Souvenirs, legacies and a little town called Bethlehem


Craftsmen working with mother of pearl in Bethlehem

The Christmas story is celebrated in carols and nativity plays throughout the Christian world. But following that first Christmas, what happened to Bethlehem, the ancient Palestinian settlement revered as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, and what is life like there today?

University of Sussex historian Dr Jacob Norris offers new insights into the “little town” with a global reputation in the cover story for the December issue of magazine History Today.

Dr Norris’s research into Bethlehem’s (Bayt Lahm in Arabic) shifting fortunes under successive imperial governments  reveals an Arab town that capitalised on and prospered from its associations with the birth of Christianity – and explains how it was able to do so through tolerance and through the special relationship that Arab traders cultivated with the Roman Catholic Church.

Christian worship at the birthplace of Christ (venerated also in Islam)was permitted to survive and thrive after the city was conquered by Umar ibn al-Khattab’s Muslim forces in the 7th century. Umar preserved the Church of the Nativity as a place of Christian worship and built a mosque nearby so that the church would not become an exclusively Muslim shrine. His actions led to a society where Christians and Muslims co-existed side by side as Arabs. The town has since become a melting pot of cultures and faiths, but retains to the present day its Arab identity.

The continuance of the Christian church saw the arrival of the Franciscan friars (whose founder St Francis is reputed to have had a special regard for the story of the nativity) who instilled Roman Catholic orthodoxy through education. A lucrative tourism and souvenir industry ensued.  Arab craftsmen and merchants became international traders dealing in carved olive wood and mother-of-pearl souvenirs produced in Bethlehem. This trade brought great wealth to the town, along with new tastes and ideas from around the world.  

Mosques and churches have co-existed for centuries, while both Christians and Muslims make pilgrimages to the site venerated as the birth of Christ in Manger Square.  Tourism was already established by the 16th century but expanded greatly in the 19th century. One visitor in this period was the American Episcopal priest Philipps Brooks, who in 1865 was inspired to write ‘Oh Little Town of Bethlehem’, one of the staples of carol concerts worldwide.

In the 20th century, European involvement in Palestine entered a new phase. Dr Norris explains: “The Ottoman Empire’s collapse following the First World War saw the western colonial powers (Britain and France) extend their influence in the Middle East. As part of this process Britain pledged support for the Zionist movement in Palestine – a move vehemently resisted by Muslims and Christians in the area. In the ensuing Palestinian national struggle against Zionism and British colonial rule, Bethlehem played a lead role, providing lead figures in the national movement and establishing several new nationalist clubs and societies.”

Today in Bethlehem the Arab-Israeli conflict looms large as the city lies inside the occupied Palestinian West Bank. The huge separation wall that was built around Bethlehem in 2003, several miles inside Palestinian territory, stands as testimony to a modern-day reality far removed from the traditional Christmas card image.

Dr Norris says: ““Having lived and worked in Bethlehem as a PhD student, I became increasingly aware of the city’s fascinating and unique local history – a history that has not yet been told to an international audience.

“Gradually I have managed to uncover a story that is both quintessentially Palestinian and global. Migrant merchants from Bethlehem have been enjoying remarkable success all over the world for at least the past three centuries. The resulting melange of influences in Bethlehem itself upsets many of our assumptions about Middle Eastern society and urban life.”

Dr Norris, a Lecturer in Middle East History at the University of Sussex, is now planning a book on the history of Bethlehem. He is also the author of Land of Progress: Palestine in the Age of Colonial Development, 1905-1948.

Notes for Editors

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Last updated: Thursday, 5 December 2013