According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Bethlehem is considered to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Today it is one of the most famous pilgrimage sites. We visited it during our trip across Israel in 2017.
This is a period of the year when Christmas and the birth of Jesus are celebrated. And I remembered my visit to the city and the church dedicated to the birth of Jesus.
A few words about Bethlehem
The city of Bethlehem means “the house of bread” in Hebrew, while in Arabic means “the house of meat”. During ancient times, it was the home of King David.
Bethlehem was ruled by Canaanites, King David, Persians, Romans, Crusaders, the Mamluk Sultanate, Ottomans, Napoleon, and the British. After the Six-Day War (1967), it became part of the West Bank territory under Israeli administration. Since 1955 it has been under the Palestinian Authority.
The crucial thing today is that all visitors are checked at the checkpoint on the Bethlehem-Israel border. So, carry your passport all the time during your visit to Palestine or Israel territory.
The story about Jesus’s nativity
I am sure that you are familiar with the story about the birth of Jesus.
So, the archangel Gabriel told Mary, a Jewish woman from Nazareth in Galilee, that she would give birth through the power of the Holy Spirit (while still a virgin) and without sexual intercourse. Actually, he told her that she would be the mother of the promised Messiah and the son of God. This news is known as the Annunciation and it is celebrated in March. Also, Gabriel told Mary to name her son Jesus.
More about this story and the city of Nazareth, I will write in some of the following posts.
Mary lived in Nazareth with his husband Joseph, one of the descendants of David, the first king of united Israel. It was a period of the reign of King Herod. The Roman Emperor Augustus required people to register for a Roman census. So Joseph returned to his hometown Bethlehem in Judea together with pregnant Mary. Since it was too crowded, they couldn’t find a place to sleep during the night. Finally, they found a little cave used for animals and Mary gave birth to Jesus. She used a manger as a cradle for a newborn baby.
Magi and the Star of Bethlehem
According to the Gospel of Matthew, the Magi, Three Wise Men or Three Kings from the East, wanted to see baby Jesus.
First, they came to Jerusalem and asked a King Herod where they could find the baby, the new king of Jews. During the journey, they followed a shining star which has traditionally become known as the Star of Bethlehem or the Christmas star. And the star led Magi to the cave in Bethlehem, where they found Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. They brought gifts to Jesus: gold, smyrna and frankincense. According to legends, they have many different names, but usually, they are known as Melchior, Caspar and Balthazar. And according to the Armenian Christian tradition, it believes that the wise men were Persian Zoroastrian priests.
Many people believe that the star was a miraculous sign. But astronomers think that it was probably a comet, powerful stellar explosion, or conjunction of some planets.
So, King Herod was frightened for his position because of the new Jewish king. He asked Magi to let him know when they found a boy. But they were warned in a dream and went to their homes without informing him. King Herod was angry and ordered that all male children under two years old have to be killed in and around Bethlehem. This tragic incident is known as the Massacre of the Innocents.
Joseph was already warned in a dream. He escaped to Egypt with Mary and their baby for their safety and came back to Nazareth in Galilee after King Herod had died.
Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
The official name of the church is Birthplace of Jesus: the Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem. It is located in the centre of Bethlehem, on the Manger square, together with the Mosque of Omar, the only mosque in the Old City.
So the church is part of the Pilgrimage Route and it is full of pilgrims and tourists all year round. It is inscribed on the UNESCO Heritage site list in 2012 and it is the first World Heritage Site listed in Palestine. The church is managed under the terms and provisions of the „Status Quo of Holy Places“, a decree of Ottoman sultan Osman III from 1757, and by an advisory committee formed by the Palestinian President.
By the way, there are three Convents in the church: the Greek Orthodox Convent, the Franciscan Convent and the Church of St Catherine, and the Armenian Convent. All of them are managed by Convent from the Holy City of Jerusalem. They hold services in the church and each of them takes care of and cleans the specific area of the church.
Sometimes the visit to the church could be difficult because of political relations and conflicts between Palestina and Israel.
The construction of the Church of the Nativity
The Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest existing churches today. This basilica was built over the place of the birth of Jesus, according to the Gospels of Luke and Matthew.
However, Christian believers were persecuted until the 4th century. To minimize its worship, Roman Emperor Hadrian built a temple dedicated to the god Adonis above the cave. But in one moment, everything has changed…
Constantine the Great and Helena
Originally the church was built in 327 AD by the Roman emperor Constantine the Great and his mother Helena. By the way, Constantine was born in the city of Naissus (today Niš, Serbia), part of the Dardania province at that time. Constantine is known for stopping the persecution of Christians, and he converted to their faith, making Christianity the leading monotheistic religion. Also, he renovated Byzantium city which became the city of Constantinople, today’s Istanbul.
The church was finished in 339, but it was destroyed during the Samaritan Revolts in the 6th century. The Byzantine Emperor Justinian I and his wife Empress Theodora rebuilt the church in 565. During the Persian invasion in the 7th century, Jerusalem was destroyed, but this church was spared. Then the Crusaders renovated it in the 11th century. Baldwin of Boulogne, the brother of the great crusader Godfrey Boulogne was crowned there as King of Jerusalem on 25th December in 1100.
During the following centuries, after the fall of Acre in 1291 and the end of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, Palestine remained under the control of the Mamluk dynasty (12th –early 16th centuries) and Ottomans (16th –18th). The church was in bad condition for centuries because of weather conditions and the Jerusalem earthquakes between 1834 and 1837. The big restoration works started in July 2013 to save this holy place and to prevent its deterioration.
What to see in the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem
Today the church covers approximately 12,000 square meters. During the centuries, it has had numerous transformations.
The main entrance to the Church of the Nativity is known as the “Door of Humility“. Built during the Ottoman period, it is about 120 cm high that the conquerors could not enter the church by horses. Another reason is that every visitor should bow symbolically before stepping inside the church.
Today’s church has a shape from the 6th century. Even today, we can see the part of the original floor mosaics from Constantine’s church through an opening in the flagstones, founded in 1934 by the British. During Constantine’s rule, the whole floor had been completely covered with tiny crafted mosaics.
Inside the church, there is a double colonnade of red limestone pillars from the Byzantine period. High walls around the nave and pillars are decorated with mosaics dating from the 12th century, from the time of the Crusaders. Unfortunately, we couldn’t see them because of the roof reconstruction works, scaffolding and tarps.
The Orthodox Church of Jerusalem takes care of the main part of the basilica, including the main altar with gilded Greek iconostasis dating from 1764.
The whole area is covered with many various lamps making the church a special look of the sanctuary.
Close to the entrance of the Grotto, there is a beautiful icon of Mary and baby Jesus.
Grotto of the Nativity and the Silver Star
The most important and holiest place in the church is the Grotto.
Two sets of stairs lead down to the Grotto. Actually, you are going down from one part of the stairs and going upstairs from the other side. Many people are waiting to see the place of Jesus’ birth.
Today, it is marked with a shining fourteen-point silver star under the altar on a cracked marble floor. It is surrounded by candles and 15 silver lamps which represent the Christian communities: Greek Orthodox, Catholics and Armenian Apostolic.
There is an inscription on the star with the words: „Hic de Virgin Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est”. It means “Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary”.
First, the star was installed by the Catholics in 1717; it was removed in 1847 and then placed again by the Turkish government in 1853.
Some people think that the star has 14 points because of Jesus’ Genealogy. There are three sets of 14 generations: the first 14 from Abraham to David, then 14 from David to the Babylonian captivity, and 14 more to Jesus Christ. Another opinion is that it represents 14 stations of Via Dolorosa, the path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion.
You can read here more about Via Dolorosa.
Everyone wants to touch or kiss the star and take prayer in this holy place.
This silver star is also known as the Star of Bethelem.
Close to the altar with the silver star, there is a place of the manger, where Mary laid baby Jesus. Interestingly, the altar is maintained by the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic churches, while the Catholics take care of the manger.
Church of Saint Catherine
St. Catherine’s Church belongs to the complex of the Church of Nativity. It is the Bethlehem parish church and part of a Franciscan Monastery.
The church is dedicated to St Catherine of Alexandria, who lived in the 4th in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. She belonged to a noble family and even though she was a young girl, Catherine converted many people to Christianity. For this reason, the Roman Emperor Maxentius hung 18-year-old Catherine on a spiked wheel and after that, she was beheaded. Angels took her body to Mountain Sinai where her remains are now.
St. Catherine’s church was built by the Franciscans in 1881 on the former place of the 5th-century Monastery of St. Jerome and Crusaders Church from the 12th century. The church and the Cloister of St. Jerome were reconstructed in 1948 by architect Antonio Barluzzi. Today it is known by the Christmas Eve Mass on the night of the 24th of December, which is broadcast around the world every year.
In the centre of the restored medieval cloister and courtyard, there is a statue of Saint Jerome. Behind him, there is a white statue of Saint Catherine.
Underneath the church and cloister, there is a complex of caves connected to the Grotto of Nativity, including the Chapel of the Innocent, St. Joseph’s Chapel and the St Jerome cave. St Jerome lived there in the late 4th century. He translated the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts and created the Latin Bible.
What you should know before visiting the church
Admission to the church is free. But prepare yourself to be patient because many pilgrims and tourists want to see the Grotto of the Nativity. Also, if you are coming with a group, take care not to lose it in the crowd.
Opening time: 6.30 – 19.30 in summer, and 5.30 – 18.00 in winter. The church is open on Sundays for Holy Mass, but the Grotto is closed in the morning.
Since it is a significant religious site, you should dress properly, it applies to both women and men. Cover your shoulders and knees when you enter the church complex.
Well, most Christians celebrate 25th December according to the Gregorian calendar as the date of Jesus’ birthday. But Orthodox Christians who use the Julian calendar celebrate it on the 7th January, while the Armenian Church celebrates it on the 6th January.
Actually, it is difficult to confirm the exact day of Jesus’ birth after many centuries. The 25th of December was the date of the winter solstice on the Roman calendar. Also, it was about nine months after Mary had found out that she would be the mother of Jesus (Annunciation). However many researchers believe that Christmas day was a substitute for pagan celebrations of the winter holiday and especially of Mithras, the ancient Persian god of sun, justice and war, which was very popular in the Roman Empire.
There are many different customs associated with celebrating Christmas all around the world. But no matter which day Christmas is celebrated, it is certainly the most important holiday that brings the whole family together.
Today Bethlehem is mostly a Muslim town. About 30,000 inhabitants of different religions live together there. The city is small with narrow streets full of various shops and accommodation which is generally cheaper than in Jerusalem.
Bethlehem can be reached from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv by road. Usually, the pilgrims and tourists come with organized tours. Also, there are frequent buses from Jerusalem and it takes about 30-45 minutes to reach Bethlehem.
Tourism and shopping are very important for Bethlehem. In small shops and markets, you can find various religious handcrafted products, spices, crosses and items made of olive wood, jewellery, and oriental sweets.
Despite the crowd, borders and reconstruction works, visiting the Church of the Nativity was a great experience. At that moment when you are surrounded by a crowd, you are not fully aware of the importance of the place where you are standing.
But later, when the impressions subside, you can realize how much we have to explore and how many things are still a great mystery to us.