The Church of the Nativity is a church located in the city of Bethlehem. The church, which was first built in the 4th century; is one of the oldest churches in the Christian world. It was erected; according to Christian tradition, above the cave where Jesus was born. In 2012, the church was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the first site within the Palestinian Authority.
Church of the Nativity History
So the New Testament itself does not mention a cave as the birthplace of Jesus, but only a manger. In fact, the Cave of the Nativity of Jesus in Bethlehem; is first mentioned in Scripture by Origen, a Christian scholar; in the middle of the 3rd century CE. Also, Eusebius of Caesarea also mentions the cave in his composition “The Life of Constantine” and the church in his composition “Onomasticon”. Christian traditions reflected in the writings of Hieronymus claim that the place served as a place of worship for the gods Jupiter; Venus, and Adonis. In fact, traditions of this kind also appear around the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher as well.
The Construction of the Very First Church
The first church was established at the site following the Conference of Nicaea. Directed by the Bishop of the city of Jerusalem, in 325; and under the direction of Helena, the mother of the Roman emperor Constantine. The original structure was destroyed in 539 CE during the Samaritan Revolt. And rebuilt a few years later on the orders of Emperor Justinian. Then the Persian invasion of Israel in 614 CE did not damage the structure of the Church of the Nativity. A Letter sent to Emperor Theophilos of Jerusalem in 836; describes the Church’s resistance to the destruction of the Persian conquerors:
“Indeed, Blessed Helena […] established the Great Church [in honor] of the Mother of God [in the city] of the holy and glorious Bethlehem; and on the outer western wall; she mosaiced the birth of Jesus, with the mother of God holding the baby giving life to the breast and the adoration of The magicians are the gift-givers. When the godless Persians founded all the cities in Romania and Syria and burned to ashes the holy city of Jerusalem […] They came to the holy city of Bethlehem; and when they looked at the figures of their countrymen; that is, of the Persian magicians skilled in astronomy; they honored those described as They were alive; and out of admiration and love for their ancestors; they left the church unharmed and without any damage”
The Church of Nativity Under the Ottoman Rule
During the Ottoman rule, control of the Church of the Nativity; as well as other holy places in the Land of Israel, was a source of constant friction between the various churches. Especially between the Catholic Church; which was supported by Western European countries and France; and the Greek Orthodox Church; supported by Russia. So the Ottoman government was repeatedly required to intervene repeatedly in these matters. In 1672, the synod of Jerusalem convened at the site; headed by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Dositheos II of Jerusalem; who established the tenets of the Greek Orthodox Church. In 1757, Sultan Mustafa III transferred control of the Church of the Nativity from the Catholics to the Greek-Orthodox; allowing the Catholics to pray there only.
.The Silver Star is Stolen from the Crypt
In 1847 the silver star was stolen by Catholic pilgrims in the 18th century from the Cave of the Nativity. On it, was written in Latin “Here the Christian Jesus was born to the Virgin Mary”. Moreover, the incident led to an exchange of accusations between Catholics and Greeks-Orthodox; which developed into a renewed dispute over control of the church; and other Christian holy places in the country that complicated the Ottoman authorities with conflicting promises to the French and Russians.
In February 1852 they granted the French the status quo declaration that the situation would be restored to that which prevailed before 1757; and towards Christmas that year the Sultan donated a renewed silver star placed in place by the Latin Patriarch. The resentment of the Russians over the conduct of the Ottoman government on the issue was one of the reasons for the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853.
The Structure of the Church
The centerpiece of the Nativity complex is the Grotto of the Nativity. In other words, a cave that enshrines the site where Jesus is said to have been born. So the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem was built as a basilica with five aisles formed by Corinthian columns and an apse in the eastern end containing the sanctuary.
In the past adjacent to the basilica was erected a large octagonal structure built around the Nativity Cave of Christ. Such a type of construction, which combines a basilica structure with a central structure; also appears in the building of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. To enter the Basilica is through a very low door called the “Door of Humility”.
So this unique architecture, which developed in the Holy Land was meant for pilgrim churches; allowing the church to serve both as a church meant for a large crowd of pilgrims seeking to approach the cave. Alongside the traditional liturgy of Christian worship. In the time of Justinian I; the structure of the church was fundamentally different. and in place of the combined structure, a large transept and apse were erected and the Cave of the Nativity was incorporated into the basilica itself. During the Crusader period, another church building was built near the Church of Nativity, called St. Catherine’s Church.
The Church’s Interior
The Church of the Nativity interior is quite plain but that is what makes it so special! the walls display ancient mosaics; or the least what is left from them since a large part was lost. Now the original Roman floor is today covered with flagstones. But there is a little opening on the floor which allows you can to see some of the original mosaic pavement from the Constantine basilica.
Moreover, there are 44 columns separating the aisles from each other and from the nave. On some of which are painted with images of saints; such as the Irish monk St. Cathal, the patron of Sicilian Normans; St. Canute (c.1042 – 1086), King of Denmark and St. Olaf (995-1030), King of Norway. The east end of the church consists of a raised chancel; closed by an apse containing the main altar and separated from the chancel by a large gilded iconostasis.
On my guided tours of Bethlehem, a stop at the Church of Nativity is a must! So don’t think about it too much and book a private tour as soon as possible. So this way, you will get the best prices!