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The Old City of Bethlehem


Bethlehem’s historic centre stretches in a North-South axis on top of a ridge that overlooks the Jerusalem hills to the north and the Shepherd’s field to the east. References to the city date it back to the Canaanite period but it is Queen Helena’s identification of the birthplace of Jesus, on the very spot where stands the Nativity Church, that gave the city its stature. Around five thousand people live in the historic centre, which still reflects the morphology of its Ottoman heritage: narrow streets and alleyways, dense clusters of white stone structures, narrow arched windows and the occasional qantara (arch) that straddles pathways and axis to housing clusters. From a distance, the skyline delineates a display of towers, belfries, domes, spires, and the occasional red-tiled roof of a monastery or convent, added in the latter part of the 19th century when the town witnessed an economic and building boom. In the years preceding the dawn of the 3rd millennium, development of the historic centre became a priority for the newly established Palestinian Authority, and UNESCO was invited to assess the physical and architectural situation of the old core and present a plan of action that would lift up Bethlehem in the run-up to the Millennium. Since then, the infrastructure of the city has been renovated, old buildings rehabilitated and a new breath given to the cultural life. Since 2014, the Patriarch’s Route and the Nativity Church are on the UNESCO’s List of World Heritage Sites, confirming the city’s historic status in the world. Quarters of Bethlehem Bethlehem's historic “Residential Quarters” (Harat) started taking shape in the 16th Century; they reflect the city’s social fabric and the organization of the community along the clan system, which gave every quarter its name. While this system has somewhat weakened, many of the practices associated with it are still very much alive and they represent Bethlehem’s living heritage. The life of the quarters revolved around the Nativity Church, which was the epicenter of the urban development of the city. The history of their evolution reflects the intermingling that marked the peoples of the region. It is believed that Harat al-Najajreh, located west of Manger Square and considered the oldest, was the first to have emerged. Based on accounts of oral tradition, the Najajreh are descendants of the Ghassanites who were the first Christian tribes of the region and came from Najran, which was located in modern day Northern Yemen. They formed a coalition with another group of families, the Ghathabreh, who had come to Bethlehem from Greece in early Christian times. One can relate similar fascinating stories about the other seven clans who constitute Bethlehem’s autochthonous community. The Farahiyeh, whose quarter is located northwest of Manger Square along Star Street, are believed to have earned their name from the Christian Patriarch Farah (Joy), who like the Najajreh was a descendant of the first Christian tribes. The Farahiyeh are believed to have come from Wadi Musa on the eastern side of the Jordan River. With the coming of the Crusades, a third Quarter just north of Manger Square was established, Harat al-Tarajmeh (or Quarter of the Translators). It was named after the Italian founders (almost all men) who had married Arab Christian women and had worked as translators for the Franciscan priests and the pilgrims. During the Ottoman Period in the early 16th Century, three additional "tribes" established Quarters in Bethlehem. A tribe from Antar (the brave) near Herodium established Harat al-Anatreh just south of Manger Square; Al Qawawseh tribe, who were named after a tall man known for his shiny suit and red fez, who carried a sword and a stick made from metal; and the third, al-Hraizat, came from a village south of Jerusalem called Um Tuba. In 1780, the first Muslim Quarter was established when a group of Muslims from nearby Faghur, close to Solomon’s Pools, joined hands with the Christians of Bethlehem in refusing to pay taxes to the Ottoman Sultan. Harat al-Fawagreh was established on a hill to the west of the city. Then there is the Syrian tribe. Although not considered part of Bethlehem’s historical tribes, most of them came to Bethlehem and settled there before and after World War I.

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