Christ's birthplace has changed in 2,000 years, but it isn't hard for pilgrims to imagine its holy past

BETHLEHEM—Nearly 2,000 years after Jesus Christ was born in the sleepy town of Bethlehem, visitors with a sense of adventure and a day or two to spare can get a glimpse of the kind of life Jesus must have lived.

Beyond the tourist shops that line Manger Square, the town of Bethlehem is a living, breathing place with shops, markets, and even a handful of shepherds. Although a great deal has changed during the past two millennia, Bethlehem remains a traditional Middle Eastern town populated by traditional people.

Located just six miles south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem is the point where cultures meet and sometimes collide. It is here, just at the outskirts of the town, where Israel relinquishes control to the Palestinian Authority, which is now in control of virtually all Palestinian towns and cities.

Despite occasional flare-ups between Israelis and Palestinians, who man their respective checkpoints into and out of the town, the journey to Bethelehem is both safe and simple.

Cherished by Christians as the birthplace of Jesus, Bethlehem is also revered by Jews and Muslims. Entering Bethlehem, you pass the tomb of Rachel. According to the Bible, Rachel, the wife of the patriarch Jacob, was buried in Bethlehem after she died in childbirth. Each year, thousands of infertile women flock to the tomb to pray.

The Book of Ruth states that Bethlehem, which means “house of bread” in Hebrew, is the place where Ruth and Boaz fell in love. Ruth's great-grandson, King David, was born in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph—and thus Jesus, in his earthly origins—were descendants of David.

Although the population of Bethlehem and its suburbs is today predominantly Muslim—most of its Christians have emigrated—the town still bears testimony to its rich Christian heritage.

Almost 1,700 years old, the Church of the Nativity is the embodiment of Bethlehem's history. More than anywhere else, it was here that generation upon generation of rulers made their lasting mark.

Originally built by Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine, in the fourth century, the present church was rebuilt by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, and refurbished by the Crusaders 600 years later. Justinian's square doorway and an arched Crusader doorway constructed to protect the Christian community are preserved in the facade.

The building, which is believed to be the oldest standing church in the Holy Land, has, like Christianity itself, survived many conquests. Tradition has it that the Persians, who invaded Palestine in 614, spared the church because a painting they found depicted the Magi dressed as Persians. The Muslims, who arrived soon after, massacred Christians and destroyed their monasteries, but allowed the Church of the Nativity to stand.

The arrival of the Crusaders in 1099 strengthened the beleaguered Christian community, and on Christmas Day 1100, Baldwin, the first king of the Latin kingdom, was crowned in Bethlehem. The situation deteriorated after 1291, when the Crusaders were driven out by the Muslims. Although Christians were able to retain a foothold in the town, their position remained precarious under the Turks, who invaded in 1517. Under Turkish rule, however, the town began to grow and modernize, a process that continued under the rule of the British, the Israelis, and now the Palestinians.

Today, every altar, stone, and wooden beam bears witness to history: Remnants of a fourth-century mosaic floor are sheltered by two long columns of sixth-century pillars, holding up a sturdy oak roof built with funds from England's Edward IV in the 14th century.

Visited year-round, the church and surrounding sites, such as the Milk Grotto (the cave where Mary nursed the infant Jesus) assume an air of anticipation at Christmastime, when tens of thousands of worshipers flock to Bethlehem.

A few weeks before Christmas, the municipality hangs Christmas lights all around Manger Square, and local merchants place large wooden Nativity scenes in front of their shops. The wooden carvings, which have been produced by Bethlehem's Christian families for generations, are exported all over the world. For a demonstration, visit the Holy Land Arts Museum on Milk Grotto Street.

The town, which is always filled with the smells of fresh pita bread and frying falafel balls (fried chick peas), is filled with the wonderful aroma of mahmoul and kakibjuwa, two types of sweet cakes available only at Christmas.

The day before Christmas, the Latin patriarch (local archbishop) travels from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, stopping first at Rachel's Tomb, and then at Manger Square. Joined by the faithful and local leaders, he enters the Church of the Nativity and then proceeds to the Catholic Church of St. Catherine (a wing of the larger church), and to the Grotto of the Nativity down below. At midnight, the patriarch celebrates Christmas Mass in St. Catherine's.

During that day, visitors and locals are treated to folklore shows and the music of visiting choirs. Those who cannot enter the churches—which can accommodate no more than 2,000 worshippers—assemble in Manger Square for midnight Mass, which is broadcast live via loudspeakers.

Anyone wishing to avoid the crowds should follow the example of Bethlehem's local families: go to Mass at 2:00 or 3:00 a.m., when the tour buses have departed.

Christmas Day finds most of the stores closed, enabling the town's large extended families to celebrate the day together. Take the opportunity to stroll through the quiet alleyways and to stare out at the sloping terraced hills that Mary and Joseph once saw.

You may spot “Baba Noel,” the Bethlehem version of Santa Claus, delivering gifts, as is the custom here. And if you are patient, and very lucky, you might even see a shepherd in the distance, herding his flock.

Michele Chabin, the Register's Middle East correspondent, is based in Jerusalem.