Crossing Manger Square, the main square of Bethlehem, you see a collection of buildings and towers right ahead: the Church of the Nativity. It was built in the early 4th century by Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine I, the first Christian Roman emperor. The church replaced a pagan site worshipping Adonis; its construction was the first of many steps in the spreading of Christianity around the world. The original building was burnt down in the Samaritan revolt of the 6th century, and was rebuilt soon afterwards. When the Persians sacked Bethlehem in the 7th century, they spared the Church of the Nativity after seeing the Three Magi, wearing Persian clothes, depicted inside the church.
Over time, the Church of the Nativity expanded by the Crusaders and others; for instance, the Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine was added in the 19th century. It is here that Midnight Mass is celebrated on Christmas Eve. Three different authorities are in charge in the Church of the Nativity: the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic. What makes the Church of the Nativity unique is that it was built right over the cave in which Jesus was born according to legend. Obviously, this is the most sacred spot in the church. A 14-pointed silver star in an Armenian setting marks the spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus.
When you approach the Church of the Nativity, you note the low entrance. Actually, this Door of Humility was built so low because this door of Ottoman times prevented a swift entrance of soldiers on horses. The modern visitor would be wise to bow and pay attention upon entering anyway. Once inside, a simple church opens itself: four lines of Corinthian columns at the sides and a paved floor, seemingly bare walls and absence of the overkill of ostentatious showing-off leave their impression. This is a church to explore: the wooden doors in the floor allow the visitor to see the original mosaic floor, the walls still contain some of the original golden mosaics; you can walk down to see various caves or walk out into the open in the medieval cloisters just outside the Church of St. Catherine. We first visited on Sunday, and found the church overflowing with mostly devoutly religious visitors; the line for visiting the grotto of the nativity was very long. We saw the believers light candles, pay respect in the grotto of the nativity, while some of them were just immersed in concentrated prayer. When we came back on a different day, we found the church deserted and in a completely different atmosphere. We marveled at the seemingly simple entourage of the grotto of the nativity, saw a small ceremony in the Armenian Chapel of the Church of the Nativity, and just sat down to absorb the atmosphere.
Personal travel impressions both in words and images from Church of the Nativity (Palestinian Territories). Clicking on the pictures enlarges them and enables you to send the picture as a free e-card or download it for personal use, for instance, on your weblog. Or click on the map above to visit more places close to Church of the Nativity.
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