Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
Church of the Nativity is the oldest church in the Holy Land still in use, commemorating the birthplace of Jesus Christ (pbuh). Since St. Helena is believed to have built the Church of the Nativity, there are others who believe that it was the Emperor Constantine who ordered the construction of monumental churches to honor the three principal events of Jesus' life.
The construction began in 326 AD, and with the aid of the locals' traditions who believed that the cave in which Jesus Christ (pbuh) was born was at the end of the village, the architects were able to construct the shape of the cave according to architectural and devotional requirements. The cave was encased by an octagonal structure forming the sanctuary of the basilica, which stretched away to the west in five aisles divided by four rows of monolithic columns.
The Church was rich with mosaics, frescoes, marbles, and a silver manger replacing the original clay manger.
The present Church was built during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian. In 529, the Samaritans revolted, and the Church of the Nativity was badly damaged. The Patriarch of Jerusalem sent St. Sabas to Justinian for help, and the architect sent by the Emperor demolished the church and built the current one. New soil covered the mosaic floor built in 326, and a new pavement was laid at a higher level. When the Crusaders came in the 12th Century, they built a cloister and monastery around the north side of the Church.
Yet another restoration project took place between 1165 and 1169, in coordination between the Byzantine Empire and the Frankish Kingdom. The reparations took place all over the Church, covering many of the walls and the floors with marble; mosaic and mother-of-pearl. The cedar wood roof was covered with lead; the Grotto walls were laid with marble and mosaic covered the walls in the Grotto, and the two entrances received their present form.
The facade of the Church of the Nativity is encircled by the high walls of the three convents: the Franciscan on the northeast side, the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Orthodox, on the southeast side. The facade had three doors, two of which are walled up. The present low entrance which leads into the narthex, was made at the beginning of the 16th century, in order to prevent the entrance of horses into the building. The narthex is divided into three compartments, and a single wooden door gives access to the interior.
The Basilica is a rectangle 53.9m long, the nave is 26.2m wide, and the transept is 35.82m. Entering the Church, one can notice 4 rows of pillars, 44 in total, 6 meters high, and made of the white-veined red stone of the country. The white marble capitals are in debased Corinthian style and bear in the center of the abacus a rosette with an ornate Greek cross.
The remnants of the octagonal building which covered the Grotto of the Nativity can still be seen in the Armenian Chapel. The Armenian Altar in the northern transept is known as the Altar of the Kings, due to tradition, that it is the site were the Magi Magdalene dismounted.
In the eastern part, there are pieces of walls and steps which were part of the staircase leading from the center of the Basilica down to the Grotto.
Two doors lead out of the transept: one to the Church of St. Catherine, and the second to the Greek convent. The Church of St. George, on the left, is used by the Anglicans for carol service on Christmas Eve.
Two flights of steps from two sides lead down to the Grotto and meet at the Altar of the Nativity, the site where Jesus (pbuh) is said to have been born. The floor beneath the Altar is incased in white marble, where, fitted into the paving, shines a 14 pointed silver star marking the exact spot surrounded by the Latin inscription: HICDE VIRGINE MARIA JESUS CHRISTUS NATUS EST . 1717 . (Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary). Of the 15 lamps burning around the recess, six belong to the Greeks, 5 to the Armenians and four to the Latins.
The Manger is situated on the north side of the Grotto, and opposite the Manger, an Altar is dedicated to the Wise Men who came to Bethlehem from the East under the guidance of a star bearing gifts to Baby Jesus.
The Grotto is rectangular in shape: length is 12.3m, and the breadth is 3.15m. Light in the Grotto is supplied by 53 lamps, 19 of which belong to the Latins. The floor and walls are covered with nine slabs of marble, and the side walls are covered with fire proof amianthus, which belongs to the Franciscans.
A mouth of a cistern can be seen at the end of the Grotto of the Nativity, and a door leading to a few chapels, the key of which belongs with the Franciscans. It was the Franciscans, who in 1470, dug out this passage in order to have access to the Grotto from the Church of St. Catherine. Excavations done between 1962 and 1964 by Father Farina, a Franciscan, proved that the grottos were occupied between 700 and 787 BC, and occupied again at the time of Christ till the year 333 AD. Father Farina found 35 tombs, and legend has it that Christians desired to be buried next to the holy place where Jesus (pbuh) was born.
The first chapel is dedicated to St. Joseph, in memory of the vision he had when an Angel came to him and told him to take the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus to Egypt to flee Herod's executions. The second chapel is dedicated to the Holy Innocents, the children and infants whose lives were taken by Herod in search of Christ.
Taking a left in the passageway, we find the tomb of St. Eusebius of Cremona, successor of St. Jerome, and superior of the Monastery. The common tombs of Saints Paula and Eustochium are in a room on the left, and opposite these tombs, there is the tomb of St. Jerome, whose remains are now in Rome. The last Chapel is that of St. Jerome, where he lived and worked.
Ascending from the grottos up a staircase, we end up in the Church of St. Catherine, built by the Franciscans in 1882 to replace a smaller medieval chapel of the canons of St. Augustine. St. Catherine of Alexandria is a saint about whom nothing is known before the 8th Century. There are no historical foundations and her personality is a mystery, and yet, on November 25, there is a feast honoring her.
Leaving the Church, there is a cloister that was restored in 1948 and 1949, and is above the remains of the walls of St. Jerome's monastery. To the west of the cloister, there is the cistern of St. Helen, and visitor can see the remains of the Constantinian and Justinian walls. At the south end of the cloister, there is a door that leads to the bell tower and the chapel built by the Crusaders. Leaving the cloister we end up at the Casa Nova, a Franciscan property.