Where Jesus was born - the stable, the manger, the wise men, the animals, the innkeeper. We sing about it at Christmas with nostalgic nativity plays and carol services, but there is a real place one can also visit.
In the heart of Bethlehem lies Manger Square, and an enormous church complex including an Orthodox Church over 'x marks the spot', and an adjoining Catholic Church of St Catherine attached by a Franciscan cloister.
Originally commissioned by the emperor Constantine in AD 327, the church has been destroyed and remodelled a number of times, and close inspection will show you the layers of architectural history. You enter the Orthodox church through a narrow doorway, a crusader entrance made smaller so that visitors must stoop and demonstrate their humility. The main part of the building is relatively bare, with remnants of impressive wall decorations giving a glimpse of how splendid it had been.
At the far end is an Orthodox sanctuary, with all the lamps and gilding you might expect. Under the altar area is a grotto with a silver star in it marking the spot where Jesus is supposed to have been born. Entry is from one side only, with guards ensuring that you process through and do not dally for too long. Queues can be over an hour long, particularly on a Sunday when the cave is regularly closed for pre-booked Masses.
We traditionally say that Jesus was born in a stable. The Greek word used by Luke (2:7) is kataluma, which is also used at Mark 14:14 and Luke 22:11 to describe the room where Jesus held the Last Supper. In the Bible, this start and end of Jesus' life are marked by place, but in our modern retellings, they are very different. Visiting Bethlehem itself helps to put it all into context. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, whether you're Christian or not, this is an important and awesome place to visit.
Bethlehem is about half an hour on the bus from Jerusalem. You can get there using Israeli or Arabic buses, and have to pass through the checkpoint. On your way back there is some sense in taking a taxi to the checkpoint and walking through in order to pick up a local bus and avoid long bus searches.
The bus stops on the outskirts of Bethlehem, about 1km from Manger Square. Taxi drivers will hover around the bus stop to ferry you in, but it is also a straightforward walk. Manger Square is quiet in the early morning but absolutely blocked with cars during the main part of the day, particularly on a Sunday. Mass times are easily available here and make a good way to pay homage to the site.