Beit Sahour is the heart of the olive wood carving industry in Palestine. Among its population of about 15,000, the small town that neighbours Bethlehem boasts 135 registered olive wood carving workshops. Bethlehem also houses many workshops, along with Beit Jala to the north.
Historians believe olive wood was first carved in Bethlehem by monks in the fourth century after the construction of the Nativity Church, but it was not until the 16th and 17th centuries that the work was industrialised, as Franciscan and Italian pilgrims reportedly trained artisans in the Bethlehem area. The production and sale of olive wood carvings has since become a notable part of the regional tourism industry.
Despite its long history, the industry today faces many challenges. Tens of thousands of olive trees have been destroyed, uprooted or annexed by Israel’s separation wall and settlement infrastructure, while ongoing political instability has hurt tourism. Still, as Christmas tourists begin to arrive in Bethlehem this month, olive wood carvers are hoping that a difficult year will end well.