The Salvation history starts here; in the humble Grotto, 2000 years ago, Jesus Christ was born. The place that holds the memory of Baby Jesus’ birth encompasses an outstanding architectural ensemble, from the sixth century A.D. until today, with nonstop liturgical celebrations of over a millennium. It is there that one can find the rarest material remains anywhere – as follows:
- The Façade is the only spot of all the churches in Palestine that offers an excellent synopsis of the Church of the Nativity from the sixth century’s Byzantine lintel to the twelfth century’s Crusader pointed arch until the sixteenth-century Ottoman period. The current entrance door is small, which has led it to be called: “the Door of Humility”.
- The Armenian door is a rare 795-year-old gift from the Armenian King Huthum in 1227 to the Church of the Nativity. The walnut door represents a masterpiece of Armenian craftsmanship, decorated with floral decoration and adorned by the Armenian Khachkar cross. Two inscriptions are to be spotted: on the right is an Armenian inscription, and to the left is an Arabic inscription.
- The Basilica: The Nativity Church is built on a cross-shaped Basilica system that preserves the Justinian character of the sixth century A.D., which is rarely found elsewhere. The Church consists of 50 Corinthian columns (each almost six meters high) made of local red limestone (in Arabic, “Slayyeb”). Crusaders painted frescoes of saints and prophets on 33 columns during the Crusader period of the twelfth century.
- The Baptismal Font: a scarce sixth-century octagonal font built from local red limestone (Slayyeb). An inscription of four lines in Greek speaks of “remembrance, rest and remission of sins for those whose names the Lord knows”. In June 2019, an astonishing discovery of a smaller carved baptismal font was discovered, dated between 550 and 570 AD. The font was beautifully carved from a column capital to create a basin for the font.
- The Ground Mosaic: Below the current floor is a beautiful mosaic carpet, said to be one of the rarest in Palestine, dating from the first Constantinian Church in the early fourth century. The mosaic comprises 20 high-quality tesserae, each 1cm square. The mosaic consists of different geometric shapes and biblical animals and plants. At the eastern end of the Basilica, near the door to the Armenian Chapel, is to be found the only inscription on the mosaic, which is the word “ΙΧΘΥΣ” (Greek for Fish), which is an acronym of the name 'JESUS’.
- The Mosaic Wall: A great mosaic wall, which had once been 2000 square meters and dates from 1165 to 1169 during the Crusader period. What is left is 125 square meters, which is still enough to make you astonished by the place. This depicts several themes. For example, in the central nave, to the left, we can see a picture of some local councils during the Byzantine period. To the right are the remains of images of the seven ecumenical councils. The tesserae were made so well that each decimeter (ten square centimeters) holds 450 tesserae. Looking above to the angels, each one different to the other, they are welcoming you, dear visitor, to the place with their eyes pointing to the Grotto. The fifth angel on the left was only found during restoration in 2016.
- The Architrave: The architrave is made of Lebanese cedarwood. This sixth-century architrave is exceptional and unlikely to be found in churches in Palestine from the Byzantine era. Seven rosettes are sandwiched between every two columns, resembling the seven days of the week and the seven days of creation.
- The Wooden Roof: The wooden roof covering the entire Church is a rare ceiling made entirely of various woods. The roof is mainly constructed of European larch, Lebanese cedar and oak with a few parts of pine and cypress. The oldest piece is dated back to 1164, while the later parts range between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. Before 2015, the roof was in a highly critical state, which urged the need to restore it. Thanks to two years of restoration, the roof has been perfectly preserved since 2015.
- The Grotto: The Nativity’s Grotto holds the great memory of the birth of Jesus from around 6 to 4 B.C. By the time of the pagan Emperor Hadrian, it was covered by the grove of Tammuz (Adonis) to eliminate any Christian connection with the site. Two altars are located inside. The first Altar of the Nativity is represented by a 14-point star that was placed in 1852 AD in the Grotto of the Manger, where it is believed that the Virgin Mary gave birth to Baby Jesus in the manger after his birth. The entrance, tiles and pilgrimage inscription in the grotto date from the Crusader period. In 1869 a fire caused some burn damage to the Grotto. Five years later, in 1874, the French President, MacMahon, donated asbestos to cover this.
- The Virgin Mary of Bethlehem: This iconic depiction of Mary of Bethlehem shows her smiling and happy while holding her baby Jesus, as she is thrilled over his birth down in the Grotto. The icon is probably made under the influence of the Aleppian icon school, depicting Mary and Jesus’ skin in the applicable color of local skin. This icon is dated to around the seventeenth century.
- The Iconostasis: This is an essential element in every Orthodox Church that illustrates the division between Heaven and Earth and how the death and resurrection of Jesus broke the barrier. The Iconostasis of the Church is carefully carved with a piece of wood well proportioned to three different levels. The Iconostasis dates back to 1764 and was recently restored.
Source: Bethlehem Bible College