It is a miracle that this church, known as the church of the nativity still stands today after all it has endured over the centuries. The church of Nativity is a coveted place for Christians all over the world as it is said to be the place where Jesus Christ had been born.
A holy place with a history so rich and so muddled that it is a wonder, who many people do not know about this place. Today I would like to shed a little light on the church of the nativity, a place of worship, a place to honor Jesus Christ.
The Church of Nativity – Birthplace of Jesus Christ
Located in Bethlehem’s West Bank lies a beautiful building, known as the church of the nativity. The church has over the years has seen many destruction and fire, many wars and sieges, but it stands today as a key witness to human history and it will probably stand to witness many more years of History.
We all know the story of Jesus Christ’s birth. Mary and Joseph had lived in Nazareth but due to some reason, they had to go to Bethlehem. Mary was very pregnant and while reaching Bethlehem had not been a problem, reaching Joseph’s home had been a problem so they stayed at an inn that was already full and the Inn could only offer the manger in the cave of Animals. That is where Jesus Christ was born.
Today that Place is the Church of the Nativity and the Manger is where the Grotto of Nativity is placed, a silver star to commemorate the place of Christ’s birth.
After Christianity spread this had been a sacred place for the early Christians. Known as the Grotto of Nativity it was a cave where it was thought that Jesus had been born. It was sometime in the 135 AD that Emperor Hadrian had the site above the cave turn into a place of worship for Adonis the lover of Aphrodite the Greek goddess of beauty and desire.
It has been said that the sacred grove had been made above the cave to completely eradicate the memory of Jesus Christ from the world, eradicating Christianity in the process. Some other scholars argue that it was the Christians who took over the place, as it was first the place of worship of Adonis.
What had been the reality might never be discovered but it was certain that there had been a Grotto of Nativity before 135 AD.
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The Original Church Of Nativity
The first proper Church of the Nativity was commissioned by the first Christian Emperor of the Roman empire. His mother Queen Helena had been on a pilgrimage of sorts to mark the important sites of Jesus Christ’s life. It was then that she found this site, and it was also recognized as the place of Jesus Christ’s birth by the Bishop Makarios of Jerusalem.
When she had confirmed the place, Constantine the first had ordered the construction to start in 326 AD.
It was dedicated on 31 May 339 AD but it was being used before this date as a Bordeaux Pilgrimage had already been there in 333 AD.
It was one amongst the three churches that Constantine had Commissioned, to mark the important places of Jesus Christ’s life. One where he died, One where he ascended and this is where he was born. All of the sites were cited by his Mother Queen Helena.
The Church stood tall after this for many centuries.
The revolts, The destruction, and The rebuilding:
The Church had been an important site for Christians worldwide, but alas it had to bear witness to a period of severe unrest in the Roman empire.
The period of unrest was known as the Samaritans Revolts of 529 and 556. It is not clear, which was the revolt that led to the destruction of the Church of the Nativity.
The church was burned down completely in the revolt of the Samaritans against the Byzantine empire. It was probably aided by the Jews but no concrete proof is available from that time.
The period of unrest was marked by destruction and brutal violence on both sides and the Church of the Nativity was just a victim to this unbidden violence.
The Church of the Nativity laid in ruins for a long period after this abandonment with no service in the name of Christ. A particularly dark period in the History of the Church of the Nativity. The Church of Nativity stayed in shambles and ruins for 9 to 30 years; there is no proper record of this time.
The Church of the Nativity was built again in its present structure by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I in 565 AD.
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The Persian Invasions and The Miracle
The Persians had invaded Palestine and Jerusalem in 614 AD, under the regime of Khosrau II. This was a time of unrest and brutal violence once again. The Persians had been ordered to destroy every church in the cities that were conquered by them, and so all of the churches of Palestine and Jerusalem were burned down, completely purged.
The miracle was that the church of nativity survived this purge. The story goes that the Persian Commander Shahrbaraz at that time had come to purge and destroy the church of the nativity as well but then he had been so moved by the paintings on the entrance that he did not destroy the church after all.
The painting at the entrance had shown the three magi that visited Jesus Christ at the time of his birth. The Magi had been from Persia and were wearing the grapes of Zortatsian persists. It was because of this that the church was spared.
The Church of the Nativity was probably the only church in the area to have been left intact.
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The Crusader’s kingdom to the rise of the Ottomans
The Church of the nativity by this time had become a big part of world history.
In the later centuries when the Crusaders’ Kingdom rose the Church’s prominence in the kingdom also grew. From 1100 to late 1100s the Kings of the period had their Coronations at the Church of the Nativity.
The Khwarezmian Turks had desecrated the Church of Nativity, leaving the roof of the church very damaged.
This time a whole brigade of support had been given to rebuild the church again. The Kingdom of the Burgundy had Supplied the wood and England Supplied the lead. The Republic of Venice provided the labor and so with the help of several different kingdoms the Church of The Nativity was built again.
In the late 18th century the church was looted once again by the emperor of Egypt.
In 1834 the Church of the Nativity was damaged due to the earthquake in Jerusalem. The cave’s furnishing and the bell tower were severely damaged and the series of aftershocks in 1836 caused many minor damages as well.
In the early 19th century the Church of the Nativity was under the Ottoman empire’s rule. It was looted several times, the marble floors of the church were looted many times in the 19th century. The tensions were already high in the area and the French had forced the Ottoman empire to recognize France as a Sovereign Authority.
It was around this time that the original Silver star that marked the exact place where Jesus Christ had been born had been stolen. The Ottoman Empire had replaced the Star complete with the Latin inscription but Russia had objected to this.
The Ottoman Empire put out a ‘ferman’ at Russia’s objection which reversed the France treaty. But the damage had been done and the Russian Empire and the Ottoman Empire were now at an all-time high of tensions over the control of the holy lands of the area.
The church of the nativity bore witness to these tensions.
The Status Quo
After much unrest over the control of the holy lands, the Status quo had been devised, and the church of the Nativity fell under its protection. In 1852 the then Sultan of the Ottoman Empire decreased the Status quo which is a document discussing the relation between the Christian Holy Lands and describes the ownerships of such holy lands, and the rights given to the owners.
It also describes the times and duration for the repairs and maintenance of these Holy Lands and describes the movements and the routes through which these Holy Lands stand.
Presently the Church of the Nativity is owned by the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholics, and the Armenian authorities, which is a surprising feat in itself. Why though, is a topic we will discuss later on.
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The siege of the Church of the Nativity 2002
The Church of the Nativity was once again under distress in 2002. In 2002 Israile Defence forces had occupied Bethlehem and were rounding up the Palestinian military. 50 Armed Palestinian Militants had sought refuge in the church of the nativity at that time.
The Isaralie Defence Forces surrounded the site and besieged the people inside including some Palestinian civilians and 200 monks which lived at the monastery.
The siege went on for 39 days from 2 April to 10 May 2002. An agreement was reached after 39 days and the Palestinian militants surrendered and they were exiled to Europe and Ghaza strip. The Monks and the Civilians were released.
UNESCO World Heritage Site
In a decision that was controversial both on grounds of the technicalities and politically, the Church of the Nativity was declared a World Heritage Site in 2012. The first site to be registered under the ‘Palestinian Authorities’.
It was also marked as A World Heritage In Danger site from 2012 to 2019 due to the water leaks threatening to destroy the church from the inside.
The renovation for the church of the nativity has started since 2013 and will probably be completed till 2021.
The War Raging On Inside the walls of the Church
As I had mentioned before the Church of the Nativity has shared ownership between the Greek Orthodox, The Roman Catholics, and The Armenian Orthodox sects.
These sects all have different beliefs and different views of Christianity. This is why all the monks always keep stone stacked at the ready, you never know when a fight would break out between the different sects. Nearly a decade ago a war broke out in the church during Christmas preparation, over the cleaning of the chandelier.
It’s quite ironic how every sect wants the ownership and how they preach non-violence every day at the mass but yet they fight over something as simple as the cleaning duties of the church.
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The Different Christmas’s
The world celebrities Christmas according to the Georgian Calendar on the 25th of December every year. The Church of the Nativity celebrates the birth of Christ on three separate days.
The Orthodox’s use the Julian Calendar according to which they have to wait 13th days more after 25th December and celebrate on the 7 of January and the Armenians celebrate the birth and baptism of Jesus Christ together 12days later on 19th January.
So this way the Church of the Nativity celebrates the same occasions on the Separate days. The Roman Catholics celebrate with the rest of the world, the Greek Orthodox celebrate the Birth later on and the Armenian Orthodox celebrate the birth and the baptism together even later on.
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As we all can see the Church of the Nativity has seen a long history, history of violence to a history of unity and liberation. It has been a witness to miracles as well. The Church of the Nativity is Opened for all today.
The Main Entrance of the Church of the Nativity has been lowered due to the many loots over the centuries. So today when you enter the church you have to bend down a little. A belief of the Authorities of the church says that the very least we can do is bend a little to enter the holy land where Jesus Christ graced the earth with his presence.
I think it is a very humbling way to honor Jesus Christ, whether or not you are a Christian, we all can agree that he was a person of god, a true man, who lived to honor the word of god.
The Church of the Nativity is a way to honor a man that brought the world’s biggest religion to light.