How to Tell the Story of Bethlehem
Christmas Pudding in the Holy Land
When I first visited Bethlehem in December 1994, I came carrying a Christmas pudding. It seemed the ideal gift for my girlfriend’s parents—especially at Christmas, especially in Bethlehem. Leila’s father, Anton Sansour, was a math professor, a small man with a shock of white hair that stood up straight from his head. Raissa, her Russian mother, was slim and poised and icily beautiful. They were the opposites who had attracted and had been inseparable since the day they met at Radio Moscow in the 1960s, where Anton worked in the evenings to support himself while completing his PhD. Bethlehem was Anton’s hometown but oddly, so I thought, he had never seen a Christmas pudding. I wasn’t sure how to explain it, so I began reading the list of ingredients aloud. He laughed. It turned out that almost everything in the pudding grew in his garden, and the rest had reached the town on the backs of camels, carried through the desert by Arab traders like the gold, frankincense, and myrrh of the Nativity story. The ingredients on the label, minus a few chemicals, are: sultanas, raisins, almonds, apricots, figs, cinnamon, nutmeg, suet, egg, flour, breadcrumbs, glacé cherries, orange and lemon peel, lemon juice, orange oil, lemon oil, molasses, sugar, and cognac.
This isn’t a story of cultural appropriation: the idea of boiling dried fruit, sugar, eggs, and flour until it turns into a dark cannonball is definitely a mark of English genius. Nevertheless, the distinctive gooey Yule taste captures something of the essence of Bethlehem, a place where hills filled with fruit trees border the desert, and the ancient Spice Route carried ingredients up from the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. This clash of cultures—farmers and nomads—shaped Bethlehem and influenced the course of world history. The ingredients in my Christmas pudding reached Europe’s pastry chefs in stages, from the most ancient times, through the Roman era and Islamic age, the Crusades and Ottoman rule, to make my pudding a dough-based relic of East–West trade, and of European relations with the Holy Land. It is a piece of history: it is history made pudding.
The hills surrounding Bethlehem represent where humans first decided to put down roots. The first inhabitants were nomads who found they didn’t have to travel with the different seasons. In the spring, they could graze their flocks in the wilderness, which the rains briefly transformed into rolling, verdant grassland, while they could farm the flat, rich soil of the wadis between the hills. They learned to breed dogs, and then sheep, and began to plant trees. Almonds were probably the first trees to be domesticated, followed by olive trees. The wealth of Bethlehem’s villages was built more than 3,500 years ago when olive oil was carried on pack animals to the cities of the Nile, establishing a pack route that runs south along the present-day Hebron Road, through Beersheba to the Sinai and on to Egypt.
The majority of Bethlehem’s orchards lie in a series of valleys that arc around the west of the town, moving counterclockwise from the wine-producing Cremisan Monastery in the north, through a valley of apricot trees named al-Makhrour, to the villages of Battir, Wadi Fuqin, and Nahalin. The valley terraces are artfully watered by natural springs that emerge from between the limestone layers. All the types of nuts and dried fruit inside my pudding are grown in these hills: almonds, apricots, figs, grapes—the different harvests coming almost month-by-month from spring to autumn. The picked fruit is laid on sheets to dry in the shade beneath the trees or, better, indoors so the sun does not make the skin turn tough. The English names of the fruit hint at their route to the pastry ovens. Almond is from the Greek amygdala, to which medieval Europeans added an al- prefix because they bought their nuts from Arabs; they assumed the word had Arab roots. The original English word for apricot, abrecock, is a direct transliteration of the Arabic al-barquq. Fig is from the Latin ficus, which derives from an older Canaanite name. Sultana is “queen” in Arabic; raisin comes from the Latin for grape, and currant from the Greek town of Corinth. The names read like a chronology of East-West relations through the ages.
The spices in a Christmas pudding may not grow in Bethlehem, yet in some ways they are the most distinctively local ingredients. The words “cinnamon” and “cassia” (meaning “peel” and referring to the bark of the cinnamon tree) both come from Canaanite, the language spoken in Palestine and Phoenicia before the advent of the Persian Empire, 2,500 years ago. The Nabataeans dominated the spice trade for a thousand years; they, along with the Idumaeans (or Edomites), were one of two proto-Arab groups that settled in Palestine before the Persian era. Both groups were semi-nomadic shepherds and livestock breeders. However, as early as 800 BCE, the Nabataeans began to roam much further than rival tribes thanks to a talent for finding, using, and storing water in inhospitable conditions. This laid the basis for an astonishing trading network: the Spice Route. The Nabataeans developed trade routes that stretched southwards to encompass India, Ethiopia, and Yemen and upward to their warehouses on the Bay of Naples in southern Italy.
The Spice Route, in turn, spawned cities founded by allies and rivals of the Nabataeans as way stations, customs houses, and markets. Everyone wanted to profit from the trade. In Palestine, this was not limited to spice, sugar, and incense. The fulcrum of the Nabataeans’ commercial empire was the Dead Sea, a kind of natural chemical plant that produces bitumen, potash, fuller’s earth, and other noxious elements. Bethlehem straddles an important trade route up from the Dead Sea known as Wadi Khreitoun that ultimately connects the Dead Sea to Jaffa and Gaza. At some point in the first millennium BCE, the Bethlehem area began to take the shape of an urban center after the construction of an early aqueduct. But it was only with the construction of a far more ambitious aqueduct, under Greek rule around 200 BCE, that the town of Bethlehem was born, making it one of the more recently established towns in the region.
Dating Bethlehem to the construction of the Jerusalem aqueduct introduces an ambiguity into the town’s name. In the language of Canaan, Bethlehem means “House of Bread,” while in Arabic it is “House of Meat.” By the time Bethlehem was founded, Canaanite was a language of the distant past and “House of Bread”—Beit Lechem—is an ill-fitting name for the town. Bethlehem is set among water-rich hills at the edge of the desert. It is perfect farmland for orchards, not wheat. Of course, both wheat and barley have been grown in Bethlehem wherever the vertiginous landscape allows, but Palestine’s breadbasket lies to the north in Jenin, or on the plains of what is now Israel.
A history of Bethlehem should be able to answer the question: Was Christ born in this town? The most compelling evidence in favor is that pilgrims began visiting Bethlehem within a hundred years of his life, perhaps even within living memory of his crucifixion, and certainly close enough to establish a strong collective memory. The counterargument is that the gospel accounts are hard to square with each other and seem designed to establish a connection to the legendary David, the nomadic shepherd boy who rose to become a king. If it is impossible to come down on one side or the other, the Christian Gospels of Matthew and Luke nevertheless display a familiarity with the first-century city of Bethlehem that makes them invaluable historical accounts of the town.
Bethlehem’s resources are its water and climate, and its proximity to the wilderness, El-Bariyeh, which bring the nomadic graziers to the town’s market. The Gospel stories tell us that Bethlehem was a livestock market: the first people to greet the infant Christ are shepherds. The Bedouin sold their sheep for meat and the wool for processing into yarn. Thanks to Dead Sea chemicals, Bethlehem became a center for a range of icky processes, from cleaning to fulling and dyeing. It is likely that Bethlehem grew up around a sheep market, a fact reflected in the connection to David. The idea that David is a sheep grazer is not peripheral to his story; it is central. The design and construction of Bethlehem as a walled market town with a caravanserai (the biblical “inn”) at its edge suggests it was conceived as a secure environment to do business with dangerous outsiders, and no one carried more of a threat to townsfolk than nomadic shepherds. At the time of Christ’s birth, the shepherds who knelt before his cradle would have been Bedouin-like figures, either Arabs or proto-Arabs like the Idumeans who lived in the nearby city of Hebron. This connection to sheep and shepherds suggests that the name Bethlehem may be Arabic rather than Canaanite: Beit Lahm, the House of Meat.
The ambiguity between the House of Bread and the House of Meat is reflected in my Christmas pudding, which contains both flour and grated suet, or rendered kidney fat. Suet has a high melting point and only begins to liquefy when the egg-and-flour batter has come together to bake. As the flecks of suet melt away, they leave air pockets that create a lighter texture, while the warm fat moistens the otherwise dry dough. In a Christmas pudding, at least, meat and flour become indistinguishable.
The heavy dough cannonball that forms the essential architecture of a Christmas pudding is based on savory porridges that medieval peasants would cook up by boiling meat and grain in a muslin bag suspended in a cauldron of boiling water. The fruit “figgy” pudding appeared before the 17th century after raisins became widely available in Britain thanks to the fast trading ships of the Levant Company. By the Victorian period, the Christmas pudding had become the centerpiece of the great national holiday, a celebration of family life.
The British have always celebrated the unusual resemblance between their national pudding and a cannonball. A month after Napier’s gunboat diplomacy, the young Queen Victoria celebrated her first Christmas with her husband, Albert. The couple had married the previous February and had their first child eight months later in November 1840. Their first Christmas saw the blending of German and British traditions, with the introduction of the German fir tree. In Palestine, this new Anglo-German friendship led to the creation of a joint Lutheran-Anglican bishopric in Jerusalem, and though the period of cooperation was brief, English and German Protestants substantially reshaped Palestine, supported by a keen audience back home ready to buy books and photographs and paintings, and fund the projects of evangelical missionaries, many of which verged on the lunatic.
The Victorians pioneered biblical archaeology as a theoretical sideline to the broader imperial project. The earliest and most famous book on the archaeology of Palestine was by a churchman: Arthur Stanley, the dean of Westminster. Sinai and Palestine told the story of his pilgrimage over Christmas and New Year, 1852–1853, and was such a huge success that it resulted in the British government establishing the Palestine Exploration Fund (PEF). The surveys carried out by the British army at the behest of the PEF were particularly helpful when Britain invaded Palestine in 1917.
The PEF portrayed itself as a modern, scientific project, but while Dean Stanley enjoyed hobnobbing with Darwinians, biblical archaeology was far closer in spirit to the Creationists than to Darwin-inspired scientists. The aim of the PEF was explicitly to reveal the original biblical “truth” of Palestine. The archaeologists it employed arrived in the country believing they knew what they would find, if they looked hard enough. Every field survey, every trench, every shard of pottery was merely a detour in pursuit of the stories they knew from Sunday school classes. However long the journey, they believed they would eventually get back to the world created by God and given to Abraham, Moses, and David. Western archaeologists came armed with their own ideas of truth, and anything that contradicted their preconceived ideas was overlooked or erased.
The British captured Bethlehem’s reservoirs on December 7, 1917. With the water supplies in British hands, Jerusalem fell four days later. Prime Minister Lloyd George described the capture of Palestine as “a Christmas present for the British people.” The link between cannon and Christmas seemed entirely natural, even at the tail end of the imperial age.
The story of Bethlehem is the story of orchards and shepherds, of farmers and nomads. These are not the kind of things that leave deep marks in the historical record. Inevitably, a history of Bethlehem is a history of the times that swirl around it and of the wider landscape that surrounds it. It’s lucky, of course, that time literally hinges on Bethlehem, as we count forward and backward from Christ’s birth. But there were moments in the research process when I worried that Bethlehem might disappear from view. I had all this material, some sweet, some stodgy, and I wondered if Bethlehem was in danger of disappearing from its own biography. My fears lessened as the work grew.
Focusing on Bethlehem brings a new perspective to a familiar story. It’s just a little hill town at the edge of the desert, yet the air is a great deal clearer. Shades of myth dissolve, and a historical perspective becomes possible. This is a history of the people who lived in Bethlehem from the year dot to the present day. It is a story with far more continuity than anyone might imagine. I have sifted the most current historical thinking, guided by my long love affair with the town and the surrounding countryside.
As I worried away at Bethlehem’s stories, the biblical accounts inevitably began to unravel, but they never went away. They always had a kind of pull, tangled up with the true history of the town. The history of Bethlehem and the mythical version have to coexist. They have to live in peace. Like the saying goes, Bethlehem is not just for Christmas. We all have to live with Palestine and Israel, even if we don’t actually live there.
You can get a lot out of a Christmas pudding. It works as a kind of soft archaeology of fruit, spice, and flour. But first and foremost, it is a symbol of goodwill and fellow-feeling. I know this because a gift card attached to the cellophane wrapper on my pudding reads: Merry Christmas, with peace and goodwill to all.
Excerpted from the introduction to Bethlehem: Biography of a Town by Nicholas Blincoe. Copyright © 2017. Available from Nation Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.