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Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

The Church of the Nativity

The Church of the Nativity is beheld as one of, if not the most important landmark in the Christian religion. One of the most prominent stories told by Christians is the one of Jesus’ birth, where he was born in a manger. The Church of the Nativity was built to commemorate this site, where the baby Jesus was born. The Church of the Nativity is situated within the town of Bethlehem, approximately 10km to the south of Jerusalem.

The Church of the Nativity. The Past 2,000 Years

The story in the Christian bible talks of an Angel, Gabriel, appearing to the carpenter Joseph and guided him to Mary, telling him that she was pregnant with the son of God. Due to a recent law imposed by the Romans it meant that Mary and Joseph had to embark on a journey to Bethlehem from the city they currently lived in, Nazareth. The trip was around 90 miles, which when heavily pregnant and on a donkey’s back, can be a really grueling journey. It is estimated that the journey took between 4 and 7 days.

A very common detail that people know of all around the world is about baby Jesus being born in a manger with the animals. In the days of Jesus’ birth, people used to build houses near to caves to allow for an easy place to keep livestock safe. Once arriving in Bethlehem, Joseph and Mary looked for a place to stay, but soon found that the inns they visited were full. One innkeeper, seeing Mary’s pregnancy at the latest stages, offered for her to stay in the cave with his animals to ensure that she had somewhere she could stay. As the story goes, that very night the baby Jesus was born.

The cave became an iconic place in the Christian community within 100 years of his birth, so much that Constantine, the ruling Roman Emperor at the time, and his mother ordered for a church to be built around the cave. Around 330AD, the Church of the Nativity was built and it is widely believed that on the 31st of May, 339, the church was dedicated. In the 6th Century, the Church of the Nativity encountered serious fire damage during the Samaritan revolts. To restore the church to its former glory Justinian, the then ruling Emperor, ordered for a bigger and more prestigious church to be built in its place.

The Holy Land (an area of land encompassing Jerusalem, Bethlehem and more) as it is often referred to in the Christian community, suffered an invasion from the Persians in 614 after Shah Khosrau II ordered his general to conquer the Byzantine controlled areas in the near east. Despite around 20,000 Jewish rebels joining the Christians, the Persians dealt a lot of damage to the churches in the area, destroying most of them. Fortunately, the Persians who encountered the Church of the Nativity, found a mural on display, causing them to spare the church from destruction. The mural showed the Three Wise Men on their quest wearing Persian clothing, similar to that of Zoroastrian Priests.

It wasn’t until the 12th century that any further significant developments occurred with the church, but this century marked the point where the Crusaders arrived in the holy land. The Crusaders fought various battles for various reasons, for example to liberate the Holy Land from Muslim rule. They also constructed great structures, worshipping God, and many murals which some still have traces of today.

Moving forward to the 15th century and the Holy Land experienced another invasion, this time from the Turkish. In their raid, they stole various artifacts and dealt significant damage to the church. News travelled around quickly and in 1482, King Edward VI paid for a new roof to be built and installed on the church, once again restoring the churches glory.

The land that the Church of the Nativity stands upon has experienced earthquakes, where one in the 1800s damaged the church quite severely. Worse yet, the Ottoman Empire had control of the church and this led to the church becoming left in disrepair and vulnerable to looting. Much of the marble and lead within the Church was taken for other buildings in the local area, including the Temple Mount. In 1846, the Silver Star that commemorated the birthplace of Jesus was stolen. This led to a series of political events and debates over who had control over the Holy Land.

The debates raged on and tensions ran high, with the French, the Turkish Ottomans and Rome all bidding for their control over the land. In the end, an agreement was bound that resulted in the church being owned between three church authorities; the Greek Orthodox being the majority owner and the Armenian Apostolic and the Roman Catholics both having lesser ownership. The Church was officially recognised on the list of World Heritage Sites by UNESCO in 2012.

What Can be Seen at the Church of the Nativity?

The Church is a staple in the Christian history, and the design and display of the church shows no different. Entering through the ‘Door of Humility’, you’ll have to bow down to enter as the door is designed to be very small. This was an effective measure to prevent looters from entering with their carts, significantly limiting their looting abilities. It also means you must bow your head as you enter the house of God, something the Christians see as a sign of respect.

Once inside, the church boasts a beautiful interior. There are 5 different aisles, one main one down the center and then two either side separated out by different columns (44 in total). Flagstones cover the floor, but a trapdoor has been installed to showcase the original mosaic pavement below. The walls were once draped in golden mosaics, most of which are now lost.

Centrally positioned are stairs leading down to the Grotto of the Nativity. This is the main section of the church, as they lead to the cave that the son of God was born within. A marble floor with a 14 pointed silver star is prominent within the grotto, memorializing the birthplace of Jesus. 15 sanctuary lamps are also found hanging within the grotto, all representative and delegated to the three church authorities who each share ownership of the church. Several altars are situated throughout the church, the main one being the Altar of the Nativity.

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