Sacred Spaces: Church of the Nativity (Bethlehem)

Photo by Leo Li. Via

The oldest Christian church in daily use, the Church of the Nativity is one of the most visited spots for pilgrims.  Millions make their way to Bethlehem annually to see the birthplace of Christ.

While the Gospels do not indicate that Jesus was born in a cave, references to the Nativity cave go back as far as 160 AD.

“When the original Church of the Nativity was built, the cave was enlarged to make room for pilgrims and a silver manger was installed.”  Some, however, were not entirely happy with these changes.  St. Jerome voiced his disapproval – ““If I could only see that manger in which the Lord lay! Now, as if to honour the Christ, we have removed the poor one and placed there a silver one; however, for me the one which was removed is more precious….””

It is also interesting to note that the Church of the Nativity we see today was not the first to be built on this location.

Originally, Constantine the Great had built a church over a cave, venerated as the birthplace of Christ, in 339 AD.  Unfortunately, a fire in the 6th century destroyed most of this structure (however parts, like the floor mosaics, do remain).  In the mid 6th century, Emperor Justinian had the current Church of the Nativity built.

Photo by Emil Salman. Via

The Church was nearly destroyed again during a Persian invasion of Palestine in 614.  It was spared, however, thanks to a mosaic showing the magi dressed in traditional Persian garb.  The Church was not so lucky, however, in the 17th century when it was looted by Turks who melted the lead on the church’s roof (donated by King Edward IV in the 1400s) to make bullets.  Without the lead’s protection, the wood parts of the roof rotted and the Church’s exposed mosaics were ruined (restoration on the church was completed in 2013 and the mosaics were brought back to their original glory).

To enter the Church of the Nativity, one has to stoop – the only doorway into the church is a scant 3.9ft tall.  This was purposefully done in the 1500s “[…] to stop looters from driving their carts in” and “[…] to prevent attackers from riding in on horseback.”  This low door is aptly named the “Door of Humility.”

Inside, the Church of Nativity “[…] is cool and dark, its interior bare with no pews.”  The large red and white limestone columns at the nave are likely the the only surviving elements of the original church.  In the 12th century, Crusaders painted frescoes of saints on many of the columns.  “Trapdoors in the floor allow glimpses of the mosaic floor of Constantine’s basilica.” 

The Grotto of the Nativity. Via

At the front of the nave are the stairs that lead to the Grotto of the Nativity.  “Atmospherically lantern-lit and redolent with mystery, a 14-pointed silver star marks the spot where Jesus is said to have been born.”  This star is a reproduction as the original was stolen in the mid-1800s.

“The Chapel of the Manger (‘the Crib’) to one side of the grotto represents the scene of the nativity, while the chapel facing it houses the Altar of the Adoration of the Magi.”

“As the ornamentation, icons and lamps in the front of the church suggest, the basilica is now almost wholly a Greek Orthodox place of worship. The Armenian Orthodox own the northern transept. The Catholics have the site of the manger and the adjoining altar next to the Nativity grotto.”  This means that the Church of the Nativity sees pilgrims from many different religious backgrounds and celebrates Christ’s birth on three separate occasions – the Christians celebrate on December 25th (Gregorian Calendar), the Orthodox on January 7 (using the old Julian calendar), and the Armenians celebrate His birth and baptism on January 19th.

Today, the Church of the Nativity is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Tour the Church of the Nativity

The video below offers a wonderful tour of Church.  (Click here to view directly on YouTube).

Sacred Spaces Blog Series

Want to learn more about the world’s most unique and fascinating sacred spaces? Follow the links below to other pieces from our Sacred Spaces blog series!

Basilica di San Marco (Venice) | St. Issac’s Cathedral (St. Petersburg) | Monastery of the Kiev Caves (Kiev) | St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral (St. Petersburg) | The Duomo (Florence) | The Hagia Sophia (Istanbul) | Cathedral of St. Sophia (Novgorod) | Church of Our Savior on  Spilled Blood (St. Petersburg) | The Church of the Ascension (Kolomenskoye) | St. Basil’s Cathedral (Moscow) |The Churches of Kizhi Pogost | Monastery of Panagia Elona | Smolny Cathedral (St. Petersburg) | Agios Stefanos (Syros Island) | Church of the Intercession on the Nerl | The Rock Churches of Matera | The Monastery of St. John the Theologian (Patmos) | Durham Cathedral | Church of the Sign (Dubrovitsy) | Church of the Holy Sepulchre (Jerusalem) | Church of St. Mary Magdalene (Jerusalem) | Church of St. John the Baptist (Jerusalem) | Church of the Annunciation (Nazareth) | Church of the Sepulchre of St. Mary

Main image by Neil Ward, via Wikimedia Commons
Church of the Nativity –
Birthplace of Jesus: Church of the Nativity and the Pilgrimage Route, Bethlehem –
Church of the Nativity –
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