At the summit of Bethlehem's central hill is Manger Square, a cobblestoned plaza fronting the Church of the Nativity. The tallest and most prominent structure here is a mosque. Many of the gift shops are shuttered, relics of a more peaceful time. Tourism is low; religious pilgrims are shuttled in and out by guides—a quick stop at Manger Square, then a speedy departure down the hill and back out through the wall, returning to Jerusalem. Hotels are mostly empty. Few visitors spend the night. Unemployment in Bethlehem, by the mayor's estimate, is 50 percent, and many families are living from meal to meal.
The Church of the Nativity is almost hidden. It looks like a stone fortress, walls several feet thick, with a facade devoid of ornamentation. Perhaps this is why it has survived 14 centuries: Bethlehem is no place for delicate architecture. A spot at the crossroads of the world—the busy intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa—means a perpetual rush hour of invading armies. The church has endured conquests by Persian, Byzantine, Muslim, Crusader, Mamluk, Ottoman, Jordanian, British, and Israeli forces. The entrance, reduced in size over the centuries, perhaps to prevent access by travelers' horses and camels, has shrunk to a miniature hole. You nearly have to fold yourself in half to get through.
The interior of the church, cool and dark, is as spare as the outside; four rows of columns in an open nave lead to the main altar. There are no pews, just a collection of cheap folding chairs. But beneath the altar, down a set of worn limestone steps, is a small cave. In the rural areas of Bethlehem, today as it was 2,000 years ago, grottoes are used as livestock pens. Mangers are carved out of rock. Here, in the bull's-eye of this volatile place, ringed by Jewish settlements,
imprisoned within a wall, encircled by refugee camps, hidden amid a forest of minarets, tucked below the floor of an ancient church, is a silver star. This, it's believed, is where Jesus was born.
Some of the people you meet around Bethlehem quote from the Bible, some recite from the Koran, some chant from the Torah. Some show you their fields, some point to their olive groves; some invoke history, some envision the future. Some pray with knees on the ground, some with foreheads on the ground, some with feet firmly planted but with torsos turning and swaying. Some throw stones and some drive tanks and some wrap themselves with explosives. But when you get right down to it, when you boil away the hatred and the politics and the wars that have shaken the planet, the one thing most people are talking about, when it comes to Bethlehem,
is land. A tiny scrap of land. A wind-scoured,
water-starved, rock-strewn bit of ground.
The Jews got here first. That's what the
rabbi says. Rabbi Menachem Froman lives in the Jewish settlement of Tekoa, perched on a mesa, a clean collection of bleached stone houses capped with red-tiled roofs, double strollers parked on several porches. Fifteen hundred people live here. From the north side of Tekoa, Froman can view all of Bethlehem; the Muslim call to prayer drifts over the settlement five times a day, steady as a train schedule. To the south are the bald brown knolls of the Judaean wilderness, where Jesus is thought to have fasted for 40 days, and the deep ravines that tumble down, down, down, falling below sea level—even the terrain here seems to defy reason—and then plunging still, to Earth's lowest point, the Dead Sea.
"This is not just land," says Froman, his long white beard spilling from his chin, unruly as a river rapid. "This is the Holy Land. There's no oil, no gold, no diamonds. It's a desert! But this is God's palace." Froman is 62 years old; he can count back 17 generations of rabbis in his family. He's the 18th. His son is also a rabbi.