Church of the Nativity

sights / Religious

Church of the Nativity information

Opening hours
6.30am-7.30pm spring-autumn, 6.30am-6pm winter
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Though many have argued over whether X (or, in this case, a star) really does mark the spot, the Church of the Nativity nevertheless makes an imposing marker for the birthplace of Jesus. Also called the Basilica of the Nativity, it’s the oldest continuously operating church, commissioned in 326 CE by Emperor Constantine. To really get the most out of a visit, negotiate a price for a tour from one of the handful of tour guides you’ll find milling outside (around 50NIS per hour is a decent price): they know all the nooks and crannies intimately, and may even introduce you to some of the resident priests and monks.

A major restoration project recently took place to restore the church to its former glory.

You might be surprised, if you’ve never seen pictures, to find that the facade of the church is only a tiny Ottoman-era front door, aptly named the Door of Humility. Watch your head as you bow through – originally the entrance was much larger, but the Crusaders reduced its size to prevent attackers from riding in. Later, either during the Mamluk or Ottoman periods, the portal was made even smaller – you can still see the outline of the original 6th-century doorway and, within it, the pointed Crusader-era arch. Proceed to the cavernous nave. Renovations over the centuries have included a new floor here, beneath which lies Constantine’s original 4th-century mosaic floor, rediscovered in 1934 and now viewable through wooden trapdoors in the central aisle.

The 6th century saw the church rebuilt almost entirely by Emperor Justinian, after the majority of it was destroyed in a Samaritan revolt. The mammoth red-and-white limestone columns that still grace the nave are probably the only surviving remnants of the original structure, their stone quarried from nearby. Some of them are decorated with frescos of saints, painted by Crusaders in the 12th century. To the right of the Door of Humility, a doorway leads to the Armenian Monastery, these days housing just six monks to service the needs of Bethlehem’s 300-strong Armenian congregation. The Armenians flourished during the 1600s, when they were noted for their transcribed and illuminated versions of the Bible.

At the front of the nave, descend the stairs to enter the Grotto of the Nativity. It’s popular with tour groups, but if you time your visit over lunchtime midweek, you’ll likely have the grotto entirely to yourself (on a weekend you may have to stand in line for an hour or more). There is a rather zealous security guard who has been known to physically eject pilgrims that he thinks are staying too long. Atmospherically lantern-lit and redolent with mystery, this is where Jesus is said to have been born, the 14-pointed silver star marking the spot. The Chapel of the Manger or ‘the Crib’ to one side of the grotto represents the scene of the nativity, while the chapel facing it houses the Altar of the Adoration of the Magi, which commemorates the visit of Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior. The Persians spared the church and grotto when they sacked Palestine in 614 CE, ostensibly because they saw a depiction of the magi in their own native costume.

Though all might seem serene down here, conflict has actually rocked this cradle for ages. The 14-pointed star was stolen in 1847, each of the three Christian communities in residence (the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians and the Catholics, who have bitterly and ceaselessly fought for custodianship of the grotto) blaming the others. A copy was subsequently supplied to replace it, but the fights didn’t end there, and administrative domination of the church changed hands repeatedly between the Orthodox and Catholics. To this day, management of the church is divvied up metre for metre between the Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian clerics (this system of management for holy places is known as the ‘status quo’). Take the grotto lanterns for example: six belong to the Greek Orthodox, five to the Armenians and four to the Catholics.