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. In 2012 the Bethlehem Church of the Nativity was added to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
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 Romans 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 that 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. Each of the custodian denominations cares for a specific area of the structure and they all hold services in the church.
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. 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 near the high altar.
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. 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 Three Kings
The Armenian Chapel of the Kings is dedicated to the Three Wise Men. In Matthew 2:1-12 we read of wise men that came from the East in search of the newborn king. When they arrived and found Mary and her newborn child they knelt down and paid homage presenting gifts of frankincense, myrrh, and gold. Although the Bible does not tell us there were three men or even whether they were kings over the years the story has been embellished and the Three Wise Men are now a part of the traditional nativity story.
Armenian Christian tradition believes the wise men to have been Persian Zoroastrian priests belonging to the “Magi” sect of Persian priests. These priests were considered extremely wise and even thought to possess magic powers. The word “Magi” from the Greek word magoi is also where we get the word magic from. In 614AD the Persians sacked the churches of Palestine but spared the Church of the Nativity ostensibly because they saw a wall mosaic of the Three Wise Men (the Magi) dressed in Persian clothing.
Armenian Christians and the Three Wise Men
Armenian Christians come from a nation in the mountainous Caucasus region. In 301 AD Armenia became the first nation to adopt Christianity as its official religion. Many Armenian pilgrims made their way to Jerusalem to visit biblical sites and settled in Jerusalem. To this day the Old City of Jerusalem is home to a community of Armenian Christians who live in the Armenian Quarter. The Armenians share custodianship of several religious sites including the Church of Nativity.
The Armenian Christians traditionally have a link with the Magi which explains the choice to have a chapel dedicate to them in one of the most important churches in the world. Armenian legend holds that the three Magi, Melkon of Persia, Gaspar of India, and Baghdasar of Arabia passed through Armenia on route to Judea when they heard of the birth of Christ. They had with them 12,000 horsemen but decided to leave their army with the Armenian King Abgar and continue on to Palestine with 1,000 horsemen and 12 princes. The legend tells of the Magi returning to Armenia after the birth of Christ and then continuing on their journey.
The Armenian Chapel of the Kings
The Chapel of the Kings is in the church’s northern transept on the spot where the Three Wise Men arrived to witness the nativity on the first Christmas Eve. The Armenian Chapel occupies a narrow room open to the nave of the church. The two-side walls are lined with dark wood cabinets and paintings of biblical scenes. The Altar of the Kings stands at the far end of the chapel. Gold and blue colored spiraling columns rise up from the altar table supporting a solid canopy adorned with gold and blue patterns.
In the Armenian Chapel, you can see part of the remains of the original octagonal structure built in 326 AD to encase the Holy Grotto. In the Church of the Nativity Christmas is celebrated on 25th December for the Roman Catholics; 13 days later the Greek Orthodox celebrate and an additional 12 days later the Armenians have their Christmas celebrations. The Armenians celebrate the arrival of the wise men on the 6th of January.
To visit the church of Nativity, join our Bethlehem Half-Day Tour.