Explore one of Christianity’s holiest sites
Six miles south of Jerusalem sits what is thought to be the oldest continually used place of Christian worship in the world, Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. While the first church was built in the fourth century on the spot many Christians believe to be the birthplace of Jesus, historical sources may reference the site as early as the second century. Today, the Church of the Nativity is one of the most important sites of Christian pilgrimage, alongside Jerusalem’s Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The first church built at the site was commissioned by the Roman emperor Constantine in the early fourth century; the church was consecrated on May 31, 339. However, references to the site may date as far back as the second century, with a possible mention by Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho (78.5–6).
Certainly, though, by the mid-third century, the site—or one very nearby—had taken on a sacred position, as the early Church Father Origen writes about a cave in Bethlehem that was known to be the place of Jesus’s birth (Against Celsus 1.51). Thus, following Empress Helena’s trip to the Holy Land in 327 CE, a basilica was constructed above the cave, parts of which still exist today. This church consisted primarily of an octagonal altar located directly above the cave, with a five-aisle nave and an atrium.
Constantine’s Church of the Nativity would stand until the early sixth century when it was partly burned down. It is uncertain what event caused this damage, although many have suggested that it was a result of the Samaritan revolts, which were responsible for the burning of several other churches in the region. Nevertheless, the church was reconstructed soon after by Emperor Justinian. It is Justinian’s basilica that still stands today, although numerous modifications have been made through the centuries.
Although many modifications and refurbishments occurred during the Crusader period (1099–1291 CE), some sections of the church still preserve Constantine’s original fourth-century construction. The Justinian church changed the octagonal altar area into a triconch (or cruciform) shape. The nave was extended and the atrium was covered to construct a narthex. Along the nave and transepts, Justinian had placed 50 columns, each around 18 feet tall, constructed from local stone quarried near Jerusalem’s Old City.
Unlike most other churches in the region, the Church of the Nativity remained relatively unscathed between the time of Justinian and the modern day, avoiding destruction during the periods of instability and turmoil that accompanied the Sassanid, Islamic, and Crusader conquests. Part of this was due to the church’s distance from Jerusalem, and the relative insignificance of Bethlehem for the region’s strategic defense. The church’s survival even led to stories and legends that it was miraculously protected from such events.
During the early Islamic period (c. 634–1099 CE), a Muslim prayer space was introduced into the church alongside the traditional areas of Christian worship. The site remained a pilgrimage destination for western Christians during this time, and in 808 CE, Charlemagne sent a mission to the church to record its various details and possibly even carry out some repairs.
On June 7, 1099, the Crusading Franks conquered Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. The following year, Baldwin of Boulogne’s coronation as king of the Kingdom of Jerusalem took place inside the church. Baldwin II would likewise be crowned king at the site in 1119.
During its years under Crusader control, extensive repairs and modifications were made to the church, mainly to bring it into conformity with the Latin rite. The basic plan of the Justinian church was left in place, however, as well as many of the various architectural features, including the columns. The Crusaders further encircled the complex in a large wall, parts of which were later incorporated into various monasteries that still stand today.
Beginning in the Crusader period, numerous murals, mosaics, and paintings were added to the church, including the lavish wall mosaics that are still partially preserved today, and the column paintings of various saints and supplicants, which were likely a joint venture between the church leaders and wealthy pilgrims.
Upon Saladin’s conquest of the Holy Land (c. 1187), much of the Roman Catholic clergy left the Church of the Nativity. Nevertheless, the church suffered very little damage and Christian worship continued at the site under the Greek Orthodox, Armenians, and other Christian traditions, although eventually the Roman Catholics would return as well. The Church would continue relatively unaltered until the Ottoman period (c. 1516–1917).
Under the Ottomans, much of the marble, which had once decorated the Church of the Nativity, was plundered, possibly to be used in refurbishing Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock. Although still in use, the church would enter a long period of decay. Likewise, the central nave of the church, was used for non-worship purposes, including legal proceedings and even housing Ottoman troops when required. Eventually, church officials regained control over the church although, over the next several centuries, it continued to fall into disrepair.
The Church of the Nativity was nominated and added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites in 2012. At the time of its listing, it was considered in danger due to its poor state of preservation. However, in 2013, church officials and conservators began large-scale renovation works on the church, restoring it to much of its former glory and making the site far safer for the nearly 2 million visitors and pilgrims who arrive at the site every year.
For more about the archaeology and history of the Church of the Nativity, see Michele Bacci, The Mystic Cave: A History of the Nativity Church at Bethlehem (Roma: Masaryk University Viella, 2017).
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