The Library of Congress has recently digitalized a collection of over 10,000 photographs, taken by the "American Colony" in Jerusalem, a group of Christian utopians who lived in Jerusalem between 1881 and the 1940s. The photographers returned to the US, and bequeathed their massive collection to the Library of Congress in 1978. The collection includes Winston Churchill's visit to Jerusalem, Jewish expulsions from the Old City during Arab riots, and the building of Tel Aviv.

The town of Bethlehem plays a major role in the Christian faith. There, Christians believe, Jesus was born some 2,000 years ago, and they celebrate his birth on Christmas.

But when is Christmas?

Bethlehem hosts Christmas services for Roman Catholic and Protestant denominations on December 25.  Coptic, Greek and Syrian Catholics will celebrate in the Church of the Nativity on January 6, and the Armenian Orthodox on January 19.

The photographs on this page were taken by the American Colony Photographic Department before and after World War I when the British captured Palestine after 400 years of Ottoman rule.

The name "Bethlehem" is derived from the Hebrew "Beit Lechem -- House of Bread," and its fields of grain are mentioned in the Book of Ruth as where Ruth gleaned her wheat for her mother-in-law Naomi and where she met her eventual husband, Boaz.  According to the Bible, Ruth's great-grandson David was born in Bethlehem where he was anointed as king.

The Church of the Nativity was built in 339 CE by King Constantine and his mother, Helena, over the grotto believed to have been the site of Jesus' birth. 

Throughout history the Church was destroyed and/or rebuilt by various conquering armies -- the Samaritans, Persians, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamluks, Ottomans and British.

In 1948, Bethlehem was conquered again, this time by the Jordanian Legion.  Jordan ruled Bethlehem and the West Bank until 1967 when the territory was captured by Israel. In 1995, under the terms of the Oslo Accords, Israel transferred Bethlehem to the Palestinian Authority.

Bethlehem was traditionally a Christian town, built around the basilica, and tourism was the most important industry.  In recent years, however, the proportion of Christians in Bethlehem has dropped from 85 percent in 1948 to 54 percent in 1967, and now to about 40 percent.  Some analysts point to tensions between resurgent and aggressive Islamists and the Christian community, a phenomenon pressuring other Christian communities across the Middle East, with the exception of Israel.

More photos can be viewed at http://www.israeldailypicture.com

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