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Introducing Bethlehem

Built along ancient footpaths, the little town where Mary and Joseph went for the census and returned with a son is one of the most continuously inhabited places in the world, with residents as far back as the Palaeolithic era. On record the town developed in the 14th century BC as a city-state named after the goddess Beit Lahmu, then donned the Old Testament name Ephrata. Three centuries after the birth of Jesus, the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion with the establishment of the Eastern Orthodox Church. In 638 the city was conquered by Muslims, but a treaty was signed guaranteeing Christians property rights and religious freedom. Bethlehem enjoyed exalted status both domestically and in Europe during the Crusader periods of 1099–1187 and 1228–1244. The city continued to prosper through ups and downs under Mamluk and Turkish rule. In the 19th century the British took an interest in the area while an Eastern European–led Zionist movement began to take hold in Palestine. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire in WWI, Bethlehem bucked under the British Mandate, whose policies included revoking the citizenship of Bethlehemites abroad while granting citizenship to Jews after two years of residency. Today it’s a distinctly Christian town with Muslim and Christian Palestinian Arab residents.

Looking east towards Jordan, the graceful Bethlehem wilderness becomes an arid landscape of dusky sand-blanketed hills. Also called the Judean Desert, this retreat for the eyes has a secret backdrop: beyond the blue haze is a stupendous mountain range in Jordan that only emerges to the view seasonally.