Biography of a Town


By Nicholas Blincoe

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“[Bethlehem] brings within reach 11,000 years of history, centering on the beloved town’s unique place in the world. Blincoe’s love of Bethlehem is compelling, even as he does not shy away from the complexities of its chronicle.” — President Jimmy Carter

Bethlehem is so suffused with history and myth that it feels like an unreal city even to those who call it home. For many, Bethlehem remains the little town at the edge of the desert described in Biblical accounts. Today, the city is hemmed in by a wall and surrounded by forty-one Israeli settlements and hostile settlers and soldiers.

Nicholas Blincoe tells the town’s history through the visceral experience of living there, taking readers through its stone streets and desert wadis, its monasteries, aqueducts, and orchards to show the city from every angle and era. His portrait of Bethlehem sheds light on one of the world’s most intractable political problems, and he maintains that if the long thread winding back to the city’s ancient past is severed, the chances of an end to the Palestine-Israel conflict will be lost with it.



The Christmas Pudding

When I first visited Bethlehem in December 1994, I came carrying a Christmas pudding. It seemed the ideal gift for my girlfriend's parents—especially at Christmas, especially in Bethlehem. Leila's father, Anton Sansour, was a math professor, a small man with a shock of white hair that stood up straight from his head. Raissa, her Russian mother, was slim and poised and icily beautiful. They were the opposites who had attracted and had been inseparable since the day they met at Radio Moscow in the 1960s, where Anton worked in the evenings to support himself while completing his PhD. Bethlehem was Anton's hometown but oddly, so I thought, he had never seen a Christmas pudding. I wasn't sure how to explain it, so I began reading the list of ingredients aloud. He laughed. It turned out that almost everything in the pudding grew in his garden, and the rest had reached the town on the backs of camels, carried through the desert by Arab traders like the gold, frankincense, and myrrh of the Nativity story. The ingredients on the label, minus a few chemicals, are: sultanas, raisins, almonds, apricots, figs, cinnamon, nutmeg, suet, egg, flour, breadcrumbs, glacé cherries, orange and lemon peel, lemon juice, orange oil, lemon oil, molasses, sugar, and cognac.

This isn't a story of cultural appropriation: the idea of boiling dried fruit, sugar, eggs, and flour until it turns into a dark cannonball is definitely a mark of English genius. Nevertheless, the distinctive gooey Yule taste captures something of the essence of Bethlehem, a place where hills filled with fruit trees border the desert, and the ancient Spice Route carried more exotic ingredients up from the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. This clash of cultures—farmers and nomads—shaped Bethlehem and influenced the course of world history. The ingredients in my Christmas pudding reached Europe's pastry chefs in stages, from the most ancient times, through the Roman era and Islamic age, the Crusades and Ottoman rule, to make my pudding a dough-based relic of East–West trade, and of European relations with the Holy Land. It is a piece of history: it is history made pudding.

THE JORDAN RIFT VALLEY was torn open when the Arabian Peninsula pulled away from Africa in the Miocene period, up to twenty-three million years ago. The desert around Bethlehem once sat deep underwater and the edge of the Mediterranean lapped the borders of modern-day Jordan. The soft-sifting waves gradually laid down millions of years of sediment that turned to limestone, before a fierce earthquake forced the layers upward. Palestine rose out of the sea, pushing the waves back to create the present Mediterranean shoreline. Bethlehem lies toward the southern edge of a chain of mountainous hills known as the Judaean Hills and in Arabic as Jibal al-Khalil, the Hebron Mountains or, literally, the Mountains of the Beloved. The hills were formed as the limestone sheets were tilted and concertinaed to create a landscape that is both beautiful and alarming. The entire vista is filled with hills, and hills between hills, until the view looks like the electrocardiogram of a hyperactive heart attack patient.

The Bethlehem muāfaat or governorship ranges between twenty-five hundred and three thousand feet above sea level, though it feels like much more because the Dead Sea is fourteen hundred feet below sea level. The line between the Bethlehem wilderness—El-Bariyah—and the fertile hills is dramatic: the harsh stone suddenly turns into a rich green landscape filled with terraces of olive groves and orchards, carved from the hills in artificial steps that resemble the sides of Aztec pyramids. The underlying geology of the farmland and desert is much the same; the difference is partly the climate—the height of Bethlehem makes for a cooler, more temperate environment—and partly the rich aquifer trapped in the limestone layers beneath Bethlehem, which keeps the fruit trees so lush and resplendent. The line between wilderness and hill farms has shifted backward and forward over the millennia. The climate changed and the desert grew after the Stone Age. But then, little by little, Bethlehem learned to use its water resources to claw some land back from the wilderness.

These are the hills where humans first decided to put down roots and stick in one spot. The first inhabitants were lazy nomads who found they didn't have to travel with the different seasons; they could just turn from desert to hills without stirring from the spot. In the spring, they could graze their flocks in the wilderness, which the rains briefly transformed into rolling, verdant grassland, while they could farm the flat, rich soil of the wadis between the hills. They learned to breed dogs, and then sheep, and began to plant trees. Almonds were probably the first trees to be domesticated, followed by olive trees. The wealth of Bethlehem's villages was built more than thirty-five hundred years ago when olive oil was carried on pack animals to the cities of the Nile, establishing a pack route that runs south along the present-day Hebron Road, through Beersheba to the Sinai and on to Egypt.

The majority of Bethlehem's orchards lie in a series of valleys that arc around the west of the town, moving counterclockwise from the wine-producing Cremisan Monastery in the north, through a valley of apricot trees named al-Makhrour, to the villages of Battir, Wadi Fuqin, and Nahalin. The valley terraces are artfully watered by natural springs that emerge from between the limestone layers. All the types of nuts and dried fruit inside my pudding are grown in these hills: almonds, apricots, figs, grapes—the different harvests coming almost month-by-month from spring to autumn. The picked fruit is laid on sheets to dry in the shade beneath the trees or, better, indoors so the sun does not make the skin turn tough. The English names of the fruit hint at their route to the pastry ovens. Almond is from the Greek amygdala, to which medieval Europeans added an al- prefix because they bought their nuts from Arabs; they assumed the word had Arab roots. The original English word for apricot, abrecock, is a direct transliteration of the Arabic al-barquq. Fig is from the Latin ficus, which derives from an older Canaanite name. Sultana is "queen" in Arabic; raisin comes from the Latin for grape, and currant from the Greek town of Corinth. The names read like a chronology of East-West relations through the ages.

THE SPICES IN A CHRISTMAS PUDDING may not grow in Bethlehem, yet in some ways they are the most distinctively local ingredients. The words "cinnamon" and "cassia" (meaning "peel" and referring to the bark of the cinnamon tree) both come from Canaanite, the language spoken in Palestine and Phoenicia before the advent of the Persian Empire, two thousand five hundred years ago. The oldest varieties of cinnamon are grown in Ethiopia; ginger and cloves come from India; nutmeg is found on a group of mysterious islands whose whereabouts was once a closely guarded secret (spoiler alert: it is the Banda Islands, twelve hundred miles east of Java). Indian sugar molasses was traded as white gummy balls until crystal sugar was refined around the fifth century CE. This is how the crusaders first encountered sugar, which they referred to as sweet salt. The Crusades' chronicler, William of Tyre, recommended it for its health benefits.

The Nabataeans dominated the spice trade for a thousand years; they, along with the Idumaeans (or Edomites), were one of two proto-Arab groups that settled in Palestine before the Persian era. Both groups were semi-nomadic shepherds and livestock breeders. However, as early as 800 BCE, the Nabataeans began to roam much further than rival tribes thanks to a talent for finding, using, and storing water in inhospitable conditions. This laid the basis for an astonishing trading network: the Spice Route. The Nabataeans developed trade routes that stretched southwards to encompass India, Ethiopia, and Yemen and upward to their warehouses on the Bay of Naples in southern Italy.

The Spice Route, in turn, spawned cities founded by allies and rivals of the Nabataeans as way stations, customs houses, and markets. Everyone wanted to profit from the trade. In Palestine, this was not limited to spice, sugar, and incense. The fulcrum of the Nabataeans' commercial empire was the Dead Sea, a kind of natural chemical plant that produces bitumen, potash, fuller's earth, and other noxious elements. Bethlehem straddles an important trade route up from the Dead Sea known as Wadi Khreitoun that ultimately connects the Dead Sea to Jaffa and Gaza. At some point in the first millennium BCE, a new town named Tuqu' was created at the summit of Wadi Khreitoun, marking the point where the wilderness meets civilization. Tuqu' is a barren spot and so an aqueduct had to be scoured through the limestone, up the valley to the freshwater spring at Artas, a small village that might be the oldest in the Bethlehem district.

With the construction of the Tuqu'-Artas aqueduct, the Bethlehem area began to take the shape of an urban center. But it was only with the construction of a far more ambitious aqueduct, under Greek rule around 200 BCE, that the town of Bethlehem was born, making it one of the more recently established towns in the region.

EACH OF THE VILLAGES DOTTED across Bethlehem's hills is nurtured by springs erupting from the the aquifer in the limestone substrata, below. Only Bethlehem itself is dry, relying on water from the spring at Artas. The first of the three reservoirs that now stand above Artas was dug under Greek rule to feed Jerusalem. This Bethlehem-Jerusalem aqueduct follows the contours of a dozen hills from Artas to the great man-made chambers beneath Jerusalem's temple. Along the way, it tunnels under the hill on which the Church of the Nativity stands. The aqueduct brought water to this rocky outcrop for the first time, allowing us to date the town. The aqueduct enabled the creation of a town fountain, and Bethlehem grew around it.

Bethlehem is far younger than the traditional accounts allow. Indeed, the town was founded only around two hundred years before the birth of Christ. Like Tuqu', it began life as a buffer between the desert and farmland. Bethlehem sits on a small, round hill with fine vistas, making it a valuable military redoubt. But it was only the building of the aqueduct that allowed it to become a population center, unlike the older villages with their natural springs.

One of the ways we can date the Bethlehem aqueduct is by its mention in the "Letter of Aristeas," a short document that chronicles the creation of the Bible. Jewish scribes in Alexandria laid the ground work for a single book around the turn of the second century BCE, by shaping and polishing older stories. The letter connects the appearance of the Bible with the construction of the new aqueduct, as the Jewish faith was reshaped around the twin pillars of scripture and pilgrimage. The aqueduct allowed Jerusalem to accommodate the tens of thousands of pilgrims that visited the city each year from Alexandria and across the Middle East.

The Jewish faith has ancient roots in a military cult dedicated to a god named Yehu. The traditional Bible story is that these proto-Jewish warriors travelled to Canaan from Mesopotamia, now Iraq, in the distant past. Historians agree, however, that the new faith emerged in the Iron Age from the wider Canaanite-speaking region, an area that includes much of Syria as well as Israel and Palestine. Jerusalem was just one of many pocket kingdoms established by these proto-Jewish warriors. It was a temple-garrison to Yehu from where they ruled over the surrounding farmers and peasants, and paid tribute in their turn to yet more powerful kings and emperors. The Yehu faith spread as the warriors intermarried with locals, acted as governors and mercenaries for the era's great imperial powers, and gathered converts that cut across borders of language and ethnicity and tribe. When Alexander the Great conquered Palestine in the fourth century BCE, he allied with Yehu forces from Samaria but distrusted Jerusalem. As a result, the city was demilitarized. This had the unintended consequence of boosting the power of the city's priests, which led in turn to the emergence of Jerusalem's temple as a spectacular pilgrim destination, famous for animal sacrifices and the burning of a wealth of Nabataean incense.

Under the rule of its priests, Jerusalem became a boomtown, a place of both sanctity and entertainment. In time, the first Bethlehem-Jerusalem aqueduct proved insufficient for the multitudes of tourists, pilgrims, and newcomers. As Greek rule gave way to Roman, the Jewish King Herod the Great dug new reservoirs above Artas and built a second high-level aqueduct in the Roman style following a direct route north along Bethlehem's Hebron Road to Jerusalem. At the same time, Herod built a new summer palace above Tuqu', which he named Herodion, and renovated the original Tuqu' aqueduct to serve it. This is the Bethlehem that the Holy Family knew, a building site that tied the small town into Jerusalem's infrastructure, to support the grandiose visions of Herod.

Dating Bethlehem to the construction of the Jerusalem aqueduct introduces an ambiguity into the town's name. In the language of Canaan, Bethlehem means "House of Bread," while in Arabic it is "House of Meat." By the time Bethlehem was founded, Canaanite was a language of the distant past and "House of Bread"—Beit Lechem—is an ill-fitting name for the town. Bethlehem is set among water-rich hills at the edge of the desert. It is perfect farmland for orchards, not wheat. Of course, both wheat and barley have been grown in Bethlehem wherever the vertiginous landscape allows, but Palestine's breadbasket lies to the north in Jenin or on the plains of what is now Israel.

A history of Bethlehem should be able to answer the question: Was Christ born in this town? The most compelling evidence in favour is that pilgrims began visiting Bethlehem within a hundred years of his life, perhaps even within living memory of his crucifixion, and certainly close enough to establish a strong collective memory. The counterargument is that the gospel accounts are hard to square with each other and seem designed to establish a connection to the legendary David, the nomadic shepherd boy who rose to become a king. If it is impossible to come down on one side or the other, the Christian Gospels of Matthew and Luke nevertheless display a familiarity with the first-century city of Bethlehem that makes them invaluable historical accounts of the town.

Bethlehem's resources are its water and climate, and its proximity to the wilderness, El-Bariyeh, which bring the nomadic graziers to the town's market. The Gospel stories tell us that Bethlehem was a livestock market: the first people to greet the infant Christ are shepherds. The Bedouin sold their sheep for meat and the wool for processing into yarn. Thanks to Dead Sea chemicals, Bethlehem became a center for a range of icky processes, from cleaning to fulling and dyeing. It is likely that Bethlehem grew up around a sheep market, a fact reflected in the connection to David. The idea that David is a sheep grazier is not peripheral to his story; it is central. The design and construction of Bethlehem as a walled market town with a caravanserai (the biblical "inn") at its edge suggests it was conceived as a secure environment to do business with dangerous outsiders, and no one carried more of a threat to townsfolk than nomadic shepherds. At the time of Christ's birth, the shepherds who knelt before his cradle would have been Bedouin-like figures, either Arabs or proto-Arabs like the Idumeans who lived in the nearby city of Hebron. This connection to sheep and shepherds suggests that the name Bethlehem may be Arabic rather than Canaanite: Beit Lahm, the House of Meat.

Cities and even countries are often named by their visitors rather than by their inhabitants: America owes its name to Italians; Palestine to Greek and Egyptian neighbors who associated the land with the Philistine. It is the people who have to give directions to a place that need to give it a handle, not the people who live there. It is possible, however, that Bethlehem is a homonym of an older Aramaic word, such as Beit Lamra, which does means the House of Lamb. It is certainly the most appropriate of names for an ancient livestock market.

The ambiguity between the House of Bread and the House of Meat is reflected in my Christmas pudding, which contains both flour and grated suet, or rendered kidney fat. Suet has a high melting point and only begins to liquefy when the egg-and-flour batter has come together to bake. As the flecks of suet melt away, they leave air pockets that create a lighter texture, while the warm fat moistens the otherwise dry dough. In a Christmas pudding, at least, meat and flour become indistinguishable.

THE CITRUS PEEL IN MY PUDDING comes from both lemon and oranges. Lemons were developed by crossing bitter oranges with the fleshy "citron" mentioned by Pliny the Elder in his first-century CE Natural History. Though lemons may have reached Rome from India in the first century, the word is Arabic, and lemons only became widespread under Arabic cultivation in the seventh century. Sweet oranges arrived from China around the eleventh century and were introduced into Europe by the Islamic farmers who had colonized Spain and Sicily. The best varieties of oranges and lemons in Palestine grow in Jericho but, at Christmas, the tree in front of the Sansours' kitchen window held small, hard fruit, so unripe I could not tell if they were oranges or lemons when Leila used them as garnish in our Negronis.

The thousand years that separate the appearance of lemons and oranges saw the creation of many of the institutions, both cultural and physical, that define the Palestinian identity. The period divides neatly in two halves: the Roman era, and the Arab era. But even during the Roman age, Palestine already had a growing Arab flavor. Christianity had much to do with this. The first Christian emperor in 204 CE is Philip the Arab, an epithet he chose himself. Other Roman Arabs created Christian mini-kingdoms along what is now the Syrian-Turkish border—notably, at Edessa and Palmyra. In the latter half of the third century, Jerusalem got the first of several Palmyrene Arab bishops.

From the beginning of the Roman era, well into the Christian period, Bethlehem was home to soldiers and slaves. Rome's Tenth Legion was based in Bethlehem in order to guard Jerusalem's fragile water supply and ward off desert raiders. The silent multitudes who produced olive oil and wine were slaves. In a town of soldiers and slaves, the Christian heritage necessarily came from newer arrivals, and here there was a curious alliance between wealthy Roman women and Arab Christians. Both groups valued Bethlehem's proximity to the wilderness as much as its association with Mary and the birth of Christ. Roman heiresses were drawn to Christ's ascetic nature, reflected in the forty days he spent in the wilderness. Christ's triumph over the biological needs of his human form was inspirational to twenty-something divorcees and widows like Constantine's mother Helena and Jerome's sponsor Paula, who wanted to sidestep their biology to pursue the political power that their wealth and privilege could buy. Arabs were also drawn to the accounts of Christ's struggle in the wilderness, but in their case they saw a reflection of their own desert lives, already the focus of much of their poetry and songs. Christ's life in the desert was imitated by the early Arab Christian saints known as boskoi, wild-living hermits.

Roman and Arab influences conjoined in Bethlehem between the fourth and sixth centuries. St. Helena founded the Church of the Nativity, while St. Paula built the town's first monasteries. Arab benefactors and patrons who funded the many monasteries in Bethlehem's desert soon followed them.

The hierarchy of the Roman priesthood is designed to reflect the imperial Roman court with its ascending order of knights, dukes, and kings right up to the emperor. The sixth-century Emperor Justinian made the relation between Constantinople, the city of emperors, with Jerusalem, the city of God, explicit by recasting Palestine as the Holy Land, a term he seems to have invented. The Holy Land may have been a piece of heaven on earth, but it was organized on strict Roman lines with God conceived as the emperor of the skies. In contrast to this Romanized version of Christianity, the Arab desert monasteries represented a more alien and strange version of Christianity, deliberately set apart from this world. This was a fiercer Christianity that adored Christ because he rejected human frailty and found the spiritual strength to triumph over his mortal frame.

CHERRIES AND CITRUS PEEL are turned to candy through an expensive process that originated in Mesopotamia. Candied fruit is still wildly popular in gift shops in Amman, Dubai, and Jedda, and can be far more expensive than rival gifts like chocolate. The fruit is slowly simmered in sugar syrup until the cellulose turns to crystal and the flesh is jellified. These and other complex chemical processes like distillation reached Europe from the Islamic world via Arab merchants and conquerors. In the same period, European pilgrims were introduced to the new sciences as they visited the holy sites.

Roman-Arabs had long represented an important, even elite, class in the Roman Oriens, the Latin term for the Middle East. The term "Arab" only applied to Roman citizens at the time. The similar, tribal people who lived outside the empire were known as Saracens. A series of Saracens became allies, or foederati, of Rome who paid the tribes to guard the empire's desert borders from raiders and the Persian army. These foederati, the Tanukhids, the Salihids, and, finally, the highly trained and fearsome Ghassanids, were all devout Christian. Rather confusingly, the tribes they were paid to fight were often also either Christian or Jewish Arabs. Both faiths had spread through the margins between the Roman and Persian Empire and had deep roots in the Arabian Peninsula. The foederati were supposed to keep to the borders, not interfere with the life of Roman citizens inside the empire. However, when a revolt by the Samaritans in 529 CE led to the destruction of the church in Bethlehem, Justinian handed the Ghassanids responsibility for Palestine. The Samaritans are drawn from a community of Jews who never accepted the centrality of Jerusalem in Jewish life, and in consequence reject the stories of David and Solomon that underpin Jerusalem's preeminence. In the fifth and sixth centuries, the Samaritans were the largest community in Palestine, but they never recovered from this war against the Ghassanids, which saw their men slaughtered and their women and children sold into slavery.

The Ghassanids were defeated in their turn by the Islamic forces. The Battle of Yarmouk in the Ghassanids' stronghold of the Golan in 636 CE allowed the new Muslim forces to enter Palestine without obstruction. Over the next centuries, Palestine was cut off from the Roman Empire and from Roman-style Christianity. The Middle Eastern church evolved on its own course as the Arab Orthodox Church, part of the wider Eastern Orthodox communion, alongside a number of smaller independent Oriental churches, like Palestine's Arabic-speaking Melkite Church. Other Oriental churches developed in Syria and Lebanon, seeding traditions and cultures that strengthened the three countries' separate identities.

The one ingredient in the pudding with no local connection to Palestine is cognac, though the monks at Bethlehem's Cremisan Monastery distill a brandy they choose to call cognac (they also claim to make madeira, Marsala wine, sherry, and port, for that matter). There is a strong connection between the Cognac region and Palestine, however, hinted at in the fact that the science of distillation reached France via the Holy Land. The Cognac region borders Bordeaux and, first, tin merchants and, later, Christian pilgrims would sail from the British Isles to the inlet at Bordeaux, from where they would follow a pack horse route across country to the Rhône and then down river to Marseilles, the Provençal base for all voyages to the Holy Land.

Communications between Northern Europe and Palestine were carried by tin merchants, pilgrims, and also by slavers. Marseilles was a great slave market. However, it was the entrance of the Scandinavians into the slavery market that most decidedly changed the region. One of these Scandinavian tribes—the Normans—grew so familiar with the Middle East that they became the driving force behind the Crusades.

THE DISTINCTIVE SWEET-SPICED taste of a Christmas pudding is found in other Christmas dishes such as the German stollen, or the Provençal "thirteen desserts." The crusaders brought this very specific flavor combination back from Palestine. The flavor is perhaps best showcased in mince pies, which derive from a recipe dating to the time of the First Crusades: a meat confit is slow-cooked in fruit syrup so that the sugar will preserve the meat through winter.

The Crusades came at a time when the old Roman Oriens had split between three regional powers: the Roman Empire with its capital in Constantinople; the Abbasid Caliphate centered on Baghdad; and the Fatimid Caliphate based in Egypt. The buffer zones between these three powers became the door through which a new force arrived: the Seljuk, nomadic Turkish tribes from the remote Asian steppes. A few European mercenaries saw an opportunity for profit and adventure and began fighting in this region, at first on behalf of the Roman Byzantium, then alongside Armenian forces that had established an opportunistic mini-state in the hills behind Antioch. The mercenaries were the Normans who, almost simultaneously with their successful conquest of England, established kingdoms and principalities in Italy from where they staged forays into the Middle East.

The Normans' knowledge of the Syrian borderlands and their friendship with the Armenians gave them the leverage to become the de facto leaders of the Crusades. Better, the Normans also had a strong working idea of how to run Palestine once the fighting had ended. They already ran similar Arab kingdoms in Italy and knew how to govern the kind of ethnic and religious mix they faced in Palestine. In lands from Sicily to Puglia, the Normans retained the Arab civil servants as administrators, minted their own bilingual versions of Arabic currency, and even embraced the Arabs' lemon farming business. The Normans developed close ties and bitter rivalries with the Italian republics: the Venetians, Genoese, Pisans, and Amalfitans, all of whom were trading partners of the Fatimids in Cairo. Throughout the Crusades, the Italians traded with both crusader and Muslim states. After the Crusades were over, Venetian merchants leased land in the old crusader city of Tyre, where they began to manufacture sugar for a European market that had become addicted to the sweet stuff.


  • "[Bethlehem] brings within reach 11,000 years of history, centering on the beloved town's unique place in the world. Blincoe's love of Bethlehem is compelling, even as he does not shy away from the complexities of its chronicle."—President Jimmy Carter
  • "Stories about places, unlike the stories of individuals, tend to be shifty. Yes, some evidence is there but the connecting human threads have to be imagined. In the clever hands of Nicholas Blincoe, Bethlehem emerges as a wholesome 11,000-year-old, ancient yet lucidly defined with a gripping tale to tell about herself and about the entire region. This tale illuminates both the past and the present of the Middle East with countless instances of fantastic achievement and equally terrible human folly."—Yotam Ottolenghi, coauthor of Jerusalem
  • "Blincoe's book is as multifaceted as the city about which he writes. With great skill he accomplishes the daunting task of providing a highly readable account covering the long history of Bethlehem from the Stone Age to modern times. But it is not only a work of scholarship. It's a book by a talented chronicler who lovingly paints the city's many contradictions and bewildering complexity. Highly readable and informative it leaves the reader not only with a profound admiration for this city of extremes and its resilient inhabitants who have endured such hardships but also with a deep lament at the current suffering of the people of Bethlehem."—Raja Shehadeh, author of Where The Line Is Drawn
  • "A lovely personal adventure through the history of Bethlehem from its origins up to the present day. Blincoe captures the continuities and contradictions, the myths and the history of one of the world's most famous towns."—Peter Frankopan, author of Silk Roads
  • "This sensitive and human history of Bethlehem from ancient time to our day is the most original and powerful guide you will ever read about this important city. The book succeeds in fusing together the history of more than a millennium with personal recollections, archaeological and morphological insights, as well [as] wonderfully written descriptions of human and geographical landscapes. Relics and stories of the past are used as entry points for uncovering the various chapters in this holy city's history through personal anecdotes and the most recent scholarship, with constant attention to human suffering and hopes."—Ilan Pappe
  • "Blincoe's remarkable account is stunning in scope and draws on absorbing sources. Interweaving his years of personal familiarity with Bethlehem, he reveals the town as 'the fulcrum of world history.' His gifted writing and nuanced humor makes this a must-read, as he sweeps across millennia."—Mary Elizabeth King, author of A Quiet Revolution
  • "A remarkable and important history with fascinating insights round every corner."—Charlie English, author of The Storied City
  • "An exuberant and erudite journey into the real Bethlehem. Each page leads the reader down new and fascinating tangents of history, cuisine, and personal anecdote, each time somehow finding its way back to Bethlehem and its habit of standing at the center of world affairs."—Jacob Norris, author of Land of Progress: Palestine in the Age of Colonial Development
  • "This is a learned, trenchant and badly-needed history of one of the most famous and symbolically-laden, yet woefully misunderstood, cities on earth. Millions believe they care deeply about Bethlehem without knowing the first thing about its history or lived reality. The next time someone feels like singing about this 'little town,' perhaps they should spend some time with Mr. Blincoe's illuminating book first."—Hussein Ibish, Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington
  • "A history of the town of Bethlehem, both sweeping and personal in scope."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "All will leave these pages with a richer understanding of an iconic city."—Booklist
  • "Blincoe weaves a tapestry of history, geography, and politics that illuminates this most famous of areas, here seen through the eyes of one who knows the place intimately."
    Library Journal, Starred Review
  • "Blincoe's thoroughness is nothing short of impressive... [Bethlehem]offers a biography so vividly imagined that I jumped when my phone buzzed, interrupting my reverie of Nabatean temples... The reward is in the lush prose and personal accounts. Blincoe is a joyful writer, well suited to the task of evoking place with passages...transporting the reader with mouthwatering specificity. ...More than anything, his love for the place leaps off the page; for all its chronicling of incursions and defeat, this is ultimately a book about hope."—New York Times Book Review
  • "That [Blincoe] manages to cover so much with an engaging, even jocular, tone is a credit to [his] writing skill... For readers who want to dig deep into the founding of this little town of legend, [Bethlehem} makes for happy reading."—National Catholic Reporter
  • "Having lived in Bethlehem for a number of years, Nicholas Blincoe knows the area intimately. His masterful biography traces humankind's steps from the caves and carvings of the 9th century BCE to the complicated politics of the present day... A powerful and passionate plea for understanding."—The Spectator
  • "A delightful and informative read."—The Sunderland Echo
  • "Bethlehem is no straightforward account of this extraordinary little town. Part history, part travelogue and memoir, it reads like an extended love letter to a place on the brink... Blincoe gives himself free rein to share memories, travels, interviews and assorted experiences along the way in a highly discursive, frequently amusing, often tragic but always accessible history."—The Guardian

On Sale
Nov 7, 2017
Page Count
288 pages
Bold Type Books

Nicholas Blincoe

About the Author

Nicholas Blincoe is a bestselling, award-winning novelist, playwright, and screenwriter. Married to the Bethlehem filmmaker Leila Sansour, he co-produced two feature-length documentaries on the Palestine-Israel conflict, Jeremy Hardy vs. the Israeli Army and Open Bethlehem. Blincoe has long divided his time between London and Bethlehem.

Learn more about this author