At the entrance of the church we saw impression of the 'three wise men from the east'(Magi from Persia). Our guide said as per one tradition it is this impression at the entrance that saved the church from destruction during Muslim invasions (when all other churches in the Holy Land were destructed). a brief history of the church is given at the end of this note.
The entrance to the great church is remarkably humble. Our guide told us that this entrance named the Door of Humility, a small rectangular entrance to the church, was created in Ottoman times to prevent carts being driven in by looters, and to force even the most important visitor to dismount from his horse as he entered the holy place.
You are greeted with the view of a very old but impressive interior as you enter the church. This church is the oldest church in the region and the very view certifies the same. We had to stand in a queue for a while to decent to the Grotto of Nativity. Two flights of steps from two sides lead down to the Grotto and meet at the Alter of the Nativity, the site where Jesus is said to have been born. The floor beneath the Alter is incased in white marble, where, fitted into the paving, shines a 14 pointed silver star marking the exact spot surrounded by the Latin inscription: HICDE VIRGINE MARIA JESUS CHRISTUS NATUS EST . 1717 . (Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary). There are 15 lamps burning around the recess.
Opposite the altar of the Nativity, three steps lead us to the Altar of the Manger, the place where the Baby Jesus was laid after he was born. A third altar has been erected opposite the Manger. It is dedicated to the Wise Men who came from the East to Bethlehem under the guidance of a star. The grotto is decorated with numerous lamps, figures of saints, embroidery, and a variety of sacred ornaments.
Then we moved on to the church of St. Catherine.The present Franciscan church of St. Catherine of Alexandria is entirely modern. It was built by the Franciscans in 1881 to replace the old chapel of the Augustinian Canons on the north side of the church, which was probably an adoption of the original chapel belonging to St. Paula's convent. Little remained of this chapel when the Crusaders arrived in 1099; therefore, they built a cloister and monastery which was given to the Canons of St. Augustine and which became in 1347 a Franciscan convent. The fame of this church rests on the solemn Roman Catholic midnight mass celebrated there on Christmas Eve and broadcast live by satellite to TV networks all over the world.
As we walked back from the Manger square, our hearts were certainly filled with the peace and joy of Christmas.
A brief history of the church
Church of the Nativity is the oldest church in the Holy Land still in use, commemorating the birthplace of Jesus Christ. Since St. Helena is believed to have built the Church of the Nativity, there are others who believe that it was the Emperor Constantine who ordered the construction of monumental churches to honor the three principal events of Jesus' life.
The construction began in 326 AD, and with the aid of the locals' traditions who believed that the cave in which Jesus Christ was born was at the end of the village, the architects were able to construct the shape of the cave according to architectural and devotional requirements. The cave was encased by an octagonal structure forming the sanctuary of the basilica, which stretched away to the west in five aisles divided by four rows of monolithic columns.
The present Church was built during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor, Justinian. In 529, the Samaritans revolted, and the Church of the Nativity was badly damaged. The Patriarch of Jerusalem sent St. Sabas to Justinian for help, and the architect sent by the Emperor demolished the church and built the current one. New soil covered the mosaic floor built in 326, and a new pavement was laid at a higher level. When the Crusaders came in the 12th Century, they built a cloister and monastery around the north side of the Church.
Yet another restoration project took place between 1165 and 1169, in coordination between the Byzantine Empire and the Frankish Kingdom. The reparations took place all over the Church, covering many of the walls and the floors with marble; mosaic and mother-of-pearl. The cedar wood roof was covered with lead; the Grotto walls were laid with marble and mosaic covered the walls in the Grotto, and the two entrances received their present form.
The facade of the Church of the Nativity is encircled by the high walls of the three convents: the Franciscan on the northeast side, the Greek Orthodox and the Armenian Orthodox, on the southeast side. The facade had three doors, two of which are walled up. The present low entrance which leads into the narthex, was made at the beginning of the 16th century, in order to prevent the entrance of horses into the building. The narthex is divided into three compartments, and a single wooden door gives access to the interior.
The Basilica is a rectangle 53.9m long, the nave is 26.2m wide, and the transept is 35.82m. Entering the Church, one can notice 4 rows of pillars, 44 in total, 6 meters high, and made of the white-veined red stone of the country. The white marble capitals are in debased Corinthian style and bear in the center of the abacus a rosette with an ornate Greek cross.The interior of the church is impressive chiefly because of its simplicity. It contains four rows of monolithic columns of Corinthian order carved from local stone. The columns were painted during the Middle Ages with frescoes of the Apostles. Originally, all the inner walls of the church were covered with mosaics. The remaining mosaics on the side walls and floor attest to the former splendor of the sanctuary. The mosaic floors were covered up with two feet of imported soil, and a pavement of marble slabs was laid at a higher level by the Greeks in 1842. Since the pre-Crusader times the roof has been of cedar wood with the rafters exposed.
Evidence of the turbulent history of the church can be readily seen in the fabric of the building; for centuries it was one of the most fought-over of the Holy Places. It was only by chance that this building escaped destruction during the Persian invasion of AD 614. It was the only major church in the country to be spared. The Persians were surprised to discover a representation of the Magi from Persia on a facade decorated with a colorful mosaic. So out of reverence and respect for their ancestors, they decided to honor these sages by sparing the church. Later, the building was seized and defended by a succession of Muslim and Crusader armies; this explains the fortress-like appearance of its exterior. In the course of time, the complex was expanded by the addition of several chapels and monasteries. Today the Basilica is overshadowed by the Franciscan convent in the north, the Greek Orthodox convent in the southeast and the Armenian convent in the southwest. Also, recent buildings rendered the famous monument quite invisible for lack of a spot from which it can be easily viewed.
The present ceiling is from the 14th century, and it was restored in 1842. The two side arms end in a semicircular apse similar to that of the center. In front of the central apse, stands the Iconostasis which was erected by the Greeks in the 17th century. The southern apse opens onto the courtyard of the Greek Orthodox convent. The steps of this courtyard lead down into a series of burial grottoes extending under the southern aisles.