Judea, Bethlehem and Hebron

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Judea, Bethlehem and Hebron

The name was first mentioned in the Old Testament as a city nearby where Rachel, Jacob’s wife, was buried. The name “Bethlehem” means “house of bread”, and is the Hebraic word for “Ephrath” meaning “fruitful” which is the way that Bethlehem was first referenced in the Book of Genesis. Bethlehem is mentioned in the Book of Ruth as Naomi’s hometown, to where she chooses to return after the death of her husband and two boys in Moab and to where Ruth accompanies her.

Entrance to the Church of the Nativity
The entrance to the Church of the Nativity near Manger Square

Bethlehem is the city of birth for first two kings of Israel- Saul and David.

Bethlehem declined in importance after 10th century B.C., when the Babylonian Empire absorbed Palestine and deported most of its inhabitants. Book of Ezra says that the town was founded again in about 538 B.C., when the Persians, the then occupants, allowed the Jews to return.

“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod…” (Matthew 2:1)



History of Judea


dea is the biblical name derived from the son of the Jewish Patriarch, Jacob, who had a son Yehuda. The Israelite tribe of Judah and was associated with this region. The name of the region continued to be incorporated through out history, through the Babylonian conquest, Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman periods as Yehud, Yehud Medinata, Hasmonean Judea, and consequently Herodian Judea and Roman Judea, respectively. It was only in 135 CE that the region was renamed and merged with what was then Roman Syria.
In terms of modern history, much of Judea was part of the Jordanian West Bank from 1948 through 1967 when it was conquered and liberated by Israel as a result of the Six Day War. Situated approximately 30 kilometers south of Jerusalem, Hebron is the primary city in this region.



History of Bethlehem


The name was first mentioned in some of the Jewish sacred books written after the Israelis captured this region in 1200 B.C. Bethlehem-a walled city, was also a trading centre then.

Bethlehem declined in importance after 10th century B.C., when the Babylonian Empire absorbed Palestine and deported most of its inhabitants. Book of Ezra says that the town was founded again in about 538 B.C., when the Persians, the then occupants, allowed the Jews to return.

The birth of Jesus, in the first century BC, was the most important event that the town witnessed. According to the Christian gospels, Christ’s mother Marry and father Joseph came to Bethlehem from Nazareth (their home) to get themselves registered in a census, but were unable to find an accommodation. They spend the night in a stable somewhere around the town and that was the place where Christ was born.

Bethlehem is also known as the place where St. Jerome lived in a cave near Basilica between AD 384 and 420 till his death. The place was attacked and looted on regular intervals by different empires of its time, but fortunately most of the important structures remained intact from these attacks. From mid 7th century AD, the town was ruled by Arabs, who despite being tolerant towards Jews and Christians, constructed many mosques in the region.

The next phase in the history of Bethlehem started with the Crusades, led by European Knights and adventurous who ruled over this region till 1187 AD, and made it a part of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, but not for long.

The character of this place changed drastically after Mamluk Turks captured the region between 13th and 16th century AD. During this period most of the Christian sites were destroyed and pilgrimage was stopped. In the next phase, Bethlehem was a point of contention between many empires.

In the mid 19th century, French emperor Napoleon III challenged the claim of Russian emperors who exerted special protective rights over the Christian populace of Ottoman Empire (of which Bethlehem was a part). But, more important event for the town itself during that period was a fire inside the grotto, which led to its complete destruction, however it was restored subsequently.

During the 20th century AD, four different governments at different points of time administered the town of Bethlehem. First of them were British from the beginning of First World War to the end of Second World War. After that came the successive rule of the King of Jordan and Israel. Presently the town is under control of Palestine Government, which is trying its best to preserve the heritage and importance of the town.



Major Highlights within Bethlehem


Church of Nativity

Travelujah Nativity Church Bethlehem

The monastery was originally commissioned in 327  AD by Constantine the Great and his mother Queen Helena and rebuilt in 565 by Justinian the Byzantine Empire and since then has over gone numerous additions. The church is structured in the shape of a cross, and  is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. It is a major Christian holy site, marking the traditional place of Christ’s birth. Adjacent to this Church is the Church of St. Catherine.


Milk Grotto

Travelujah Milk Grotto Bethlehem

Only a few minutes walk from Manger square is the Milk Grotto, a place where the Holy Family took shelter during the Slaughter of the Innocents, hiding there from Herod’s soldiers. Above the grotto is a Franciscan Chapel. Prior to going to Egypt, Mary nursed Jesus in this small grotto. It is said that a drop of the Mary’s milk fell on the floor of the cave, turning the rock white and giving rise to the chalky white stone. People from around the world believe in the fertility powers of the chalky rock and many will travel to this cave simply to scratch of some of the residue, which is later consumed by mothers or placed under their pillow by mothers to be.


Old City of Bethlehem

Travelujah Old City Bethlehem

In the center of Bethlehem sits the Old City, an interesting place to walk around and stroll through the narrow streets and take in the decorations that adorn the old buildings which are now homes of many locals.
Follow the Star Street – the ancient way followed  by Joseph and the Virgin Mary to the Grotto of the Nativity. The street leads to King David Wells.


Bethlehem Museums


• International Nativity Museum
International Nativity Museum of Bethlehem is one of the richest and valuable collections of cribs in the Holy Land. The Museum has a collection of over 200 Nativity representations of different styles and dimensions. It is located in the ground floor of the historical Salesian convent of Bethlehem. The variety of the cribs exposed, originating from all around the world, creates a rhapsody of customs, liturgy and rituality from all continents and ethnic groups.
• Olive Oil Museum
Al Bad Museum for Olive Oil production is situated in the Old City of Bethlehem.  The building which houses the museum dates back to the 19th century. The museum houses many ethnographic and archaeological artifacts showcasing the entire process of oil production. Furthermore, the exhibit highlights the many uses for oil such as lamps, medicine, food, soap and  cosmetics.
• Palestinian Heritage Center
The Palestinian Heritage Center aims to preserve and promote Palestinian Cultural Heritage, especially the art of embroidery. The PHC has a great collection of traditional Palestinian dresses and antique items of everyday use. It also participates in fair trade of hand-made embroidery, crafted by women from villages and refugee camps around the city of Bethlehem.



Banksy Art


banksys graffiti wall near Bethlehem
Banksy graffiti on the separation wall

Banksy is a pseudonymous for an Bristol, England-based graffiti artist, political activist, film director, and painter famous around the world who has self-published several books. In August 2005, Banksy painted couple of images on the Israeli West Bank barrier, including an image of a Christmas tree surrounded by a wall in Bethlehem and many more. Tourists from all over the world see his artwork while visiting Bethlehem.



History of Hebron


Dating back to the time of Abraham, Hebron remains one of the worlds most ancient cities which is why the city remains one of the most important cities to the Jewish people. Up until the middle part of the 20th century Hebron had a continuous Jewish presence. However, today there are only 800 Jews living there amidst a city of 163,000 Arabs. However, for those who understand the word of God, Hebron was the first Jewish city in the land of Israel, home of the patriarchs and matriarchs – Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Sarah, Rebecca and Leah. King David ruled from Hebron for more than seven years before moving the capital to Jerusalem,


At Tel Hebron, also known as “Tel Rumeida,” artifacts from the period of Abraham were discovered. 2,700 year old seals inscribed inscribed with the word “Hevron” in ancient Hebrew, were uncovered there by archeologists. Jews lived in Hebron for most of the next few thousand of years, up until 1929 when a massacre caused the remaining Jews to depart the city. However, following the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel regained control of all of Judea which had, from 1948 through 1967, been under control of Jordan, Jews again had access to the city and those that moved back felt they they were returning ‘home’.



Cave of the Patriarchs


The great sages of the Jewish People teach that Abraham purchased the Cave of Machpela some 3,700 years ago for the full market price rather than receive it as a gift, so that the nations would never be able to dispute the eternal ownership by the People of Israel.


When Abraham’s wife Sarah died, she was in “Kiryat Arba, that is, Hebron.” Abraham went there to purchase a burial cave from Ephron the Hittite.


Genesis 23/17-20: “So Ephron’s field in Machpelah near Mamre – both the field and the cave in it, and all the trees within the borders of the field – was deeded to Abraham as his property in the presence of all the Hittites who had come to the gate of the city. Afterward Abraham buried his wife Sarah in the cave in the field of Machpelah near Mamre (which is at Hebron) in the land of Canaan. So the field and the cave in it were deeded to Abraham by the Hittites as a burial site.” The Cave of Machpelah is the world’s most ancient Jewish site and one of the holiest places for the Jewish people. The patriarchs and matriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, and Leah are all buried in the Cave of Machpelah. The only one who is missing is Rachel, who was buried near Bethlehem where she died in childbirth.


The structure known as the Tombs of the Patriarchs, is a shrine complex built mainly by King Herod during the second temple period (1st century BCE), with additions by the Muslims and Crusaders. The site is the second holiest in Judaism after the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and has been a Jewish pilgrimage destination from earliest times until today. The site is the burial place of three Biblical couples: Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebekah; Jacob and Leah. It is also sacred to Muslims and to Christians. Herod built the shrine in the same style as he used at the renovated (Second) Temple in Jerusalem. Its centerpiece is the ancient Cave of Machpelah. Nothing is known of the configuration of the burial cave, as entrance to it is forbidden. It has been suggested that it may originally have been a rock-cut shaft tomb, of the type common around 2,000 BCE. Likewise, there is no knowledge of the mode of burial practiced by the patriarchs, except for the obvious fact that the cave was reused over several generations for successive burials. The massive Herodian walls that enclosed a large, rectangular open area have remained intact. The open rectangle, however, was built up in later periods with a succession of churches and mosques, which produced the rather confusing structure now standing on the site. … Under the present arrangements, Jews are restricted to entering by the southwestern side, and limited to the southwestern corridor and the corridors which run between the cenotaphs [monument erected in honor of a person or group of persons whose remains are elsewhere], while Muslims may only enter by the northeastern side, and are restricted to the remainder of the enclosure.”


Known by a number of names including the Al-Haram Al Ibrahimi al Kahalil (the Sanctuary of Ibrahim, the friend), the outside walls of the Machpela cave visible today are at least 2000 years old and were likely constructed by King Herod who also built what today is known as the Western Wall in Jerusalem. The massive structure has a 20 meter high wall with the lower part dating from the time of Herod while the main part was formerly a Crusader Church. The Machpela cave is the best kept structure built by Herod still standing and for that reason alone it is of particular significance. Another structural feature of note are the spectacularly painted Crusader ceilings inside the building, very detailed and of high artistic quality. Two minarets, added during the period of the Marmeluks, remain. As the place of King David’s anointment and the burial of the patriarchs, the sanctuary is regarded as holy to Jews, Christians and Muslim.



Travelujah Tips


The site is closed for visitors on Fridays and Saturdays. Organized tours are recommended.

Beit Hadassah offers a visitor center and a museum. For information tel: 02-996-5333

Jews and Muslims share the holy site equally. Ten days a year the entire site is accessible to Jews and 10 days a year the entire holy site is accessible to Muslims. During the rest of the year the site is shared by Jews and Muslims each having access to different areas.

Church of nativity

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