Church of Nativity: After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem. (Matthew 2:1)
Summer: 6:30am to noon, 2pm to 7:30pm Daily
Winter: 5:30am to noon, 2pm to 5pm Daily
Grottoes closed to tourists Sunday mornings.
The Church of the Nativity, located in the Manger Square of Bethlehem, is the oldest church still used in its original form. The Church of the Nativity is surrounded by the walls of the three bordering convents: the Franciscan, the Armenian Orthodox and the Greek Orthodox. There is one low entrance (two others having been closed). The Church of the Nativity made the door to the narthex low so no horses would be brought in to graze the courtyard.
There are still remnants of the octagonal enclosure for the grotto commemorating the nativity. There are doors leading to the Greek Convent, the Church of St. Catherine and the Church of St. George. There is also a large central Basilica with grand columns and mosaics. Stairs from two sides both lead down to the altar of the nativity, the place of Jesus birth. This grottoed altar, with white marble flooring and silver 14-pointed star is what give the Church of the Nativity its name. The silver star is traditionally thought to mark the exact spot of Jesus’ birth. There are 15 lamps around the altar. Six belong to the Greeks, five to the Armenians and four to the Latins. There is a manger built by the grotto and an altar dedicated to the Wise Men.
There are many chapels, tombs of famous martyrs and saints, altars and monasteries within this labyrinthine structure. Three notable chapels are the Chapel of Saint Joseph (commemorating an angel’s instruction to Joseph to flee to Egypt with Mary and young Jesus, Chapel of the Innocents (remembering the other infants murdered in Herod’s attempt to kill baby Jesus, and Chapel of Saint Jerome (where it is believed Saint Jerome translated the Bible into the Latin Vulgate version). All in all, the Church of the Nativity is a fascinating sight to see.
The construction of the Church of the Nativity began in 326 AD, following orders of Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine. Following the common belief that the cave where Jesus was born was near the end of the village, the workers constructed a replica of the cave and an octagonal structure around the grotto. This octagonal structure created the sanctuary of the Basilica.
When the Samaritans revolted, the church was badly damaged. Justinian, a Byzantine Emperor, commissioned someone to rebuild the church in 529. The architect demolished the old Church of the Nativity and built the one standing today.
When the Persians invaded in 614, they unexpectedly left the Church of the Nativity alone. According to tradition, the Persian leader was touched by the painted depiction of the three Wise Men in Persian clothing and ordered the building to be spared.
When the crusaders visited the land in the 12th century, they built a cloister and monastery along the north side. Between 1165 and 1169, there was another restoration project started in the Church of the Nativity. During this refurbishment, the many walls were covered with mother of pearl or marble. The wood roof was covered with lead, and the grotto walls were encased in marble and mosaics.