The Church of the Nativity is the most important landmark in Bethlehem and marks the site where the nativity took place. It was in Bethlehem just over 2,000 years ago that Mary gave birth to baby Jesus. Today Bethlehem is a thriving city in the Palestinian Authority West Bank approximately 10 km south of Jerusalem and the Nativity Church is the city’s top attraction.
History of the Church of the Nativity
The Bible tells us that Mary and Joseph left their home in Nazareth and traveled to Bethlehem. The Roman’s had decided to carry out a census and people were required to travel to their ancestral family home to register. As Joseph was from the House of David and Bethlehem was David’s city the couple had no choice but to make the long journey despite Mary being pregnant. During Jesus’ lifetime it was common for homes to be built close to a cave they could use to house their animals. When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem and found no room available in the inn they were offered to spend the night in the adjacent cave with the animals. With no other options, and Mary about to give birth they settled down in the manger. Less than a century after Jesus’ death Christians had identified the site of his birth as a cave in Bethlehem. In the 4th century the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine and his mother Helena commissioned the construction of a church to be built around the sacred cave of the nativity. The church was dedicated in 339 AD. In the 6th century the church suffered fire damage and Emperor Justinian replaced the church with a larger, more ornate one. In 614 the Persians invaded the Holy Land and destroyed most of the churches. Luckily the Nativity Church was spared thanks to a mural in the church depicting the Three Wise Men (Three Magi) who were dressed in Persian apparel of Zoroastrian priests. The Crusaders arrived in the Holy Land in the 12th century and during that time added twin towers which have not survived and murals; traces of which can still be seen. Two Crusader kings were crowned in the church. In the 1600s the invading Turks looted and damaged the church. In 1482 a new roof was paid for by King Edward IV of England. In the 1800s the church suffered damage from earthquakes and was later looted under Ottoman rule for its marble and lead which was melted down to make bullets. In 1847 the Silver Star which marked the site of the nativity was stolen and this sparked an international conflict over control of the Christian sites of the Holy Land as the French, Turkish Ottomans and Rome vied for power. In the end they agreed on shared custody of the Nativity Church between the Armenian Church, Catholics and Greek Orthodox. The Greeks were made custodians of the Grotto of the Nativity. In 2012 the Bethlehem Church of the Nativity was added to UNESCO’s list of Word Heritage Sites.
What to See in the Church of Nativity
As you approach the church entrance you will pass by Manger Square and enter through the Door of Humility. This small and low doorway was designed so that looters could not get their carts into the church. It also means that all those that enter need to bow down as they cross the threshold. The stunning interior has walls covered in gold hued mosaic. The space is divided into five aisles by 44 painted columns. A section of the mosaic floor from the original 4th century church can still be seen through an opening in the flagstones. Sanctuary lamps add a wonderful atmosphere to the church and an open ceiling shows the exposed wooden rafters. In the south aisle stands an octagonal baptismal font from the Justinian 6th century church. The font would have once stood on near the high altar. The church has several altars including the Altar of the Circumcision; the main altar that features a traditional Orthodox iconostasis and the Armenian Altar of the Three Magi (Three Kings). The Roman Catholic Chapel of the Manger has retained parts of the 12th century capitals and mosaics.The main point of interest within the church is the Grotto of the Nativity. The cave is reached by descending a small flight of steps where the site of Jesus birth is enshrined. The exact point where he was born is marked by a beautiful silver star on the marble floor. Hanging above this holy site are 15 sanctuary lamps.