The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world. The structure is built over the cave that tradition marks as the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth, and thus it is considered sacred by Christians.
The structure is actually a combination of two churches, with a crypt beneath—the Grotto of the Nativity—where Jesus was born.
The birth of Jesus is narrated in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew gives the impression that Mary and Joseph were from Bethlehem and later moved to Nazareth because of Herod’s decree, while Luke indicates that Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth, and Jesus was born in Bethlehem while they were in town for a special census. Scholars tend to see these two stories as irreconcilable and believe Matthew to be more reliable because of historical problems with Luke’s version. But both accounts agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth.
Church of Nativity: Star of Bethlehem and Altar
The (Roman Catholic) Latins have exclusive possession of the Altar of the Adoration of the Magi in the area of the Grotto of the Nativity known as the “Grotto of the Manger”. The Latins also possess the silver star beneath the adjacent Altar of the Nativity. Both the Armenians and the Latins have rights of passage and procession in the Nave.
Church of Nativity Compound
The numbers in image are: 1. Nativity Square (to Manger Square); 2. Gate of Humility; 3. The Nave; 4. High Altar and Greek Orthodox Basilica (Iconostasis); 5. Stairs to Grotto; 6. Grotto of the Nativity – A Silver Star marks the spot where Jesus Christ is believed to have been born; 7. Franciscan Monastery; 8. Franciscan Courtyard; 9. Grotto of St. Jerome; 10. St. Catherine’s Church; 11. Greek Orthodox Monastery; 12. Greek Orthodox Courtyard; 13. Armenian Courtyard; 14. Armenian Convent.
Arial photo of the Church of Nativity, Bethlehem
Church of the Nativity is the oldest church in the Holy Land still in use, commemorating the birthplace of Jesus Christ. The construction began in 326 AD. The present Church was built during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian. In 529, the Samaritans revolted, and the Church of the Nativity was badly damaged. The Patriarch of Jerusalem sent St. Sabas to Justinian for help, and the architect sent by the Emperor demolished the church and built the current one.
Plaque on Church of Nativity, Bethlehem
Today the church is controlled jointly by three Christian denominations – the Armenian Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church
Older, black and white photo of Church of Nativity
The church’s large fortress-like exterior stands as a testament to its turbulent history. For centuries, it was one of the most fought over holy places. It was seized and defended by a succession of armies – including Muslim and Crusader forces. The facade of the Church of the Nativity is encircled by the high walls of the three convents: the Franciscan on the northeast side, the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Orthodox, on the southeast side.
Blue print of the Church of Nativity
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 Basilica is a rectangle 53.9m (177ft) long, the nave is 26.2m (86ft) wide, and the transept is 35.82m (118ft). Entering the Church, one can notice 4 rows of pillars, 44 in total, 6 meters (19ft 8in) high, and made of the white-veined red stone of the country.
Looking out toward Mangar Square from entrance to Church of Nativity
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.
The basilica is entered through a very low door, called the “Door of Humility.” The Door of Humility, a small rectangular entrance to the church, was created in Ottoman times to prevent carts being driven in by looters, and to force even the most important visitor to dismount from his horse as he entered the holy place. The doorway was reduced from an earlier Crusader doorway, the pointed arch of which can still be seen above the current door.
Thirty of the nave’s 44 columns carry Crusader paintings of saints and the Virgin and Child, although age and lighting conditions make them hard to see.
Priest walking between the pillars in the Church of Nativity The columns are made of pink, polished limestone, most of them dating from the original 4th-century Constantinian basilica.
The Nave and the Ceiling in the Church of Nativity
The wide nave survives intact from Justinian’s time, although the roof is 15th-century with 19th-century restorations. And now that roof is rotting, threatening the structural integrity of the building. Parts of the wooden truss structure date to the 15th century, and holes in the timbers allow dirty water to drip upon the precious paintings and mosaics below. The problem has been worsening for decades, but the resident clerics—from the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox churches and the Franciscan order of the Roman Catholic Church—are jealous of each other’s claims of custody and have been unable to agree on a plan of action.
The Armenian Orthodox have possession of the north transept and the altar there. They also have use, on occasion, of the Greek Orthodox altar in the Grotto. On the north side of the high altar is the Armenian Altar of the Three Kings, dedicated to the Magi who tied up their horses nearby, and in the north apse is an Armenian altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary.
The Iconostasis of the Nativity Church
In Eastern Christianity an iconostasis (plural: iconostases) is a wall of icons and religious paintings, separating the nave from the sanctuary in a church. Iconostasis also refers to a portable icon stand that can be placed anywhere within a church. The iconostasis evolved from the Byzantine templon, a process complete by the fifteenth century. The main body of the Basilica, including the nave, aisles, katholicon (choir and sanctuary), south transept, and the Altar of the Nativity in the Grotto are in the possession of the Greek Orthodox.
Entrance to crypt under Church of Nativity The Grotto of the Nativity, a rectangular cavern beneath the church, is the Church of the Nativity’s focal point. Entered by a flight of steps by the church altar, this is the cave that has been honored as the site of Christ’s birth since at least the 2nd century.
Mangar in the Crypt of the Church of Nativity
According to Luke 2:7 (in the traditional translation), Mary “laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.” The Manger is situated on the north side of the Grotto, and opposite the Manger, an Altar is dedicated to the Wise Men who came to Bethlehem from the East under the guidance of a star bearing gifts to Baby Jesus.
The gospel accounts don’t mention a cave, but less than a century later, both Justin Martyr and the Protoevangelium of James say Jesus was born in a cave. This is reasonable, as many houses in the area are still built in front of a cave. The cave part would have been used for stabling and storage – thus the manger. A mouth of a cistern can be seen at the end of the Grotto of the Nativity, and a door leading to a few chapels, the key of which belongs with the Franciscans.
Wall of the Crypt of the Church of Nativity All other furnishings date from after the fire of 1869, except for the bronze gates at the north and south entrances to the Grotto, which are from Justinian’s 6th-century church.
Ceiling of the Crypt of the Church of Nativity
Light in the Grotto is supplied by 53 lamps, 19 of which belong to the Latins.
The Crypt of the Church of Nativity – facing the Star of Bethlehem from far end The Grotto is rectangular in shape: length is 12.3m (40ft 3in), and the width is 3.15m (10ft 2in).
Lower part of the Altar – The Star of Bethlehem in the crypt under the Church of Nativity
A silver star in the floor marks the very spot where Christ is believed to have been born. The floor is paved in marble, and 15 lamps hang above the star (six belong to the Greeks, five to the Armenians and four to the Latins).
Lower part of the Altar – The Star of Bethlehem in the crypt under the Church of Nativity
The exact spot is marked beneath an altar by a 14-pointed silver star set into the marble floor and surrounded by silver lamps.
The Star of Bethlehem closeup marking the birthplace of Jesus Christ
The star’s Latin inscription reads, “Here of the Virgin Mary Jesus Christ was born — 1717.”
Inside the Church of St. Catherine
The church is said to be built on the site of Christ’s appearance to St. Catherine of Alexandria and his prediction of her martyrdom (c.310 AD). She is buried on Mt. Sinai. The church is first recorded in the 15th century and may incorporate the chapter house of the 12th-century Crusader monastery that stood on the site. Traces of a 5th-century monastery associated with St. Jerome also exist here.
The Altar of the Church of St. Catherine
This is the church where the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem celebrates Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.