Situated on a hill adjacent to Bethlehem, the city of Beit Jala has existed for thousands of years, and its Christian community is one of the oldest in the world. The name ‘Beit Jala’ comes from Aramaic and means, “Grass Carpet”. Anthropological evidence shows that humans have lived in the Bethlehem area since pre-historical times, even as far back as the Stone Age 200,000 years ago. Little is known about the first permanent dwellings in Beit Jala, but it is likely that the Canaanites settled there about the same time as in neighboring Bethlehem, around 3,000 BC. Beit Jala is thought to be one of several possible locations of the biblical city of Gilo, mentioned in Joshua 15:51 and II Samuel 15:12.
The oldest remaining ruins of a substantial community date to the early Christian period of the 3rd-4th century AD, when monks such as St. Nicolas began to come to the area to be close to the site of Jesus’ birth. The large hill on which Beit Jala is located was a good place to build a monastery, being close to the Nativity site but outside the town of Bethlehem itself. With the help of the few locals who were already living in Beit Jala they built St. Nicolas Monastery, the ruins of which can still be seen beneath St. Nicolas’s Church, as well the very cave in which Nicolas is thought to have lived. With the building of the monastery, the growth of the town accelerated around it and Beit Jala has been continually inhabited by Christians ever since.
The monastery building itself was destroyed and rebuilt several times as Beit Jala weathered many disruptive changes in rule, and the people of Beit Jala experienced several periods or civil strife or persecution. In 529 AD Bethlehem and Beit Jala were sacked during the revolt of Samaritans under Julianus ben Sabar. In 637 the Caliph Umar the Great conquered the entire region, including Jerusalem, but spared Christian and Jewish communities. In 1099 the newly arrived Crusaders replaced the Greek Orthodox Clergy with a Catholic one, but they were expelled by Saladin in 1187.
In 1516 the Ottomans conquered Palestine, and began four centuries of rule over the area. At the height of Ottoman power in the 16th and 17th centuries, Palestinians enjoyed a secure and prosperous life. As the Empire began to stagnate and collapse, however, life under their rule became very difficult. The empire levied huge taxes on the population, and forced conscription upon the population in order to supply troops to the Army. In 1831 Mohammed Ali of Egypt conquered the region and remained in control of it until 1840, when the Turks regained control with help from the British and Austrians. As a result of these social upheavals, large numbers of Palestinians, and particularly from Beit Jala, Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, and Beit Safafa, left the country for South America during the 19th and early 20th century. To this day Chili and Argentina are home to as many as 400,000 Palestinians living in Diaspora, almost all of them from the Bethlehem area.
In return for their help in defeating Mohammed Ali, the Ottomans allowed European churches and organizations to enter Palestine. British Anglicans, Prussian Lutherans, French Catholics, and Russian Orthodox clergy began to establish churches, schools, and hospitals in the Holy Land. The biblical heritage of the Bethlehem area attracted particular attention from the missionaries, and they began to found some of the region’s first modern schools and churches in Beit Jala. Between 1848 and 1900, Beit Jala witnessed the building of two Orthodox churches (St. Nicolas’ and St Mary’s), two Catholic churches (The Church if the Annunciation and Bishara church of the Latin Convent), one Lutheran church (Church of the Reformation), Palestine’s premier Seminary and at the time its most modern school (The Latin Patriarchate), and the Cremisan monastery. At the time, this gave Beit Jala access to the most advanced educational institutions in the country, and contributed towards making Beit Jala one of the first cities to become incorporated as a municipality in all of Palestine in 1912.
After the Ottoman Empire Finally collapsed in 1917, The British ruled Palestine as a Mandate until 1948. Under the mandate, all of Palestine went through significant steps towards modernization with efforts in public health and ending malnutrition, and the building of telegraph and railway communication systems. The British, however, were reluctant to allow local Arab leaders to participate in government, and denied the population representative government. Meanwhile, large numbers of Zionist immigrants continued to settle on the coast, and showed increasing influence on the British administration. Between the world wars, the Jewish population of Palestine increased from one-sixth the total population to one third. Tensions between Jews and Arabs began to rise as the creation of a Jewish State in a majority Arab land became increasing likely. Riots broke out across Palestine, and from 1936-1939 the British lost control of large parts of the country during the ‘Great Arab Revolt.’ In 1947 the British handed the issue to the United Nations, which resolved to partition Palestine into two states. The day before the British Mandate expired on May 15th 1948, Israel declared independence. Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt immediately invaded, and the Palestinian nakba began.
With Israel’s victory in the 1948 war, Beit Jala and Bethlehem came under Jordanian military occupation. The demographics of Beit Jala changed dramatically as a result of the nakba, and again after the 1967 six day war, when the city was flooded with refugees fleeing Israeli troops. Beit Jala took in a significant Muslim minority, and two mosques, the Beit Jala Mosque and the Imam Ahmen bin Hanbol Mosque, were founded.
Following the 1967 war in Israel occupied the West Bank; Israel annexed 3,147 dunums, or 22% of Beit Jala’s land, to form the new borders of Jerusalem. In 1971, Beit Jala had another 3,527 dunums of land (24%) confiscated to form the settlements of Gilo and Har Gilo. These confiscations, combined with the general oppressiveness of the occupation, contributed to the outbreak of the 1st Intifada in 1987.
During the second Intifada, Beit Jala’s high elevation and panoramic views of the area made it an advantageous position from which fighters could fire on the nearby settlements. During Israel’s ‘Operation Defensive Shield’ the fighters retreated into Bethlehem’s church of the Nativity, which Israeli troops laid siege to for five weeks.
Beit Jala is currently home to about 15,670 citizens, the majority of whom are Christian and the rest predominantly Muslim.