Consider it an early holiday gift for Bethlehem: The Church of the Nativity has achieved World Heritage status. After decades of dispute, the news signals glad tidings for at least one group — preservationists.
Dating to 339, and built over the site where many believe Jesus was born, the mosaic-floored church also landed on the “World Heritage in Danger” list, the neglect of its leaky roof a testament to its position at the crossroads of West Bank strife.
Six miles south of Jerusalem, Bethlehem’s twisting streets are hemmed by razor wire and entered through Israeli checkpoints. Yet travelers can move freely along the area’s pilgrimage route, which also includes Shepherd’s Field, where the Bible says angels extolled the babe’s birth.
Armenian, Greek Orthodox, and Roman Catholic communities share the sacred grotto for incense-wreathed services. At Manger Square, a Christmas tree towers near a mosque (the city is now mostly Muslim), and shops sell biblical olive woodcarvings, says Suzan Sahori of the Bethlehem Fair Trade Artisans. “For centuries, woodcarvers have offered a bit of holiness to take home.”
This story, written by Lori Erickson, appeared in the December 2012/January 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveler.