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Basilica of the Nativity of Bethlehem in UNESCO
“Where the Lord Jesus was born there a basilica was built on Constantine’s command.” That’s how the 4th century anonymous pilgrim from France describes in his writings the world famous Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which in late June 2012 became one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Emperor Constantine’s church was built on the site of the Nativity Grotto and was completed in 339 A.D. The construction was initiated by the mother of the emperor, St. Helena, who converted to Christianity. But how did she know this spot was the site of Jesus’s birth?
According to the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who ruled from 117-138 A.D., it was not difficult to spot the site since people marked many of the Christian holy sites with idols. In one of the letters from late 4th century, St. Jerome writes: “[…] and in the very cave where the infant Christ had uttered His earliest cry lamentation was made for the paramour of Venus." (Jerome, Letter 58. To Paulinus, 3, 400 A.D.)
The foundations of the Basilica of the Nativity include the octagonal shape of the Roman temple.
Pilgrims touching the foundations of the Basilica of the Nativity - Remaining of the Roman temple of Venus.
In 530 A.D. Emperor Justinian enlarged the church and ordered the building of a so called a trilobite apse, which consisted of two smaller apses within a curve of one larger apse, creating the shape of a cross.
One of the smaller apses, seen from outside.
During the 12th century, the Crusaders fully redecorated the basilica’s interior and the frescos of the saints were painted on its columns.
The Nativity Grotto
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod […]” (Matt. 2:1)
According to a legend, the grotto where Jesus was born was a stable of an inn, where the Mary and Joseph had to spend their night, as there were no vacant rooms in the guesthouse.
At the present times the grotto is shared on couple of smaller caves. In one of them there is a small altar of the Nativity with a silver star at the base. Engraved into the star are Latin words which state that Jesus was born around that spot.
Buildings around the Basilica
Many different buildings comprise of complex of the Nativity Church. Among them is the St. Catherine’s Church, dedicated in 1347 A.D. Since that time, the ancient Crusader’s structure has undergone several modifications and expansions. Today, the site is under the custody of the Franciscan brothers.
Altar of the St. Jerome’s chapel
Underneath the St. Catherine’s church, one can find a small chapel dedicated to St. Jerome, the person who translated Bible into Latin (Vulgata), and who used to live in the nearby grottos in the 4th/5th century. His statue is also placed in front of the entrance to St. Catherine’s church.
Statue of St. Jerome
Plan your visit to Bethlehem
There are a number of ways to visit Bethlehem and see the amazing treasures of the Basilica of the Nativity.
By Bus: You can take Bus 21 from the Damascus Gate to Bethlehem and be met there by a local guide or tour independently.
By Car: With a rental car from an Arab rental car company you can drive to Bethlehem and cross into Bethlehem at Rachel's Crossing
By Tour: There is a daily one day Jerusalem and Bethlehem Tour, a one day Bethlehem and Jericho tour that is offered on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, and a one half day Bethlehem Tour offered daily. All of these tours are fully guided group bus or van tours and include pick up and drop off at a number of major hotels in both cities.
When to go?
For a better spiritual experience go in the early morning or late afternoon. The basilica is being visited by hundreds of pilgrims a day and the midday is the busiest time.
Opening Hours: Summer (April – September) 6:30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m.; Winter (October – March) 5:30 a.m. –5:00 p.m. Notes: Grotto is closed on Sunday morning, it opens in the afternoon. During the Sunday’s morning the St. Church is closed for sightseeing due to the masses.
Bethlehem is my new home since September 2010. This charming town in the Holy Land is definitely worth a visit! Discover Bethlehem with my blog :-) Other places are coming soon...