The Church of the Nativity is a basilica located in Bethlehem, Palestinian territories, and is considered to be the oldest continuously operating Christian church in the world. The church was originally commissioned in 327 AD by Constantine and his mother Helena over the site that is still traditionally considered to be located over the cave that marks the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth. The Church of the Nativity site's original basilica was completed in 339 AD and destroyed by fire during the Samaritan Revolts in the sixth century AD. A new basilica was built 565 AD by the Byzantine Empire, restoring the architectural tone of the original. The site of the Church of the Nativity has had numerous additions since this second construction, including its prominent bell towers. Due to its cultural and geographical history, the site holds a prominent religious significance to those of both the Christian and Muslim faiths.
The site of the Church of the Nativity is a World Heritage Site, and was the first to be listed under Palestine by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The site is also on UNESCO's List of World Heritage Sites in Danger.
The holy site, known as the Grotto, that the Church of the Nativity sits atop, is today associated with the cave in which the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth occurred. In 135 AD, Hadrian is said to have had the Christian site above the Grotto converted into a worship place for Adonis, the Greek pagan god of beauty and desire. A father with the Church of the Nativity, Jerome, noted before his death in 420 AD that the holy cave was at one point consecrated by the heathen to the worship of Adonis, and that a pleasant sacred grove was planted there in order to wipe out the memory of Jesus. However, some modern scholars dispute this argument and insist that the cult of Adonis-Tammuz originated the shrine and that it was the Christians who took it over, substituting the worship of God.
The antiquity of the association of the site with the birth of Jesus is attested by the Christian apologist Justin Martyr (c. 100 – 165 AD, who noted in his Dialogue with Tryphothat the Holy Family had taken refuge in a cave outside of town:
Joseph took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him.(chapter LXXVIII).
In Bethlehem the cave is pointed out where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling clothes. And the rumor is in those places, and among foreigners of the Faith, that indeed Jesus was born in this cave who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians. (Contra Celsum, book I, chapter LI).
The first basilica on this site was begun by Saint Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine I. Under the supervision of Bishop Makarios of Jerusalem, the construction started in 327 AD and was completed in 333. Construction of this early church was carried out as part of a larger project following the First Council of Nicaea during Constantine's reign to build on the supposed sites of the life of Jesus. The design of the basilica centered around three major architectural sections: (1) an octagonal rotunda over the area believed to be where Jesus of Nazareth was born; (2) a boxed atrium area of 148 by 92 feet (45 m × 28 m); and (3) double-aisled forecourt of 95 by 93 feet (29 m × 28 m). The structure was burnt down and destroyed in a revolt between the Jews and the Samaritans in 529 or 556 AD.
The current basilica was rebuilt in its present form in 565 AD by the Emperor Justinian I. When the Persians under Chosroes II invaded in 614, they did not destroy the structure. According to legend, their commander Shahrbaraz was moved by the depiction inside the church of the Three Magi wearing Persian clothing, and commanded that the building be spared. The Crusaders made further repairs and additions to the building during the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem with permission and help given by the Byzantine Emperor, and the first King of Jerusalem was crowned in the church. Over the years, the compound has been expanded, and today it covers approximately 12,000 square meters. The church was one of the direct causes for French involvement in the Crimean War against Russia.
Until 1131 CE, the Church of the Nativity was used as the primary coronation church for crusader kings. During this time, extensive decoration by the crusaders and various restorations of the basilica and grounds took place. This decoration and restoration process took place until 1169 AD.
After three decades of being ravaged by the invasions of the Crusades, most notably the destruction of the church that occurred in April 1244 by the Turks, the roof of the Church of the Nativity lay in poor condition. In August of 1448 AD, the Kingdom of Burgundy committed resources to the project, but it was not until 1480 that they were able to get the project underway in Bethlehem. Due to this worsening condition of the wooden Church roof, in 1480 an extensive roof reconstruction and renovation projected took place on the Church of the Nativity. Multiple regions contributed supplies to have the Church roof repaired with England supplying the lead, the Second Kingdom of Burgundy supplying the wood, and the Republic of Venice providing the labor.
Between 1834 and 1837 earthquakes and aftershocks in Bethlehem inflicted significant damage to the Church of the Nativity. The initial earthquake, the 1834 Palestinian Earthquake, damaged the church's bell tower, the furnishings of the cave on which the church is built, and other parts of its structure. Minor damages were further inflicted with a series of strong aftershocks in 1836 and with the Galilee earthquake of 1837 shortly thereafter.
By 1846 the Church of the Nativity and its surrounding site lie in disrepair. The Church's state had left the site vulnerable to looting. Much of the marble floors of the interior of the Church were looted of the early half of the 19th century, and many were transferred to use in other buildings around the region, including to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. In that same year, the religiously significant silver star that was displayed above the Grotto of the Nativity was stolen. In 1851, the Church of the Nativity was under the control of the Ottoman Empire. But, nearing the Christmas of 1852 Napoleon III sent his ambassador to the Ottoman Empire forced the Ottomans to recognise France as the "sovereign authority"in the Holy Land that the Latins had lost in the eighteenth century. When the Sultan of Turkey replaced the silver star over the Grotto with a Latin inscription, the Russian Empire disputed the change in "authority"and citing two treaties, one from 1757 and the other from 1774 (the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca), and deployed armies to the Danube area. As a result, the Ottomans issued firmans essentially reversing their earlier decision, renouncing the French treaty and restoring the Greeks to the sovereign authority over the Churches of the Holy Land for the time being. Since individual churches did not have a say in firmans, tensions arose at the local level. These, along with the theft of the silver star, helped to further fuel the debate between the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire over the occupation of holy sites around the region. This theft is often cited by scholars as one of the catalysts of the Crimean War.
In April 2002, during the second Intifada, some 50 armed Palestinians wanted by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) locked themselves in the church, along with some 200 monks and other Palestinians who arrived at the site for different reasons, and were held as hostages by the gunmen. Because of the sensitivity of the building the IDF did not break into the building, but prevented the entry of food. The siege lasted 39 days and some of the gunmen were shot by IDF snipers. After lengthy negotiations it was agreed that the gunmen would be evacuated to Gaza, Spain and Italy.
The church is administered jointly by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic authorities. All three traditions maintain monastic communities on the site. As a result, however, there have been repeated brawls among monk trainees over quiet respect for others'prayers, hymns and even the division of floorspace for cleaning duties. The Palestinian police have been called to restore peace and order.
The structure of the site of the Church of the Nativity is a combination of two churches and a crypt beneath—the Grotto of the Nativity where tradition states that Jesus of Nazareth was born.
The present state of the church is worrying. Many roof timbers are rotting, and have not been replaced since the 19th century. The rainwater that seeps into the building not only accelerates the rotting of the wood and damages the structural integrity of the building, but also damages the 12th-century wall mosaics and paintings. The influx of water also means that there is an ever-present chance of an electrical fire. If another earthquake were to occur on the scale of the one of 1834, the result would most likely be catastrophic.... It is hoped that the listing will encourage its preservation, including getting the three custodians of the church – the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox Church, and the Franciscan order – to work together, which has not happened for hundreds of years. The Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority would also have to work together to protect it.
In 2010, the Palestinian Authority announced that a multi-million dollar restoration programme was imminent.
In 2012, the church complex became the first Palestinian site to be listed as a World Heritage Site by the World Heritage Committee at its 36th session on 29 June. It was approved by a secret vote of 13-6 in the 21-member committee, according to UNESCO spokeswoman Sue Williams, and following an emergency candidacy procedure that by-passed the 18-month process for most sites, despite the opposition of the United States and Israel. The site was approved under criteria four and six. The decision was a controversial one on both technical and political terms. It has also been placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger as it is suffering from damages due to water leaks.
Inside of Church of the Nativity you can also find: Grotto of the Nativity ,