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Hopes and fears of all the years
December 2017 / January 2018

Inside the airlock: A pre-1914 Christian family in Bethlehem under the Ottomans (G. Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection, Library of Congress)

I once met a carpenter who had been born in Bethlehem and lived in Galilee. He did seem a little apologetic about his lack of miracles and inability to come up with catchy parables.

In the Western mind, Bethlehem is irreversibly linked with Christ and our vision of the Holy Land. Mangers. Magi. The Life of Brian. But of course, there’s much more. Bethlehem: Biography of a Town, by Nicholas Blincoe, is a cross between an informal guide book and a history.

Blincoe is best known as a novelist, so you would expect his work to contain some souped-up rhetoric superior to the work of the average historian or hack. He opens with a story of how he took a Christmas pudding to Bethlehem one December as a gift. He manages to extend a witty conceit out of the suet cannonball for 18 pages, taking in East-West relations, Derrida, Jewish mysticism and history (“time literally hinges on Bethlehem, as we count forwards and backwards from Christ’s birth”). It’s a performance that would have had the metaphysical poets standing to applaud.

If it’s hard to unpick the political and economic morass  that is present-day Israel and the West Bank, it’s comforting to know that complexity has always been standard in the region. Almost a suburb of Jerusalem, Bethlehem has attracted attention because of its powerful neighbor (Bethlehem controls Jerusalem’s water supply, so invaders go for it first) and has been caught up in the relentless battles over commerce and ideology in the region.

Married to a Bethlehem native, Blincoe includes a number of personal anecdotes in his chronicle, ranging from his hanging around the British Museum (an unavoidable destination if you’re investigating the ancient past of the Middle East) to his enjoying an ice-cream in the Popemobile.

Blincoe doesn’t stint. He goes all the way back to the geology and the creation of the Jordan Rift valley, some 23 million years ago. There’s a bit of a gap until the next substantial item, the famous Ain Sakhri calcite figurine, some 11,000 years old, that was discovered in a cave near Bethlehem. It depicts two entwined bodies and is possibly the oldest representation of sexual intercourse (or a wrestling trophy).

The role of Bethlehem as a sort of “air-lock” is something Blincoe underlines. It’s a point of contact with the big city, an entry-point for traders and the desert people, or the doorway to the baking voids for those early Christians who had a mania for emulating Christ’s experience in the wilderness.

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