Tomorrow at midnight,
around the world
remember the birth of Christ in the city of Bethlehem.
Today I would like to provide a short history of the Church commemorating that event
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
|Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem|
Christian traditions, 2,017 years ago Joseph of Nazareth and his pregnant wife Maria went to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Joseph, in order to
comply with a Roman edict to register for a census. They found the city of
Bethlehem full to overflowing, and were unable to find a room in either in
an inn or the home of Joseph’s relatives. In consequence, they lodged in the
cave behind the residence of Joseph’s family in which, as was common at the
time, livestock and stores were kept. (To
this day, this is a custom in the region.) Here Mary gave birth to a son,
At the time of
his birth Jesus was not of particular importance, hence his birthplace was not in any way noted, marked or honored. It was only after he had died that some of his followers sought to locate the place where he had been born. Since this occurred within the
living memory of many of his friends and family, it is not improbable that the
house in which Joseph and Mary had stayed--and the stables attached to it--could
be accurately identified.
Following the Jewish
uprising of 132-135, Hadrian ordered Roman temples erected on top of all Jewish
and Christian holy sites. Over the cave in Bethlehem, revered by the small but significant
Christian community still resident in Palestine, a temple to Adonis was built.
Although certainly an insult to Christians at the time, it was a fortuitous
development for later generations since it effectively marked a location
that might otherwise have been lost from memory.
In 312, Constantine
became Roman Emperor and raised his mother Helena to the rank of Empress. Helena
had converted to Christianity and within a year of coming to power, Constantine issued an edict
that ended the persecution of Christians.
Thereafter and throughout his reign, Constantine was to protect and
serve as a patron of the Christian church, without, however, fully suppressing pagan
|Emperor Constantine - Wall Mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (Constantinople)|
Helena, however, had been an
early convert to Christianity and after her son’s rise to ultimate power, she traveled
to Palestine in search of the sites of Christ’s passion. According to Christian
traditions, she located the site of the crucifixion, excavated the cross on
which Christ had been crucified, and also found the tomb in which Christ had
been buried. While her son commissioned the construction of a church over the
Holy Grave (the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem), Helena is credited
with commissioning the construction of a church on the site of Christ’s
birth to replace the temple to Adonis.
was a five-aisled basilica, the mosaics of which are still visible to this day.
However, in 529, this church was
destroyed in a revolt by the Samaritans.
In 540, Emperor
Justinian I sponsored the construction of a new basilica over the foundations
of the old that stood over and incorporated the cave in which Christ had been
born. When Palestine was overrun by the Persians in 614, they destroyed all the
churches and monasteries, including Constantine’s church over the Holy
Sepulcher — except the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This was because
over the portal of the church was a mosaic depicting the adoration of the magi
or Three Wise Men in which the magi were wearing “oriental” robes. Based on their dress, Persians invaders
recognized the figures in the mosaic as Persian priests; out of
respect for their own priests they spared the church. It is this
church that can still be found in Bethlehem today, although the mosaic that saved it from destruction has itself since been lost.
In 640, Bethlehem
fell to the forces of the Muslim Caliph Omar. Omar, rather than destroying the
Church of the Nativity, used it as a place of prayer. Thereafter, parts of the church complex were reserved for Muslim worship. This preserved the church from destruction by
less tolerant Muslim leaders such as Caliph el-Hakim, who demolished the Church
of the Holy Sepulcher a second time.
When the Crusaders
reached Palestine in 1099, they took possession of Bethlehem before launching
the assault on Jerusalem. In contrast to the seizure of Jerusalem that ended with a
blood-bath, there is no mention of violence or massacre in
Bethlehem, probably because the town was neither walled nor defended. It has also been suggested in some sources that the population of Bethlehem was still predominantly Christian when the crusaders arrived.
With the establishment of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem,
Bethlehem became the seat of a bishop. It remained part of the royal domain,
however, and Baldwin of Bouillon was crowned the first King of Jerusalem in the
Church of the Nativity. A tradition followed by his successor, Baldwin II, but
not subsequent kings, who preferred to be crowned in the Church of the Holy
|Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem|
The Church of the Nativity became the second most important pilgrimage
destination in the Christian world after the Holy Sepulcher itself. As Christian pilgrims
flooded to the Holy Land, the city of Bethlehem enjoyed an economic boom. This was supplemented by massive investments on the part of the crusader kings to restore a church that was in a state of significant disrepair when the crusaders arrived. Especially under
King Baldwin III and King Amalric I, both of whom were married to Byzantine
princesses (Theodora and Maria Comnena respectively), the restoration work was
carried out by artists with very high levels of sophistication and influenced
by Byzantine traditions. The most extensive mosaics from the crusader period
are found in the Church of the Nativity, where no less than 28 frescos dating from the crusader period have been identified. Furthermore, under Christian rule, religious
orders were re-established in the Holy Land and a beautiful Romanesque cloister
was built adjacent to the Church of the Nativity which can still be visited
|Crusader Mosaics at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem|
All that ended with the devastating defeat of the Christian army at Hattin on
July 4, 1187. Bethlehem had no defenses
and no defenders. It fell without a fight to the army of Saladin, and, except
for a brief interval from 1229 to 1244, it remained in Muslim hands until it came
under the British Protectorate in 1920. Under the various Muslim leaders, Bethlehem
became impoverished again. In 1516, the town had only 100 inhabitants!
Meanwhile, the church fell increasing into disrepair. The marble wall panels
were ripped out to be used in new buildings. In 1646 the tin roof was torn
off and melted down for other purposes. The Church would almost certainly have become a complete ruin had not the Greek Orthodox church set
out to restore the church with the tolerance of the Ottoman rulers starting in 1670.
the 18th and 19th centuries saw a bitter fight between
the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholic and the Armenian churches for control of
the Church of the Nativity. In addition,
earthquakes, fires and uprisings damaged both the church and the town of
Bethlehem. In 1920 Bethlehem came under British administration, and in 1948
fell to Jordan. In 1963, the city numbered roughly 60,000 mostly Christian
inhabitants, but the number fell dramatically after Israeli occupation. Today,
Bethlehem suffers visibly from the political situation and the tensions between
Palestinians and Israelis.
Fortress-like Construction seems sadly appropriate. Palestinian
Terrorists held nuns, priests and tourists hostage here in April 2002.|
it is still worth a visit today. To be sure, the mosaic mural depicting the
adoration of the magi that saved the Church from Persian destruction has been
lost, but St. Helena’s floor mosaics can still be seen, as can the mosaic
murals of the crusader kings and the crusader-period cloisters. Most important,
of course, beneath the high alter in the crypt of the church is the cave in
which according to two thousand years of Christian tradition Christ was born over 2000
years ago today.
|The Crusader cloisters -- my favorite place.|
Bethlehem features in my novels set in the Holy Land. It was the scene of a skirmish leading up to the siege of Jerusalem in 1187, which is described in detail in award-winning: