The Church of the Nativity is one of the oldest churches in the world.
The church located in Bethlehem in the West Bank.
It is built over the cave that tradition marks as the birthplace of Jesus.
The grotto is the oldest site continuously used as a place of worship in Christianity, and the basilica is the oldest major church in the Holy Land.
The original structure was built by St. Macarius I of Jerusalem at the direction of Constantine the Great and his mother Helena following the First Ecumenical Council in 325. It completed sometime between 333 and 339. That structure was burnt down in the Samaritan revolt of 529.
A new basilica was built in 565 by Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who restored the architectural tone of the original.
The Church of the Nativity, while remaining basically unchanged since the Justinian reconstruction, has seen numerous repairs and additions, especially from the Crusader period, such as two bell towers (now gone), wall mosaics and paintings (partially preserved).
The Church of the Nativity is actually a combination of two churches, with a basement where many believe Jesus was born:
• The main section (the basilica) now in the care of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem. It is designed like a generic Roman basilica. With three aisles and an apse. Although presently in a state of decay, it once featured golden mosaics covering the side walls, and a Roman style floor (since covered over). It also features a large iconostasis, and a complex array of lamps throughout the entire church.
• The adjoining Roman Catholic church, which is done in a more modern Gothic revival style, and has since been further modernized according to the liturgical trends after Vatican II.
• The underground cave, which features the altar [photo below] over the place Jesus was said to have been born. The exact spot is marked by a hole in the middle of a silver star, surrounded by silver lamps. This altar is maintained by the Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic churches.
The exact spot where Jesus was born is marked beneath this altar by a 14-pointed silver star with the Latin inscription Hic De Virgine Maria Jesus Christus Natus Est-1717 (Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary-1717). It was installed by the Catholics in 1717, removed – allegedly by the Greeks – in 1847, and replaced by the Turkish government in 1853. The star is set into the marble floor and surrounded by 15 silver lamps representing the three Christian communities: six belong to the Greek Orthodox, four to the Catholics, and five to the Armenian Apostolic.
The church’s interior walls features medieval golden mosaics once covering the side walls, which are now in large parts lost.
There are 44 columns separating the aisles from each other and from the nave, some of which are painted with images of saints.
The east end of the church consists of a raised chancel, closed by an apse containing the main altar and separated from the chancel by a large gilded iconostasis.
A complex array of sanctuary lamps is placed throughout the entire building.
Over the centuries, the surrounding compound has been expanded, and today it covers approximately 12,000 square meters (almost 130,000 square feet), comprising three different monasteries: one Greek Orthodox, one Armenian Apostolic, and one Roman Catholic, of which the first two contain bell towers built during the modern era.
The property rights, liturgical use and maintenance of the church are regulated by a set of documents and understandings known as the Status Quo. The church is owned by three church authorities, the Greek Orthodox (most of the building and furnishings), the Armenian Apostolic and the Roman Catholic (each of them with lesser properties).
It was made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in June 2012. It is the first World Heritage Site listed under Palestine. The site is also on UNESCO’s List of World Heritage in Danger.
The Catholic Midnight Mass in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve is broadcast around the world. Crowds gather to sing Christmas carols outside the church in an area called Manger Square.
On the Orthodox Christmas Eve, 13 days later, many visitors and faithful again fill Manger Square, this time to watch processions and receptions for the religious leaders of the different Orthodox communities.