Church of the Nativity

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Things to do


Date of travel

October, 2013

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Recently hearing about the Vatican returning Jesus ‘crib fragment’ to the Church of The Nativity, reminded me of our visit some time back.

The basilica is the oldest complete church in the Christian world and was built by emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It replaced Constantine the Great’s original church which was said to have been built over the cave venerated as Christ’s birthplace, dedicated in AD 339.

I remember it being somewhat dark inside but restoration has been going on for some time. A temporary roof was installed to allow the restoration of the ancient roof system. Ancient wood from Italy was brought in to replace the decaying sections of the joists. In restoring, the aim was to retain as many of the original materials as possible.
External walls and internal plaster work had been badly affected by the rain and humidity.

As you enter the church you have to stoop low. The only doorway (the Door of Humility),in this fortress-like front wall is just 1.2 metres high. Interestingly, the previous entrance to the church was lowered around the year 1500 to stop looters from driving their carts in and even forced important visitors to dismount from their horses as they entered the holy place.

Prior to Constantine, the first Christian emperor, the Romans had tried to wipe out the memory of the cave by planting a grove dedicated to the pagan god Adonis

Thirty of the nave’s 44 columns have Crusader paintings of saints and the Virgin and Child, although they are difficult to see because of age and lighting conditions.
The columns themselves are made of pink, polished limestone.

Fragments of wall mosaics date back to the 1160s and they decorate both sides of the nave.

Trap doors in the floor show sections of floor mosaics surviving from the original basilica. The mosaics feature complex geometric designs with birds, flowers and vine patterns. Similar doors in the north transept protect another 4th-century mosaic that shows the Constantinian apse was octagonal and these are sometimes opened upon request.

An octagonal baptismal font, dating from the 6th century can be seen in the south aisle and once stood near the high altar. An inscription reads, “For remembrance, rest and remission of sins of those whose names the Lord knows.”

Archaeologists discovered an octagonal bed of exactly the same dimensions over a cistern near the altar which provided the water. Legends emerged after the font was moved in the Crusader renovation. It was said it was the well into which the star of the Magi fell; the well where the Magi watered their horses; or, the well to which David’s three heroes came.

The Grotto of the Nativity Church, is a rectangular cavern beneath the church – and the focal point. You go down a flight of steps by the church altar into the cave that has been honored as the site of Christ’s birth since at least the 2nd century. There are usually long queues waiting to go in so you have to patient!

As you get closer, you will see a silver star in the floor marks – the spot where Christ is believed to have been born. The star’s Latin inscription reads, “Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ was born — 1717.” The floor is paved in marble, and there are 15 lamps hanging above the star (six belonging to the Greeks, five to the Armenians and four to the Latins).

Other furnishings date from after the fire in 1869, except for the bronze gates at the north and south entrances to the Grotto. These are from Justinian’s 6th-century church.

As you step away from the birthplace shrine you see the Chapel of the Manger, owned by the Roman Catholics.

Visited by thousands of visitors, this is certainly a place to be on your list if in Bethlehem or nearby.

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