The Church of the Nativity and Jesus birth

Church of Nativity, Betlehem

Website of the Sanctuary

+970. 02 / 274.24.25

Every day: 6.30 – 19.30 (summer) 5.30 – 18.00 (winter)

Bethlehem in the New Testament and Jesus birth

Jesus birth – the faith in the fulfillment of the prophetic announcement of the birth in Bethlehem of a descendant of David was well rooted in the Judaic tradition at the time of Jesus. Indeed, when Herod asked the high priests where the Messiah was to be born they replied without hesitation: “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet” (Matt 2:5).

Both Matthew and Luke refer to Jesus’ birth “in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod” (Matt 2:1) and in “the city of David that is called Bethlehem” (Luke 2:4).

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Grotto of the Nativity

The entrance today is placed sideways with respect to the location of Jesus birth, but it is thought that in the fourth century the entrance was located behind the presbytery. The small façades of the two side entrances date back to the times of the Crusaders. The Grotto is entered by descending the stairs to the right of the iconostasis. Here the space is very narrow and restricted and the walls, which were originally irregular, form an almost-rectangular perimeter. The natural walls of the cave, decorated in the Constantine period, were covered with marble during the Byzantine period.

The Altar of the Nativity only began to be venerated in the Byzantine period when this space was created to commemorate the precise place of Jesus birth. The current structure has been totally modified from that which was described by the pilgrim John Phocas and Abbot Daniel in the 12th century.



Two red stone columns, and the inscription “Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus”, overlook the altar, above which are representations of the Virgin and the Child in swaddling clothes, the scene of the washing, and that of the coming of the shepherds.

Beneath the altar is a star with the inscription “Hic de Virgine Maria Iesus Christus natus est” in memory of the precise spot of the Nativity. To the right of the altar is the place where Mary laid Jesus in the manger, also known as the Crib. At this point in the Grotto the floor is lower and the space is made up of columns similar to the Byzantine ones in the nave of the church, and by the remains of two Crusader columns. In front of the Crib is a small altar dedicated to the Magi, where the Latins celebrate Holy Mass.

The structure of the Crib is not the original one but is the result of alterations necessitated by the continuous wear and tear of time and the passage of pilgrims. Following the fire of 1869 the walls of the Grotto were covered with asbestos to prevent further fires, a donation from the President of the French Republic Marshal Mac-Mahon in 1874. Below this covering the original Crusader marble is still visible, while above it can be seen wood panel paintings of limited artistic value.

Entrance to the Church

Passing through the small door, one enters into the area known technically as the narthex, which was constructed in the Byzantine period. In the ancient Christian tradition the narthex was the area serving as the entrance to the sacred areas, and was intended for catechumens who during certain moments of the celebrations were not allowed to enter into the church.

During the Constantinian period there had been no narthex, but instead an open, wide atrium which performed a similar function. The Justinian narthex has been divided into four areas, one of these serving as the entry area to the church.

During the Crusader period the areas at the two extremes served as bases for the four-storey-high bell towers that were built. A fourth area to the left of the entrance door is used by the soldiers who, since the Turkish period, have guarded the church. The episode is recounted with miraculous elements by the pilgrim Jean Boucher. The entrance door, today covered by scaffolding, was a gift from the Armenian King Hetum in 1227, as indicated in the inscription which is in both Armenian and Arabic.

Luke recounts in addition that Joseph, a member of the house of David, accompanied by Mary his betrothed who was with child, set out from Nazareth for Bethlehem, on account of the Roman census that obliged all Jews to be registered in their place of origin.

Matthew’s account, on the other hand, seems to suggest that Mary and Joseph had always been residents of Bethlehem and only later moved to Nazareth. Other events related to the birth of Jesus also took place in Bethlehem.

Luke narrates the coming of the shepherds (Luke 2:8-20), while Matthew adds the story of the coming of the Magi from the East and their journey to Bethlehem (Matt 2:1-12) as well as that of the Massacre of the Innocents and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt (Matt 2:13-23).

The Revelation: Christmas and the Divine Light

The story of Jesus’ birth as it emerges from the Gospels is very concise and not embellished with poetic details or miraculous phenomena. The Evangelist Luke, employing the language of a chronicler, tells us that during the stay in Bethlehem the time came for Mary to have her child (Luke 2:6-7). The manger is mentioned in this account, and we are provided with a very “everyday” image of Mary. Like all mothers, after nine months of waiting and after giving birth, she wraps the newborn in swaddling clothes and places him in a secure place. From the account nothing extraordinary would appear to have occurred, and yet this birth has radically changed the course of history.

Jesus Son of God, born from a woman and hence born just like all human beings, is subjected to the totality of the human experience. Through this Child Jesus, God wishes to encounter man, wants to draw near to him. St. John will say: “God has sent his Son” (1 John 4:9), clarifying the divine nature of Jesus, who chose to take bodily form in order to live the human condition and show man the way to get to the Father.

The Gospel of Mark is also very concise. In the first place, the Evangelist seeks to make clear that Mary had Jesus without “knowing” Joseph, indicating that Jesus was born through the work of the Holy Spirit and reaffirming the virginity of Mary. But what is clearly apparent in these accounts is the newness that is unfolding itself before the eyes of man: that of a God made man, who selected the earthly form, who selected the path of humiliation shedding his greatness and divinity to reach man, to make himself close to him and to share in his earthly journey.

The choice of poverty made by God, assuming the bodily form of a small child in Bethlehem, is a choice that leaves man, who has an altogether different image of the Messiah, perplexed, even scandalized. The revelation of God in the flesh represents something entirely new. In this way the Love of the Father is unmistakably revealed. God gave man Light and the revelation in his Son.

The Light of Christmas is this: the child of Bethlehem who has come to free man from the shadow of death and sin “the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light” (Matt 4:16). This is the symbolism of the light that shines in the dark night, the light signifying life and happiness, that dispels the darkness of death. It is the radiance of the celestial world, a symbolic expression of the holiness and glory of God which shows the importance of the moment as an encounter of God with men.

This light and the extraordinariness of the moment help us to understand the joy of the moment, of the liberation that has come through the Incarnation. Christmas Eve is the moment that evokes one of the most tender and delicate events in the life of Jesus. Since antiquity Night has represented a time that is both special and propitious for divine revelations.

And it was in the night that the Incarnation of the Son of God took place. At this precise moment it almost seems as if all life in the universe stood still before the miracle of the Incarnation, to show that all creation was involved in the coming of the Messiah, which was to become the central event in human history. The Holy Scripture frequently presents us the theme of peace and quiet in relation to the events in which God manifests himself and acts in history.

Quiet represents an indispensable condition in order to be able to listen to and properly receive the eternal Word of the Father, that Word which manifested itself here in Bethlehem in the quiet of the cave, and which can be reborn each day in the hearts of those disposed to receive it.

The name Bethlehem

The name Bethlehem appears to have been indicated in a cuneiform tablet found in Egypt belonging to the archive of the pharaoh Akhenaton: it speaks of the city of Bit Lahmu located in the territory of Jerusalem. It is very likely that the original name of the city derived from Lahmo, the Chaldean god of nature and fertility whose name was adopted by the Canaanite people and modified to Lahama.
If one accepts this hypothesis, the translation of the name Beit-el-Laham might have been “House of the Lahama”, which would make sense in view of the fact that this land was very fertile and rich in water. Moreover, in the Old Testament the city is called by the name Beth Lechem, “House of Bread”, and also Ephrath, a name derived from the tribe that lived in these places, which literally means “fruitful”.
The more modern names also make reference to the idea of a fertile and abundant place; in Arabic, Beit Lahm has the sense “house of flesh”, reflecting the large number of flocks of sheep and goats, one of the principal activities in the area. Meanwhile Hebrew Beit-Lehem means “house of bread”, a notion that introduces us to the image of Jesus as the living bread that came down from heaven.

Ancient history – Seal bearing the name ”Bethlehem” in ancient Hebrew script
In the Old Testament the city is mentioned as being the chief city and settlement of the tribe of King David, established in these lands from around 1200 BC. The city is also mentioned in Sacred Scripture as being the site of the tomb of Rachel, the wife of the patriarch Jacob. These biblical times were marked by centuries of wars and partitions of territories. In 586 the Chaldean army of Nebuchadnezzar, having occupied Judea, deported the Jewish population to Babylon where they lived for fifty years in exile. At the end of this period the Persian king Cyrus II (“The Great”) allowed the Jews to return, and from this time onwards the city of Bethlehem was repopulated.

Palestine, including the city of Bethlehem, was occupied by Alexander the Great in 333 BC and subsequently subject to the rule of the Ptolomies from 301 to 198 BC, and then to that of the Seleucids of Antioch. Between 167 and 164 BC persecutions of the Jews began and an anti-Syrian revolt led by the Maccabees broke out. The Hasmonean Dynasty began in 134 BC and was extended to the entire territory, including the town of Bethlehem, lasting for approximately 70 years until the arrival of Roman troops.

The Roman period
The Palestinian territories were conquered by Pompey in 63 BC and remained under Roman control throughout the lifetime of Jesus Christ. The territories conquered by the Romans were divided into various tetrarchies. Among these, the city of Bethlehem was under the control of King Herod I (“the Great”), who in approximately 30 BC had a fortified palace called Herodion built on the outskirts of the city.

The era about which we are speaking was clearly marked by the event of the birth of Jesus Christ, which saw the coming of the Christian era and also coincided with a great revolt of the Jewish people against Roman rule. In 6 AD the ethnarch Archelaus was deposed and Judea was incorporated into the imperial province of Syria and administered by procurators based in Caesarea Maritima.
When Jerusalem was destroyed by Titus in 70 AD, Bethlehem was fortunately spared. The holy place was already a site of worship by the first Christians who venerated the cave in which Jesus had been born. During this period the Jewish revolts increased in intensity and were suppressed during the reign of Hadrian, who decided to construct in Bethlehem a pagan temple dedicated to Adonis above the Grotto of the Nativity, which was to be buried and destroyed along with all signs of Christianity, as had already occurred with the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

The place at that time must still have been in its natural state, as it was to be described later by Jerome who provides us with this evidence. As attested for us by Origen in his writings, a clear memory has always existed that it was in this place that Jesus was born. Due to the brutal repressions many Judeo-Christians departed, leaving the town in the hands of pagans who continued with their religion.

Arab-Muslim period
With the Arab-Muslim occupation by Caliph Omar in 638, Bethlehem also became subject to this new power. A climate of tolerance and peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians was guaranteed by the symbolic gesture of the Caliph who, following the occupation of the town, entered to pray alongside the south apse of the church.
From that moment onwards, the church became a place of prayer for both Christians and Muslims. At the beginning, this peaceful coexistence and tolerance between the two religions was respected, but with the coming of different caliphates the situation for the Christians in Bethlehem deteriorated markedly, culminating in the persecutions in 1009 on the part of the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim who ordered the destruction of the Holy Land sanctuaries; the Nativity in Bethlehem was miraculously spared, probably due to its importance for the Islamic religion, as it was the place of birth for the prophet known by the Muslims as Issa, and also due to the fact that a small mosque was contained within the basilica.

The Crusader period
This marked the beginning of a new phase in the history of the Holy Land. Due to the difficult living conditions in the territories of Bethlehem, the Christians requested aid from Godfrey de Bouillon who was staying in Emmaus. The arrival of the Crusaders aggravated the relations between Muslims and Christians, who were hoping that the town would be liberated by the Crusaders. In fact, a group of knights led by Tancred captured the town, which from that point began its golden age. Relations with Europe intensified through both commercial exchanges and pilgrimages. The Crusaders also gave a new look to the town by building a monastery for the Augustinian canons – where today the Franciscan convent is located − to whom liturgical services in the church and the welcoming of pilgrims were entrusted, while the Eastern rites were given the possibility to celebrate their own liturgies.

On 24 December 1100 Baldwin I was crowned as the first king of Jerusalem, and from then on the city of Bethlehem was directly dependent on the Patriarch of Jerusalem, becoming an Episcopal seat and diocesan center. Between 1165 and 1169, at the wish of Bishop Rudolph, restoration works on the church were carried out with a financial contribution from the Crusader king Amalric I and the Byzantine emperor Manuel Comnenus, as evidenced by the pilgrim Phocas. This collaboration was a clear sign of the unity between the Eastern and Western Churches. The defeat of the Crusaders by Saladin (Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub) in 1187 at Hattin in Galilee led to a new occupation of Bethlehem. The resident Latin community in Bethlehem left the town, returning only in 1192 when the Muslims allowed the Latins to resume religious services upon payment of a stiff tax.
The history of Bethlehem, like that of all the Holy Places, experienced a moment of special importance with the journey of Francis of Assisi, who in 1219-1220 went to the East along with twelve other friars. It is likely that he went to Bethlehem, since he is linked by a well-known tradition to the image of the Christmas crèche, although this is not confirmed by any source. In any event, it is known with certainty that the friar, having arrived in the port of Acre along with the Crusaders, went to Egypt to the court of the Sultan Malek al-Kamil who, struck by the personality of the saint, granted him a safe-conduct for his journey to Palestine. Several of his companions, having previously arrived in Palestine in the preceding years, stayed on in the service of the Church in these Lands.
As a result of two truces, one between Emperor Frederick II and the Sultan of Egypt, the other between the King of Navarre and the Sultan of Damascus, Bethlehem passed under the control of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem between 1229 and 1244. This situation lasted for little more than a decade, as the Khwarezmian invasion in 1244 once again destabilized the territories.

The Mameluke period
In 1263 with the invasion of Jerusalem by the Mamelukes of Egypt, Sultan Baybars drove the Christians out of Bethlehem and tore down the town’s fortified walls. During this period pilgrims were able to reach the town only by paying a fee. After the fall of Acre in 1291 and the end of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, Palestine remained under the control of the Mamelukes until its conquest by the Ottoman Empire.

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The Franciscans in Bethlehem
The Friars Minor, who had arrived in the Holy Land at the beginning of the 13th century, definitively established themselves in Bethlehem in 1347 in a monastery for Augustinian canons who had been exiled by the Mamelukes, as reported by Fra Niccolò da Poggibonsi who arrived himself in the Holy Land in that year. As recorded in ancient chronicles and documents, the Sultan gave the friars of the cord ownership of the Church and Grotto of the Nativity.

The other Christian rites obtained permission to celebrate their liturgies. From this period onwards it was the Franciscans who made up the religious of the Latin rite in Bethlehem and in other Holy Places. In 1479 the Franciscans turned their hand to reconstructing the roof of the church, thanks to the industriousness of the guardian Giovanni Tomacelli. The wood was provided by Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy and transported from Europe on Venetian vessels, while the lead was donated by King Edward IV of England, as reported by fra Francesco Suriano.

The Turkish period
In 1517 Palestine became part of the Turkish Empire and Sultan Selim I torn down the remaining walls of Bethlehem. The town slowly fell into a state of ruin, and the oppressed and persecuted Christians gradually began to leave. Rights to the church were divided between the Franciscans and the Orthodox and this was the cause for continual clashes, with the government of the Sublime Porte supporting first one side and then the other by granting various privileges. In 1690 the Franciscan friars succeeded in reacquiring their rights, but in 1757 a new and definitive change in ownership took place. Between 1831 and 1841 Muhammad Ali, viceroy of Egypt, and his son Ibrahim Pasha managed for a short period of time to liberate Palestine from Turkish domination.

During this time Christians claimed their rights to the town of Bethlehem and, after years of submission and persecutions, expelled the Muslims and in 1834 destroyed their quarter. From this point onwards the majority of the town’s population was Christian. One of the most noted and significant events marking this period relates to the Grotto of the Nativity and the dispute among the various religious denominations, leading to the end of the leading role of the Latins at the place where Jesus was born.

This development was brought about by the Greek Orthodox on 18 October 1847 and aggravated the conflict between the two confessions. As a result of these frictions, and seeking to restore peace after centuries of conflicts, in 1852 the Turkish government issued a firman ratifying the existing property rights within the Christian sanctuaries (the so-called Status Quo). In gratitude for the contribution of the European countries to victory in the Crimean War against Russia, the Sublime Porte conceded increased liberties to the Latins.

During this period numerous religious congregations began to settle in Palestine and become involved in schools, hospitals and hospices. The arrival of a large number of Westerners left a mark on the town that is visible even today. In 1859 the Franciscans acquired Siyar al-Ghanam, Shepherds’ Fields, where subsequent excavations uncovered the remains of constructions from the Byzantine period that, according to tradition, marked the existence of a place of worship. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1917, as a consequence of its defeat in the First World War, Palestine became in 1922 a protectorate of Great Britain, on the basis of international agreements.

Entrance to the Church

Passing through the small door, one enters into the area known technically as the narthex, which was constructed in the Byzantine period. In the ancient Christian tradition the narthex was the area serving as the entrance to the sacred areas, and was intended for catechumens who during certain moments of the celebrations were not allowed to enter into the church.

During the Constantinian period there had been no narthex, but instead an open, wide atrium which performed a similar function. The Justinian narthex has been divided into four areas, one of these serving as the entry area to the church. During the Crusader period the areas at the two extremes served as bases for the four-storey-high bell towers that were built. A fourth area to the left of the entrance door is used by the soldiers who, since the Turkish period, have guarded the church. The episode is recounted with miraculous elements by the pilgrim Jean Boucher. The entrance door, today covered by scaffolding, was a gift from the Armenian King Hetum in 1227, as indicated in the inscription which is in both Armenian and Arabic.

The wait: Mary and Joseph

We all know the story of the Holy Family, appearing to us with all the tenderness of a humble family from Nazareth, whose events have illuminated human history. Theirs is a story of obedience to the Life and Will of God, who manifested himself to the married couple demanding from them immense faith and great courage.

Mary, before giving birth to Jesus, was living together with Joseph in Nazareth. After the Angel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary of the conception of the son of God, Mary responded positively, without hesitation and anxious to fulfill the will of God. Later, Joseph the Just also was to accept the same obedience, welcoming Mary despite her bearing in her womb a child who was not his own. And so it was that in this story of faith in which the Eternal chose to manifest himself in history, the Roman Emperor Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the entire Roman Empire.

As a result, Joseph and his wife, who was in an advanced stage of pregnancy, were obliged to leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem, the place of his ancestors, to register themselves. It was thus apparently only due to chance that Mary gave birth in Bethlehem. Unable to find more suitable accommodation, they stayed in a cave, similar to many others that were located in the surroundings of the town. It was then that, as the Evangelists narrate: “While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6-7). In this waiting, and in the image of the Holy Family, we have depicted before us a scene from daily life that makes us reflect on the maternal figure of Mary, the “best of mothers” (as Pope Pius IX said), and the fatherhood of Joseph, the best of earthly fathers. It is indeed important for us as Christians to keep the Holy Family in mind as a model and example of the human family for all time.

Arrival to the Church

Passing along Star Street towards the Holy Place of Jesus’ Nativity, as did the Magi from the East and, later, countless pilgrims, in the distance, and before arriving to the square in front of the current church, one is struck by the enchantment of a Place that for centuries has called millions of visitors from throughout the world to adore it. Arriving at the paved square in front of the church, the sanctuary of the Nativity comes into view. At first sight it is not easy to understand the architectural structure of the church complex, which over the centuries has undergone numerous transformations. The structure dates back to the sixth century and was the work of architects employed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, who wished to reconstruct the fourth century basilica that had been destroyed following the revolt of the Samaritans, as witnessed by Eutychius, Patriarch of Alexandria in 876.

Looking at the façade one is able to distinguish a number of sections that were part of the complex of the basilica and attached structures. Its fortress-like aspect arose from the requirements over the centuries to protect the structure and the residences of the religious who looked after the church. Viewed from the front, the walls on the right enclose the Armenian and Greek monasteries, while to the left can be seen the modern construction of the Casa Nova and the Crusader-era Franciscan convent.

The Square
During the Constantinian period the current square formed part of the atrium of the church and was a wide, open space. This has been confirmed by excavations that uncovered the perimeter of the fourth-century church. In front of the entrance, cisterns have been found whose mouths can be distinguished in the pavement. Rainwater entered through these and was stored for use in religious rites and for the daily life of the monasteries. The square is now surrounded by a perimeter wall, covering the entire south and west sides.

On this latter side, at one time there existed a wide doorway that served as an entry and also marked the boundary between the sacred buildings and the village. The existence of the door, now destroyed, is confirmed by remains of its foundations and by the sketches of Bernardino Amico (16th century) and Ladislao Mayr (18th century).

The façade
The façade, whose style as a result of the continuous modifications does not seem very clear, belongs to the structure from the Justinian period. A close examination will reveal three entry doors, which were later walled shut. The Byzantine façade would have presented a majestic and imposing appearance, with its three large entrances to the nave and two of the aisles. Compared to the earlier Constantinian structure, the Byzantine façade, preceded by a narthex, was extended by the width of an intercolumniation.

The small entrance door is the result of several reductions in size that took place over time: one can easily recognize the large central door from the Byzantine era with its horizontal architrave and diagonally-placed stones. With the arrival of the Crusaders, the door was reduced to conform to the style preferred by Western knights, in order to better protect the Holy Place. Visible evidence of this is provided by the remains of the pointed arch that can be identified in the walls.

During the Ottoman period the dimensions of the doorway were further reduced, hence the size of the current door, in order to impede access by those seeking to desecrate the place of worship. Thus the door reflects to a certain extent the alternating phases of Christianity in Bethlehem: periods in which freedom of worship guaranteed the recognition of the Christian faith, and others in which persecutions and intolerance rendered difficult the life of the local communities. The other two Byzantine doors, now covered by the perimeter walls of the church and by buttresses installed during the Crusader period, allow one to imagine the sense of majesty and beauty the Byzantine church must have inspired among those who arrived there on pilgrimage (as is indeed attested by various witnesses).

Inside the Church

In its interior, the church has preserved all of the architectural elements from the sixth century. When he first saw the actual project, the Byzantine emperor did not approve the choices made by the architect, accused him of having squandered the funds, and ordered that he be beheaded. Despite the emperor´s dissatisfaction, the building has shown itself to be very solid, surviving intact until the present day. Excavations carried out by the British government in 1932 showed that the Constantinian-era floor had been completely covered over with finely-crafted mosaics displaying geometric and floral decorations.

Among these is to be highlighted the mosaic remnant preserved to the west of the presbytery, where by raising the wooden trapdoor one can see the monogram ΙΧΘΥΣ (“fish” in Greek) used in ancient times to indicate the name of Christ. While today the floor consists of a simple rough stone pavement, the Byzantine-era floor had white marble slabs whose veins were particularly accentuated. A remnant of this can be seen in the area of the north transept. The Constantinian pavement was slightly inclined relative to the current floor, which is about a meter above the original level. The internal space, divided by columns into a nave and four aisles, is dark and dimly lit. In the sixth century the church was completely covered in marble: traces of the holes used to attach the marble can still be seen in the re-plastered walls.

The colonnade, which today finishes at the end of the area of the apse, carried on, creating an ambulatory around the Grotto of the Nativity. This type of architectural structure was used in a number of Holy Places, especially those for Martyrs, because, according to tradition, pilgrims who walked repeatedly around the holy site would in this manner obtain grace. The columns and capitals, made from red stone from Bethlehem, are the original ones from the Byzantine period, the product of local craftsmen. The capitals, works of exquisite craftsmanship, were painted in blue. On the columns were representations of a number of Eastern and Western saints, both religious and lay. The architraves are also from this period, although their adornment goes back only to Crusader times and is very similar to that of the architraves in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which also date from this latter period. The high walls of the nave are decorated with superb mosaics dating from the 12th century, the works of Eastern masters.

The mosaics are divided into three groups and show, starting from the bottom: the genealogy of Jesus, the councils and local synods and, at the top, a procession of angels. According to a Greek account from the ninth century, earlier there had been additional mosaic decorations dating from the Byzantine period. Among these special note was made of the representation of the Magi who arrived in Bethlehem to adore Jesus, which adorned the façade. A truly singular event occurred in 614 AD when the Persian soldiers who were invading the town took fright at the sight of the mosaic and renounced their intention to sack the church, which thus escaped unscathed. The transepts, which still preserve the original marble pavement from the Byzantine period, are today decorated with icons and vestments from the Greek Orthodox (right transept) and Armenian Orthodox (left transept) traditions. This part of the church also preserves mosaic decorations skillfully portraying scenes from the Gospels.

Grotto of the Nativity

The entrance today is placed sideways with respect to the location where Jesus was born, but it is thought that in the fourth century the entrance was located behind the presbytery. The small façades of the two side entrances date back to the times of the Crusaders. The Grotto is entered by descending the stairs to the right of the iconostasis. Here the space is very narrow and restricted and the walls, which were originally irregular, form an almost-rectangular perimeter. The natural walls of the cave, decorated in the Constantine period, were covered with marble during the Byzantine period.

The Altar of the Nativity only began to be venerated in the Byzantine period when this space was created to commemorate the precise place in which Jesus had been born. The current structure has been totally modified from that which was described by the pilgrim John Phocas and Abbot Daniel in the 12th century. Two red stone columns, and the inscription “Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus”, overlook the altar, above which are representations of the Virgin and the Child in swaddling clothes, the scene of the washing, and that of the coming of the shepherds.

Beneath the altar is a star with the inscription “Hic de Virgine Maria Iesus Christus natus est” in memory of the precise spot of the Nativity. To the right of the altar is the place where Mary laid Jesus in the manger, also known as the Crib. At this point in the Grotto the floor is lower and the space is made up of columns similar to the Byzantine ones in the nave of the church, and by the remains of two Crusader columns. In front of the Crib is a small altar dedicated to the Magi, where the Latins celebrate Holy Mass.

The structure of the Crib is not the original one but is the result of alterations necessitated by the continuous wear and tear of time and the passage of pilgrims. Following the fire of 1869 the walls of the Grotto were covered with asbestos to prevent further fires, a donation from the President of the French Republic Marshal Mac-Mahon in 1874. Below this covering the original Crusader marble is still visible, while above it can be seen wood panel paintings of limited artistic value.

Opening hours of the Sanctuary

Church of the Nativity
6.30 – 19.30 (summer)
5.30 – 18.00 (winter)
Sunday morning the Grotto is closed

St. Catherine
6.00 – 19.00 (summer)
5.30 – 18.00 (winter)

Shepherds’ Fields
8.00 – 18.00 (summer)
Sunday: 8.00 – 11.45 / 14.00 – 17.30 (summer)
8.00 – 17.00 (winter)
Sunday: 8.00 – 11.45 / 12.00 – 16.30 (winter)

Milk Grotto
8.00 – 18.00 (summer)
8.00 – 17.00 (winter)

Holy Mass:
Holy Mass can be celebrated in the Grotto of the Nativity, by previous reservation at the Franciscan Pilgrims’ Office – FPO

Mass times:

St. Catherine Parish Church

Sunday:
6.30 am, Italian
7.30 am, Arabic
9 .00 am, Arabic
11.00 am, Arabic

Weekday:
6.30 am, Italian
7.00 am, Arabic
On Saturday
4.30 pm, Arabic (winter)
6.30 pm, Arabic (summer)

St. Francis Chapel

Wednesday:
4.30 pm, Arabic (winter)
5.30 pm, Arabic (summer)

Grotto of the Nativity – Altar of the Magi:

Sunday:
5.00 am, Italian (winter)
6.00 am, Italian (summer)
8.30 am, Italian (winter)
9.30 am, Italian (summer)

Weekday:
5.00 am, Italian (winter)
6.00 am, Italian (summer)
7.30 am, Italian (winter)
8.30 am, Italian (summer)

Most of the travellers arrive to Bethlehem via Jerusalem. Since Bethlehem is administered by the Palestinian Authority, an Israeli military checkpoint stands on the road connecting the two locations.

Take a bus:

Bus no. 21 runs from the Arabic Bus Station at the Damacus Gate (“Bab el-‘Amoud”) in East Jerusalem via Beit Jala to Bethlehem. The average trip length is 40 minutes.  The bus will drop you of on Bethlehem / Beit Jala intersection (“Bab el-Zkak”) which is 1 km away from the Manger Square. You can easily follow the Pope Paul VI Street to get to the Manger Square and the Basilica of the Nativity in 15 minutes. Bethlehem is a safe place and surely your visit will be very enjoyable!

Posted in The Holy Land and Top Shrines

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