If you’re heading for Bethlehem, you’re undoubtedly going to stop at the Church of the Nativity, perhaps the ultimate destination on any Christmas visit to Israel. One of the holiest sites in Christianity, the Church represents the spot where Jesus of Nazareth was born.
Bethlehem lies some 8 km (5 miles) from Jerusalem and at Christmas is obviously one of the most visited locations on the Christian tourist map (and fairly easy to get to thanks to its proximity to Jerusalem – read more here about getting to Bethlehem from Jerusalem). The Church of the Nativity is the main focus of any sightseeing in Bethlehem, though there are a number of other holy attractions in and around Bethlehem, including Rachel’s Tomb and the Monastery of St. Elias.
Check out this tour if you need an awesome, budget-friendly Christmas Eve tour of Bethlehem, highly recommended!
The Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest churches in the world still in everyday use. It has seen a variety of custodians over the centuries, including the Persians and Crusaders, but all have been keen to preserve the Church and even expand it (it now covers some 12,000 square meters).
Today the Church is governed by three Christian denominations – the Armenian Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. Each has control over different parts of the Church.
Basilica of the Nativity
This is the main part of the Church of the Nativity, and governed by the Greek Orthodox authorities. Accessed from a small doorway called the Door of Humility (just 120cm high), visitors are forced to crouch down to enter the Church. Why this entrance is so small is down to a number of reasons, depending on who you talk to, but it’s largely believed to be because it prevented mounted horsemen during the Ottoman period from entering the Church.
Once inside the Church of the Nativity you can see an impressive Roman basilica with five aisles, or naves, separated by four columns of Corinthian pillars. The floor has special trap doors in it, through which you can see original parts of the mosaic floor.
Straight ahead at the end of the Church is the High Altar. Either side of the Altar is a staircase, which leads down to the Grotto of the Nativity.
Despite its importance in the Christian world, the Basilica was placed on the 2008 Endangered Sites list by the World Monuments Fund, largely because of a leaky roof which threatens to damage the relics within the Basilica.
Heading down the stairs at the side of the High Altar, you can’t help but be moved as you enter into the Grotto of the Nativity. Even if you’re a non-believer, there’s something magical and inspiring at watching others overcome with emotion. At Christmas time you’re likely to face crowds of people, so for the claustrophobic among you just be aware.
Inside the Grotto a 14 point silver star in the white marble floor indicates the precise spot where Jesus was born. The inscription on the star reads Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est which means Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary. This star was first placed in this spot by the Catholics, back in 1717.
Another indicator of the delicate religious status quo that prevails here at the Church of the Nativity is the distribution of the lamps in the Grotto; six belong to the Greeks, five to the Armenians and four to the Roman Catholics.
Church of St. Catherine
This adjoining Church, governed by the Roman Catholics, is the real media star of Bethlehem. This is the church you’ll see on your TV screens every Christmas Eve, as they broadcast the Christmas Midnight Mass from here. I’ve been here (on Christmas Eve) and it’s a little more organized than the Basilica, probably down to the fact that it was built in 1881, a whippersnapper compared to the Basilica.
Take the steps down from the church to a series of caves and tombs which are connected to the Grotto of the Nativity. The main altar within these caves is dedicated to St. Joseph, while the nearby Chapel of the Innocents is dedicated to the babies killed by Herod once Joseph, Mary and newborn Jesus had left Bethlehem.
All in all, the Church of the Nativity is a must-see destination if you’re of the Christian faith. If you’re here during Christmas, how are you going to look at yourself in the mirror if you don’t pop over to Bethlehem? There’s just way too much history to ignore, even if you’re a non-believer…