Journey to the Source: Bethlehem

Tony Wheeler follows the 14-point star to a place of pilgrimage – and dispute

On Christmas Eve, all the stars should be lining up to point Holy Land visitors towards that little town of Bethlehem. But where is it? Not much more than five miles from the heart of Jerusalem is one answer. From your Jerusalem city-centre hotel, an Israeli tour bus will zip you there, drop you in Manger Square – a stone's throw from the Church of the Nativity – and you need never know you've crossed one of the world's most contentious borders, and passed through that controversial separation wall that divides Israel from Palestine.

Many Bethlehem visitors never realise their five-mile trip is, by many measures, an international journey. And, although the people of Bethlehem are very happy to welcome the day-trippers, they'd be even happier if they actually stayed in town. International visitors may be pleasantly surprised to find Bethlehem feels perfectly safe, the welcome is warm (a sure sign that visitors are infrequent) and there's a good choice of hotels and restaurants.

The Church of the Nativity is the big attraction. Although its history dates back to the Emperor Constantine in AD 326, his original mosaic floor is topped by a hodgepodge of later additions. Steps lead to the subterranean Grotto of the Nativity. Here a 14-pointed star – much better than a simple X – marks the spot where the holy birth is said to have taken place.

Baby Jesus was then transferred to his crib in the adjacent Chapel of the Manger. The church also serves as a useful simulacrum of the larger dispute over ownership of the region. Here Armenian, Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox clerics squabble endlessly (and from time to time come to blows) over who has the right to manage which bit of the church. The Grotto is particularly bitterly fought over: even the 15 Grotto lanterns are divided out like the spoils of a war.

There's more to see around the town. Start at the Mosque of Omar, facing the Church of the Nativity from the other side of Manger Square. It was Omar who guaranteed the Christian sanctity of the church in AD 637. Down a side street from the square, the Milk Grotto marks the site of another baby Jesus episode, while not far from the centre Shepherds' Field is the most popular locale for that Christmas Carol event. This was where those hard-working shepherds may have been "watching their flocks by night". The attractive little Church of the Angels features murals depicting the Christmas happenings.

To get a feel for the pain the Wall has inflicted on Palestine, Bethlehem visitors should make the trek to Rachel's Tomb. It's a strange example of the Wall's idiosyncrasies. Biblical childbirth and Bethlehem were connected well before the virgin one.

Rachel was the wife of the Old Testament prophet Jacob and died here while giving birth. You can read about it in Genesis. She was revered by Jews, Christians and Muslims. Until five years ago the tomb was a five-minute stroll from Bethlehem's InterContinental Hotel. Then a twisting finger of the Wall wiggled out from the Israeli side and lassoed the tomb. If you want to visit it you can trek along the Wall for a half mile or so, admiring the graffiti-art on the Palestine side. Then you make your way through the cattleshed-like checkpoint to the Israeli side of the Wall.

It's worth doing to get a feel for what Palestinians have to go through to enter Israel, so long as they have the right permit. Next, you walk back in exactly the opposite direction, but on the other side of the wall. Finally you board a bus for the last stretch of the journey. You end up just a stone's throw from where you started, but on the opposite side of that ugly wall.

Travel essentials: Bethlehem

Getting there

* See 48 Hours in Jerusalem, related links.

Staying there

* Bethlehem hotels range from the Jacir Palace InterContinental (00 972 2276 6777;; doubles from US$198/£132) with its fine old mansion frontage and a distinct lack of guests, through an assortment of smaller hotels and guest houses. * The Arab Women's Union El Beit Guesthouse (00 970 2 2775 857; elbeit. org; doubles from US$60/£40) is a friendly bargain near Shepherds' Field in the Beit Sahour suburb.

Eating and drinking

* There's a good selection in Manger Square.

Getting around

* Taxis are easily found in Manger Square, but a little friendly bargaining may be necessary to establish a price.

More information

* If you buy a postcard from one of the Manger Square shops, the Palestinian stamps they sell mean you'll have to post it before crossing back to Israel.