Many ancient cities have vanished. We read about them in history books without giving much thought to how the world could have been different had they stayed with us. In this instance, the subject is Bethlehem, a city that is vanishing in front of our eyes. Does it matter?
This is the question I have been asking myself since Christmas 2004, when I embarked on a film that was meant to chronicle the changes taking place in my hometown. Israel had just started building a wall that today confines Bethlehem to less than 13 per cent of its original territory, a development that threatens to drive out all of its Christian population.
I have always known that Bethlehem is a unique place but it was always difficult to put it into words. Despite its global fame, no one has tried to tell the story of my town beyond the stereotypes of the Nativity or the brutality of military occupation. Yet Bethlehem does have another story, and understanding it is key to a meaningful engagement with the politics of the Middle East.
A wealthy town with a global outlook
It wasn’t until very recently that I discovered an account that supports my long-held belief about Bethlehem’s unusual pedigree. The study was carried out by a British historian called Jacob Norris. His research reveals an extraordinary tale of a humble town going global, not just because of its biblical brand but also because of the initiative and acumen displayed by its inhabitants.
Close to Jerusalem, yet tucked away from the direct pressures of the Ottoman administration that ruled Palestine from 1516 to 1917, Bethlehem was able to forge an identity of its own aided by the Franciscan monks whose mission in Bethlehem, as in other parts of Palestine, was to guard the Christian holy sites. Sensing the fragile nature of their welcome in a region ruled by a Muslim caliphate, the Franciscans sought to strengthen their presence in the Holy Land by forging closer links with Bethlehem’s native Christian community. They opened schools and started workshops where they produced artefacts branded “Made in the Holy Land” – and Christian Europe could not get enough.
At first, the main beneficiaries of this growing industry were the Franciscans themselves. But as early as the 18th century, Bethlehemites would go above the heads of the Franciscans to forge their own trade routes, travelling and establishing offices as far away as Kiev, America and the Philippines. They turned their trade into a multimillion dollar industry that would bring Bethlehem enormous wealth and, more importantly, a global outlook.
A model of coexistence
Now, looking back at the 1970s, the time that I was growing up, I recognise the privileges we enjoyed: the privilege of wealth; the privilege of an excellent education, which was almost universal in Bethlehem; and, more importantly, the privilege of an easy attitude towards difference.
Bethlehem was diverse not just because it was a top address for Christian missionaries and pilgrims throughout the ages, but because its own population was a blend of Christians and Muslims who have made a happy marriage in a city where they could share the spiritual space as well as the wealth that came with it. Muslims venerate Jesus as a prophet, and pilgrimage to the Nativity church has always been common among the Muslims of Palestine.
Bethlehem today: the impact of occupation
Today, 47 years after the Israeli occupation of the town, the picture in Bethlehem is very different. The isolation of the city and the economic hardship brought about by the wall and the expansion of Israeli settlements means that the vast majority of Bethlehem’s original population have now left their hometown believing that it could no longer offer them a future. Many have lost their hard-earned, privately owned lands to settlements which now number 40. The wall has confiscated most of Bethlehem’s agricultural fields and landmarks, leaving no space for the city to expand or even build basic amenities. The vast majority of those who have left the town, like my own family, are Christian. They constituted most of the wealthy urban population, having been better positioned to benefit from the tourist trade.
Many international agencies, including the UN, now speak with alarm about the changing face of Bethlehem. Having worked on my film for the past ten years, I have documented these changes with much sadness, amassing an archive that tells the story of this loss. The most striking experience, I find, is the role of Western countries. Millions of dollars are being spent today in the Middle East to establish democratic institutions that may or may not succeed. But very little endeavour is made to preserve model cities, the vibrant and real democratic institutions, finely moulded through centuries of experience and tested formulas.
Bethlehem is one such an institution and it needs international attention.
Leila Sansour is a filmmaker and the founder and Executive Director of Open Bethlehem, a non-governmental foundation established to promote and protect the life and heritage of the city of Bethlehem. Her latest film, Open Bethlehem, will be released in the UK ahead of Christmas 2014.
All photographs published by permission of Planet Bethlehem, with thanks to Sari Khoury and the Centre for Cultural Heritage Preservation. They were gathered as part of the Open Bethlehem multimedia project.
Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Elders or The Elders Foundation.