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Church of the Nativity

Church of the Nativity
The interior of the Church of the Nativity as photographed by Lewis Larsson of the American Colony, Jerusalem
Basic information
Location Bethlehem, Palestine
Geographic coordinates

31°42′15.50″N 35°12′27.50″E / 31.7043056°N 35.2076389°E / 31.7043056; 35.2076389Coordinates: 31°42′15.50″N 35°12′27.50″E / 31.7043056°N 35.2076389°E / 31.7043056; 35.2076389{{#coordinates:31|42|15.50|N|35|12|27.50|E|region:IL_type:landmark_source:dewiki |primary |name=

Affiliation Shared: Armenian Apostolic, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic
Architectural description
Architectural type Constantinian
Architectural style Romanesque
Completed 565
Official name: Birthplace of Jesus: the Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem
Type Cultural
Criteria iv, vi
Designated 2012[1]
Reference no. 1433
State Party Palestine
Region Western Asia

The Church of the Nativity is a basilica located in Bethlehem, Palestine. The church was originally commissioned in 327 AD by Constantine and his mother Helena over the site that is still traditionally considered to be located over the cave that marks the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth. The Church of the Nativity site's original basilica was completed in 339 AD and destroyed by fire during the Samaritan Revolts in the sixth century AD. A new basilica was built 565 AD by Justinian, the Byzantine Emperor, restoring the architectural tone of the original.[2] The site of the Church of the Nativity has had numerous additions since this second construction, including its prominent bell towers. Due to its cultural and geographical history, the site holds a prominent religious significance to those of both the Christian and Muslim faiths.

The site of the Church of the Nativity is a World Heritage Site, and was the first to be listed under Palestine by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).[3] The site is also on UNESCO's List of World Heritage Sites in Danger.[4]


First century holy site (circa 4-6 AD - 327 AD)

The holy site, known as the Grotto, that the Church of the Nativity sits atop, is today associated with the cave in which the birth of Jesus of Nazareth is said to have occurred. In 135 AD, Hadrian is said to have had the Christian site above the Grotto converted into a worship place for Adonis, the Greek god of beauty and desire.[5][6] A father with the Church of the Nativity, Jerome, noted before his death in 420 AD that the holy cave was at one point consecrated by the heathen to the worship of Adonis, and that a pleasant sacred grove was planted there in order to wipe out the memory of Jesus.[5] Although some modern scholars dispute this argument and insist that the cult of Adonis-Tammuz originated the shrine and that it was the Christians who took it over, substituting the worship of Jesus,[7] the antiquity of the association of the site with the birth of Jesus is attested by the Christian apologist Justin Martyr (c. 100 – 165 AD), who noted in his Dialogue with Trypho that the Holy Family had taken refuge in a cave outside of town:

Joseph took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him.(chapter LXXVIII).

Additionally, the Greek philosopher Origen of Alexandria (185 AD - circa. 254 AD) wrote:

In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And the rumor is in those places, and among foreigners of the Faith, that indeed Jesus was born in this cave who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians. (Contra Celsum, book I, chapter LI).

Fourth century basilica, (327 - est. 529/556 AD)

The first basilica on this site was begun by Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine I. Under the supervision of Bishop Makarios of Jerusalem, the construction started in 327 AD and was completed in 333.[8] Construction of this early church was carried out as part of a larger project following the First Council of Nicaea during Constantine's reign to build on the supposed sites of the life of Jesus. The design of the basilica centered around three major architectural sections: (1) an octagonal rotunda over the area believed to be where Jesus of Nazareth was born; (2) a boxed atrium area of Script error: No such module "convert".; and (3) double-aisled forecourt of Script error: No such module "convert"..[8][9] The structure was burnt down and destroyed in a revolt between the Jews and the Samaritans in 529 or 556 AD.[10][11]

Sixth century basilica, (565 AD)

The current basilica was rebuilt in its present form in 565 AD by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. When the Persians under Chosroes II invaded in 614, they did not destroy the structure. According to legend, their commander Shahrbaraz was moved by the depiction inside the church of the Three Magi wearing Persian clothing, and commanded that the building be spared. The Crusaders made further repairs and additions to the building during the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, with permission and help given by the Byzantine Emperor, and the first King of Jerusalem was crowned in the church. Over the years, the compound has been expanded, and today it covers approximately 12,000 square meters. The church was one of the direct causes for French involvement in the Crimean War against Russia.

Eleventh and twelfth century additions and restoration, (circa 1050 AD-1169 AD)

Until 1131 AD, the Church of the Nativity was used as the primary coronation church for crusader kings.[12] During this time, extensive decoration by the crusaders and various restorations of the basilica and grounds took place.[12] This decoration and restoration process took place until 1169 AD.[13]

Fourteenth century roof restoration, (1448-1480 AD)

File:Konrad von Grünenberg - Beschreibung der Reise von Konstanz nach Jerusalem - Blatt 47r - 099.jpg
The basilica and grounds as they were depicted to appear in a work published in 1487 AD

The roof of the Church of the Nativity lay in poor condition after the desecration that occurred in April 1244 at the hands of the Khwarezmian Turks.[14][15] In August 1448 AD, the Kingdom of Burgundy committed resources to the project, but it was not until 1480 that they were able to get the project underway in Bethlehem.[15] Due to this worsening condition of the wooden Church roof, in 1480 an extensive roof reconstruction and renovation project took place on the Church of the Nativity. Multiple regions contributed supplies to have the Church roof repaired, with England supplying the lead, the Second Kingdom of Burgundy supplying the wood, and the Republic of Venice providing the labor.[16]

Nineteenth century damage, conflict, and administration (1834 AD-1869 AD)

File:Nativity vorobiev.jpg
The interior of the Church of the Nativity as it was depicted to appear in 1833 AD

Between 1834 and 1837, earthquakes and aftershocks in Bethlehem inflicted significant damage to the Church of the Nativity.[17] The initial earthquake, the 1834 Palestinian Earthquake, damaged the church's bell tower, the furnishings of the cave on which the church is built, and other parts of its structure.[18] Minor damages were further inflicted with a series of strong aftershocks in 1836 and with the Galilee earthquake of 1837 shortly thereafter.[19][20]

By 1846, the Church of the Nativity and its surrounding site lay in disrepair. The Church's state had left the site vulnerable to looting. Much of the marble floors of the interior of the Church were looted in the early half of the 19th century, and many were transferred to use in other buildings around the region, including to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In that same year, the religiously significant silver star was stolen that had been displayed above the Grotto of the Nativity.[21] In 1851, the Church of the Nativity was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. But near Christmas of 1852, Napoleon III sent his ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and forced the Ottomans to recognise France as the "sovereign authority" in the Holy Land, which the Latins had lost in the eighteenth century.[22] The Sultan of Turkey replaced the silver star over the Grotto with a Latin inscription, but the Russian Empire disputed the change in "authority," citing two treaties—one from 1757 and the other from 1774 (the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca)-- and deployed armies to the Danube area. As a result, the Ottomans issued firmans essentially reversing their earlier decision, renouncing the French treaty, and restoring the Greeks to the sovereign authority over the Churches of the Holy Land for the time being. Since individual churches did not have a say in firmans, tensions arose at the local level. These, along with the theft of the silver star, helped to further fuel the debate between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire over the occupation of holy sites around the region. This theft is often cited by scholars as one of the catalysts of the Crimean War.[23]

Twentieth century repair and restoration, (1930s AD)

File:Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Israel 04155u original.jpg
The interior of the Church of the Nativity as photographed by the Matson Photo Service in the 1930s

Twenty-first century siege of the church, (2002 AD)

In April 2002, during the second Intifada, some 50 armed Palestinians wanted by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) locked themselves in the church with some 200 monks and other Palestinians who arrived at the site for different reasons.[24] Because of the historic value of the building the IDF did not break into the building, but instead prevented the entry of food. The siege lasted 39 days and some of the gunmen were shot by IDF snipers. After lengthy negotiations it was agreed that the remaining gunmen would be evacuated to Gaza, Spain and Italy.

The Siege is a Palestinian play developed and devised by The Freedom Theatre which recounts the story.

Arson 2014

Shortly after the 2014 visit to Israel of Pope Francis the cave beneath the church was set on fire by an unknown arsonist.[25] The cave that was burnt had been visited by Pope Francis earlier that same day. See main article for more details 2014 Arson of Church of the Nativity.

Earlier that same day a box of wooden crosses was set on fire in the Dormition Abbey.[26] The fire was lit while the Pope was conducting a service in the upper room of King David's tomb in the building next door. See main article for more details 2014 Arson Attempt of Dormition Abbey.

Current administration

The church is administered jointly by Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic authorities. All three traditions maintain monastic communities on the site. As a result, however, there have been repeated brawls among monk trainees over quiet respect for others' prayers, hymns and even the division of floorspace for cleaning duties.[27][28] The Palestinian police have been called to restore peace and order.[29]

Site architecture and layout

Interior of the Church of the Nativity

The structure of the site of the Church of the Nativity is a combination of two churches and a crypt beneath—the Grotto of the Nativity where tradition states that Jesus of Nazareth was born.

Basilica architecture

Original basilica design

Rebuilt basilica design

File:Basilica 20.png
An illustration from 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica depicting the plan of Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem. (1) Narthex; (2) nave; (3) aisles.

Site layout and architectural expansion

  • The main Basilica of the Nativity is maintained by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. It is designed like a typical Roman basilica, with five aisles (formed by Corinthian columns) and an apse in the eastern end, where the sanctuary is. The church features golden mosaics covering the side walls, which are now largely decayed. The basilica is entered through a very low door, called the "Door of Humility." The original Roman style floor has since been covered over, but there is a trap door in the modern floor which opens up to reveal a portion of the original mosaic floor. The church also features a large gilded iconostasis, and a complex array of lamps throughout the entire building. The wooden rafters were donated by King Edward IV of England. The same king also donated lead to cover the roof; however, this lead was later taken by the Ottoman Turks, who melted it down for ammunition to use in war against Venice. Stairways on either side of the Sanctuary lead down by winding stairs to the Grotto.
  • The adjoining Church of St. Catherine, the Roman Catholic Church, was built in a more modern Gothic revival style, and has since been further modernized according to the liturgical trends which followed Vatican II. This is the church where the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem celebrates Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Certain customs still observed in this Midnight Mass predate Vatican II, but must be maintained because the "status quo" (the customs, rights and duties of the various church authorities that have custody of the Holy Places) was legally fixed by a firman in 1852, under the Ottoman Empire, that is still in force to this day.
  • The Grotto of the Nativity, an underground cave located beneath the basilica, enshrines the site where Jesus is said to have been born. The exact spot is marked beneath an altar by a 14-pointed silver star set into the marble floor and surrounded by silver lamps. This altar is denominationally neutral, although it features primarily Armenian Apostolic influences. Another altar in the Grotto, which is maintained by the Roman Catholics, marks the site where traditionally Mary laid the newborn Baby in the manger.
  • Numerous Chapels are found in the compound as well, including the Chapel of Saint Joseph, commemorating the angel's appearance to Joseph, commanding him to flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:13); the Chapel of the Innocents, commemorating the children killed by Herod (Matthew 2:16–18); and the Chapel of Saint Jerome, where traditionally he translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate).
  • Manger Square, a large paved courtyard in front of the Church, is the site where crowds gather on Christmas Eve to sing Christmas carols in anticipation of the midnight services.

Preservation and related concerns

The basilica was placed on the 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites by the World Monuments Fund:

The present state of the church is worrying. Many roof timbers are rotting, and have not been replaced since the 19th century. The rainwater that seeps into the building not only accelerates the rotting of the wood and damages the structural integrity of the building, but also damages the 12th-century wall mosaics and paintings. The influx of water also means that there is an ever-present chance of an electrical fire. If another earthquake were to occur on the scale of the one of 1834, the result would most likely be catastrophic. ... It is hoped that the listing will encourage its preservation, including getting the three custodians of the church – the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, and the Franciscan order – to work together, which has not happened for hundreds of years. The Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority would also have to work together to protect it.[31][32]

In 2010, the Palestinian Authority announced that a multi-million dollar restoration programme was imminent.[33]

World Heritage Site

In 2012, the church complex became the first Palestinian site to be listed as a World Heritage Site by the World Heritage Committee at its 36th session on 29 June.[34] It was approved by a secret vote[35] of 13-6 in the 21-member committee, according to UNESCO spokeswoman Sue Williams,[36] and following an emergency candidacy procedure that by-passed the 18-month process for most sites, despite the opposition of the United States and Israel. The site was approved under criteria four and six.[37] The decision was a controversial one on both technical and political terms.[36][38] It has also been placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger as it is suffering from damages due to water leaks.[4]



See also


  1. ^ "Unesco, Birthplace of Jesus: the Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem". Retrieved 1 July 2012. 
  2. ^ Cohen, Raymond. "Conflict and Neglect: Between Ruin and Preservation at the Church of the Nativity."
  3. ^ Lazaroff, Tovah (June 29, 2012). "UNESCO: Nativity Church heritage site in 'Palestine'". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 2012-06-29. 
  4. ^ a b "Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem". UNESCO. Retrieved 30 June 2012. 
  5. ^ a b Giuseppe Ricciotti, Vita di Gesù Cristo, Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana (1948) p. 276 n.
  6. ^ Maier, Paul L. "The First Christmas: The True and Unfamiliar Story." 2001
  7. ^ Marcello Craveri, The Life of Jesus, Grove Press (1967) pp. 35–36
  8. ^ a b Roth, Leland M. (1993). Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History and Meaning (First ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. pp. 30, 222. ISBN 0-06-430158-3. 
  9. ^ Moffett, Marian, et al. "A World History of Architecture." 2003.
  10. ^ Crown, Alan D, et al.. "A Comparison to Samaritan Studies." P.55 1993.
  11. ^ Shomali, Qustandi. "Church of the Nativity: History and Structure."
  12. ^ a b Hazzard, Harry W. "A History of the Crusades: Volume IV," 1977.
  13. ^ Shomali, Qustandi. "Church of the Nativity: History and Structure."
  14. ^ Accessed 18 July 2012.
  15. ^ a b Pringle, Denys. "The Churches of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem." Vol. I. 1993.
  16. ^ Accessed 18 July 2012.
  17. ^ Black, Aden. "A Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature: Volume I." 1851.
  18. ^ "The Holy Land." Oxford University Press. 2008.
  19. ^ Black, Aden. "A Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature: Volumne I." 1851.
  20. ^ Smith, George Adam. "Jerusalem: the topography, economics and history from the earliest times to A.D. 70, Volume 1." 1907
  21. ^ Kraemer, Joel L. "Jerusalem: problems and prospects." 1980.
  22. ^ Royle. Pg 19
  23. ^ Accessed 19 July 2012.
  24. ^ Cohen, Ariel (April 24, 2002). "The Nativity Sin". National Review Online. Retrieved 2012-07-01. 
  25. ^
  26. ^
  27. ^ "Cleaning turns into a broom-brawl at the Church of the Nativity - PhotoBlog". 2011-12-28. Retrieved 2013-03-26. 
  28. ^ "Monks brawl at Jerusalem shrine". BBC News. 9 November 2008. 
  29. ^ "Palestinian territories (News),Christianity (News),Israel (News),Religion (News),World news,Christmas (Life and style),Greece (News),Armenia (News)". The Guardian. 28 December 2011. 
  30. ^ "Płaskorzeźba w darze" (in Polish). Dziennik Polski. 13 May 2009. Retrieved May 15, 2009. [dead link]
  31. ^ "CHURCH OF THE HOLY NATIVITY | World Monuments Fund". Retrieved 2011-12-22. 
  32. ^ Kumar, Anugrah (28 November 2011). "Bethlehem's Nativity Church to Get Overdue Repairs". The Christian Post. 
  33. ^ "Topic Galleries". Retrieved 2011-12-22. 
  34. ^ "Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity Could Be Israel’s First World Heritage Site". Global Heritage Fund. June 15, 2012. Retrieved 2012-06-29. 
  35. ^ "UNESCO urgently lists Church of Nativity as world heritage". IBN Live News. June 29, 2012. Retrieved 2012-06-29. 
  36. ^ a b "UNESCO makes Church of Nativity as endangered site". June 29, 2012. Retrieved 2012-06-29. 
  37. ^ "Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem - UNESCO World Heritage Centre". Retrieved 2013-03-26. 
  38. ^ "UN grants Nativity Church 'endangered' status - Middle East". Al Jazeera English. Retrieved 2013-03-26. 

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