Photograph by Walter Bibikow, Getty
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The Church of the Nativity is on the site in Bethlehem where Jesus Christ is thought to have been born.

Photograph by Walter Bibikow, Getty

The Little Town of Bethlehem Has a Surprising History

Christ’s birthplace is the site of modern uprisings and groundbreaking prehistoric art.

Bethlehem has been the subject of countless carols and Nativity plays, but the real story of the little town is far more complex. Bethlehem had a long history even before it became known as the site of Jesus Christ’s birth. Now it sits at the heart of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. [Find out whether there's historical evidence of the Apostles.]

With Christmas fast approaching, National Geographic reached out to Nicholas Blincoe, author of Bethlehem: Biography of a Town, to explore the legacy of the place where the famous manger lay. [Meet Santa's naughty counterpart.]

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The book opens with you arriving in Bethlehem carrying a Christmas pudding. Explain why it captures “something of the essence of Bethlehem”—and how an Englishman ended up on the West Bank.

I met my wife, Leila Sansour, at university in Britain where we were both studying philosophy. She’s a Palestinian from Bethlehem. Her mother’s Russian, her father is Palestinian and was one of a group of academics that founded Bethlehem University.

I knew nothing about Bethlehem or Palestine or the politics, but I was in love with Leila and we were going to get married, so I went to Bethlehem to meet her family. I was determined to bring something of England, thinking of Christmas and Charles Dickens. So I came carrying a Christmas pudding from Harrods.

Leila’s father was looking at the ingredients and realized everything in the pudding was growing in his garden that Christmas. The lemons were in fruit; there were oranges, figs, and almonds. And everything that doesn’t grow there, I learned, had been carried through the desert in ancient times by desert traders on the spice route. This quintessentially British dish turned out to be absolutely Middle Eastern!

Bethlehem is, of course, famous as the birthplace of Jesus. Does the historical and archaeological record confirm this?

It is impossible to say that the archaeology confirms Christ was born there. But there’s lots of evidence in its favor. According to the Bible, Mary and Joseph either came to Bethlehem for a census, or they already lived there. It’s difficult to say which of these, or either, is true.

Pilgrims visiting Bethlehem within about 100 years of Christ’s birth already believed Christ was born there. We also have these very specific descriptions of what the town was like at the time.

When pilgrims visited later, after Rome had become Christian, people did describe a manger. But it sounds more likely to have been a trough than a manger. This was on display at one point, and it fits the picture of a town where the water supply is the most important thing.

When Was the Tomb of Christ Discovered? Where is the tomb of Jesus Christ? Is the site worshipped today the same one that was discovered during the time of Constantine? Find out how scientists used archaeology and other dating methods to solve one of history's greatest mysteries.

Though less famous, it is also the location for another momentous cultural event: the first artistic portrayal of two humans making love. Tell us about the Ain Sakhri lovers—and the work of biblical historian, Karen Armstrong.

Bethlehem is very close to the Dead Sea. There’s a route up from the Dead Sea in an area called Ain Sakhri, and in caves there, in the 1930s, some Bedouin shepherd boys found a small stone carving. It became evident that it was two people having sex. Archaeologists dated it to the Stone Age—11,000 years ago—and it’s the earliest depiction we have of people making love.

Karen Armstrong has a theory of world history before history gets written, where nomads track across the desert eventually establishing towns as they go, creating little pockets of their civilization and telling stories about themselves. The people who created this sculpture, the Natufians as they’re now called, are an example of this. They were nomads who found that if they stayed in one spot, they could have everything they needed. In the springtime, when the lambs are born, there’s grass for about two weeks, so they can feed their sheep. In the hills they can grow almonds, which were the first trees to be cultivated. Then, olive trees. This lifestyle gave them enough free time to sit down and start thinking about sex—and carving some sculptures.

Though it is perched on a hilltop, water has played a key role in Bethlehem’s history, hasn’t it?

Bethlehem is a collection of very fertile villages that grows almonds and, more importantly, olives for oil. It’s so fertile because Bethlehem sits on an enormous aquifer, which eventually became the water source for Jerusalem in around 200 BCE. There were so many Jewish pilgrims coming to Jerusalem that the city couldn’t cope. The older water supply was contaminated by the animals slaughtered in the temple. They needed fresh water and this came from Bethlehem.

Bethlehem was built specifically to sit on top of the aquifer and be the defensive military installation guarding the whole infrastructure. It’s a fortress town amongst a series of villages, which is why the Bible always talks about the best tasting water coming from Bethlehem.

That’s what Bethlehem is: a place that guards the water. About 2,300 years ago, they built a reservoir. Over the course of history another three gigantic reservoirs were built just to the south of Bethlehem, which became known as Solomon’s Pools. They’re still there.

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The British artist Banksy opened the Walled Off hotel in Bethlehem next to the wall that encloses much of the town.

I was fascinated to discover that Bethlehem was made famous as a site of Christian pilgrimage, not by churchmen, but by a succession of Roman women. Tell us about St. Helena—and her architectural legacy.

St. Helena was the Emperor Constantine’s mother. In her late teens, she was a barmaid somewhere near Isthmia or Smyrna. She married a very ambitious Roman general, who had divorced his first wife, and they had a son, who became the emperor Constantine. At a great age, his mother became the most powerful woman in the empire and a very influential Christian.

Christianity seemed to appeal to wealthy Roman women because many of them had built up large inherited fortunes, either through divorce or death. But there wasn’t any way to use that power in Roman political society. Christianity became a roundabout way in which they could have influence.

St. Helena was one of these women, and the most powerful of them. She made a huge pilgrimage, building churches as she traveled through Europe, what’s now Turkey and the Middle East, until she arrives in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

The church she built in Bethlehem is unlike any other. She picked the spot because the Roman bishop of Caesarea took her there, and the locals pointed out the spot that had, for the previous 200 years, been where pilgrims had celebrated. She saw this little cave and this ceramic manger or trough where people worshipped Christ. She wasn’t inventing the mythology. She was celebrating a site that already existed.

The church she built is unlike any other. She basically burrowed into the cave, opened up the top of it, put a roof on and built a rotunda with a balcony, so you could look down into the cave. It was St. Helena who created the famous little town of Bethlehem. She put the place on the map as the center of pilgrimage. She was followed by other very wealthy Roman women, the most prominent among them being St. Paula.

Sadly, the church she built doesn’t exist anymore. The Samaritans burnt it down in a revolt. Two churches following the same design also no longer exist. But the cave does, though it’s changed.

Bethlehem is today a hostage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You had a frontline view when you worked with paramedics in Bethlehem during the intifada. Tell us about that experience—and how it shaped your view of the conflict.

In late 2001, the violence between Israel and Palestine escalated. In the course of it, the Israelis fired a missile at the building opposite my wife’s house. My mother-in-law, who was by then a widow, was living there. And the building opposite her house was blown up and the roof ripped off our house. We were panicky about how she was coping, so we went there at the earliest opportunity and began living in Leila’s home in Bethlehem in 2002.

Things got worse and worse. On the Monday after Easter Sunday 2002, the Israelis invaded, under Ariel Sharon, and occupied all of the cities of the West Bank, including Bethlehem. We were in the house as helicopters flew overhead, all very scared. The Israeli army eventually moved into the old souk area and surrounded the Church of the Nativity.

I was working with paramedics. There was an idea that ambulances would be able to drive around in the curfew if there were Europeans with them. By that point I felt very Palestinian. There was an attempt by militants to meet Israeli violence with violence but Palestinian cities got hammered. For ten years after the second intifada, in 2001, tourism to Bethlehem struggled, although today the number of visitors has increased again. To live through that, you feel you are living as one of the defeated.

The reclusive street artist Banksy recently opened a venue in Bethlehem called the Walled Off Hotel. What’s that all about?

The reason Israel has been so interested in Bethlehem is the same reason everyone’s always been interested in it; the aquifer is still one of the main sources of water for Israel. In 1967, the Israelis took control of a pumping station near Kfar Etzion in the Bethlehem governorate, which later became the site of a settlement and today dispenses water to the Palestinians in the Hebron and Bethlehem area. Now there are 42 settlements surrounding the town. Between the settlements and Bethlehem there is a settler ring road; and between that and Bethlehem there’s a wall. It is an open-air prison. There’s no other way to describe it.

Banksy arrived in about 2006. We were there over Christmas, and people started saying that an English graffiti artist was here. I’d heard of Banksy but discounted it. Then I realized there were Banksy paintings springing up all over town. He’s maintained his interest in Bethlehem ever since, which culminated in him creating what he’s called the Walled Off Hotel (a pun on the famous Waldorf Hotel) not far from the check point into Bethlehem, in a house that’s about 12 feet from the wall where it circles Rachel’s Tomb.

There’s mixed feelings in Bethlehem about it. People wonder if he’s making money out of it or self-publicizing it. Other people feel that he’s drawing attention to the wall. Overall, there’s a sense that Banksy’s done something funny. Palestinians have a great sense of humor.

You suggest Bethlehem may need another “miracle” if it is to survive. Explain what you mean—and how you see the future for Bethlehem.

Throughout its history, surprising things have happened. It’s not just the place where Christ was born, it’s the place where the earliest sculpture of people making love was created, and where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered. In the early 20th century it became a home to Armenians and Syriacs fleeing from the holocaust that came with the birth of the Turkish state. In 1948, it became home to Palestinians fleeing the creation of the Israeli state.

It’s always been a town that’s welcomed not only pilgrims and traders but refugees. Each wave has changed the town dramatically but the town itself has survived. Today, there are equal numbers of Israelis and Palestinians, and the Palestinians are never going to go away.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Clarification: This interview has been updated to more accurately reflect the source of some of the area's water, levels of tourism in Bethlehem in the years following 2001, and the number of settlements around Bethlehem, as counted by the author.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at simonworrallauthor.com.

Bethlehem by Nicholas Blincoe is published by Constable.