Church of the Nativity

sights / Religious

Church of the Nativity information

Bethlehem , The Palestinian Territories
Address
Street Manger Sq
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Lonely Planet review

Even without conjuring anything resembling the manger scene, the Church of the Nativity is an imposing marker for the birthplace of Jesus. Also called the Basilica of the Nativity, it's the oldest continuously operating church. It was commissioned in 326 by Constantine, with his mother Helena Augusta as head contractor and the bishop of Jerusalem in charge, forever ending the use of the site for the pagan worship of Adonis.

Renovations throughout the centuries included a new floor, beneath which lies the 4th-century mosaic floor discovered in 1934. After bowing through the Ottoman-era Door of Humility (most likely built so short to prevent soldiers on horses from entering), proceed to the cavernous nave and see a wooden trapdoor revealing a section of the mosaic. Emperor Justinian had the church rebuilt in the 6th century after it was burnt down in the Samaritan revolt. The mammoth columns of red-and-white limestone come from Bethlehem quarries. In the 12th century the wall around the church was constructed by Greeks and Franks, a cooperative venture between the Byzantine (Orthodox) and Latin (Catholic) - so-called 'oriental' and 'occidental' - Christians who had been experiencing a schism. Continue to the Grotto of the Nativity. The 14-pointed silver star marking the spot believed to be where Jesus was born was a gift from the French in 1717. The Chapel of the Manger or 'the Crib' to one side of the grotto represents the scene of the nativity.

Conflict and controversy have rocked this cradle for ages. The Persians spared it when they sacked Palestine in 614, ostensibly because they saw a depiction of the magi in their own native costume. The star was stolen in 1847 and later replaced. Administrative domination of the church changed hands repeatedly between the Orthodox and Catholics with the Muslims drawn in to arbitrate, given their authority in the region and respect for Jesus as a prophet in Islam. To this day, management of the church is divvied up metre-for-metre between the Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian clerics.

Age-old squabbles are not the only action the basilica has seen. In 2002 Israel invaded Bethlehem sending a resistance force of 200 Palestinians, 50 with weapons, to burst into the church for refuge. A highly televised siege ensued, lasting 39 days. An Israeli flare started a fire in the church, but the damage was contained.