For more than 17 centuries, Christian pilgrims have flocked to the city of Bethlehem to see the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Though it’s only 8km (5 miles) south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem is in the West Bank, that political tinderbox torn between Israel and Palestine, so I’d opt for a guided day trip from Jerusalem. Let a tour guide sort out the hassles so you can focus on sorting out Jesus’ humble birth from the chaos of busy, modern Bethlehem.
Join the faithful crowds at Manger Square, site of the ancient Church of the Nativity. Built in A . D . 326 by the Roman emperor Constantine, it was rebuilt 200 years later by Emperor Justinian and again by 12th-century Crusaders (blame them for its fortresslike facade). Point out to the kids the different priests walking about, all protecting their sects’ claim to this sacred site—Franciscan priests in brown robes, Armenians in purple and cream-colored robes, and bearded Greeks in black robes with long hair tied into a bun. After being fought over for centuries, it’s no surprise the church looks clunky and dilapidated. The stately Corinthian pillars that line the basilica’s naves bear faded paintings of apostles, bishops, saints, and kings; gilded lamps hang from the oak ceiling, and trapdoors in the stone-and-wood floor give mere glimpses of old Byzantine mosaic glories beneath.
On either side of the ornate gold-andsilver main altar, narrow staircases lead down to a marble grotto, draped in tapestries. Ancient tradition claims Mary gave birth to Jesus in this shallow cave, as was the custom of those times; altars mark nearby spots where the manger stood and where the Magi bowed to the baby Jesus. Historically accurate or not, after centuries of adoration this hushed grotto is full of spiritual aura. For a more authenticlooking relic, go to the grand Franciscan church just north of the Church of the Nativity; a stair from the back of its nave leads to an underground maze of rockhewn rooms and chambers that supposedly includes the stable where Joseph and Mary stayed the night of Jesus’ birth.
Your group may also take a 2-hour walk to the Shepherds’ Fields, where tradition says angels proclaimed Jesus’ birth to simple shepherds. There are two competing Shepherds’ Fields, one Roman Catholic and the other Greek Orthodox—whichever you visit, you’ll see real shepherds still tending their flocks on this rocky landscape. And that makes the story come real.