virulent quarrel they were dispersed to the neighboring villages, which, however, refused them entry. They came to Bethlehem and asked for asylum. From that time dates the establishment of the Fawaghreh quarter in Bethlehem, its only Moslem quarter.

The Ottoman rulers attempted to control the Bedouins by giving them the authority to lead caravans or to collect taxes. Castles were built in the wide vicinity of Jerusalem. From that time dates the building of the Murad castle near Solomon’s Pools at the southern side of Bethlehem along the road to Hebron. The leaders of Artas, a village to the east of the castle, were asked by the Ottomans to control the area; in exchange they were exempted from paying taxes.

Breakdown of law and order

Especially during the 17th and 18th century the situation in the countryside deteriorated. Ottoman rule decayed. Local pashas gained their offices by way of bribes and were allowed to keep their positions for a short time only. Usually they extracted from their constituency as much profit in as short a time as possible. This created a situation in which the central and local governments were met with deep mistrust. In 1660 a French traveler mentioned that the countryside around Bethlehem was almost completely deserted as the peasants fled from the pashas in Jerusalem. Another negative factor were tribal fights between villages and cities, especially in the Bethlehem-Hebron area. Apparently due to these fights a group of twelve Christian families left Bethlehem for Nazareth to continue their business there.

The feudal quarrels were largely between two regional tribal groupings, the “Qais” on the one hand, and the “Yemeni” on the other. These divisions can be traced to the Arabian Peninsula. The pre-Islamic Qais were the northern Arabs while the Yemenis were southern Arabs. With the Arab/Islamic expansion these tribal divisions persisted in the new lands. The tribes brought various alliances of Moslems and Christians together on different sides of ethnic battle lines. For instance, the Qais inhabitants of Beit Jala, neighboring Bethlehem to the West and mainly Christian in composition, were aligned to the Moslem Hebronites while being opposed to the Yemeni Moslem and Christian inhabitants of Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

Moslem-Christian relations

In general, Christians were little different from Moslems. They wore different head clothes (for Moslems the white dress, for Christians usually a black one) but otherwise the contrast between living in the town and in the countryside was far more important than the religious identity. Christian and Moslem peasants had a similar Arab lifestyle, the same customs and dialect. Their lives were dominated by a concern for survival. This was spiritually expressed by a popular religion that was often shared. Moslems and Christians together begged Mary to give rain during the dry season, and they jointly venerated local saints like St George (Al-Khader) and St Elias. They faced similar fates in their dealings with the Ottoman central government and tax collectors.

In the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, more than half of the Christian villages gradually disappeared. Their inhabitants left the Palestinian countryside for the towns. It is not unlikely that in the case of Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Christians wished to leave the insecure countryside to find more and better employment opportunities in the towns with their nascent tourist industries. Bethlehem provided international contacts especially through the Franciscan and Greek presence.

Town quarters

With their gradual expansion, Palestinian towns such as Bethlehem acquired a characteristic of their own. The new inhabitants were housed in town quarters or “haraat” (singular “hara”). The haraat formed a cluster of houses closely and densely built around a courtyard, with fortress-like small windows providing the extended families with maximum protection in case of attacks by tribes or greedy pashas (Bethlehem was without walls at the time). The families created a meeting point in the courtyard, where they performed their handicrafts and household labor, and exchanged news and stories. The necessity to build inward and upward within the limits of the hara led to some intricate pieces of home architecture which can still be admired, although often in dilapidated form, in the center of Bethlehem town near Star Street as well as in the neighboring small towns of Beit Jala and Beit Sahour (Both Beit Sahour and Beit Jala were established by tribes coming from Wadi Moussa in Jordan; Beit Sahour in the 14th century and Beit Jala in the 18th century). The building activity itself often took years, and was celebrated at its final stages with a feast for the entire neighborhood and those who had lent a helping hand.

There was a certain ethnic specialization among the haraat. As we saw, the Tarajmeh hara, close to the part of Star Street that is opposite to the Church of the Nativity, was well known for the tourist guides it provided. During the Ottoman times, six Christian haraat were built (Farahiyyah, Najajrah, ‘Anatrah, Qawawseh, Hraizat, Tarajmeh) while the Moslem hara Fawaghreh was constructed at the end of the 18th century. As in the old days, the regional market attracted villagers from a circle of some 20 kilometers around the town. International influence continued to be a characteristic of Bethlehem, sometimes affecting the racial composition of the population. It seems that some of the Greek clergy married with the locals, a fact which explains that several families bear Greek names (for instance, the “Ghattas” family).

Despite the tourist trade, the town basically continued to subsist on its agriculture and animal husbandry. Every family had a plot of land in the surrounding hills and an animal to carry the products to town. The hills were terraced in order to provide the animals with grazing land and to create storage places where wood could be kept for burning and other purposes. The little stones of which the small walls bordering the terraces have been built up – the business of doing so a craft in itself, in which some families were specialized – still grace the countryside and lend the area a picturesque aspect evoking the pastoral image of little Bethlehem.

During the summer months whole families went to accommodate themselves in small “castles” in the countryside, guarding the products against robbery and hungry animals, and celebrating the harvest with songs and storytelling during the brightly starred evenings. Some of the castles can still be admired in the Bethlehem countryside; a very old one, commemorating the “Tower of the Flock” where according to the book of Genesis the patriarch Jacob camped on his way to Hebron, can be found in the vicinity of the Greek-Orthodox monastery in Beit Sahour. In this idyllic yet insecure setting, late-18th century Bethlehem reached a number of 5,000 inhabitants.



Copyright: Arab Educational Institute, Bethlehem, 1999

Printed in Bethlehem, Palestine RAI house of art

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the Arab Educational Institute-Open Windows,

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The Culture and Palestine series

The Culture and Palestine series explores various expressions of the Palestinian culture and heritage, including material items such as types of food or popular arts, and immaterial ones like traditional stories and customs. It is the series’ purpose to involve the Palestinian school communities in learning to know about, and to express knowledge of Palestinian culture; to understand its relevance for contemporary situations, and to communicate it to a public abroad.

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