Church of the Nativity

The Church of the Nativity, located in the heart of Bethlehem, is the most sacred site in the Christian faith, the birthplace of Jesus Christ, marked by the Church of the Nativity. This, of course, is no ordinary church; the entryway is extremely small, while inside, visitors are exposed to a vast nave and beautiful mosaics and artwork. The Nativity Church Bethlehem is not only the oldest church in Israel, but it is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the world, and it has become one of the most bewildering structures in terms of possession and history.

Five miles from Jerusalem, the Nativity Church Bethlehem was built over the grotto where it is said that Mary gave birth to her son. Discovered in the second century, this spot has become a hallowed site for Christians all over the world and maintains one of the most turbulent histories of religious sites. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine sponsored the construction of the first church over the Nativity in the fourth century. It was later destroyed and again, replaced in the sixth century by Emperor Justinian with a more sophisticated structure. During the Persian invasion, it is said to have been saved from destruction due to a painting of the three wise men that traveled from the east to visit the child, Jesus, wearing Persian garb. The church was later renovated by the crusaders in the eleventh century.

Many nations of the world have participated in the construction and renovations of the Nativity Church Bethlehem and laid claim to their parts of the structure. King Edward IV of England donated the oak and lead for the roof and ceiling in the fifteenth century, though the lead was later melted down by the Turkish army to use as ammunition. Today, the Church of the Nativity is literally controlled by three factions of Christianity: the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and the Armenian churches. The main body belongs to the Greek Orthodox, while the Armenians possess the north transept and, on occasion, the altar in the Grotto, though that site is usually regarded as belonging to the Greek church. Finally, the Roman Catholics lay claim to the Silver Star and the Altar of the Adoration of the Magi. Each group maintains the right of procession through the nave.

One especially notable feature of the Birthplace of Christ is the entrance, which is remarkably small to an extreme. Looking at the entrance, one can see that it has been bricked off from its former archway to a humble, plain doorway. There are two stories explaining the reason for the size. One story says that the Crusaders reduced the size of the entrance to prevent horsemen from entering the Church of the Nativity during the Ottoman period. Another story originates from a different time, when the Muslims were said to have installed the smaller door as a reminder that Christians were guests in the country and must bow down to them. Either way, the door requires visitors to bow down on entry and is thus known as the Door of Humility.

Guests from all over the world come to visit the Birthplace of Christ by the dozens each year from all walks of life, and this is one of the sacred sites that's a must-see for visitors interested in the religious history of the Holy Land. Bethlehem is easily reached on a day trip from Jerusalem, by public bus or taxi, though it can be time consuming to cross the border into the West Bank. Tours of Bethlehem and its important sites, including the birthplace of Christ, are available and typically depart from Jerusalem. A vacation to Israel is marked by access to unparalleled historic and religious sites, from the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount to the Via Dolorosa and the Bahai Gardens, ensuring that you'll come home with lasting memories of your journey.

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