Before a certain baby was born there, Bethlehem was famous for its sweet water. Shepherd boys like the young David, king-to-be, herded their flocks into the town and drank from the fountain at the gates.
Water, as well as Jesus Christ, helped shape Bethlehem’s story. Its aqueduct enabled nearby Jerusalem to function and expand as a city and pilgrimage site: every invader from the Seleucids to the Crusaders, the Mamluks, the Ottomans, the British and, in 1967, Israeli forces, has seized control of the water supply in order to take Jerusalem. As a result, Bethlehem was militarised from its early days.
Having lived in Bethlehem for a number of years, Nicholas Blincoe knows the area intimately. His masterful biography traces humankind’s steps from the caves and carvings of the 9th century BCE to the complicated politics of the present day. It brings to life the historical record as well as the dusty, bustling markets, the orchards heavy with fruit, the gardens as previews of paradise, the rows of uniformed school children three abreast in the streets, the ancient churches, vineyards and olive groves (some dating back 5,000 years), the scents of cardamom, pine, spices and lamb fat. And time. ‘Time literally hinges on Bethlehem’: we count forwards and backwards from Christ’s birth, the event that marks the beginning of the Common Era.
Bethlehem enters the literary record around 200 BCE as a place to buy workers, wives and concubines. Being militarised, it was full of slaves; shepherds would have been relatively well off. A number of remarkable women helped develop the town and the church (only to be sidelined by it later). One Roman widow, Paula, rebuilt Bethlehem entirely. Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, was a barmaid in Izmit when she met her future husband, Constantius. Failing to live up to his name, he abandoned her; but she made a career as a single mother to a child born to be king.
As empress she had her own court and mint, and put both to good use with a programme of major works that boosted the failing Roman economy. Helena swept into Palestine with a vast entourage and turned the existing shrine to Christ’s birth into a temple. This became the model for the many churches built by Roman matrons, such as the widow Ikelia’s on the Hebron road where the pregnant Mary was thought to have rested.
Others, like Melania, established pilgrim guesthouses, sponsoring early monks and inspiring monasticism in its most formal sense, a tradition not perhaps followed by her later namesakes.
Crusaders imposed Latin Christianity on the Arabic-speaking churches, replacing Bethlehem’s Palestinian clerics with foreigners. Ottomans found themselves keeping the peace between the different branches of the Christian church, a conflict that continues today, sometimes violently.
Meanwhile, Bethlehem opened up and many Bethlehemites travelled widely, creating an early diaspora and forging strong links abroad. With the decline of Ottoman strength, European powers vied for control over the Holy Land, the British being particularly meddlesome.
Now Bethlehem is encircled. The 24ft concrete wall of the IDF (Israeli Defence Force) blocks its western perimeter. Only 16 years ago this was a simple checkpoint, albeit one that often blocked Palestinian passage, including that of mothers in labour (I was lucky, held up only briefly on my way to give birth at Bethlehem’s Holy Family Hospital). To the south and east the town is barricaded by the Israeli-built double-mesh fence, and to the north lies the desert. Illegal settlements create a further ring around the town.
Blincoe describes an encounter similar to one described by Raja Shehadeh in his book Palestinian Walks. In both cases a chance meeting with a gun-wielding settler is initially frightening but gives way to unexpected friendship. Both authors argue for hope and open-mindedness, and ultimately for peace, examining the desire for authenticity which helps make peace so elusive. Shehadeh’s settler is smoking a joint to enhance his experience of the Holy Land. Blincoe’s settler repeatedly uses the word ‘clean’ as he talks about the view. Both try to filter out the Arab realities, wanting to see only what corresponds to their interpretation of the Bible.
The story of Bethlehem is both source of and challenge to the authenticity sought by visitors, tourists, settlers and academics. The year 2000 was a massive, multi-event deal for the town: the bimillennial Christmas coincided, as the stars would have it, with both Ramadan and Hanukkah. Bethlehem was halfway through 15 months of celebration when the Second Intifada broke out and the IDF imposed a military crackdown, putting paid to all-encompassing displays of religious tolerance.
Blincoe shows how the town is in many ways a model of co-operation and coexistence; this has taken centuries to build, but is fragile and easily undermined. He details the current trials of life in the West Bank, but in an understated way, sparing us the full picture of IDF curfews, night raids, arrest of children, demolitions and the fencing off of land that dominate life for the locals. His account of Bethlehem’s story is a powerful and passionate plea for understanding: ‘The history of Bethlehem and the mythical version have to coexist. They have to live in peace.’