The birthplace of Jesus, the Saviour, is identified in Bethlehem, where the Basilica of the Nativity stands today. To take part in the census announced by the Romans, Joseph and Mary went from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to the small town of Bethlehem in Judaea, as Joseph belonged to the family of David. It was there that Mary gave birth and Jesus was born in what is known today as the “Grotto of the Nativity.”
Bethlehem – Basilica of the Nativity
The birthplace of Jesus, the Saviour, is identified in Bethlehem, where the Basilica of the Nativity stands today. To take part in the census announced by the Romans, Joseph and Mary went from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to the small town of Bethlehem in Judaea, as Joseph belonged to the family of David. It was there that Mary gave birth and Jesus was born in what is known today as the “Grotto of the Nativity.”
- Archaeological Excavations
- The restoration of the Church of the Nativity
- Bethlehem in the Sacred Scripture
- The liturgical tradition
- The church of Ecumenism
- Shepherds' Field
- The Church on the "Milk Grotto"
- House of Saint Joseph
- Hortus Conclusus
- Cisterns of David
- Rachel's Tomb
- Information and opening hours
The name Bethlehem appears to have been indicated in a cuneiform tablet found in Egypt belonging to the archive of the pharaoh Akhenaton: it speaks of the city of Bit Lahmu located in the territory of Jerusalem. It is very likely that the original name of the city derived from Lahmo, the Chaldean god of nature and fertility whose name was adopted by the Canaanite people and modified to Lahama.
If one accepts this hypothesis, the translation of the name Beit-el-Laham might have been “House of the Lahama”, which would make sense in view of the fact that this land was very fertile and rich in water. Moreover, in the Old Testament the city is called by the name Beth Lechem, “House of Bread”, and also Ephrath, a name derived from the tribe that lived in these places, which literally means “fruitful”.
The more modern names also make reference to the idea of a fertile and abundant place; in Arabic, Beit Lahm has the sense “house of flesh”, reflecting the large number of flocks of sheep and goats, one of the principal activities in the area. Meanwhile Hebrew Beit-Lehem means “house of bread”, a notion that introduces us to the image of Jesus as the living bread that came down from heaven.
In the Old Testament the city is mentioned as being the chief city and settlement of the tribe of King David, established in these lands from around 1200 BC. The city is also mentioned in Sacred Scripture as being the site of the tomb of Rachel, the wife of the patriarch Jacob. These biblical times were marked by centuries of wars and partitions of territories.
In 586 the Chaldean army of Nebuchadnezzar, having occupied Judea, deported the Jewish population to Babylon where they lived for fifty years in exile. At the end of this period the Persian king Cyrus II (“The Great”) allowed the Jews to return, and from this time onwards the city of Bethlehem was repopulated.
Palestine, including the city of Bethlehem, was occupied by Alexander the Great in 333 BC and subsequently subject to the rule of the Ptolomies from 301 to 198 BC, and then to that of the Seleucids of Antioch.
Between 167 and 164 BC persecutions of the Jews began and an anti-Syrian revolt led by the Maccabees broke out. The Hasmonean Dynasty began in 134 BC and was extended to the entire territory, including the town of Bethlehem, lasting for approximately 70 years until the arrival of Roman troops.
The Roman period
The Palestinian territories were conquered by Pompey in 63 BC and remained under Roman control throughout the lifetime of Jesus Christ. The territories conquered by the Romans were divided into various tetrarchies. Among these, the city of Bethlehem was under the control of King Herod I (“the Great”), who in approximately 30 BC had a fortified palace called Herodion built on the outskirts of the city.
The era about which we are speaking was clearly marked by the event of the birth of Jesus Christ, which saw the coming of the Christian era and also coincided with a great revolt of the Jewish people against Roman rule. In 6 AD the ethnarch Archelaus was deposed and Judea was incorporated into the imperial province of Syria and administered by procurators based in Caesarea Maritima.
When Jerusalem was destroyed by Titus in 70 AD, Bethlehem was fortunately spared. The holy place was already a site of worship by the first Christians who venerated the cave in which Jesus had been born. During this period the Jewish revolts increased in intensity and were suppressed during the reign of Hadrian, who decided to construct in Bethlehem a pagan temple dedicated to Adonis above the Grotto of the Nativity, which was to be buried and destroyed along with all signs of Christianity, as had already occurred with the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The place at that time must still have been in its natural state, as it was to be described later by Jerome who provides us with this evidence. As attested for us by Origen in his writings, a clear memory has always existed that it was in this place that Jesus was born. Due to the brutal repressions many Judeo-Christians departed, leaving the town in the hands of pagans who continued with their religion.
The Roman-Byzantine period
Religious freedom was proclaimed following the Edict of Constantine in 313 AD, and a new era began for all the places of Christian worship. With the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) and through the strong will of the Empress Helena, following the necessary excavations construction works began for the Church of the Nativity, thus restoring a measure of dignity to the holy place preserved within.
The works finished in 333, mention of this being made by the anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux (Itinerarium 598). Bethlehem became a great religious center and, with the arrival of St. Jerome in 384, a new phase began as the town became a magnet for a new monastic way of life. Jerome made a major contribution to the history of the Church through his translation, at the request of Pope Damasus, of the Vulgate Bible.
Another individual who played a major role in the development of monasticism in Bethlehem, for both men and women, was the Roman patrician Paula who, along with her daughter Eustochium, arrived in Bethlehem in 386 and used much of her inherited wealth to finance the construction of two monasteries near the places of Jesus’ Nativity.
Following Jerome’s death in 420, monastic life in Bethlehem declined and in the following century the town was conquered by the Samaritans of Nablus, who during their revolt (521 to 528) against the Byzantine emperor sacked the churches and monasteries, and harshly attacked the Christians (529). After these sackings and following the destruction of the Church of the Nativity, in 531 the Roman emperor Justinian, at the request of St. Sabas, restored the sanctuary and rebuilt the city which at that point was in ruins. At that time the largest of the tympanums was decorated with a mosaic depicting the Magi in Persian costumes.
This detail turned out to be very fortunate, for during the invasion led by Chosroes in 614 the basilica was spared from destruction because the Persian army took fright at the sight of the mosaic. In 629 Emperor Heraclius reconquered the Palestinian territories from the Persians.
With the Arab-Muslim occupation by Caliph Omar in 638, Bethlehem also became subject to this new power. A climate of tolerance and peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians was guaranteed by the symbolic gesture of the Caliph who, following the occupation of the town, entered to pray alongside the south apse of the church.
From that moment onwards, the church became a place of prayer for both Christians and Muslims. At the beginning, this peaceful coexistence and tolerance between the two religions was respected, but with the coming of different caliphates the situation for the Christians in Bethlehem deteriorated markedly, culminating in the persecutions in 1009 on the part of the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim who ordered the destruction of the Holy Land sanctuaries; the Nativity in Bethlehem was miraculously spared, probably due to its importance for the Islamic religion, as it was the place of birth for the prophet known by the Muslims as Issa, and also due to the fact that a small mosque was contained within the basilica.
The Crusader period
This marked the beginning of a new phase in the history of the Holy Land. Due to the difficult living conditions in the territories of Bethlehem, the Christians requested aid from Godfrey de Bouillon who was staying in Emmaus. The arrival of the Crusaders aggravated the relations between Muslims and Christians, who were hoping that the town would be liberated by the Crusaders. In fact, a group of knights led by Tancred captured the town, which from that point began its golden age. Relations with Europe intensified through both commercial exchanges and pilgrimages. The Crusaders also gave a new look to the town by building a monastery for the Augustinian canons – where today the Franciscan convent is located − to whom liturgical services in the church and the welcoming of pilgrims were entrusted, while the Eastern rites were given the possibility to celebrate their own liturgies.
On 24 December 1100 Baldwin I was crowned as the first king of Jerusalem, and from then on the city of Bethlehem was directly dependent on the Patriarch of Jerusalem, becoming an Episcopal seat and diocesan center. Between 1165 and 1169, at the wish of Bishop Rudolph, restoration works on the church were carried out with a financial contribution from the Crusader king Amalric I and the Byzantine emperor Manuel Comnenus, as evidenced by the pilgrim Phocas. This collaboration was a clear sign of the unity between the Eastern and Western Churches.
The defeat of the Crusaders by Saladin (Salah al-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub) in 1187 at Hattin in Galilee led to a new occupation of Bethlehem. The resident Latin community in Bethlehem left the town, returning only in 1192 when the Muslims allowed the Latins to resume religious services upon payment of a stiff tax.
The history of Bethlehem, like that of all the Holy Places, experienced a moment of special importance with the journey of Francis of Assisi, who in 1219-1220 went to the East along with twelve other friars. It is likely that he went to Bethlehem, since he is linked by a well-known tradition to the image of the Christmas crèche, although this is not confirmed by any source. In any event, it is known with certainty that the friar, having arrived in the port of Acre along with the Crusaders, went to Egypt to the court of the Sultan Malek al-Kamil who, struck by the personality of the saint, granted him a safe-conduct for his journey to Palestine. Several of his companions, having previously arrived in Palestine in the preceding years, stayed on in the service of the Church in these Lands.
As a result of two truces, one between Emperor Frederick II and the Sultan of Egypt, the other between the King of Navarre and the Sultan of Damascus, Bethlehem passed under the control of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem between 1229 and 1244. This situation lasted for little more than a decade, as the Khwarezmian invasion in 1244 once again destabilized the territories.
The Mameluke period
In 1263 with the invasion of Jerusalem by the Mamelukes of Egypt, Sultan Baybars drove the Christians out of Bethlehem and tore down the town’s fortified walls. During this period pilgrims were able to reach the town only by paying a fee.
After the fall of Acre in 1291 and the end of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, Palestine remained under the control of the Mamelukes until its conquest by the Ottoman Empire.
The Franciscans in Bethlehem
The Friars Minor, who had arrived in the Holy Land at the beginning of the 13th century, definitively established themselves in Bethlehem in 1347 in a monastery for Augustinian canons who had been exiled by the Mamelukes, as reported by Fra Niccolò da Poggibonsi who arrived himself in the Holy Land in that year. As recorded in ancient chronicles and documents, the Sultan gave the friars of the cord ownership of the Church and Grotto of the Nativity.
The other Christian rites obtained permission to celebrate their liturgies. From this period onwards it was the Franciscans who made up the religious of the Latin rite in Bethlehem and in other Holy Places.
In 1479 the Franciscans turned their hand to reconstructing the roof of the church, thanks to the industriousness of the guardian Giovanni Tomacelli. The wood was provided by Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy and transported from Europe on Venetian vessels, while the lead was donated by King Edward IV of England, as reported by fra Francesco Suriano.
The Turkish period
In 1517 Palestine became part of the Turkish Empire and Sultan Selim I torn down the remaining walls of Bethlehem. The town slowly fell into a state of ruin, and the oppressed and persecuted Christians gradually began to leave. Rights to the church were divided between the Franciscans and the Orthodox and this was the cause for continual clashes, with the government of the Sublime Porte supporting first one side and then the other by granting various privileges.
In 1690 the Franciscan friars succeeded in reacquiring their rights, but in 1757 a new and definitive change in ownership took place. Between 1831 and 1841 Muhammad Ali, viceroy of Egypt, and his son Ibrahim Pasha managed for a short period of time to liberate Palestine from Turkish domination.
During this time Christians claimed their rights to the town of Bethlehem and, after years of submission and persecutions, expelled the Muslims and in 1834 destroyed their quarter. From this point onwards the majority of the town’s population was Christian. One of the most noted and significant events marking this period relates to the Grotto of the Nativity and the dispute among the various religious denominations, leading to the end of the leading role of the Latins at the place where Jesus was born.
This development was brought about by the Greek Orthodox on 18 October 1847 and aggravated the conflict between the two confessions. As a result of these frictions, and seeking to restore peace after centuries of conflicts, in 1852 the Turkish government issued a firman ratifying the existing property rights within the Christian sanctuaries (the so-called Status Quo). In gratitude for the contribution of the European countries to victory in the Crimean War against Russia, the Sublime Porte conceded increased liberties to the Latins.
During this period numerous religious congregations began to settle in Palestine and become involved in schools, hospitals and hospices. The arrival of a large number of Westerners left a mark on the town that is visible even today.
In 1859 the Franciscans acquired Siyar al-Ghanam, Shepherds’ Fields, where subsequent excavation suncovered the remains of constructions from the Byzantine period that, according to tradition, marked the existence of a place of worship. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1917, as a consequence of its defeat in the First World War, Palestine became in 1922 a protectorate of Great Britain, on the basis of international agreements.
The date of Jesus’ birth
It is now generally agreed among historians and scholars that Christ’s year of birth was not correctly calculated. This refers to an error made by the monk Dionysius Exiguus, who in the early sixth century was given by Rome the task of extending the chronological tables of the Easter date that had been prepared at the time of Bishop Cyril.
The monk took as his starting point the date of the Lord’s incarnation. Dionysius’ mistake lay in the fact that he calculated Jesus’ birth to have taken place after the death of Herod − in other words four to six years after the date in which it actually occurred − which would have corresponded to 748 years after the founding of Rome.
But according to Flavius Josephus, Herod the Great died after ruling 37 years, and given that he was enthroned in 40 BC the year of his death would have been 4 BC. This is also confirmed by an astronomical event that the historian recorded as having taken place prior to the death of the monarch, namely a lunar eclipse that would have occurred between the 11th and 12th of April in the year 4 BC.
Based on this information the death of Herod must have occurred in the year 4 BC, and Jesus could not have been born later than that year. On the other hand, in terms of the month and day of Jesus’ birth the traditional dates appear to be accurate. To analyze the situation one must take into account two sources: the Gospel of Luke and the solar calendar discovered at Qumran.
Luke tells us that the angel Gabriel announced to Zechariah that Elizabeth was pregnant at a time “when he was serving as priest in his division’s turn before God” (Luke 1:8). Using these elements it is possible to calculate the 24 divisions in which the sacerdotal families were divided and date this back to the division of Abijah, the eighth and the one to which the priest Zechariah belonged, and which carried out its service from the eighth to the fourteenth day of the third month, and from the twenty-fourth to the thirtieth day of the eighth month.
This latter period corresponds to the end of September, nine months before the twenty-fourth of June, the date of John the Baptist’s birth. Hence the announcement to the Virgin Mary “in the sixth month” (Luke 1:28) of Elizabeth’s pregnancy corresponds to the twenty-fifth of March, so that the date of 25 December for Jesus’ birth can be seen to be historically accurate.
Nonetheless, it is commonly claimed that the traditional date of Jesus’ birth was established by the Church in order to correspond to the pagan festival Dies natalis solis invicti which took place on the day of the winter solstice (21 December), presumably to serve as a substitute for the pagan ceremony and to assist the rapid spread of the Christian one.
But it is evident that such an important feast day could not have been established only for reasons of such supremacy and that the tradition must have had roots that were more historic and real. It is indeed the case that the transition from the pagan to the Christian holiday was a very easy one, in view of the biblical tradition that saw the Messiah as light and sun: “the sunrise shall visit us from on high” (Luke 1:78).
Born at Stridon in Dalmatia in 347, Jerome was one of the major representatives of monastic asceticism as well as a Doctor of the Church. His education, initially through his family of Christian faith, led him to study in Milan and then in Rome at the school of the celebrated rhetoricians Aelius Donatus and Rufino di Aquileia.
The fascination of the Eternal City attracted him for its life of study and also for its worldly life. But in search of a profound conversion and an ascetic life dedicated to contemplation, following his baptism at the age of nineteen he began his withdrawn life. Upon completion of his studies he went to Trier in Germany where he discovered the beauty of monastic life. Against the wishes of his family he withdrew to Aquileia along with his friend Rufino.
There he decided to go to the East, to the cradle of monasticism, in search of an even more ascetic life, and his first stop was in Antioch with Bishop Evagrius to whom he taught Greek. During this period Jerome underwent an intense ascetic and spiritual experience, due both to his assiduous reading of the Word of God and to illness. After this intense and profound experience Jerome decided to go into the Desert of Chalcis along the Syrian border and begin the hard life of a hermit.
It was during this period that he taught himself Hebrew, in order to be able to read the Old Testament in its original language. Following his experience in the desert, which left a profound mark on him, Jerome was entrusted with the responsibility for translating the Holy Scripture. His work, through which flows all of his talents, turned out to be a precious gift for the Western Church: his Bible, known as the Vulgate, remains even today the official text, guaranteed by the authority of the Church.
After a brief pre-cenobitic experience on the Aventine Hill in Rome, Jerome withdrew to Bethlehem where he spent the last years of his life, and where he was able to complete his work on translating the Bible.
In Bethlehem he was joined by Paula and her daughter Eustochium, two Roman patricians, who pledged a large sum that was used for building two monasteries, one for men, the other for women, a hospice for pilgrims and a monastic school. This was the first monastic settlement in the surroundings of the Grotto of the Nativity.
Although the precise location of the monastic complex is not clear, it is known with certainty that Jerome went into the caves near the Holy Grotto to pray and meditate. Emblematic of his spirituality are his reflections on the manger of the Grotto of the Nativity which, in order to provide it with a more dignified setting, had been replaced some time before by a silver basin:
“O, if only I were permitted to see that manger in which the Lord lay! Now, as an honor to Christ, we have taken away the manger of clay and have replaced it with crib of silver, but more precious to me is the one that has been removed. Silver and gold are appropriate for unbelievers; Christian faith is worthy of the manger that is made of clay. He who was born in that manger cared nothing for gold and silver. I do not find fault with those who made the change in the cause of honor (nor do I look with disfavor upon those in the Temple who made vessels of gold), but I marvel at the Lord, the Creator of the universe, who is born, not surrounded by gold and silver, but by mud and clay.”
(Jerome, Homily on the Nativity of the Lord - late 4th c. AD)
[" O si mihi licere illud praesepe videre, in quo Dominus iacuit! Nunc nos Xpisti quasi pro honore tulimus luteum, et posuimus argenteum: sed mihi pretiosius illud est quod ablatum est. Argentum et aurum meretur gentilitas: Xpistiana fides meretur luteum illud presaepe. Qui in isto presaepe natus est, aurum condempnat et argentum. Non condempno eos qui honoris causa fecerunt (neque enim illos condempno qui in templo fecerunt vasa aurea): sed admiror Dominum, qui creator mundi non inter aurum et argentum, sed in luto nascitur."]
This passage highlights the desire to recognize the humbleness and simplicity of the Incarnation of Christ, which had taken place in a simple manger and not one made of precious materials, in order to draw attention to the grandeur of the Incarnation itself. After the deaths of Paula and Eustochium, and after the arrival of the news of the sack of Rome by Alaric, Jerome suffered a moral collapse and a worsening of his state of health.
He remained alone in his monastery that was falling down and menaced by continuous plundering, dedicating himself to welcoming those who arrived to the place and were in need of refuge and hospitality.
On 30 September 420 he died after a period of intense physical suffering, bequeathing to the Church the priceless treasure of his writings.
Rights to the land and the sanctuary
The sanctuary, which was not mentioned by Clement VI in either of his bulls in 1342, was granted to the Franciscans by Sultan al-Muzaffar Hajji in 1346-1347, as reported to us by the Franciscan chronicler Niccolò da Poggibonsi.
There is no official firman (decree) making reference to this grant, but it is confirmed by a citation in a firman issued in 1427 by Sultan Barsbay. It was very likely Peter IV of Aragon who made the request for the sanctuary to the Egyptian sultan, as this was explicitly mentioned by him in two separate letters, one addressed to the sultan and the other to Pope Innocent VI.
In 1558 the Muslim and Christian leaders of Bethlehem declared that the burial places of the town belonged to the Franciscans, and in its Hogget (verdict) of May 1566 the tribunal in Jerusalem established that the entire sanctuary of the Nativity was owned by the Frankish religious who were entitled to manage the opening and closing of the church.
In 1619, the Grotto of the Nativity, whose ownership had unjustly been awarded to the Greeks, was restored to the Latins who in 1717 placed a new silver star at the site of the Nativity. With the proclamation of the Status Quo the question of property rights was clarified once and for all.
As a result of the continuous clashes between the various denominations, the Sublime Porte established that a soldier would be always on guard at the Altar of the Nativity. This decree has been maintained until the present time by the various governing authorities.
Stages of Excavation
- 1932 –initial surveys of the square in front of the sanctuary by W. Harvey, E. T. Richmond, H. Vincent and R. W. Hamilton.
- 1934 –surveys inside the sanctuary carried out by W. Harvey, E. T. Richmond, H. Vincent, and R. W. Hamilton: These brought to light elements belonging to the sacred Constantinian edifice from the 4th century, notably the mosaics from the nave and the area of the presbytery which had the form of an octagon. Following the excavations a vast literature was produced, of which the following texts should be noted: W. Harvey in Archaeologia, vol. 87 (1937); E. T. Richmond in QDAP, vols. 5 and 6; P. Vincent in Revue Biblique, (1936-1937); J. W. Crowfoot in Early Churches in Palestine (London 1941); and R. W. Hamilton in The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem (Jerusalem 1947).
- 1947 –Father Bagatti examined the Franciscan land adjacent to the Byzantine church as well as the Cloister of St. Jerome, which at the time was undergoing a general restoration. He succeeded in finding remains dating from the Crusader period. Father Bagatti explained the stages of study and excavation in his book Gli Antichi edifici sacri di Betlemme (“The ancient sacred buildings of Bethlehem”, Jerusalem 1952), which remains one of the last complete publications on the archaeological elements within the Sanctuary and surrounding areas.
- 1962-1964 –Excavations beneath the monastery carried out by Father B. Bagatti: caves adjoining the Grotto of the Nativity.
Father Bellarmino Bagatti
Father Bagatti was born in the commune of Lari (Province of Pisa) on 11 November 1905. He took the religious habit in the Province of St. Francis on Mount La Verna in Tuscany at age seventeen and was ordained as a priest at age 23.
In recognition of his academic talents he was invited to attend the Pontifical Institute of Christian Archaeology in Rome, where he received his doctorate with highest honors in 1936. During this period he began his teaching career at the Studium Biblicum in Jerusalem, teaching topography and Christian archaeology.
Together with Father Sylvester Saller he initiated the series “SBF Collectio Maior” (1941) and, with Donato Baldi, co-founded the journal “SBF Liber Annus”(1951). After becoming director of the Studium he broadened its programs and increased the number of teachers. He also taught at the Studium Theologicum Hierosolymitanum in Jerusalem.
He received numerous academic awards and was a frequent participant in international conferences on archaeology, Sacred Scripture, the cult of the Virgin, St. Joseph, and apocryphal literature.
Among the excavations he carried out: the cemetery of Commodilla in Rome (1933-1934); the Sanctuary of the Beatitudes (1936); the Church of the Visitation at Ain Karem (1938); Emmaus-Qubeibeh (1940-1944); Bethlehem (1948); Dominus Flevit on the Mount of Olives (1953-1955); Nazareth (1954-1971); Mount Carmel (1960-1961); Mount Nebo (1935); and Khirbet el-Mukhayyat. His vocation as a teacher led him to undertake innovative educational initiatives to foster the growth of his friars, one example being the “Course for biblical-theological updating” which began in 1969 and continues today.
As a result of his scientific contribution, the Holy Places can no longer be considered merely pious traditions of the Franciscans, and the international scientific community now recognizes that these archaeological sites preserve the memory of ancient places and of the first Judeo-Christian communities.
In particular, Bagatti’s participation in the excavations at Bethlehem led to the study of the areas around the monastery and adjacent to the Grotto of the Nativity. His scientific support contributed to a more precise understanding of the nature of the Constantinian-era octagon, which had been discovered during the British excavations of the 1930s.
In 2008, the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) gave way to the restoration of the Church of the Nativity with a decree by President Mahmoud Abbas. A Restoration Commission was set up, chaired by the engineer Ziad Albandak, the presidential advisor for Christian affairs, who had a call for bids drawn up. On the basis of this, in September 2010, the agreement was reached between the three institutions responsible for the basilica: the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the Custody of the Holy Land and the Armenian Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
Considering the funds allocated, the restoration of the roof (which had never been touched since 1832 and from which the rains would filter in) and the 42 stained glass windows immediately began.
On July 22, 2013, the work was assigned to the Piacenti S.p.a. company of Prato, Italy, which specializes in the restoration and conservation of protected buildings, monumental complexes and assets of historical and artistic interest. Work began on September 15, 2013, and the first phase ended in March 2015. In a year and a half, 1,625 square meters of new roofing were added and 8 percent of the timber trusses were replaced with ancient timber imported from Italy. The large windows and wooden frames have been completely recreated. The new ones, by an Italian manufacturer, are dual pane.
Funds from various donors began to flow from this stage, which encouraged the Commission to plan other restoration work, reaching a budget of 11 million euros. They decided to restore the narthex and its wooden and metal access doors, the external stone facades (3,076 square meters), the internal plaster (3,600 square meters), the wall and floor mosaics (125 square meters) and the 50 columns (28 of which feature frescoes with XII century paintings depicting Egyptian and Palestinian monks). In December 2017, a new lighting system and a new smoke detection system were installed. The restoration of the narthex made it possible to remove a wooden shoring installed in the 1930s during the British Mandate.
The restoration of the wall mosaics came to an end in June 2016, with the return of the brilliant colors of the mosaics and with a surprise: a seventh angel came to light; it had been considered lost and was recovered thanks to a technique called thermography (a technique that allows for the restorers to plumb solid surfaces in search of works hidden by the passage of time and neglect). They then intervened on the columns and the floor mosaics.
The idea is to close the construction site by the end of 2019, but over 2 million euros remain to be collected to finance the last phase of the work that in almost a decade has restored cleanliness, efficiency and light to the Basilica complex of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
Arrival to the church
Passing along Star Street towards the Holy Place of Jesus’ Nativity, as did the Magi from the East and, later, countless pilgrims, in the distance, and before arriving to the square in front of the current church, one is struck by the enchantment of a Place that for centuries has called millions of visitors from throughout the world to adore it.
Arriving at the paved square in front of the church, the sanctuary of the Nativity comes into view. At first sight it is not easy to understand the architectural structure of the church complex, which over the centuries has undergone numerous transformations. The structure dates back to the sixth century and was the work of architects employed by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, who wished to reconstruct the fourth century basilica that had been destroyed following the revolt of the Samaritans, as witnessed by Eutychius, Patriarch of Alexandria in 876..
Looking at the façade one is able to distinguish a number of sections that were part of the complex of the basilica and attached structures. Its fortress-like aspect arose from the requirements over the centuries to protect the structure and the residences of the religious who looked after the church.
Viewed from the front, the walls on the right enclose the Armenian and Greek monasteries, while to the left can be seen the modern construction of the Casa Nova and the Crusader-era Franciscan convent.
During the Constantinian period the current square formed part of the atrium of the church and was a wide, open space. This has been confirmed by excavations that uncovered the perimeter of the fourth-century church.
In front of the entrance, cisterns have been found whose mouths can be distinguished in the pavement. Rainwater entered through these and was stored for use in religious rites and for the daily life of the monasteries. The square is now surrounded by a perimeter wall, covering the entire south and west sides.
On this latter side, at one time there existed a wide doorway that served as an entry and also marked the boundary between the sacred buildings and the village.
The existence of the door, now destroyed, is confirmed by remains of its foundations and by the sketches of Bernardino Amico (16th century) and Ladislao Mayr (18th century).
The façade, whose style as a result of the continuous modifications does not seem very clear, belongs to the structure from the Justinian period. A close examination will reveal three entry doors, which were later walled shut.
The Byzantine façade would have presented a majestic and imposing appearance, with its three large entrances to the nave and two of the aisles. Compared to the earlier Constantinian structure, the Byzantine façade, preceded by a narthex, was extended by the width of an intercolumniation.
The small entrance door is the result of several reductions in size that took place over time: one can easily recognize the large central door from the Byzantine era with its horizontal architrave and diagonally-placed stones.
With the arrival of the Crusaders, the door was reduced to conform to the style preferred by Western knights, in order to better protect the Holy Place. Visible evidence of this is provided by the remains of the pointed arch that can be identified in the walls.
During the Ottoman period the dimensions of the doorway were further reduced, hence the size of the current door, in order to impede access by those seeking to desecrate the place of worship. Thus the door reflects to a certain extent the alternating phases of Christianity in Bethlehem: periods in which freedom of worship guaranteed the recognition of the Christian faith, and others in which persecutions and intolerance rendered difficult the life of the local communities.
The other two Byzantine doors, now covered by the perimeter walls of the church and by buttresses installed during the Crusader period, allow one to imagine the sense of majesty and beauty the Byzantine church must have inspired among those who arrived there on pilgrimage (as is indeed attested by various witnesses).
Entrance to the church
Passing through the small door, one enters into the area known technically as the narthex, which was constructed in the Byzantine period. In the ancient Christian tradition the narthex was the area serving as the entrance to the sacred areas, and was intended for catechumens who during certain moments of the celebrations were not allowed to enter into the church.
During the Constantinian period there had been no narthex, but instead an open, wide atrium which performed a similar function. The Justinian narthex has been divided into four areas, one of these serving as the entry area to the church.
During the Crusader period the areas at the two extremes served as bases for the four-storey-high bell towers that were built. A fourth area to the left of the entrance door is used by the soldiers who, since the Turkish period, have guarded the church. The episode is recounted with miraculous elements by the pilgrim Jean Boucher.
The entrance door, today covered by scaffolding, was a gift from the Armenian King Hetum in 1227, as indicated in the inscription which is in both Armenian and Arabic.
The two bell towers, mentioned for the first time in the Travels of Sir John Mandeville which took place between 1322 and 1357, were built during the Crusader period. They were situated at the extremities of the narthex, where today are found the entrances to the Armenian monastery and the chapel of the Franciscan convent of St. Helena.
Apart from their role as bell towers, they also served as guard towers overlooking the surrounding area. The period in which the two structures were built is confirmed by the remaining intact areas on the lower levels, which are characterized by Crusader architectural elements such as pointed arches.
The pilgrim Bernardino di Nali (15th century) described them in his memoirs as very elegant structures. The bells would no longer have been in place at this point since, as mentioned by Father Felix Faber (1480-1483), the Saracens did not allow Christians to have bells. The bell towers that can be seen today are later constructions forming parts of the Greek and Armenian Orthodox monasteries.
The narthex has been modified, and significantly reduced in size, compared to its original form. The floor is from the sixth century, but the plaster-covered walls do not reflect their original beauty, as the entire church would have been covered with white-veined marble.
Based on research into Byzantine architecture, it is assumed that the narthex was not only decorated with marble but also adorned with mosaics. After the restoration to be carried out in the near future, and with the removal of the plaster, the mosaic wall decorations will once again be visible.
As noted above, the Justinian narthex has been divided into four areas, and during the Crusader period the two areas at the extremes served as bases for the four-storey high bell towers that were erected.
Of these two areas, characterized by typical Crusader-style arches, one is today used as a porter’s lodge for the Armenian monastery, while the other has taken the name Chapel of St. Helena and is the property of the Franciscan friars.
The walls at the entrance to the Armenian monastery have been cleaned and restored to their original state: holes can still be seen in the stones that were used for attaching the marble originally adorning the walls. The plaster on the walls of the narthex makes it difficult to comprehend the true scale of the side doors, which are visible only from inside the church, where the walls are covered with crumbling plaster.
This area is an obligatory passage for all pilgrims who wish to enter the church from the square and represents an area common to the three Communities. For this reason, it has been very difficult to reach agreement on maintenance works necessary for strengthening the structure.
The wood door, which has 700 years of history, was a gift from the Armenian King Hethum, son of Constantine of Baberon, in 1227 as can be read in the carved inscription in Arabic and Armenian which says:
“The door of the Blessed Mother of God was made in the year 676 [according to the Armenian calendar] by the hands of Father Abraham and Father Arakel in the time of Hethum, son of Constantine, king of Armenia. God have mercy on their souls.”
The inscription in Arabic provides us with additional chronological elements of interest:
“This door was finished with the help of God, may he be exalted, in the days of our Lord the Sultan al-Malik al-Mu’azzam in the month of Muharram in the year 624 [Islamic calendar]”.
This gift is evidence of the good relations that existed at the time between the Armenian and Crusader Churches. The door, initially of very fine workmanship but poorly preserved due to the wear of time and lack of care, has a floral decoration typical of the Armenian style.
It is no longer completely visible, as it has been covered by scaffolding put in place by the Palestinian government to help support the roof beams, which are in a very unstable state.
Inside the church
In its interior, the church has preserved all of the architectural elements from the sixth century. When he first saw the actual project, the Byzantine emperor did not approve the choices made by the architect, accused him of having squandered the funds, and ordered that he be beheaded. Despite the emperor´s dissatisfaction, the building has shown itself to be very solid, surviving intact until the present day.
Excavations carried out by the British government in 1932 showed that the Constantinian-era floor had been completely covered over with finely-crafted mosaics displaying geometric and floral decorations.
Among these is to be highlighted the mosaic remnant preserved to the west of the presbytery, where by raising the wooden trapdoor one can see the monogram ΙΧΘΥΣ (“fish” in Greek) used in ancient times to indicate the name of Christ. While today the floor consists of a simple rough stone pavement, the Byzantine-era floor had white marble slabs whose veins were particularly accentuated. A remnant of this can be seen in the area of the north transept.
The Constantinian pavement was slightly inclined relative to the current floor, which is about a meter above the original level. The internal space, divided by columns into a nave and four aisles, is dark and dimly lit. In the sixth century the church was completely covered in marble: traces of the holes used to attach the marble can still be seen in the re-plastered walls.
The colonnade, which today finishes at the end of the area of the apse, carried on, creating an ambulatory around the Grotto of the Nativity. This type of architectural structure was used in a number of Holy Places, especially those for Martyrs, because, according to tradition, pilgrims who walked repeatedly around the holy site would in this manner obtain grace. The columns and capitals, made from red stone from Bethlehem, are the original ones from the Byzantine period, the product of local craftsmen. The capitals, works of exquisite craftsmanship, were painted in blue. On the columns were representations of a number of Eastern and Western saints, both religious and lay. The architraves are also from this period, although their adornment goes back only to Crusader times and is very similar to that of the architraves in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which also date from this latter period. The high walls of the nave are decorated with superb mosaics dating from the 12th century, the works of Eastern masters.
The mosaics are divided into three groups and show, starting from the bottom: the genealogy of Jesus, the councils and local synods and, at the top, a procession of angels. According to a Greek account from the ninth century, earlier there had been additional mosaic decorations dating from the Byzantine period.
Among these special note was made of the representation of the Magi who arrived in Bethlehem to adore Jesus, which adorned the façade. A truly singular event occurred in 614 AD when the Persian soldiers who were invading the town took fright at the sight of the mosaic and renounced their intention to sack the church, which thus escaped unscathed.
The transepts, which still preserve the original marble pavement from the Byzantine period, are today decorated with icons and vestments from the Greek Orthodox (right transept) and Armenian Orthodox (left transept) traditions. This part of the church also preserves mosaic decorations skillfully portraying scenes from the Gospels.
The floor of the original Constantininan church was completely paved over in mosaic. This was discovered as a result of the excavations carried out by the British government between 1932 and 1934. The fourth century pavement rose in the direction of the area of the apse, with a difference in level that varied between 75 and 31 centimeters. During the Byzantine period, due to the variations in the floor level within the church, the floor was re-done using white-veined marble. Through trapdoors opening in the pavement it is still possible to enjoy a view of the ancient mosaics. Their workmanship is truly detailed and refined, above all those in the nave. It has been calculated that the density of tesserae (small squares of stone or glass) is 20 per cm2, compared to the 10 per cm2 characteristic of ordinary mosaics.
This factor by itself allows one to understand why these decorations are so highly valued, as their higher density permitted the representation of more refined images, and the reproduction of more shades of color. The result was decorative mosaics that are extremely detailed, reflecting the importance of this Holy Place. These mosaics, which cover the nave and apse, display geometrical and decorative elements (swastikas, circles and cornices with interwoven bands). More rare are themes related to plants, such as acanthus leaves and vines. Rarer still is the representation of a rooster in the north transept. The absence of living beings is consistent with the Middle Eastern tradition which did not use representations of either animals or humans.
A very interesting part of the mosaic decoration is preserved in the left corner of the nave where, opening a trapdoor, one can see a monogram bearing the Greek letters ΙΧΘΥΣ. Literally meaning “fish” in Greek, this was used as an acronym and symbol in ancient times to indicate the name of Christ (“Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior”): this is the only element that confirms that the Holy Place was Christian. A similar use of a monogram had come to be used during the Classical period at the entrance to houses of Roman patricians, along with busts of the owners. This fact has led to the hypothesis that the monogram marked the ancient entrance to the sacred area and to the “house of Jesus”. Based on the analysis of the excavations carried out by the British, it has been hypothesized that the entry to the presbytery in the Constantinian church was by means of a staircase starting precisely from the spot where the mosaic is located. According to Father Bagatti, the stairs used to enter the presbytery were torn down in order to construct a direct entrance to the grotto.
Questi mosaici, che ricoprivano la navata centrale e l'abside, raffigurano elementi geometrici e decorativi (svastiche, tondi, cornici con nastri intrecciati). Più rari gli elementi vegetali, come foglie di acanto e viti.
Eccezionale è la rappresentazione di un gallo, nel transetto nord. L’assenza di figure animate è in rispetto della tradizione Medio Orientale che non usava figure animali o umane.
Un elemento molto interessante della decorazione musiva, è conservato nell'angolo sinistro della navata centrale dove, aprendo la botola di legno, si può vedere un monogramma con le lettere ΙΧΘΥΣ. Il segno usato nell'antichità per indicare il nome di Cristo (acronimo delle parole: "Ιησοῦς Χριστός Θεoῦ Υιός Σωτήρ", Gesù Cristo Figlio di Dio Salvatore), letteralmente significa “pesce”: questo è l'unico simbolo certo di cristianità del luogo. Un uso simile dell'acronimo veniva fatto in epoca classica all’ingresso delle case patrizie romane, assieme alla rappresentazione dei busti dei propietari. Per questo è stato ipotizzato che il simbolo segnasse il punto dell'antico ingresso alla zona sacra e alla "casa di Gesù".
The decoration of the columns, which went largely unnoticed until 1891 when it was studied by Father Germer-Durant, represents one of the most interesting elements of the interior decoration.
It is difficult to discern any real continuity or organic unity in the iconography within the church. The technique used was encaustic (“hot wax”), a manner of painting in which pigments mixed with heated wax are applied to a surface.
Both the hands of the artists and the period in which the works were produced are different, leading one to think that they were requested by individual clients from different painters. There is no doubt that all of the images date from the Crusader period, a time of growing division between the Eastern and Western Churches. This is also confirmed by the presence of saints from both the Eastern and Western traditions (see the photo gallery).
The individual panels, placed on all the columns of the nave and the first row of columns to the south, are surrounded by a red and whitish-colored band, while the figures of the saints stand out from the dark blue background. Each saint has his own name written in an ornamental scroll above or placed in his hands. The function of these paintings was described by the pilgrim Arculf who attested to the custom of celebrating masses near the columns on the day of the Saint. For the clerics of those times, the painted columns served to metaphorically invoke the presence of the Saints in the place.
There is a widespread belief, today as well as in those days, that the Saints represent those who support the weight of the Church: the pictures of the Saints on the columns transmit this concept in a simple and forceful manner to all of the faithful who visit the church. We can define these paintings as “votive frescoes”, since it is very likely that they served as a testimonial of having carried out a pilgrimage.
In addition, the patrons of the works were clearly aware that the works contributed to the embellishment of the church.
The particularly dark appearance of the nave is due to the inadequate maintenance which over the years has led to a deterioration in the condition of the Sanctuary. Nonetheless, the mosaics with their gold background and silver inlaid mother-of-pearl, which at one point completely covered the walls of the church, retain their fascinating effect.
The wall decorations, from the Crusader period, are arranged in different bands and are partly covered by plaster.
The most recent survey carried out in connection with the restoration of the church has shown that the tesserae of the mosaics were positioned tilted downwards in order to enhance the beauty of the mosaic when observed from a position several meters below. In this manner a strong visual impact is received by the pilgrim upon entering the church, despite the poor state of preservation of the mosaics.
The most direct and precise evidence regarding the decoration is that provided by Father Quaresmi in his Elucidatio Terrae Sanctae (1626) which described all of the wall mosaics in great detail. At the lowest level, on the right, St. Joseph and the ancestors of Christ according to the Gospel of St. Matthew are portrayed.
Symmetrically, according to Quaresmi on the left side was a genealogical representation taken from the Gospel of Luke. On a second level, spaced between bands of acanthus leaves, are representations of the seven Ecumenical Councils (Nicaea, 325; Constantinople, 381; Ephesus, 431; Chalcedon, 451; Constantinople II, 553; Constantinople III, 680, Nicaea II, 787), the four provincial Councils (Antioch 268; Ancyra, 314; Sardica, 342; Gargres, 4th century) and the two local Synods (Carthage, 254; Laodicea, 4th century).
For each council there is a picture of a sacred edifice and, with the aid of an ornamental scroll, an explanation of the decision that was taken on that occasion. At the upper level we can see a series of representations of angels in procession, having feminine features and dressed in white tunics, headed towards the Grotto of the Nativity.
At the feet of one of these angels can be seen the signature “Basil” of the mosaic artist, who was probably of Syrian origin. At the crossing of the church (where the nave and transept intersect) one can still see today scenes taken from the canonical Gospels: to the north, the incredulity of Thomas, which appears to be the one best preserved, the Ascension and the Transfiguration; to the south, Jesus’entry into Jerusalem.
In the cupola of the principal apse, according to Quaresmi, was a representation of the Virgin and Child, and in the arch of the apse one of the Annunciation of Mary, between the prophets Abraham and David. On the walls below were scenes from the life of the Madonna, taken from the apocryphal writings.
On the counter-façade, above the entrance door, was a representation of the Tree of Jesse with Jesus and the prophets. This mosaic is now covered by white plaster.
The pilgrim John Phocas reported having seen during his voyage (c. 1177) a picture of the Byzantine emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos in the church: this shows that even after the Schism of 1054, when the church was under the control of the Crusaders, close relations continued between the Eastern and Western Churches. An inscription in the principal apse makes reference to both Manuel Comnenus and Amalric of Jerusalem, so the mosaics must have been produced in the last decades of the Crusader presence in Palestine, which ended in 1187.
The works were commissioned by both the Crusader king of Jerusalem and the Byzantine emperor: an example of collaboration that is practically unique in history and one which highlights the importance that the Sanctuary must have had at that time.
The most recent studies carried out following the surveys for the restoration have raised a new question relative to the origin of the workers who produced the mosaics. The doubt relates to the previous assumption that local artists were employed to work on the decorative project, as normally was the case for reasons of practicality. The signatures of the mosaic artists, Ephraim and Basil, names that certainly are of Syrian origin, are a good indicator for determining the origin of the workers.
It is also possible to hypothesize that Greek workers and designers may have been involved, but it is clear that whoever produced these decorations knew very well the great monuments of the Holy Land, which had been decorated by artists coming from the West. For example, in the decorative band in the nave separating the representations of the Councils from the large figures of the angels above, where the windows are, is a second, narrower, decorative band containing an animal mask typical of European Romanesque art. T
hus, in the Bethlehem mosaics there are signs of the close relationship between Byzantine and Western art, which are blended together. The most recent investigations have established that, from the point of view of mosaic art, the church represents the culmination in the Crusader period of the encounter between Byzantine and Crusader art. T
he mosaics thus reflect the Ecumenical “face” the Church of the Nativity still presents today to those who visit it: a point of unity between the Eastern and Western churches.
The Greek iconostasis in the presbytery dates from 1764. In the original church this area above the Grotto was octagonal-shaped, as was confirmed by excavations carried out between 1932 and 1934.
Based on these excavations and reconstruction of the area, in the fourth century the presbytery could be entered via a staircase that followed the octagonal perimeter of the outer walls. Beneath the floor in this area, within the perimeter of the octagon, mosaic decorations similar to those in the nave have been found, but far more elaborate containing representations of animals and plants as well as geometric elements.
The sacred area that has been described underwent several transformations during the Justinian period. The entire area of the presbytery was enlarged in three directions with the addition of three spacious apses in the form of a cross.
The baldachin was replaced by a true and proper crescent-shaped presbytery placed in the center of the area, to allow pilgrims to freely circulate around it. At the same time, the entry to the Grotto was transformed, with two separate entrances created.
There are numerous interconnected caves adjacent to the Grotto of the Nativity. This area was used in ancient times for funerary purposes, a usage that has been maintained over time.
The largest cave and the one nearest to the Place of the Nativity, known as St. Joseph’s, is divided into two areas and is connected to the Convent of the Franciscans. From this cave it is also possible to access the Holy Grotto by means of a private passageway of the Latins that is used for the Daily Procession to the Place of the Nativity.
Opposite the Altar of St. Joseph, on the right, are two small caves, the second of which is dedicated to the Holy Innocents. Directly in front a portion of a pre-Constantinian arch belonging to a funerary chamber has been preserved. It was torn down during the time of Constantine to make way for the foundations of the church.
It is thought that this point of the cave may have been the original entry into the cavern, and from here one could have made out in the background the scene from the Holy Crib.
On the right is the passageway leading to the cave of St. Jerome, St. Paula and St. Eustochium: here were found the tombs of the three saints along with 72 graves from various periods, which are now preserved within a single burial vault.
The entrance today is placed sideways with respect to the location where Jesus was born, but it is thought that in the fourth century the entrance was located behind the presbytery. The small façades of the two side entrances date back to the times of the Crusaders.
The Grotto is entered by descending the stairs to the right of the iconostasis. Here the space is very narrow and restricted and the walls, which were originally irregular, form an almost-rectangular perimeter. The natural walls of the cave, decorated in the Constantine period, were covered with marble during the Byzantine period.
The Altar of the Nativity only began to be venerated in the Byzantine period when this space was created to commemorate the precise place in which Jesus had been born.
The current structure has been totally modified from that which was described by the pilgrim John Phocas and Abbot Daniel in the 12th century. Two red stone columns, and the inscription “Gloria in excelsis Deo et in terra pax hominibus”, overlook the altar, above which are representations of the Virgin and the Child in swaddling clothes, the scene of the washing, and that of the coming of the shepherds.
Beneath the altar is a star with the inscription “Hic de Virgine Maria Iesus Christus natus est” in memory of the precise spot of the Nativity. To the right of the altar is the place where Mary laid Jesus in the manger, also known as the Crib. At this point in the Grotto the floor is lower and the space is made up of columns similar to the Byzantine ones in the nave of the church, and by the remains of two Crusader columns.
In front of the Crib is a small altar dedicated to the Magi, where the Latins celebrate Holy Mass. The structure of the Crib is not the original one but is the result of alterations necessitated by the continuous wear and tear of time and the passage of pilgrims.
Following the fire of 1869 the walls of the Grotto were covered with asbestos to prevent further fires, a donation from the President of the French Republic Marshal Mac-Mahon in 1874. Below this covering the original Crusader marble is still visible, while above it can be seen wood panel paintings of limited artistic value.
Following along the course of the Daily Procession, and leaving the Grotto of the Nativity through an underground passageway built by the Franciscans to ensure a direct access to the Holy Place, one comes to the Grotto of St. Joseph.
Now restored in a modern style by the Franciscan artist Alberto Farina, this would have been the nearest cave to the Place of the Nativity. As one exits from the underground passageway, the Altar of St. Joseph is on the left.
Directly in front the foundations of a Constantinian wall and a pre-Constantinian arch have been preserved, confirmed to date from the 1st to 2nd centuries AD. This area was used as a burial ground for “saints”. Indeed, the custom of burying the dead in the vicinity of a Holy Place was a common one, occurring also in the West (notably in Rome).
Leaving the underground area to enter the Church of St. Catherine, it is possible to pass through the supporting walls of three different reconstructions of the area of the apse: one from the Constantinian period and the other two from different Byzantine periods, one of these being a planned design that was never fully implemented.
With our back to the Altar of St. Joseph, to our right is the Grotto of the Innocents in which one can see three arcosolium (or “bench”) type tombs, each containing from two to five sepulchers.
Here the Massacre of the Innocents ordered by Herod the Great shortly after Jesus’ birth is commemorated. In the first centuries, the memory of the Innocents was commemorated in an adjoining cave, which one can assume was a common grave in which numerous bones of corpses had been found.
In the cave that serves as a passage between the Grottos of St. Joseph and St. Jerome we come across two altars: one dedicated to the saints Paula and Eustochium, the other to saints Jerome and Eusebius.
Three tombs are located in the wall to the right of the first altar, positioned like Roman tombs in the countryside around Lazio. This would seem to give support to the idea that faithful from the Latin community were present here and had maintained the Roman burial custom of placing bodies in niches inside of walls.
From the last cave, named after St. Jerome, it is possible to enter directly into the Crusader Cloister by means of an internal staircase.
Buildings around the church
The monumental complex of religious buildings, of which the Church of the Nativity is the heart, covers an area of 12,000 m2.
The complex includes, in addition to the church, the Latin (north), Greek (south-east) and Armenian (southwest) monasteries, and the Catholic church of St. Catherine of Alexandria, fronted by the cloister of S. Jerome.
The Church of St. Catherine can be entered in three different manners: via the north transept; through the underground caves; and passing through the Cloister of St. Jerome. The church, which is part of the complex of the former Crusader monastery, has undergone noteworthy transformations over the years, most recently the modifications carried out on the occasion of the Jubilee Year 2000.
The site, which already in 1347 had been dedicated to St. Catherine of Alexandria, initially was only a small chapel within the Franciscan Convent, corresponding to what today is the area of the altar dedicated to St. Catherine.
The ancient structure as it appears in the drawings of Bernardino Amico underwent major changes, with its area substantially increased over time. The sacred edifice which exists today is very large and well-lit. It consists of a nave and two aisles, with a raised apse where the friars’ choir is located.
A Nativity scene is represented on the stained glass windows, a result of the modifications carried out in the year 2000. At the end of the aisle on the right is the altar dedicated to St. Catherine, while to the right, in a recessed area, is the altar of the Virgin with the statue of the Child Jesus, which dates from the 18th century and is used during celebrations of the Christmas Solemnity in Bethlehem.
Worthy of note are the Crusader arches preserved at the entrance of the church that have been incorporated in the present structure and formerly were part of what is known as St. Jerome’s Cloister. In this area is a bas-relief donated by the Pope on the occasion of Jubilee 2000.
The Cloister of St. Jerome, so-named because it allows direct access to the cave dedicated to that Saint, was restored by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi in 1947. During this work, Father Bagatti provided assistance to the archaeological surveys of the caves lying below.
For the restoration of the cloister it was necessary to insert new columns where the original ones were missing in order to provide additional support to the structure. This was done in a manner to preserve the original structure, a clear example being the simple and linear modern capitals which alternate with the more richly decorated Crusader ones.
From the Cloister one can enter the Chapel of St. Helena, which is in fact what remains from the base of the Crusader bell tower. The chapel contains 12th century frescoes in a poor state of preservation but very interesting stylistically. From the entrance, to the right of the cloister, can be seen an entry door to the church used by the Latins for the official entries of the Pope, since the right to enter through the principal door is accorded solely to the Custos of the Holy Land and the Patriarchs.
On the opposite side is the entry to the Franciscan Convent, which represents an enlargement of the Crusader monastery. Remaining elements from the Crusader monastery include the entrance hall with pointed arches, the perimeter walls giving access to the north side of the convent, the storeroom and cisterns, some of them dating from even earlier periods.
By passing through the basement of the convent one can enter the place that by tradition is known as the Washing of Jesus.
Entering the Cloister of St. Jerome and heading towards the church, one can enter through a small door the chapel commonly known as “St. Helena”.
During the Crusader period the Justinian narthex was subdivided, and one of the areas was given to the chapel. This displays elements of Crusader architecture along with Crusader-era frescoes from the twelfth century that, as Father Vincent declared, are of very high quality, although today they are in a poor state of preservation.
In the apse is a representation of Christ on the Throne between the Virgin and St. John the Evangelist. On the arch is an interesting representation in the form of a medallion in which one can recognize the Hetoimasia, a Byzantine iconographic theme represented by an empty throne awaiting the arrival of Christ for the Last Judgment.
On the other walls are representations of figures of saints.
The convent was constructed above the remains of the caves of the first monks who settled near the Grotto of the Nativity and of the initial Crusader monastery of Augustinian Canons. The basic structure of the convent remains that of the Crusader monastery, although it has been substantially enlarged and modified.
Clear signs of the Crusader architecture are still to be seen in the large entrance hall of the Convent, as well as in the underground areas. Entering into the ancient Crusader storage area, and passing through the area used today for elevators, it is possible to make out the ancient Crusader cistern.
The façade and entry to the Crusader monastery were located on the northern side of the structure, facing onto the area used today for Convent parking and the entrance into the Casa Nova.
The place known as the “Bathing Basin of Jesus” is accessible only from the convent. The site, full of historical and archaeological interest, has yet to be studied in detail. It is known, however, that the rock here has maintained its form unchanged since the time in which these places were tread upon by the Holy Family.
This very suggestive element leads us into a circular cave at the center of which a large round receptacle has been hollowed out, known traditionally as the place of Jesus’ first bathing. The scene of the washing never fails to appear in Eastern icons and in ancient representations of the Nativity. This area was discovered by an enterprising sacristan at the end of the nineteenth century.
The sacredness of the place has been transmitted by a number of ancient witnesses such as Arculf (De locis sanctis, 670 AD, Book II, Chapter 3) who tells of having washed his face here. The site needs to be further studied, but one can already hypothesize that it must have served some function prior to Jesus’ birth.
The structure of the convent is still that from the Crusader period. This is shown by the presence of underground areas like the Crusader Hall, now used as a chapel for pilgrims, formerly used as a warehouse.
Alongside this several very large ancient cisterns have been preserved.
The roof of the Church of the Nativity
In contrast to most Eastern churches, the roof covering was not vaulted but formed by covered trusses, as described by Louis de Rochechouart before the 1461 restoration: “In the roof there is a wooden structure built in ancient times. This is daily falling into ruins, above all over the choir.
The Saracens will not allow anyone to rebuild or restore it, so it is a miracle, worked by the Babe who was born there, that it still remains”. The roof of the Church of the Nativity underwent a major renovation in 1479 at the wish of the Guardian, Giovanni Tomacelli.
The timber, paid for by Philip the Good of Burgundy was transported in Venetian ships, while the lead for the roof was a gift from the English king Edward IV. A later renovation by the Greeks was carried out in 1671, on which occasion the cedar was replaced by pine, according to the testimony of Father Nau.
The major effort required in terms of materials and economic resources had the fortunate result of producing a roof that has lasted to the present day, although it is now in a considerably deteriorated state, which has led to major problems for the decorative wall mosaics.
In particular, during the summer months the lead structure “moves” due to the extremely high temperatures it reaches, allowing water to leak inside. We can recommend to the visitor a very interesting aerial view of the church from the roof of the Church of St. Catherine, which allows one to take in the construction of the three-apsed structure of the Sanctuary and to better understand the various changes in the perimeter of the building that have taken place over the centuries.
The Treasure of Bethlehem
Preserved today in the Archaeological Museum of the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, the Treasure of Bethlehem consists of a series of bronze and silver objects that belonged to the Church of the Nativity in the medieval period. They were found by chance at two separate times: in 1863 during restoration works on the kitchen of the Franciscan convent, and in 1906 during excavations of the foundation for the new hospice for pilgrims.
The treasure had been carefully concealed during a period, and for reasons, that we do not know, presumably to protect it from eventual pillage. One can hypothesize that this took place after 1452 when Sultan Muhammad II prohibited the ringing of bells.
The treasure is made up of:
- an enameled crosier (pastoral staff); - three candlesticks, also enameled, two in silver with inscriptions;
- a carillon consisting of 13 bells;
- organ pipes of various dimensions;
- an Armenian cross in metal, found during excavations in 1962-1964 by Father Bellarmino Bagatti.
In addition, a number of objects coming from the Church of the Nativity are preserved in the Museum of the Flagellation.
Bethlehem in the iconography
Representations of the Church of the Nativity in history
Already in ancient Christian times Bethlehem was represented in numerous mosaics and miniatures, both by artists who had visited the site and by those who did not have any real knowledge of the sanctuary.
Among the former we can provide a brief list of some of the representations that have given us a near-real image of the development of the sanctuary: The fourth-century wall mosaic in the Church of Santa Pudenziana in Rome, which to the right of the Redeemer has an octagonal building and to the left another that is generally identified as the Tomb. The sixth-century mosaic floor at Madaba, which includes a representation of the Justinian construction with its three trefoil apses that identify the structure.
The medieval miniature (13th century) preserved in Cambrai (France), which shows the façade of the church, with two bell towers, at the time of the Crusaders. The xylograph contained in Journey to the Holy Land (1483) by Bernhard von Breidenbach in which there are sketches of the church showing elements that today are no longer visible −including the enclosing wall, the buildings inhabited by the Greeks and Armenians, the arcuate form of the church’s windows and the three crosses that indicated the indulgences – thus restoring for us the appearance of the ancient church.
Finally, note should be made of the numerous sketches of Fathers Bernardino Amico (16th century) and Ladislao Mayer (18th century), the latter of whom has provided us with many interesting details, notably of the cloister.
The Child of Bethlehem
The statue of the Child Jesus carried in the procession at the point where the Holy Crib is remembered on Christmas Eve and which, after Epiphany, is returned to the Altar of the Madonna in the Church of St. Catherine, was commissioned by fra Gabino Montoro ofm in 1920 from the Casa Viuda Reixach in Barcelona and was made by the artist Francisco Roges.
He also made the statuette of the Child on the Throne which is carried by the Father Custos during the procession on the day of Epiphany. Both statues are made of cedar.
Several models were prepared, the one chosen having its hands joined together. The tradition of the Child Jesus at Bethlehem is a very old one, as is shown in the chronicle edited by Golubovich in the Biblioteca Biobibliografica della Terra Santa (“Bio-bibliographic library of the Holy Land”) which tells the story of the disappearance of the statue:
How the Pasha of Jerusalem took a wooden statue of the Child Jesus in order to obtain money:
“Congregating on the third of June in Bethlehem nearly all of those schismatic nations to celebrate one of their feasts, whose name I do not recall, and having entered into our convent to visit those sanctuaries and churches, they were standing around in our sacristy admiring a very beautiful sculpture of a small child that our friars normally placed in the Holy Crib on the eve of the Nativity, and they asked what it was; it was a Greek monk who replied that it was the God of the idolatrous Franks and that if the Turkish ministers were to take it from them they would have no God.
“Not an hour had passed before the Pasha, having entered into the Church of St. Catherine, where by chance he had gone with his whole court, demanded that the Child be brought to him, because he wanted to see it; he eagerly held it in his hands before returning it to our dragoman (interpreter) without saying a word.
“That evening when he was staying in our large church (where it was common for such important people to stay and pass the night), discussing the matter he was told that he had made a big mistake in returning the Child, since had he kept it the Franks would undoubtedly have paid thousands of piasters to ransom it, as it was held in such high esteem by them and adored as the Son of God.
“The Pasha, judging that he could gain some advantage from this situation, immediately sent his dragoman for the Child, making him promise not to allow it to be lost or in any way damaged, and with this vain hope it was taken to his home in Jerusalem. The Father Guardian, who was advised of this, maintained total silence and never made any mention of it.
“Three months passed, and seeing that the friars had not spoken a word about it, he called his dragoman to him and told him he was amazed that the Franks held their God in such low esteem. The dragoman replied that the God adored by the Franks was Three in One. He was in heaven, and that Child represented only the son of God in human flesh, which the Francs placed in the Holy Crib on the eve of his Nativity, to represent the mystery of that Nativity. To which the Pasha retorted: he knew very well that this was their real and true God, but he now assumed that to save the expense of ransoming it they were equivocating in this fashion; however, no longer wishing to keep it in his home, he would return it to Bethlehem as a show of kindness; and placing it in the hands of his dragoman, he said to him that he should return with at least 100 piasters.
“In the end, the Pasha had to be content, after much to- and froing, with two silk robes. To the praise of Christ. Amen.”
(T.S. 1969, p. 378)
It is clear that the traditional representation of the Child Jesus is a very old one linked to devotion, one which Francis of Assisi and his friars helped to popularize and develop. In the year 1414 there is documentation of a shipment from the Holy Land to Italy of statuettes of the Child, a custom which has continued to the present day. Each day in fact, not only the Franciscans but pilgrims themselves love to bring home statuettes of the Child Jesus as a memento of the Holy Place of the Nativity.
Handicrafts in Bethlehem
Among the most important economic activities in Bethlehem are local handicraft products made from olive wood, mother of pearl and coral.
The history of these handicrafts is directly linked to that of the Franciscan brotherhood in Bethlehem, which starting in the sixteenth century set up special centers for teaching the art of intaglio and working with mother-of-pearl, and encouraged the opening of artisan workshops dedicated to these techniques, in order to produce liturgical furnishings, crèches and other handmade articles.
The economic well-being of many Bethlehem families still depends today on these activities, even more so after the construction of the wall that has partially isolated the people living in these areas. The first testimony referring to the use of these techniques dates from 1586 when the Belgian pilgrim Jean Zuallart (known also as Giovanni di Zuallardo), describing his pilgrimage to the Holy Places, said this about Bethlehem: “They make crowns and small crosses from olive, cedar and other woods” (Il devotissimo viaggio di Gerusalemme, Roma 1595, p. 206).
The teaching of these techniques can be traced back to the establishment of a school in 1347 where, in addition to studies of theoretical subjects, instruction in practical disciplines and handicrafts was also promoted. From this breeding ground of artisans, manufacture began not only of simple materials but also of objects of great art and value, notably models of the Holy Places and crèches in mother-of-pearl and olive wood.
These made use of the studies on perspective carried out by Bernardino Amico, who was in Bethlehem between 1593 and 1597, leading to the production of models that were true masterpieces, especially those in mother-of-pearl.
Under the Ottoman Empire, the production of local handicrafts came to a halt due to the reduction in the number of pilgrims. Only at the beginning of the 20th century did production recover, due in large part to the contribution of Father Pacifico Riga who, during his 24 years as director and design teacher at the Bethlehem school, rediscovered and promoted the teaching of these skills.
Among the most famous of the local Bethlehem handicrafts the following should be noted: crèches (Nativity scenes), sepulchers, pictures in mother-of-pearl, reliquaries and candlesticks, as well as miniature models of the Holy Places.
In the Old Testament
The town of Bethlehem is mentioned 44 times in the Old Testament and is given the name “Bethlehem of Judea”, from the tribe to which it belonged, to distinguish it from the homonymous locality belonging to the tribe of Zebulun in Galilee.
Bethlehem is mentioned in the Bible for the first time in reference to Rachel, Jacob’s wife, who died nearby while giving birth to Benjamin, “the son of his old age”. She was buried along the road leading from Jerusalem to Bethlehem (Gen 35:19).
We should also mention the story of Elimelech and his wife Naomi, who after having residing on the plateau of Moab returned to Bethlehem with her daughter-in-law Ruth. Ruth in turn married Boaz and from their offspring was born Jesse, the father of David.
One of the great glories of Bethlehem is that of having been the birthplace of David who was crowned King of Israel there in place of Saul by the prophet Samuel, by command of God (1Sam 16:1-14). David, the youngest of the brothers, was chosen through a sign from the Lord. His charm and great courage immediately made him a leading figure in the kingdom, becoming king of the Jews. For these reasons Bethlehem is still known as the “town of David”. But its true greatness lies in being the town where Jesus, Messiah and Son of God, was born.
The prophet Micah had predicted this in these terms: “But you, Bethlehem-Ephrathah too small to be among the clans of Judah, From you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times” (Mic 5:1).
The Messiah, according to the prophet Micah, in addition to being born in Bethlehem would also be a descendant of David according to the flesh. And so in the surroundings of Bethlehem blossomed the idyll of Ruth, who lived with Booz (Ruth 2:8-22). From their marriage was born Obed, father of Jesse, who was father of David, to whose family belonged Joseph, the husband of Mary and the supposed father of Jesus.
In the New Testament
The faith in the fulfillment of the prophetic announcement of the birth in Bethlehem of a descendant of David was well rooted in the Judaic tradition at the time of Jesus. Indeed, when Herod asked the high priests where the Messiah was to be born they replied without hesitation: “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it has been written through the prophet” (Matt 2:5).
Both Matthew and Luke refer to Jesus’ birth “in Bethlehem of Judea, in the days of King Herod” (Matt 2:1) and in “the city of David that is called Bethlehem” (Luke 2:4).
Luke recounts in addition that Joseph, a member of the house of David, accompanied by Mary his betrothed who was with child, set out from Nazareth for Bethlehem, on account of the Roman census that obliged all Jews to be registered in their place of origin. Matthew’s account, on the other hand, seems to suggest that Mary and Joseph had always been residents of Bethlehem and only later moved to Nazareth.
Other events related to the birth of Jesus also took place in Bethlehem. Luke narrates the coming of the shepherds (Luke 2:8-20), while Matthew adds the story of the coming of the Magi from the East and their journey to Bethlehem (Matt 2:1-12) as well as that of the Massacre of the Innocents and the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt (Matt 2:13-23).
The wait: Mary and Joseph
Gospel according to Matthew 1:1-25
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham became the father of Isaac, Isaac the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers.
Judah became the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar.
Perez became the father of Hezron, Hezron the father of Ram, Ram the father of Amminadab.
Amminadab became the father of Nahshon, Nahshon the father of Salmon, Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab.
Boaz became the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth. Obed became the father of Jesse, Jesse the father of David the king.
David became the father of Solomon, whose mother had been the wife of Uriah.
Solomon became the father of Rehoboam, Rehoboam the father of Abijah, Abijah the father of Asaph. Asaph became the father of Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, Joram the father of Uzziah.
Uzziah became the father of Jotham, Jotham the father of Ahaz, Ahaz the father of Hezekiah. Hezekiah became the father of Manasseh, Manasseh the father of Amos, Amos the father of Josiah.
Josiah became the father of Jechoniah and his brothers at the time of the Babylonian exile.
After the Babylonian exile, Jechoniah became the father of Shealtiel, Shealtiel the father of Zerubbabel, Zerubbabel the father of Abiud. Abiud became the father of Eliakim, Eliakim the father of Azor, Azor the father of Zadok.
Zadok became the father of Achim, Achim the father of Eliud, Eliud the father of Eleazar.
Eleazar became the father of Matthan, Matthan the father of Jacob, Jacob the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary.
Of her was born Jesus who is called the Messiah. Thus the total number of generations from Abraham to David is fourteen generations; from David to the Babylonian exile, fourteen generations; from the Babylonian exile to the Messiah, fourteen generations.
Now this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about.
When his mother Mary was betrothed to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found with child through the holy Spirit. Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly.
Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her.
She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means "God is with us."
When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home. He had no relations with her until she bore a son, and he named him Jesus.
(New American Bible - United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)
We all know the story of the Holy Family, appearing to us with all the tenderness of a humble family from Nazareth, whose events have illuminated human history.
Theirs is a story of obedience to the Life and Will of God, who manifested himself to the married couple demanding from them immense faith and great courage.
Mary, before giving birth to Jesus, was living together with Joseph in Nazareth. After the Angel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary of the conception of the son of God, Mary responded positively, without hesitation and anxious to fulfill the will of God.
Later, Joseph the Just also was to accept the same obedience, welcoming Mary despite her bearing in her womb a child who was not his own. And so it was that in this story of faith in which the Eternal chose to manifest himself in history, the Roman Emperor Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the entire Roman Empire.
As a result, Joseph and his wife, who was in an advanced stage of pregnancy, were obliged to leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem, the place of his ancestors, to register themselves. It was thus apparently only due to chance that Mary gave birth in Bethlehem. Unable to find more suitable accommodation, they stayed in a cave, similar to many others that were located in the surroundings of the town.
It was then that, as the Evangelists narrate: “While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6-7). In this waiting, and in the image of the Holy Family, we have depicted before us a scene from daily life that makes us reflect on the maternal figure of Mary, the “best of mothers” (as Pope Pius IX said), and the fatherhood of Joseph, the best of earthly fathers.
It is indeed important for us as Christians to keep the Holy Family in mind as a model and example of the human family for all time.
The Revelation: Christmas and the divine light
Gospel according to Luke 2: 1-7
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled.
This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.
And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
While they were there, the time came for her to have her child, and she gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
(New American Bible - United States Conference of Catholic Bishops)
The story of Jesus’ birth as it emerges from the Gospels is very concise and not embellished with poetic details or miraculous phenomena. The Evangelist Luke, employing the language of a chronicler, tells us that during the stay in Bethlehem the time came for Mary to have her child (Luke 2:6-7).
The manger is mentioned in this account, and we are provided with a very “everyday” image of Mary. Like all mothers, after nine months of waiting and after giving birth, she wraps the newborn in swaddling clothes and places him in a secure place. From the account nothing extraordinary would appear to have occurred, and yet this birth has radically changed the course of history.
Jesus Son of God, born from a woman and hence born just like all human beings, is subjected to the totality of the human experience. Through this Child Jesus, God wishes to encounter man, wants to draw near to him. St. John will say: “God has sent his Son” (1 John 4:9), clarifying the divine nature of Jesus, who chose to take bodily form in order to live the human condition and show man the way to get to the Father.
The Gospel of Mark is also very concise. In the first place, the Evangelist seeks to make clear that Mary had Jesus without “knowing” Joseph, indicating that Jesus was born through the work of the Holy Spirit and reaffirming the virginity of Mary. But what is clearly apparent in these accounts is the newness that is unfolding itself before the eyes of man: that of a God made man, who selected the earthly form, who selected the path of humiliation shedding his greatness and divinity to reach man, to make himself close to him and to share in his earthly journey.
The choice of poverty made by God, assuming the bodily form of a small child in Bethlehem, is a choice that leaves man, who has an altogether different image of the Messiah, perplexed, even scandalized.
The revelation of God in the flesh represents something entirely new. In this way the Love of the Father is unmistakably revealed. God gave man Light and the revelation in his Son. The Light of Christmas is this: the child of Bethlehem who has come to free man from the shadow of death and sin “the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light” (Matt 4:16).
This is the symbolism of the light that shines in the dark night, the light signifying life and happiness, that dispels the darkness of death. It is the radiance of the celestial world, a symbolic expression of the holiness and glory of God which shows the importance of the moment as an encounter of God with men.
This light and the extraordinariness of the moment help us to understand the joy of the moment, of the liberation that has come through the Incarnation. Christmas Eve is the moment that evokes one of the most tender and delicate events in the life of Jesus. Since antiquity Night has represented a time that is both special and propitious for divine revelations.
And it was in the night that the Incarnation of the Son of God took place. At this precise moment it almost seems as if all life in the universe stood still before the miracle of the Incarnation, to show that all creation was involved in the coming of the Messiah, which was to become the central event in human history.
The Holy Scripture frequently presents us the theme of peace and quiet in relation to the events in which God manifests himself and acts in history. Quiet represents an indispensable condition in order to be able to listen to and properly receive the eternal Word of the Father, that Word which manifested itself here in Bethlehem in the quiet of the cave, and which can be reborn each day in the hearts of those disposed to receive it.
Hic et nunc: Liturgical Tradition
The liturgy in all of the Holy Places, including Bethlehem, is the daily remembering of the events of the life of Jesus Christ, which are lived and evoked in the exact places given to us by tradition as the Holy Places touched by the divine passage of the Son of God.
This helps us to understand how the liturgy in the holy place is not a simple practice of solemnity, but represents a continuous manner of commemorating that hic et nunc (“here and now”) with which, in the case of Bethlehem, the Savior became flesh and came to dwell among us.
We have evidence of this ritual since ancient times. Two of the most important documents are the Itinerarium of Egeria and the Armenian Lectionary of Jerusalem which describe liturgical practices in the Holy Places during the 4th and 5th centuries. These documents provide us with information on the celebrations of Christmas and the Epiphany, and on the pilgrimages made to the various places of worship that were closely linked to the Gospel accounts of the Savior’s birth.
It is clear that the celebration of the Solemnity of Christmas has a fundamental importance in the life of the local church and for the pilgrims who arrive from all over the world to the Church of the Nativity. The initial functions opening the liturgical year are those of the first Sunday of Advent, which is celebrated with the solemn entry of the Custos of the Holy Land into the Church of the Nativity and the prayer of first Vespers.
The entire Advent period revolves around the preparation of the Christmas celebrations: the Christmas Eve Vigil and the dawn and morning Masses which since the nineteenth century have been presided by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, before that time having been presided by the Custos of the Holy Land.
These celebrations conclude with the Epiphany, in which the manifestation of Jesus to the Magi is celebrated. Regarding the Christmas festivities, what we might consider secondary holidays, but still linked to New Testament events, are also celebrated, notably: the Holy Innocents (28 December), commemorating the Massacre of the Innocents ordered by King Herod, and the Theotokos (1 January), the feast of Mary Mother of God which exalts the figure of the Virgin Mary, after whom the Church of the Nativity is named. Along with these, other holidays and commemorations are also celebrated, for the most part linked to the participation of the local community.
Among the most important of these we should mention that of St. Catherine (24 November), the titular saint of the conventual church, which for centuries was the feast day inaugurating the festivities, and that of St. Jerome (30 September), saint and Doctor of the Church who lived in the Holy Places of Christ’s birth.
Along with these celebrations the memory of St. Joseph is also commemorated in the chapel bearing his name, as well as Corpus Christi, a feast day that draws attention to the importance of Bethlehem as the cradle of the coming of the Bread of Life.
In addition we should note the pilgrimages to the sanctuary of Shepherds’ Fields (25 December) and to the Milk Grotto, in memory of the New Testament events that are remembered there.
Unluckily the pages of Aetheria’s day book (end of the 4th cent.) concern¬ing Christmas and Epiphany ceremonies in Bethlehem have been lost. The most ancient information is to be found in the Armenian Lectionary of the 5th cent., which says that the liturgical year began on 6 January with the feast of the Epiphany or birth of our Lord.
Then we have the Jerusalem Canon Book (middle of the 8th cent.), a manuscript found early in 1900’s in the church of St. George at Lahil, Caucasus. It is the translation of an ancient Greek ritual and, integrated with another Georgian document found in the Paris National Library, it forms a valuable source of data for the history of Holy Places during the Arab period, from 635 to the destructions of el Hakim in 1009.
Regarding Christmas ceremonies we come to know that on the eve, after sext, clergy and assembly went in procession to the Shepherds’ Field. Coming back to Bethlehem, they visited the Nativity grotto and finished chanting vespers.
At midnight they started reading prayers and lessons. This Canon Book designated Christmas as on 25 December; in fact by the end of the 6th cent. the Church of Jerusalem also complied with the practice established in Rome, that had set Christmas on such a date.
The sixth of January was devoted to the Epiphany or manifestation of Jesus at the Jordan river.
No particular rites are recorded for the Crusades’ time. In any case it is known that the Patriarch of Jerusalem went to Bethlehem on Christmas eve in order to lead the liturgy. Thus we see that from the 6th cent. up to the present, the Christmas liturgy has retained in Bethlehem its fundamental features. Until 1848 (the year in which pope Pius IX re-established the Latin Patriar¬chate of Jerusalem) the Christmas liturgy in Bethlehem was officiated by the Father Custos of the Holy Land.
Since 1848 the Patriarch presides at the Christmas ceremonies while the Father Custos still leads the Epiphany rites.
On the 24th of December, the parish priest, the town authorities and personalities go to meet the Patriarch of Jerusalem, welcoming him near Rachel’s tomb. In a cortege they go to Bethlehem escorted by horsemounted guards.
At 1 P.M. all the Franciscans, the Seminarians of the Latin Patriarchate and the priests who can take part (all of them in liturgical vestments) receive the Patriarch at the entrance of the parvis while the Father Guardian of the convent waits in front of the basilica door.
The Patriarch crosses the parvis with the town authorities on his right (Governor, Mayor, Garrison Commander, etc.) and clergymen disposed according to their rank on his left. At the basilica entrance, following the prescribed ceremonial, the Patriarch is welcomed by the Father Guardian and then he takes leave of the town authorities and enters the basilica followed by the clergy. He immediately passes through the small door on the left, crosses St. Jerome’s Cloister and enters St. Catherine’s where he puts on the sacred vestments and begins chanting the solemn first vespers of Christmas.
At 3.30 P.M., compline and daily procession, solemnly presided over by the Father Guardian of the convent, take place.
In St. Catherine’s at 11 P.M. solemn matins are sung, officiated over by the Patriarch. Shortly before midnight the Patriarch begins chanting the Pontifical Mass; the Governor, Mayor, Garrison Commander and consuls who have the right to participate, attend this mass. When the Pontifical Mass is over, a procession starts. The Patriarch holds in his arms the well known image of the Child Jesus. He is preceded by the clergy and followed by the town authorities, consuls and congregation. After circling the cloister they enter the basilica through the door in the northern apse and go down to the grotto.
Once in the grotto the Patriarch lays the image of the Child on the silver star and the deacon chants the Gospel of the Nativity. When he reaches the woids:”... she wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger”, he stops, wraps the image with clothes and takes it to the manger. Then the deacon resumes chanting the Gospels; at the end the antiphons and appropriate prayers are sung. Then the Patriarch incenses the image of the Child, intones the Te Deum and the procession goes back to St. Catherine’s where the Christians Eve liturgy comes to an end. The image of the Child remains in the Manger till. the 4th of January.
At midnight sharp the Latins begin celebrating masses in the grotto until 5 A.M. There are only two interruptions, one during the ceremony officiated by the Patriarch, the other from 5 A.M. to 6.30 A.M. during which time Greek Orthodox celebrate their liturgy. Then masses are said continuously until 5 P.M. Further¬more at 9 A.M. in St. Catherine’s an auxiliary bishop officiates at a pontifical mass. At 4 P.M. the Franciscan community makes a pilgrimage to the Shepherds’ Field. They stop first at the site venerated by the Greek Orthodox and then go to the Shepherd’s Field of the Latin property.
Christmas in Bethlehem
- 1.30 pm - Entrance and Vespers
- 4.00 pm – Procession
- 11.30 pm - Office of the Hours
- 00.00 am - Mass of Christmas
- 1.45 am - Procession to Grotto of Nativity
On Epiphany Eve at 10.30 A.M. the Father Custos of the Holy Land enters the basilica with a ceremony very similar to the one followed for the reception of the Patriarch. On the parvis he is welcomed by fathers and priests who do not wear liturgical vestments.
In St. Jerome’s cloister he is received by the Father Guardian of the convent, intones the Te Deum and enters the church followed by all.
At 1.40 P.M. pontifical vespers begin officiated over by the Father Custos of the Holy Land; the daily procession starts for the Nativity grotto at the beginning of the chanting of the Magnificat.
At 3.30 P.M. solemn matins are sung, officiated over by the Father Guardian of the convent. Then chanting the Te Deum, procession goes to the grotto; the three altars are incensed as during vespers.
From midnight until 9 A.M. of 6 January, the Latins have the right to celebrate masses continuously in the grotto with a short interruption during which Greek and Armenian Orthodox have their liturgy.
At 9 A.M. in St. Catherine’s the pontifical mass is sung with the Father Custos of the Holy Land officiating, at which attend the town authorities and consuls, the same as during Midnight mass.
At 3.30 P.M. vespers, compline and matins are sung.
Around 4 P.M., the solemn procession takes place with the Father Custos of the Holy Land officiating. The image of the Child is no longer the one used for the Christmas rites; this one represents the Child seated on a throne. When the procession is over the Father Custos blesses the assembly with the image.
The ceremonies of the Latin Christmas in Bethlehem are thus completed. Perhaps it is not out of place to mention that Latin priests have the privilege to say every day (with the exception of a few liturgical feasts) the Christmas votive mass in the Nativity grotto, and the St. Joseph’s votive mass and St. Joseph Artisan’s votive mass in St. Jerome’s grottos. This privilege has been reconfirmed by Pope Paul VI in 1964, in memory of his visit to the Holy Land.
Unforgettable is the pilgrimage of Paul VI, the first pope who came to Bethlehem. On 6th January, Epiphany day, he celebrated a mass at the Wise Men’s altar and then delivered his famous message of peace. As souvenirs of his visit, Paul VI offered to the Child a symbolic present: gold (represented by a golden rose), incense (represented by a 18th cent. silver censer) and myrrh (contained in a kind of pyx). Moreover he donated to the church the vestments worn by him during the mass, and the chalice, missal and all the other sacred vessels used during the rite.
Epiphany in Bethlehem
- 10.00am - Solemn Mass of Fr Custodian S. Catherine
- 3.30pm - Second Vespers and Solemn Procession to the Grotto of the Nativity
December 28: Holy Innocents
January 1: Mary Mother of God (at the Milk Grotto)
September 30: St. Jerome
November 24: St. Catherine
Daily liturgy in memory of Christmas and the Daily Procession
The daily rhythm of the life of the Franciscan friars, custodians of these Holy Places, is marked by the animation of the liturgy and the welcoming of pilgrims. While each day the community celebrates the Eucharist according to the calendar of the Universal Church, the pilgrims celebrate in this place the memory of Christmas.
The para-liturgical moment that is celebrated each day in memory of the Birth of Jesus in the place of the Nativity is the Daily Procession to the Grotto of the Nativity. This, like all processions in the Holy Places, grew out of the desire to welcome pilgrims and bring them to the holy place along a precise route. Here it is celebrated every day at noon by the community of friars based in the Church of the Nativity.
The Daily Procession in Bethlehem has seen many changes in the form of the ritual over the centuries, since during that time worship within the church and in the adjoining structures has undergone numerous changes.
The evidence of the first friars mentions that in the 14th century, a time when they still had exclusive ownership of the church, the procession departed from the altar dedicated to the Virgin that was located in the middle of the left aisle.
In 1470, to avoid pilgrims having to pay tribute to the Saracens, the Friars Minor opened a passage connecting the Grotto of the Nativity, the Grotto of St. Joseph and what was then the Chapel of St. Catherine. These are just some of the examples of the variations that the church, and hence the route of the Daily Procession, has undergone over the course of time. It is also clear that some of the changes to the daily ritual were linked to different historical periods as well to internal dissensions between the Latins and Greeks, the latter who on several occasions limited access to the Grotto.
Today the procession follows the itinerary below, preserving a number of elements from the processions carried out by Father Bonifacio da Ragusa (16th century) and later elaborated upon by Father Tommaso Obicini (17th century):
- I. The procession always departs from the Altar of St. Catherine with its first stop, or “station”, at the Altar of the Nativity;
- II. the Holy Manger;
- III. Altar of the Magi The following stations, which in earlier centuries were covered in their entirety, are today chosen on a daily basis as the final point of the itinerary:
- IV. Tomb of the Innocents;
- V. Oratory of St. Jerome;
- VI. Tomb of St. Jerome;
- VII. Tomb of St. Eusebius;
- VIII. Altar of St. Catherine.
The route followed helps one to relive each day the moment and the places of the Birth and Manifestation of Lord Jesus, and of the altars dedicated to those who were witnesses in history to these facts.
The Nativity scene at Greccio and the tradition of the crèche
One common way today of transmitting the memory of the birth of Jesus is through the tradition of the crèche. St. Francis is credited with having created the first crèche in history.
The hagiographic tradition relates, albeit without historical certainty, that when Francis went to the Holy Land he had gone to Bethlehem and, bringing home with him the memory of the Town where the Savior was born, he then reproduced the scene of the Nativity on the famous Christmas Eve in Greccio (1Cel 84-86).
In fact, Francis, anxious to make tangible to the faithful the experience of the Son of God, humbled and incarnate in human form, wanted to put in place such a representation, as is recounted in the biographies of the saint by both Thomas of Celano and St. Bonaventure.
In these accounts it is related that Francis prepared a manger with hay, had an ox and a donkey brought there, and then had a Holy Mass celebrated in front of it, before a large crowd of people who had come from all over the region. His love for the Solemnity of Christmas and his devotion to the image of the Nativity found its highest inspiration in the Mystery of the Incarnation, where the saint recognized the humbleness and poverty of the birth of the Messiah. Francis saw this, the renewal of oneself in the sacrament of the Eucharist, where Jesus descends each day through the hands of the priest.
The accounts paint a picture of great simplicity and tenderness, in which on Christmas Eve 1223 Francis prepared the Eucharistic celebration, requesting assistance from his friend Giovanni Velita in the preparation of some items needed to represent the scene of the Child’s birth in Bethlehem and, as he himself said: “to see with the eyes of the body the hardships in which he was placed because of the necessities for a newborn that were lacking” (1Cel).
The Holy Night came and Francis along with the friars and several faithful went to the place where the manger had been set up with hay, a donkey and an ox. “Some sweet words” were preached by Francis, and then a vision of the Child appeared on the hay. The miraculous event stirred up the animals and moved the hearts of many who felt themselves touched by what had happened. Through this action the saint wanted to make it easy for the faithful to understand the Mystery of the Incarnation.
Devotion, a characteristic of Franciscan spirituality, certainly contributed to the development of the practice of representing the Nativity scene, a practice which has continued to the present day.
In preparation for the Solemnity of the Nativity on the Eve before Christmas, in the Grotto of the Nativity the episode of the Crèche at Greccio is evoked by the Franciscan friars, with the protagonist being Father Francis of Assisi in contemplation of the Mystery of the Incarnation.
The Church of the Nativity is one of the most important places in the Holy Land for encounters among the different Christian denominations and religions. The images, history and events that characterize it allow us to speak of this church as a symbolic place of Ecumenism.
Already in the Crusader period the church had been the site of union between two Churches, Eastern and Western, which had been divided following the Schism of 1054. In fact, despite the fact that the church was under the control of the Crusader Knights, who were the Pope’s representatives in these places, the iconographic design of the mosaic wall decorations was commissioned by the Byzantine emperor and carried out by Eastern masters.
Today three Christian denominations − Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox – live together in the church, experiencing all the difficulties this entails and living an experience of daily Ecumenism.
But our reflection can move beyond the Ecumenical aspect and we can recognize in the Church of the Nativity a character of dialogue.
The Religious Communities
The Latin Church
Named by the Latin Church as the custodians of the Holy Places, the Franciscans, sons of Francis of Assisi, have been taking care of the Nativity in Bethlehem since 1347, the year in which they established themselves at the holy place. Throughout this time, and continuing today, the Franciscans have carried out liturgical services and welcomed pilgrims.
Their Crusader-era convent is next to the church and contains within it the Church of St. Catherine, which is used both to celebrate the daily liturgy and for parish life. In addition, near the Altar of the Magi the Franciscans officiate each day the Eucharistic Celebration.
Finally, each day the Franciscans animate the Daily Procession that leaves from the altar of the Church of St. Catherine and retraces all of the stages of the Theophany.
The Armenian Orthodox Church
The Armenian Orthodox Church belongs to the churches known as “Ancient Eastern” (descending from the Syrian, Armenian and Alexandrian traditions) and is closely linked to the history of the Armenian people, so much so that the Supreme Patriarch, called the “Catholicos”, is considered to be “father of the country”.
The Armenian Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem was established around the 5th century. Over time the Armenian Orthodox community has grown with the arrival of Armenian immigrants, above all to Jerusalem.
In Bethlehem there is a community of Armenian monks who live in the monastery adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, where they carry out their daily liturgy and have the right to celebrate the Eucharist at the Altar of the Nativity within the Grotto (sharing with the Greek Orthodox).
Among the most interesting celebrations we can note that of Christmas, which is celebrated on 19 January based on the ancient Armenian calendar. This holiday celebrates the “theophany” and highlights the “Epiphany”, or manifestation of the Lord in his baptism, on the eve of which takes place the solemn entry of the patriarch.
The Greek Orthodox Church belongs to the group of churches that accepted the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451). This groups together all the Churches of the Byzantine Rite, and geographically can be situated in Eastern Europe.
It has kept itself distinct from other churches (Assyrian Church of the East, Ancient Eastern Church, Catholic, Anglican and Protestant) and considers itself to represent the authentic and original faith. The prevalence of Greek and Greek-speaking elements in the Holy Land has permitted the Orthodox Church over the centuries to become identified as Greek Orthodox, another factor being that for centuries the leadership roles were held by Greek patriarchs and bishops.
In Bethlehem the Greek Orthodox administer the Church of the Nativity and the Grotto, in conjunction with the Latin and Armenian Orthodox churches. Their monastery is located to the south of the church complex, and can be identified by its large bell tower. The areas of responsibility of the Greeks within the church are the following: the south transept, the area of the presbytery, and within the Grotto of the Nativity the Altar of the Nativity in cooperation with the Armenian Orthodox community.
The most important holiday of the Greek Orthodox community in Bethlehem is Christmas, celebrated on 7 January with the entry of the Patriarch.
East of Bethlehem, some 2 km. from the centre, there is a village, Beit Sahour, the house of vigilant, of lookouts. We can reach it on foot following along Milk Grotto street.
Already in St. Helen’s day there was a church here dedicated to the Angels who had announced to the shepherds the Redeemer’s birth. After various ups and clowns in the fast century a rectory and a school were built awaiting the time when a church could also be erected. Meanwhile the liturgy took place first in a grotto called Mihwara, then provisio-nally in the rectory.
Finally in 1950 the church built by Arch. A. Barluzzi was consecrated and dedicated to our Lady of Fatima and St. Theresa of Lisieux. The inhabitants of the village, heirs of Boaz’ generosity, cooperated with great enthusiasm. The fine portico of the church has three pointed arches; the upper part of the façade is crowned by a flight of slender little arches which run also on the side walls.
The inside is divided into a nave and two aisles by two rows of four columns each. The column shafts of pale red stone of the country at first sight look a little squat. To make them appear less massive the architect resorted to a simple optical expedient: the various drums from base to capital have decreasing height. The very narrow pointed arches create the illusion that the inside is longer than it actually is. Capitals, massive yet not heavy, are quite original.
The main altar is especially worth being mentioned. It is a real jewel, a credit to Palestinian sculpture. In spite of its size it looks like an ivory miniature rather than carved stone. The frontal and the altar upper part are decorated with 15 panels representing various scen es from the Annunciation to the arrival of the holy Family in Egypt.
At the same level as the tabernacle there are four little statues (the Evangelists) while in the upper part the 12 Apostles surround the image of Christ. Authors of this work were Yssa Zmeir of Bethlehem and Abdullah Haron of Beit Sahour. Beit Sahour lies in the middle of the so called ‘Boaz’ fields’. In the glorious night of the Nativity the shepherds kept watch in one of these fields. “The angel said to them: ‘You have nothing to fear! I come to proclaim good news to you – tidings of great joy to be shared by the whole people. This day in David’s city a saviour has been born to you, the Messiah and Lord”’ (Lk. 2,10 11).
Although the Gospel words do not exactly localize the place where the Angels appeared, yet the ancient tradition has fixed it at Siyar el-Ghanam, the field of the shepherds, not far from Beit Sahour.
The excavations carried out by Fr. Virgil Corbo ofm in 1951 2 were more exhaustive than the previous ones (C. Guarmani, 1859) and the ruins could be dated precisely. The traces of human life found in caves, going back to Herodian and Roman times, and the remnants of very ancient oil presses found under the foundations of two monasteries, demon¬strate beyond every doubt that the place was inhabited at the time when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Fr. Corbo gathered enough elements corroborating the hypothesis that a small community lived here.
Furthermore, at Siyar el Ghanam there are the remains of a guard tower, now incorporated in the Franciscan hospice. After Rachel had died, “Israel moved on and pitched his tend beyond Migdaleder” (Gen 35,21), beyond the “tower of the flock”. The Targumin7 localized this tower east of Bethlehem specifying that the Messiah would be announced there.
The Talmudic tradition pointed at the same region and the Christian tradition, after the birth of our Lord, accepted and maintained the localization. St. Jerome sees the tower at “almost one thousand (Roman) feet from Bethlehem” and adds that in that place the Angels had announced to the shepherds the birth of the Redeemer. What remains of the farming settle¬ment and guard tower explains very well an expression of Luke’s original Greek text.
According to the most qualified exegetes (among whom M. J. Lagrange) the verbe used by Luke does not mean that the shepherds were spending the night in the open, rather that “they lived in the fields”.
Excavations have retraced the existence of two monasteries, one of the 4th 5th cent., the other of the 6th. cent. Of the first one there are the foundations of the church and those of several walls. In the 6th cent. the church was demolished and rebuilt in the same place with the apse slightly displaced towards the east.
Of the second monastery we have similarly parts of the apse and walls of several rooms. Fr. Corbo thinks that many stones of the 4th cent. building, re used in the apse of the 6th cent. church, come from Constantine’s Nativity Church.
The place where the monasteries stood is not the best one in this area because it is not level. The fact that the second church was built exactly over the previous one further confirms that a special remembrance was tied with this site.
The 6th cent. monastery was destroyed in the 8th cent. by Moslems who tried even to erase the Christian signs by chiselling off and scraping off the stones on which they were engraved. Among the rooms of the second monastery a few were identified as used for particular purposes: porter’s lodge, bakery with a big basalt millstone, refectory, oil presses, cave cellar, stable. Also a canalization system and several cisterns were brought to light.
The present sanctuary was built in 1953 4 on a design by Arch. A. Barluzzi. Both the laying of the foundation stone and the dedication took place on Christmas Day.
The sanctuary stands on a large rock dominating the ruins. It represents a bedouin camp: a polygon with 5 straight sides and 5 projecting sides bent towards the centre, shaped like tents. Light floods the inside through the glass cement dome and calls to mind the very strong light which appeared to the shepherds. The bronze high relief on the door lintel was designed by sculptor D. Cambellotti who created also the portal, the four bronze statues supporting the main altar in the middle of the chapel, candlesticks and crosses. Arch. U. Noni frescoed the three apses and sculptor A. Minghetti cared for the execution of the ten stucco angels of the dome.
In Bethlehem the sacred area around the Nativity Grotto has been the focal point of all tradition. Nevertheless in Bethlehem a small Chapel has been for long centuries a devotional site.
The "Milk Grotto" over which today a small Chapel rise, is frequently visited by local women, Christians and Moslems alike, to ask for the intercession of Mary. mother of Jesus. A legend recalls how some Mary spilt some milk while breast feeding baby Jesus and this is the reason for the "white" stone of the cave.
A tradition going back to the VII century located at this site the burial place of the innocent victims killed by Herod the Great after the birth of Jesus. In 2007 has been completed the restoration of the Cave, which has cleaned up the walls and returned to the original light.
The new church, built on top of the ancient cave, was designed by architects Louis Lions and Chiara Rovati, work realized with the support of the faithful Slovaks and Italians.
The Milk Grotto is flanked by monastery entrusted to the sister of the Perpetual Adorers of the Blessed Sacrament. An interior corridor connects the cave with the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament and the Upper Church: Eucharistic Adoration continues all day long and it is possible for all the pilgrims to stop there in silent prayer.
Following on along the same street – on both sides of which there are several modern Christian cemeteries belonging to various denominations – after a short walk we see a chapel on our right: it is the ‘House of St. Joseph’.
After the Child was born, the holy Family stayed in Bethlehem for a while. Jesus was circumcised and when the time prescribed by the Law of Moses had elapsed, our Lady and St. Joseph with the Child went up to Jerusalem for the Purification (Lk 2,22). The Wise Men found Jesus in a house (Mt 2,11).
The Gospel states that the holy Family lived in Bethlehem after Jesus’ birth; it is probable that they found a shelter somewhere in this area. The transition from grotto to house is no contradiction: St. Joseph hailed from Bethlehem and might have had relations and friends here who, aware of his distress, helped him.
Furthermore, St. Joseph was an artisan: he could work and gain his living. Already during the Middle Ages attempts were made to localize in Bethlehem a specific memory of St. Joseph. Researches were always made on the eastern hill slope, between the Milk Grotto and the Shepherd’s Field, probably following an ancient local tradition.
According to two Florentine pilgrims (George Gucci and Leonard Frescobaldi), the site had been finally localized in the second half of the 14th cent. The modern chapel (1890) bases on rock as well as on buildings mentioned by many pilgrims. At the foot of the apse we can see a piece of rock and, behind the altar, a block probably belonging to the primitive altar.
The chapel commemorating the ‘House of St. Joseph’ was donated by Mrs. E. Audebert. In order to avert troubles with the government authorities, the building was deliberately given a modest outlook, as if it were the house of a watchman. On 20 March 1893 the small church was solemnly consecrated by the Father Custos of the Holy Land, Fr. Giacomo Ghezzi.
The building is located within the village of Artas, situated on the edge of Bethlehem and just next to the famous Solomon Pools. The location and surrounding area are breathtaking, particularly during the spring months when the surrounding mountains surrounding are richly green and the olive trees are blooming.
A picturesque stone bridge stretching over the verdant Artas Valley leads to the Convent of Hortus Conclusus which derives its name from the Song of Songs’ enclosed garden. The convent is inhabited by an Italian order of nuns which was established in Latin America.
It was built more than hundred years ago (in 1901) by engineers from Bethlehem of Morcos family, at the request of Mgr. Soler Archbishop of Montevideo, Uruguay.
Cisterns of David
On the road out of Bethlehem, opposite to the Syrian Catholic church there are three large cisterns still in use, hewn in the rock: they are the Cisterns of David, in Arabic Biar Dawd.
The Bible speaks of them in 2 Sm 23, 15 17: “Now David had a strong craving and said, ‘Oh, that someone would give me a drink of water from the cistern that is by the gate of Bethlehem!’. So the three warriors broke through the Philistine camp and drew water from the cistern that is by the gate of Bethlehem. But when they brought it to David he refused to drink it, and instead poured it out to the Lord, saying: ‘The Lord forbid that I do this! Can I drink the blood of these men who went at the risk of their lives ?’ So he refused to drink it”.
Beyond the cisterns there are also remnants of a church and of an underground cemetery. In 1895 a fragment of floor mosaic belonging to the church was found; an inscription could be seen with verses 19 and 20 of Ps 117: “Open to me the gates of justice; I will enter them and give thanks to the Lord. This gate is the Lord’s, the just shall enter it”.
At present the mosaic is buried under a cultivated field and further researches are impossible. When it was found, someone thought it belonged to David’s mausoleum, the traces of which had been lost since the 6th cent.
Although there is no archaeological evidence, yet it seems that David’s tomb should be located, according to Jewish tradition, on Mount Sion. Beneath the church there is an underground cemetery, formed by galleries with 18 arcosoliums, each of them with 2 to 6 burial troughs.
In 1962 the Custody of the Holy Land had some work done (Br. Michelangelo Tizzani) during which catacombs and arcosoliums were restored. Excavations brought to light many potsherds (4th cent.) and wall inscriptions (4th 6th cent.).
The most meaningful graffito is a Constantinian cross (4th cent.) engraved in the rock at the beginning of the cemetery, which affirms the Christian nature of the burial ground.
Pool of Salomon
The fortress of qala’atal-burak in Bethlehem is generally held to be of Turkish origin but it is likely that the structure is much older. The location of the castle allowed it to guard the so-called Solomon’s Pools of Bethlehem, on the road leading to Artas.
The three basins represented one of the principal water resources for Jerusalem, by means of an aqueduct that terminated at the Temple. These definitely existed at the time of Herod and may have been up to two centuries older.
The basins are approximately rectangular in shape and placed in line with the fortress in an east-west direction; on the northeast side is a passageway leading to a chamber where water surges from a natural spring, while all around numerous traces survive of water channels that collected water from the surface of the nearby hills.
The water was taken to the upper aqueduct through a pipe whose age is unknown; the water channel disappears into a tunnel at a place marked on the ground by a series of nine wells. At the exit of the tunnel the water channel continues towards the Wadi Bijar (Valley of the Wells) before disappearing into a new tunnel marked on the surface by around thirty wells that are still used by local farmers. This was in fact a sophisticated water system designed to collect additional water from the aquifer, reproducing a qanat system.
Remains of the lower aqueduct survive near the ruins of the Byzantine structure known as Deir al-Banat (Convent of the Maidens). In 1998 the situation appeared to have worsened with regard to that encountered five years earlier, due to the state of abandonment of the basins.
Remnants of the first aqueduct lay in an abandoned cave some 400 m. from the cross road to Hebron; remnants of the second one, also not far from Rachel’s tomb, behind the houses in the triangle formed by the fork of the road.
Finally we find ourselves in front of Rachel’s tomb, Qubbet Rahil, immed¬iately north of the Hebron forking. “Thus Rachel died; and she was buried on the road to Efrath, that is Bethlehem. Jacob set up a memorial stone on her grave, and the same monument marks Rachel’s grave to this day” (Gn 35, 19 20).
The earliest testimonies speak of a monument formed by a simple pyramid, which remembered the nefes of Judaic tombs. Later on (1165) twelve stones were added, in memory of Jacob’s twelve sons; however, some chronicles speak of eleven stones only: the stone of Benjamin would have been missing. In Byzantine times and probably also later on, Rachel’s tomb must have been transformed into a Christian place of worship.
The Lectionary of Jerusalem (5th 8th cent.) enters two official liturgical commemorations (20 February, and 18 July). The Georgian Palestinian Calendar (according to the Sinaiticus Code 34 of the 10th cent.) clearly refers to a ‘Church of Rachel’ in speaking of the same commemorations.
In the 14th cent. the tomb was embellished and an imposing sarco¬phagus with a convex top was added. Fr. Amico has left us a drawing where we see the cenotaph in the middle of a chapel. In the four side walls there were archways. These were walled in by Mohammed Pasha of Jerusalem (1560) who, moreover, replaced the pyramid with a dome.
In the 19th cent. Moses Montefiore added two rooms to the primitive square vestibule thus giving the tomb the appearance it still maintains today. Actually, rather than of a tomb one should speak of a weli, Moslem funereal monument built to remember a saint or a remarkable person. Although Jews, Christians and Moslems venerate the memory of Rachel here, yet many doubts are raised about the authenticity of the site.
St. Jerome was the first to raise them; he expressed the idea that this was the tomb built for Archaelaus, Herod the Great’s son, tetrarch of Judea. Archaelaus, however, died in Vienne (southeastern France) and was not translated here. The topic has been examined time and again; recently Fr. G. Lombardi ofm raised it once more.
After carefully analyzing the Biblical texts referring to Efrath, he reached the conclusion that Rachel’s tomb is near Hizmeh, north of Jerusalem, where there are five sepulchral monuments known under the name of ‘Tombs of Israel’s Children’. Near Rachel’s tomb four more women of the same tribe should be buried. In any case the hypothesis cannot be discarded that Archaelaus’ tomb was actually built not far from Rachel’s tomb and that tradition has united the two remembrances.
Today the tomb is located near the wall of division of Israeli territory from the Palestinian and can be visited only by permission.
Opening hours of the Sanctuary
Church of the Nativity
6.30 – 19.30 (summer)
5.30 – 18.00 (winter)
Sunday morning the Grotto is closed
6.00 – 19.00 (summer)
5.30 – 18.00 (winter)
8.00 – 17.00 - Sunday: 8.00 – 11.45 / 14.00 –17.00 (summer)
8.00 – 17.00 - Sunday: 8.00 – 11.45 / 14.00 –17.00 (winter)
8.00 – 17.45 - Sunday 8:00 – 11:45 / 14:00 – 17:45 (summer)
8.00 – 16.45 - Sunday 8:00 – 11:45 / 14:00 – 16:45 (winter)
Holy Mass can be celebrated in the Grotto of the Nativity, by previous reservation at the Franciscan Pilgrims' Office - FPO
St. Catherine Parish Church
6.30 am, Italian
7.30 am, Arabic
9 .00 am, Arabic
11.00 am, Arabic
6.30 am, Italian
7.00 am, Arabic
4.30 pm, Arabic (winter)
6.30 pm, Arabic (summer)
St. Francis Chapel
4.30 pm, Arabic (winter)
5.30 pm, Arabic (summer)
Grotto of the Nativity – Altar of the Magi:
5.00 am, Italian (winter)
6.00 am, Italian (summer)
8.30 am, Italian (winter)
9.30 am, Italian (summer)
5.00 am, Italian (winter)
6.00 am, Italian (summer)
7.30 am, Italian (winter)
8.30 am, Italian (summer)
Feasts and Celebrations during the year:
Nativity of the Lord: 25 December
Holy Innocents: 28 December
Mary, Mother of God − Theotokos: 1 January
Epiphany: 6 January
St. Catherine: 25 November
St. Jerome: 30 September
Reservations for Masses and Contacts
Reservations for Masses for priests and Catholic groups, certificates for pilgrimages in the Holy Land:
Franciscan Pilgrims' Office - FPO
tel: +972 2 6272697 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Christian Information Centre - CIC
(inside Jaffa Gate, opposite the Citadel)
tel: +972 2 6272692 fax: +972 2 6286417
Bethlehem − Franciscan Convent
Convento Santa Caterina “ad Nativitem”.
+970 02 2742425
+970 02 2743084
+970 02 2776171 (convent)
+970 02 2762697 (sacristy)
Bethlehem − Parish
Manger Square - P.O.B. 45
Tel: +970 02 274.33.72
Fax: +970 02 274.01.03
Pilgrims are welcomed by the Franciscan friars who manage the Casa Nova for pilgrims and the Orient Palace Hotel. These facilities have a long tradition of hospitality. Their contacts are:
Casa Nova for pilgrims
P.O.B. 996 Bethlehem Palestinian Authority
Tel.: +970 2 27439.81
Tel.: +970 2 27439.84
Tel.: +970 2 27656.60
Tel.: +970 2 2765661
Fax: +970 2 2743540
Orient Palace Hotel
P.O.B. 996 Bethlehem Palestinian Authority
Tel.: +970 2 27427.98
Fax: +970 2 27415.62