This is an audio tour of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem that you can either listen to while visiting the church, or from the comfort of your home and you can also read along with the full transcript of this podcast episode here on the website!
From Star Street to Nativity Church, the pilgrimage route
If you want to make this a real pilgrimage experience you should start from the Star Street which is ALSO part of the UNESCO world heritage inscription, just like the Church, because it is the traditional pilgrimage route since the earliest days. It is the route that people take coming from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. And it is still the route that the leaders of the Catholic and Orthodox churches follow when they do processions on Eastern and Christmas to the Church. It is believed to be the route that Joseph and Mary took when they arrived to Bethlehem and it is named Star Street after the start that the wise men, or the maggi, probably astrologers, followed when they followed the start to Bethlehem.
Coming from Star Street you cross the manger square, named after the manger, for the animal food, in which Mary is said to have laid Jesus to rest.
The Atrium of the Church of Nativity
And then you are looking at the Western part of the Church of Nativity, a building with nearly no windows and a very small entrance. The building on your right is part of the Armenian convent so it’s only the smaller wall with the remains of a supportive buttress and the small entrance that are part of the Church of Nativity. The square right in front of the entrance used to be surrounded by porticos and was the atrium of the church. You can still see some of the columns of that atrium lying around on the side of the church.
The entrance to the Church of Nativity, the door of humility
Now look at the entrance of the church before you enter. Here we can see a summary of all what I have said before at one glance. We can see the small entrance of the Ottoman time period, also called the door of humility because you have to bow down in order to get into the church. Above it you can see the outlines of the Crusader entrance, with typical pointed arch. And if you look higher you see the outline of part of the Byzantine entrance, that used to have three openings to the church, so this was the one on the right. You see part of the horizontal door lintel that protrudes from the facade.
The tiny entrance 78 cm wide and 130 cm high. There are many different stories going around for why this main entrance door is so small. The most heard explanations are to keep out invaders, especially on horseback and to keep out cattle that was sold on the market nearby.
The narthex and the Armenian door of the Church of Nativity
Now we will have to bow down quite a bit to be able to enter into the church. And we will arrive first into the narthex. The narthex was meant to serve the converts to Christianity who had not yet been baptized. I also heard that in the Orthodox church women who have their period stay in this part of the church.
The narthex has a beautiful door made of walnut wood. It was a gift by the Armenian King Huthum in the year 1227 A.D The door is decorated with the typical Armenian cross called the khachkar cross. Traditionally these were cut in stone and they can be found all over Armenia. They are decorated with floral and geometrical motives and they have a very specific design. If you are interested, definitely research them online, they have been added to UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Fun fact: According to the Status Quo, the Narthex is an Orthodox property and cleaned daily by them, with the exception of the two steps leading to the Armenian Convent to the south which are cleaned by the Armenian. The lamp in the center belongs to the orthodox and the other to the Armenians.
Inside the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem
Now we enter through the walnut wooden Armenian door into the nave of the church. Stop here and look around. We are on the level of the Justinian church, the one that was built in the 6th century. The floor is of that time. The pillars are of that time although the decorations on it are from later time, from the Crusader time. The decorations on the pillars were recently renovated and became clear again. We can distinguish several Saints, apostles and Crusader Kings as well as some Crusader graffiti of helmets and other armor that Crusader knights must have left on the columns after their arrival to the holy land. They were made with hot wax and different color pigments. These frescoes on the columns were made by different painters and they were a testimony to the journey and safe arrival of the Crusaders. They also symbolized the important saints and apostles and others that were holding up the church symbolically, like the columns were holding up the church literally. And for each name day of a Saint the celebrations could take place near the column with the depiction of that particular Saint.
The baptismal font in the Church of Nativity
If you move towards the right aisle of the church you can see the baptismal font made of one big piece of reddish limestone that was quarried in the area of Bethlehem. On the side of the octagonal font we see a Greek inscription. The translation is: “For remembrance, rest and remission of sins of those whose names the Lord knows”
During the last renovations they discovered that hidden inside this baptismal font there was another smaller font that seems to have functioned originally as a capital on a column. It is beautifully decorated and was hollowed out to serve as a small baptismal font. It is not clear why it was hidden inside the bigger font.
The mosaic floor of the Church of Nativity
If you go back to the middle of the church and if you are luck then you have a chance to see the mosaic floor of the original 4th century church built by Constantine and Helena. If the wooden panels are lifted then you will see how many small tessarae they used to create beautiful patterns, geometrical, floral and animal designs.
There is only one mosaic with Greek letters that says ‘ichtys’ which means fish.
The Greek letters of ichtys were an acronym for Iesus Christos Theou Yios Soter, meaning Jesus Christ Godss son saviour
The word ichtys and the depiction of a fish were used in the beginning of the Roman period when Christianity was still a forbidden religion and Christians were persecuted.
And using monograms on the floor in mosaics was a common use in the Roman period at the entrance of the houses of Roman aristocrats. Now we have to realize that the first church built by Constantine was different than the church today. Where we see the stairs going up to today’s chancel of the church today, there were actually stairs going down into the grotto of the nativity. So the mosaic with the word ichtys was actually at the doorstep of the birthplace of Jesus
The mosaics on the walls of the Church of Nativity
From the center of the church you can take a good look at the mosaics on the walls above the columns and between the windows.
You have to imagine that the whole church used to covered with these mosaics that date from the Crusader time, 12th century. They have recovered 125 m2 of the original total of 2000 m2
The mosaics have been renovated and are a great work of art.
What do they represent? They tell us the church history. They depict the different ecumenical councils and synods that were held in the beginning time of Christianity when they had to answer important theological questions like the nature of Jesus, was he only divine or was he human or was he both? How to understand the trinity of God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit and more of such questions were answered in these councils.
We see that each council is depicted by a building structure, an edifice, with a scroll with the name of the council and the most important decisions. Surrounding the councils are acanthus ornamentation(acanthus is a plant that is used in classic art as inspiration for decorations)
The tessarae in these mosaics are so incredibly small that they really depict a lot of details. The biggest ones are 1 cm2 only. This way they could create a lot of nuances especially in the faces of the angels that we can see between the windows. The mosaic pieces are of different materials. Some of them are stone, others glass, but also mother of pearl and they used metallic foil, gold and silver. The foil was protected with a thin glass layer.
The angels between the windows are all moving towards the same direction, towards the grotto of the nativity.
Besides the mosaics of the councils and synods there are some biblical stories that are also depicted, you can find them closer to the chancel both on the left and right side. On the left is the Incredulity of Thomas and the Ascension of Jesus, and on the right side the Transfiguration of Jesus and his arrival to Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
Something else that you can see on the right side is the genealogy of Jesus according to the gospel of Matthew. You see figures just above the architrave, which is the horizontal wooden beam on top of the columns. These are the ancestors of Jesus who traces is ancestry back to King David. Only part of the lineage is still visible.
The Greek Orthodox iconostasis in the Church of Nativity
Now turn your face towards the chancel, the highly decorated area with all the lamps, a few steps higher than the nave of the church and look at the Greek iconostasis. An iconostasis is an icon stand, a solid screen of stone, wood, or metal, that separates the sanctuary from the nave and is decorated with icons. This one dates from 1764. It depicts Jesus, Mother Mary, Saint John the Baptist, the twelve apostles and some other saints. This is where the Orthodox church services take place.
Now in order to reach the grotto of the nativity that is situated right below the iconostasis, we have to go to the southern apse which is on the right side of the iconostasis. BUT, if you are in the church and it is very very busy with groups and there is a long line, you can go to the left side and friendly approach the guard there and tell him you are not with a group and if it is possible to enter the birth cave from the other side and they will probably let you.
But usually you enter from the right and you come out from the left side.
The icon of the smiling Virgin Mary in the Nativity Church
When you are waiting to get down the stairs into the birth cave, take a look at the most significant icon of the church, the icon of the Virgin Mary of Bethlehem. It was made in the 17th century. Look at her face, she is smiling, unlike the traditional icons on which she looks worried or sad because of the fate of her son Jesus. But here she smiles because she is in the place where her son was born.
THIS icon was taken out of the church at the beginning of the covid pandemic in Bethlehem and put on the truck of a car and driven around the city, while the priests were burning incense, to ask Virgin Mary to protect the city from the virus.
The grotto of the Nativity
As you go down the stairs into the grotto, take a look at the slender columns in which you can see crosses that were inscribed on the columns by crusaders who wanted to leave a mark of their stay in Bethlehem.
Now we are inside the grotto of the Nativity. Because of the decorations, the altar, the icons and the marble floors, it is hard to imagine that this is a natural carstic cave. It is 12.5 meters in length and 3 meters wide.
On your right is the Altar of the Nativity. You will see pilgrims bending down to touch or kiss the silver star in the marble floor. This silver star has 14 points and this number is explained in different ways or maybe they all have an importance. They may refer to the 14 generations from Abraham to King David, another 14 from King David to the exile of the Jewish people by the Babylonians, then another 14 generations from the Babylonian exile until Jesus was born.
Other explanation is that Jesus was born to redeem us and he suffered in Jerusalem on his way to his crucifixion and this is commemorated by pilgrims during visiting the 14 stations of the cross through the Via Dolorosa to the Church of Holy Sepulcher.
The fifteen lamps around the silver star are maintained by the three Christian communities, six of them by the Greek Orthodox, five by the Armenians and four by the Catholics. The altar itself is shared between the Greek Orthodox and the Armenians.
If you turn around you see on your left another section with the Altar of the Manger which is where Catholics celebrate. According to tradition this is the place where the manger stood in which Mary lay Jesus. Every Christmas night a small statue of baby Jesus is brought in from the next door Saint Catherine church and put in the Manger and it stays there until 6 January, which is called Epiphany, the day that they commemorate the arrival of the wise men or the kings or astrologers.
By the way the original wooden crib is said to be at the Santa Maria Maggiore church in Rome, since the 12th century, brought there by the Crusaders. In 2019 the Vatican decided to return the original crib to Bethlehem, but people were very disappointed to find out that they did not return the whole crib but only a small piece of wood, a relic, the size of a thumb only, that is preserved in a relic shrine.
Opposite the altar of the Manger is another altar dedicated to the maggi or the wise men from the East who brought myrrh, frankincense and gold, products that were traded on the ancient incense route that passed south of Bethlehem through the Negev desert.
More about that you can hear in the episode about Avdat and the Nabateans!
If you go back to the center of the cave and you look towards the rear end you will see a door of which the Franciscans have the key. This door gives access to several underground chapels that are connected to the Saint Catherine Church. The Franciscans hollowed out this passage in the 15th century in order to have access to the Grotto from Saint Catherine’s Church.
This door is closed but you can access the caves from inside the Saint Catherine Church. To reach the Saint Catherine church, go out from the grotto on the left side and cross the apse with the chapel of the Armenians diagonally and leave through the exit (don’t go back into the nave of the Nativity church)
The Church of Saint Catherine in Bethlehem
Now keep left and you will head towards the courtyard that is surrounded by cloister halls. You will pass by the entrance to the underground cave of Saint Jerome where he translated the Bible into Latin, but usually it is closed from this side. If you take right into the courtyard you will see a statue of Saint Jerome in the middle of the yard. On your right is the main entrance to the Church of Saint Catherine. When you enter you will notice the difference in style with the Nativity Church. As it is a Catholic church it is more sober than the Orthodox church and instead of lamps, mosaics and icons we see a few paintings and statues. If you walk to the apse on the right side of the altar you see a painting of mother Mary and the statue of baby Jesus that is carried to the grotto of the nativity every Christmas.
When walking back you see the stairs on your left that go down to the underground chapels in the natural caves underneath both churches.
The chapels in the grottos underneath Saint Catherine church
The first chapel you enter is dedicated to Joseph, the husband of Mary and to the story of the dream that he had after Jesus was born that warned him to flee Bethlehem to Egypt to run away from Herod the Great who wanted to kill all the newborn babies after he heard from the maggi that they were expecting a new king for the Jews to be born in Bethlehem. This story is only known from the bible book of Matthew and is not mentioned by any other historical sources.
With our back to the Altar of Saint Joseph, to out right is the Grotto of the Innocents in which you can see three arcosolium (or “bench”) type tombs. Under the altar of the Innocents is a low opening, shut by an iron grill, that gives access to a cave about 5 meters long, where according to tradition the babies that were killed by Herod were buried. It is only opened on the feast of the Holy Innocents on the 28th of December.
Turning from the Holy Innocent Grotto and walking past the narrow passage is the tomb of St. Eusebius of Cremona who succeeded St. Jerome as superior of the monastery.
The next room has the common tomb of Saints Paula and her daughter Eustochium and facing it is the chapel for Saint Jerome, although his remains are not here but in the St. Mary Maggiore church in Rome.
We pass into the last chapel which is the chapel where St. Jerome lived and worked, they call it his study room. It has a picture inside that represents Jerome, with Paula and Eustochium and Eusebius of Cremona the one who succeeded Jerome as the superior of the monastery.
Saint George, patron Saint of Palestine
When you leave the caves and the Church of Saint Catherine and on your way out through the courtyard straight on through the Franciscan monastery just before you get back to the square in front of the church, look at your left to see the big image of Saint George. He is a Palestinian Saint, very well known among both Christians and Muslims, who call him Khader and relate him to a spiritual figure from the Muslim tradition. Many Palestinians are called George or Jeries or Khader. He is buried in Lod where you can visit the Saint George church.
And with that I will end the virtual tour through the Nativity Church!