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The Church of the Nativity (Arabic: كَنِيسَةُ ٱلْمَهْد‎; Greek: Βασιλική της Γεννήσεως; Armenian: Սուրբ Ծննդյան տաճար; Latin: Basilica Nativitatis) is a basilica located in Bethlehem, in the West Bank.

Church of the Nativity
Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem, Palestine.jpg
The interior of the Church of the Nativity circa 1936, photographed by Lewis Larsson
Basic information
Location Bethlehem, West Bank
Geographic coordinates 31°42′15.50″N 35°12′27.50″E / 31.7043056°N 35.2076389°E / 31.7043056; 35.2076389Coordinates: 31°42′15.50″N 35°12′27.50″E / 31.7043056°N 35.2076389°E / 31.7043056; 35.2076389
Affiliation Shared: Greek Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic with minor Syriac and Coptic rights[1]
Status Active
Architectural description
Architectural type Byzantine (Constantine the Great and Justinian I)
Architectural style Romanesque
Groundbreaking 325
Completed 565
Official name: Birthplace of Jesus: the Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem
Type Cultural Heritage
Criteria iv, vi
Designated 2012[2]
Reference no. 1433
State Party Israel
Region Western Asia
The exterior of the Church of the Nativity

The church was originally commissioned in 327 by Constantine the Great and his mother Helena on the site that was traditionally considered to be located over the cave marking the birthplace of Jesus. That Church of the Nativity, the original basilica, was completed in 339 but it was destroyed by fire during the Samaritan Revolts of the 6th century. A new basilica was built in 565 by Justinian, the Byzantine Emperor, restoring the architectural tone of the original.[3] The site of the Church of the Nativity has had numerous additions since this second construction, including its prominent bell towers. Due to its cultural and geographical history, the site holds a prominent religious significance to those of the Christian faith.

The site of the Church of the Nativity is a World Heritage Site, and was the first to be listed under Palestine by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).[4] The site is also on UNESCO's List of World Heritage in Danger.[5] The Status Quo, a 250-year old understanding among religious communities, applies to the site.[6][7]



First-century holy site (c. 4–6 – 327 AD)Edit

The holy site, known as the Grotto, that the Church of the Nativity sits atop, is today associated with the cave in which the birth of Jesus of Nazareth is said to have occurred. In 135, Hadrian is said to have had the Christian site above the Grotto converted into a worship place for Adonis, the Greek god of beauty and desire.[8][9] A Father with the Church of the Nativity, Jerome, noted before his death in 420 that the holy cave was at one point consecrated by the heathen to the worship of Adonis, and that a pleasant sacred grove was planted there in order to completely wipe out the memory of Jesus from the world.[8] Although some modern scholars dispute this argument and insist that the cult of Adonis-Tammuz originated the shrine and that it was the Christians who took it over, substituting the worship of Jesus,[10] the antiquity of the association of the site with the birth of Jesus is attested by the Christian apologist Justin Martyr (c. 100 – 165 ), who noted in his Dialogue with Trypho that the Holy Family had taken refuge in a cave outside of town:

But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him.(chapter LXXVIII).

Additionally, the Greek philosopher Origen of Alexandria (185 – c. 254) wrote:

In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And the rumor is in those places, and among foreigners of the Faith, that indeed Jesus was born in this cave who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians. (Contra Celsum, book I, chapter LI).

Fourth-century basilica, (327 – c. 529/556)Edit

The first basilica on this site was begun by Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine I. Under the supervision of Bishop Makarios of Jerusalem, the construction started in 327 and was completed in 333.[11] Construction of this early church was carried out as part of a larger project following the First Council of Nicaea during Constantine's reign to build on the supposed sites of the life of Jesus. The design of the basilica centered around three major architectural sections: (1) an octagonal rotunda over the area believed to be where Jesus of Nazareth was born; (2) a boxed atrium area of 148 by 92 feet (45 m × 28 m); and (3) double-aisled forecourt of 95 by 93 feet (29 m × 28 m).[11][12] The structure was burnt down and destroyed in one of the Samaritan Revolts of 529 or 556, in the second of which Jews seem to have joined the Samaritans.[13][14]

Sixth-century basilica (565)Edit

The current basilica was rebuilt in its present form in 565 by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. When the Persians under Chosroes II invaded in 614, they did not destroy the structure. According to legend, their commander Shahrbaraz was moved by the depiction inside the church of the Three Magi wearing Persian clothing, and commanded that the building be spared. The Crusaders made further repairs and additions to the building during the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, with permission and help given by the Byzantine Emperor, and the first King of Jerusalem was crowned in the church. Over the years, the compound has been expanded, and today it covers approximately 12,000 square meters. The theft in 1847 of the silver star marking the spot where Christ was born, was one of the direct causes for French involvement in the Crimean War against Russia.

Eleventh- and twelfth-century additions and restoration (c. 1050–1169)Edit

Until 1131, the Church of the Nativity was used as the primary coronation church for crusader kings.[15] During this time, extensive decoration by the crusaders and various restorations of the basilica and grounds took place.[15] This decoration and restoration process took place until 1169.[14]

Fifteenth-century roof restoration (1448–1480)Edit

The basilica and grounds as they were depicted to appear in a work published in 1487

The roof of the Church of the Nativity lay in poor condition after the desecration that occurred in April 1244 at the hands of the Khwarezmian Turks.[16][17] In August 1448, the Duchy of Burgundy committed resources to the project, but it was not until 1480 that they were able to get the project underway in Bethlehem.[17] Due to this worsening condition of the wooden Church roof, in 1480 an extensive roof reconstruction and renovation project took place on the Church of the Nativity. Multiple regions contributed supplies to have the Church roof repaired, with England supplying the lead, the Second Kingdom of Burgundy supplying the wood, and the Republic of Venice providing the labor.[18]

Nineteenth-century damage, conflict, and administration (1834–1869)Edit

The interior of the Church of the Nativity as it was depicted to appear in 1833

Between 1834 and 1837, earthquakes and aftershocks in Bethlehem inflicted significant damage to the Church of the Nativity.[19] The initial earthquake, the 1834 Jerusalem earthquake, damaged the church's bell tower, the furnishings of the cave on which the church is built, and other parts of its structure.[20] Minor damages were further inflicted with a series of strong aftershocks in 1836 and with the Galilee earthquake of 1837 shortly thereafter.[21][22]

By 1846, the Church of the Nativity and its surrounding site lay in disrepair. The Church's state had left the site vulnerable to looting. Much of the marble floors of the interior of the Church were looted in the early half of the 19th century, and many were transferred to use in other buildings around the region, including to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In that same year, the religiously significant silver star was stolen that had been displayed above the Grotto of the Nativity.[23] In 1851, the Church of the Nativity was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. But near Christmas of 1852, Napoleon III sent his ambassador to the Ottoman Empire and forced the Ottomans to recognise France as the "sovereign authority" in the Holy Land, which the Latins had lost in the eighteenth century.[24] The Sultan of Turkey replaced the silver star over the Grotto with a Latin inscription, but the Russian Empire disputed the change in "authority," citing two treaties—one from 1757 and the other from 1774 (the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca)—and deployed armies to the Danube area. As a result, the Ottomans issued firmans essentially reversing their earlier decision, renouncing the French treaty, and restoring the Greeks to the sovereign authority over the churches of the Holy Land for the time being. Since individual churches did not have a say in firmans,[dubious ] tensions arose at the local level. These, along with the theft of the silver star, helped to further fuel the debate between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire over the occupation of holy sites around the region. This theft is often cited by scholars as one of the catalysts of the Crimean War.[citation needed]

Twentieth-century repair and restoration (1930s)Edit

1964 cave passageway excavationEdit

In February 1964 a passageway connecting St Jerome's Cave to the Cave of the Nativity was expanded to allow easier access for visitors. American businessman Stanley Slotkin was visiting at the time and purchased a quantity of the limestone rubble, comprising over a million irregular fragments about 5 mm (0.20 in) across. After they arrived in America they were sold to the public encased in plastic in crosses and in 1995 they were advertised in infomercials.[25]

The interior of the Church of the Nativity as photographed by the Matson Photographic Service in the 1930s

2002 siegeEdit

In April 2002, during the second Intifada, some 50 armed Palestinians wanted by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) locked themselves in the church with some 200 monks and other Palestinians who arrived at the site for different reasons, and were either held hostage, or willingly served as human shields for the terrorists.[26] The IDF did not break into the building, but prevented the entry of food, and cut telephone lines. The siege lasted 39 days and some of the people inside were shot by IDF snipers. After lengthy negotiations it was agreed that some of the gunmen would be evacuated to Gaza, Spain and Italy.

The Siege is a Palestinian play developed and devised by The Freedom Theatre which recounts the story, from the Palestinian perspective, including many unproven allegations.[citation needed]

2014 fireEdit

A few days after Pope Francis' 2014 visit to the disputed territories, curtains in the grotto beneath the church caught fire on 27 May 2014. There was some slight damage as a result.[27]

Current restorationEdit

The Church of Nativity, where many Christians believe Jesus Christ was born, in Bethlehem, is currently undergoing a major renovation. The Palestinian Presidential Committee for the Restoration of the Nativity Church commenced a massive rehabilitation of the church with the blessings of the Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Churches, in September 2013. The work is being done by Piacenti S.p.A., an Italian restoration company.[28]

In July 2016, Italian restoration workers uncovered a seventh mosaic angel in the Church of the Nativity which was previously hidden under plaster. The seventh angel was discovered by Silvia Starinieri Piacenti using a thermography technique that scans solid surfaces in the search for works hidden underneath them.[29]

Current administrationEdit

The church is administered jointly by Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Armenian Apostolic and Syriac Orthodox Church authorities. All four traditions maintain monastic communities on the site. As a result, however, there have been repeated brawls among monk trainees over quiet respect for others' prayers, hymns and even the division of floorspace for cleaning duties.[30][31] The Palestinian police have been called to restore peace and order.[32]

Site architecture and layoutEdit

Interior of the Church of the Nativity

The wider site connected to the Grotto of the Nativity where tradition states that Jesus of Nazareth was born, includes the Church of the Nativity itself, and the adjoining Roman Catholic Church of St. Catherine. Access to the crypt beneath the Church of the Nativity, which contains the Grotto, is possible from both churches, although the Grotto is separated by a normally closed door from the underground spaces of St Catherine's.

Basilica architectureEdit

Constantinian basilica (4th century)Edit

Justinian basilica (6th century)Edit

An illustration from 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica depicting the plan of Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem. (1) Narthex; (2) nave; (3) aisles.

Site layout and architectural expansionEdit

  • The main Basilica of the Nativity is maintained by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. It is designed like a typical Roman basilica, with five aisles (formed by Corinthian columns) and an apse in the eastern end, where the sanctuary is. The church features golden mosaics covering the side walls, which are now largely decayed. The basilica is entered through a very low door, called the "Door of Humility." The original Roman style floor has since been covered over, but there is a trap door in the modern floor which opens up to reveal a portion of the original mosaic pavement from the Constantinian basilia.[33] The church also features a large gilded iconostasis, and a complex array of lamps throughout the entire building. The wooden rafters were donated by King Edward IV of England. The same king also donated lead to cover the roof; however, this lead was later taken by the Ottoman Turks, who melted it down for ammunition to use in war against Venice. Stairways on either side of the Sanctuary lead down by winding stairs to the Grotto.
  • The adjoining Church of St. Catherine, the Roman Catholic church dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria, was built in a more modern Gothic Revival style, and has since been further modernized according to the liturgical trends which followed Vatican II. This is the church where the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem celebrates Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve. Certain customs still observed in this Midnight Mass predate Vatican II, but must be maintained because the "status quo" (the customs, rights and duties of the various church authorities that have custody of the Holy Places) was legally fixed by a firman in 1852, under the Ottoman Empire, that is still in force to this day.
  • The Grotto of the Nativity, an underground cave located beneath the basilica, enshrines the site where Jesus is said to have been born. The exact spot is marked beneath an altar by a 14-pointed silver star with the Latin inscription Hic De Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est-1717 (Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary-1717). It was installed by the Catholics in 1717, removed by the Greeks in 1847 and replaced by the Turkish government in 1853. The star is set into the marble floor and surrounded by fifteen silver lamps representing the three Christian communities: six belong to the Greek Orthodox, four to the Catholics, and five to the Armenian Apostolic. The altar itself, known as the Altar of the Nativity, is maintained by the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic churches. Roman Catholics are in charge of a section of the Grotto known as the "Grotto of the Manger", marking the site where traditionally Mary laid the newborn Baby in the manger. The Altar of the Magi is located directly opposite from the manger site.
  • Numerous chapels are found in the compound as well, including the Chapel of Saint Joseph, commemorating the angel's appearance to Joseph, commanding him to flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:13); the Chapel of the Innocents, commemorating the children killed by Herod (Matthew 2:16–18); and the Chapel of Saint Jerome, where traditionally he translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate).
  • Manger Square, a large paved courtyard in front of the Church, is the site where crowds gather on Christmas Eve to sing Christmas carols in anticipation of the midnight services.

Preservation and related concernsEdit

The basilica was placed on the 2008 Watch List of the 100 Most Endangered Sites by the World Monuments Fund:

The present state of the church is worrying. Many roof timbers are rotting, and have not been replaced since the 19th century. The rainwater that seeps into the building not only accelerates the rotting of the wood and damages the structural integrity of the building, but also damages the 12th-century wall mosaics and paintings. The influx of water also means that there is an ever-present chance of an electrical fire. If another earthquake were to occur on the scale of the one of 1834, the result would most likely be catastrophic. ... It is hoped that the listing will encourage its preservation, including getting the three custodians of the church—the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, and the Franciscan order—to work together, which has not happened for hundreds of years. The Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority would also have to work together to protect it.[35][36]

In 2010, the Palestinian Authority announced that a multimillion-dollar restoration programme was imminent.[37]

The initial phase of the restoration work was completed in early 2016. The project is partially funded by Palestinians and conducted by a team of Palestinian and international experts. New windows have been installed, structural repairs on the roof have been completed and art works and mosaics have been cleaned and restored. Although overwhelmingly Muslim, Palestinians consider the church a national treasure and one of their most visited tourist sites. President Mahmoud Abbas has been actively involved in the project, which is led by Ziad al-Bandak.[38]

World Heritage SiteEdit

In 2012, the church complex became the first Palestinian site to be listed as a World Heritage Site by the World Heritage Committee at its 36th session on 29 June.[39] It was approved by a secret vote[40] of 13–6 in the 21-member committee, according to UNESCO spokeswoman Sue Williams,[41] and following an emergency candidacy procedure that by-passed the 18-month process for most sites, despite the opposition of the United States and Israel. The site was approved under criteria four and six.[42] The decision was a controversial one on both technical and political terms.[41][43] It has also been placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger as it is suffering from damages due to water leaks.[5]


According to a tradition not sustained by history, the tombs of four saints are said to be located beneath the church, in an underground space accessible from the Catholic Church of St. Catherine:[44]

  • Eusebius of Cremona, a disciple of Jerome. A different tradition holds that he is buried in Italy.
  • Eustochium, the daughter of St. Paula
  • Jerome, whose remains are said to have been transferred to the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome
  • Saint Paula, a disciple and benefactor of Jerome


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Cust, L. G. A. (1929). The Status Quo in the Holy Places. H.M.S.O. for the High Commissioner of the Government of Palestine. 
  2. ^ "Unesco, Birthplace of Jesus: the Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem". UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Retrieved 1 July 2012. 
  3. ^ Cohen, Raymond. Conflict and Neglect: Between Ruin and Preservation at the Church of the Nativity. [full citation needed]
  4. ^ Lazaroff, Tovah (29 June 2012). "UNESCO: Nativity Church heritage site in 'Palestinian Authority'". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 29 June 2012. 
  5. ^ a b "Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem". UNESCO. Retrieved 30 June 2012. 
  6. ^ UN Conciliation Commission (1949). United Nations Conciliation Commission for Palestine Working Paper on the Holy Places. 
  7. ^ Cust, L. G. A. (1929). The Status Quo in the Holy Places. H.M.S.O. for the High Commissioner of the Government of Palestine. 
  8. ^ a b Ricciotti, Giuseppe (1948). Vita di Gesù Cristo. Tipografia Poliglotta Vaticana. p. 276 n. 
  9. ^ Maier, Paul L. (2001). The First Christmas: The True and Unfamiliar Story. [full citation needed]
  10. ^ Craveri, Marcello (1967). The Life of Jesus. Grove Press. pp. 35–37. 
  11. ^ a b Roth, Leland M. (1993). Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History and Meaning (First ed.). Boulder, CO: Westview Press. pp. 30, 222. ISBN 0-06-430158-3. 
  12. ^ Moffatt, Marian; et al. (2003). A World History of Architecture.  [full citation needed]
  13. ^ Crown, Alan D; et al. (1993). A Comparison to Samaritan Studies. p. 55.  [full citation needed]
  14. ^ a b Shomali, Qustandi. Church of the Nativity: History and Structure. [full citation needed]
  15. ^ a b Hazzard, Harry W. (1977). A History of the Crusades. Vol. IV. [full citation needed]
  16. ^ "After Centuries, Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity to Get New Roof". 27 November 2011. 
  17. ^ a b Pringle, Denys (1993). The Churches of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. Vol. I. [full citation needed]
  18. ^ Accessed 18 July 2012.[full citation needed]
  19. ^ Black, Aden (1851). A Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature. vol I. [full citation needed]
  20. ^ The Holy Land. Oxford University Press. 2008. [full citation needed]
  21. ^ Black, Aden (1851). A Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature. Vol I. [full citation needed]
  22. ^ Smith, George Adam (1907). Jerusalem: the topography, economics and history from the earliest times to A.D. 70. Vol 1. [full citation needed]
  23. ^ Kraemer, Joel L. (1980). Jerusalem: problems and prospects. [full citation needed]
  24. ^ Royle. p. 19.[full citation needed]
  25. ^ Dart, John (12 October 1996). "Rocks of Faith". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 27 May 2016. 
  26. ^ Cohen, Ariel (24 April 2002). "The Nativity Sin". National Review Online. Archived from the original on 17 August 2011. Retrieved 1 July 2012. 
  27. ^ "Fire breaks out at Bethlehem's Church of Nativity". WKBN. Associated Press. 27 May 2014. [full citation needed]
  28. ^ "Church of Nativity restoration". United Press International. Washington. Retrieved 17 December 2016. 
  29. ^ "Italians find Church of Nativity's 7th angel". Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata. Rome. Retrieved 8 July 2016. 
  30. ^ "Cleaning turns into a broom-brawl at the Church of the Nativity". MSNBC. 28 December 2011. Retrieved 26 March 2013. 
  31. ^ "Monks brawl at Jerusalem shrine". BBC News. 9 November 2008. 
  32. ^ "Palestinian territories (News), Christianity (News), Israel (News), Religion (News), World news, Christmas (Life and style), Greece (News), Armenia (News)". The Guardian. 28 December 2011. 
  33. ^ Madden, A. M. (2012). "A Revised Date for the Mosaic Pavements of the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem". Ancient West and East. 11: 147–190. 
  34. ^ "Płaskorzeźba w dare". Dziennik Polski (in Polish). 13 May 2009. Archived from the original on 26 April 2015. Retrieved 15 May 2009. 
  35. ^ "Church of the Holy Nativity". World Monuments Fund. Retrieved 22 December 2011. 
  36. ^ Kumar, Anugrah (28 November 2011). "Bethlehem's Nativity Church to Get Overdue Repairs". The Christian Post. 
  37. ^ "Topic Galleries". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 22 December 2011. [full citation needed]
  38. ^ "Sci/Tech – Science & Technology: Breaking news and opinions". [full citation needed]
  39. ^ "Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity Could Be Israel's First World Heritage Site". Global Heritage Fund. 15 June 2012. Retrieved 29 June 2012. 
  40. ^ "UNESCO urgently lists Church of Nativity as world heritage". IBN Live News. 29 June 2012. Retrieved 29 June 2012. 
  41. ^ a b "UNESCO makes Church of Nativity as endangered site". 29 June 2012. Retrieved 29 June 2012. 
  42. ^ "Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem". UNESCO World Heritage Centre. Retrieved 26 March 2013. 
  43. ^ "UN grants Nativity Church 'endangered' status". Middle East. Al Jazeera English. Retrieved 26 March 2013. 
  44. ^ Jerome Murphy-O'Connor (2008). The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700. Oxford Archaeological Guides. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-19-923666-4. Retrieved 13 November 2017.