The Church of the Nativity is a basilica located in Bethlehem, Palestinian territories, and is considered to be the oldest continuously operating Christian church in the World. The church was originally commissioned in 327 AD by Constantine and his mother Helena over the site that is still traditionally considered to be located over the cave that marks the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth. The Church of the Nativity site's original basilica was completed in 339 AD and destroyed by fire during the Samaritan Revolts in the sixth century AD. A new basilica was built 565 AD by the Byzantine Empire, restoring the architectural tone of the original.
The site of the Church of the Nativity has had numerous additions since this second construction, including its prominent bell towers. Due to its cultural and geographical history, the site holds a prominent religious significance to those of both the Christian and Muslim faiths. The site of the Church of the Nativity is a World Heritage Site, and was the first to be listed under Palestine by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The site is also on UNESCO's List of World Heritage Sites in Danger.
The holy site, known as the Grotto, that the Church of the Nativity sits atop, is today associated with the cave in which the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth occurred. In 135 AD, Hadrian is said to have had the Christian site above the Grotto converted into a worship place for Adonis, the Greek pagan god of beauty and desire. A father with the Church of the Nativity, Jerome, noted before his death in 420 AD that the holy cave was at one point consecrated by the heathen to the worship of Adonis, and that a pleasant sacred grove was planted there in order to wipe out the memory of Jesus. However, some modern scholars dispute this argument and insist that the cult of Adonis-Tammuz originated the shrine and that it was the Christians who took it over, substituting the worship of their God.
The church is administered jointly by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic authorities. All three traditions maintain monastic communities on the site. As a result, however, there have been repeated brawls among monk trainees over quiet respect for others' prayers, hymns and even the division of floorspace for cleaning duties. The Palestinian police have been called to restore peace and order.
Site Architecture and Layout
The structure of the site of the Church of the Nativity is a combination of two churches and a crypt beneath—the Grotto of the Nativity where tradition states that Jesus of Nazareth was born.
Site Layout and Architectural Expansion
The main Basilica of the Nativity is maintained by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. It is designed like a typical Roman basilica, with five aisles (formed by Corinthian columns) and an apse in the eastern end, where the sanctuary is. The church features golden mosaics covering the side walls, which are now largely decayed. The basilica is entered through a very low door, called the "Door of Humility."
The adjoining Church of St. Catherine, the Roman Catholic Church, was built in a more modern Gothic revival style, and has since been further modernized according to the liturgical trends which followed Vatican II. This is the church where the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem celebrates Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.
The Bas-relief of the Tree of Jesse is a large work by well-known religious sculptor Czesław Dźwigaj which was recently incorporated into the Church of St. Catherine as a gift of Pope Benedict XVI during his trip to the Holy Land in 2009. Measuring in at 3.75 by 4 metres (12.3 by 13 ft), its corpus represents an olive tree figuring as the Tree of Jesse displaying Christ's lineage from Abraham through St. Joseph along with other biblical motifs.
Numerous Chapels are found in the compound as well, including the Chapel of Saint Joseph, commemorating the angel's appearance to Joseph, commanding him to flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:13); the Chapel of the Innocents, commemorating the children killed by Herod (Matthew 2:16–18); and the Chapel of Saint Jerome, where traditionally he translated the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate).
World Heritage Site
In 2012, the church complex became the first Palestinian site to be listed as a World Heritage Site by the World Heritage Committee at its 36th session on 29 June. It was approved by a secret vote of 13-6 in the 21-member committee, according to UNESCO spokeswoman Sue Williams, and following an emergency candidacy procedure that by-passed the 18-month process for most sites, despite the opposition of the United States and Israel. The site was approved under criteria four and six. The decision was a controversial one on both technical and political terms. It has also been placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger as it is suffering from damages due to water leaks.