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August 9, 2011August 9, 2011  0 comments  Bethlehem

The Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem is one of the most important destinations for pilgrims visiting the Holy Land; it is the cradle of Christianity and one of the earliest Christian structures in the world. This site is so important for the followers of Christianity because of the fact that the church was built exactly over the cave where the baby Jesus was born in 1 A.D.

"4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son." (Luke 2:4-7)

For me, as a Christian, every visit to the Nativity Church and the Grotto has a great spiritual meaning and is always an amazing experience. I like its peaceful, perfect for a prayer, quiet atmosphere and the feeling of the eternity of this place. But of course, the monastery possesses great importance for non-Christian visitors who are interested in its historical and architectural values.

The building has a long and rich history. The construction of the basilica was started in 327 A.D. by Saint Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine I - the first emperor converted to Christianity. The construction was supervised by Bishop Makarios of Jerusalem and was completed in 333. Unfortunately, the whole structure was burned down in the Samaritan Revolt of 529, but then the building was replaced by a larger Basilica in 565 by the Emperor Justinian I. Later, during the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, the Crusaders made further repairs and additions to the building. With time, the complex has been enlarged, and today it covers approximately 12,000 square meters.

Probably some of us looking at the Nativity Church from outside could ask the question - Why the Basilica is so huge and why does it have as much as thee belfries? I guess the people who ask this question are just unaware of the fact that the basilica is actually a complex of three churches. In 1852, shared custody of the church was given to the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian churches, so all the fractions began to maintain their monastic communities on the site of the basilica. Today the monastery is surrounded by the Franciscan convent in the north, the Greek Orthodox convent in the southeast and the Armenian convent in the southwest and every of the convents have their own belfry.


The building of the Nativity Church is from the Justinian times and is now used by the Greek Orthodox Church as the parish church for the Arab orthodox community of Bethlehem, however the Armenian Church oversees a smaller chapel next to the primary altar. In the 15th century the basilica was expanded and the Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria was added, and it was later enlarged in 1881. Nowadays, the Roman Catholic community, through the custodianship of the Franciscan Brotherhood, is responsible for the St. Catherine's Church and the subterranean chapels believed to be used by Saint Jerome in the late Roman era.

Accordingly, since 1852, the three separate denominations have created a common place of prayer and they join in caring for the Nativity Church and the Nativity Grotto despite the fact that the grotto is under the Greek Orthodox part of the church. In keeping with their respective beliefs and rituals, each convent celebrates their specific mass according to a fixed schedule.


The Three Belfries of the Nativity Church in Bethlehem


Beata M. Andonia works for the Bethlehem tourism bureau and blogs for Travelujah. She is originally from Poland and moved to Bethlehem in 2010.


September 23, 2011September 23, 2011  0 comments  Bethlehem

Just imagine the scene: A beautifully decorated car, with a bride in a white wedding dress, stops in front of a church. The bride steps on the ground and then she walks slowly with her father toward the basilica...

Wedding Bells sound at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

This description suits most brides and most weddings... but the description of my wedding was quite different.

A beautifully decorated car, with a bride wearing a white gorgeous wedding dress, stops in front of the magnificent Nativity Church in Bethlehem. The bride steps on the ground of the Nativity and walks slowly with her father toward the basilica. They pass the Door of Humility and walk among the 5th century columns in the direction of the St. Catherina Church...

Inside of the church I got an incredible feeling of happiness. A couple of years ago I would never have imagined getting married in such an important and holy place as the birth place of Jesus Christ.

My father led me to the entrance of the St. Catherine Church - where my fiancé, Johny, along his brother George (our witness) and dozens of guests were waiting. My father greeted Johny and passed me to him - so that we could enter St. Catherines Church together as bride and groom.

Wow! Even more people were waiting inside the church and the place was beautifully decorated with white flowers and ribbons. When the organs started to play we entered the church, with a little boy and girl in front of us holding the rings, then George and my sister, Eve - our witnesses - and then us - Beata & Johny.

The atmosphere inside the St. Catherine Church was breathtaking - I would never imagine that my marriage could look better. All the people, gathered together to celebrate this beautiful moment with us, the overwhelming magnificence of the Nativity Church and our love strengthened with the sacrament of Matrimony - everything on that day was perfectly harmonized.


Wedding Bells sound at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

The priest began the mass with a blessing of beautiful spiritual words and the sign of the cross. He announced us as the husband and the wife. After we took our marriage oath, we exchanged the rings and the Eucharist in front of the main altar, and we went with the priest to another little altar dedicated to the Virgin Mary. We prayed to the Virgin and gave Her a beautiful bouquet of flowers to thank Her for caring for us.

After the ceremony everybody wanted to congratulate us and say mabrook (in Arabic congratulations).
Then came the time to celebrate! We organized a big wedding party for 300 guests. For me and my European guests, it was quite large however... according to the locals the wedding was small -some Palestinian weddings can be for more than 1000 guests!

We entered the wedding hall and immediately all the guests began to dance around us to the beat of the Arabic songs. Everybody was cheerful and excited to celebrate - and me and my husband did not have a moment to rest.

In planning our wedding we decided to include certain Palestinian wedding traditions:

Zafeht el-Aruz - Girls celebrating the bride - The bride and the girls enter the wedding hall each holding beautifully decorated candles. Of course, the two candles of the bride are the biggest and the most stunning. Later all the girls gather and dance around the bride until the groom and his men enter the hall.

Zafet el-Areez - Men celebrating the groom - The men enter the wedding hall with the groom on their shoulders. Everybody sings and celebrates the groom. The men put on their traditional Arabic headpieces, the Koffeyeh, - a characteristic black-white scarf and hold wooden sticks.

The whole experience was truly a moment I'll never forget and I'm sure everyone there felt the same way. Attending and participating in a Palestinian wedding is a unique experience and if you are ever invited to one, make sure you accept. There is no better way to feel a culture than to experience it firsthand.

Wedding Bells sound at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem

Beata M. Andonia works for Bethlehem tourist bureau and blogs for Travelujah. She is oryginally from Poland and moved to Bethlehem in 2010.

August 3, 2012August 3, 2012  1 comments  Bethlehem

“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.


Basilica of the Nativity Bethlehem Travelujah

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.


Basilica of the Nativity Bethlehem Travelujah

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.


Basilica of the Nativity Bethlehem Travelujah

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.


Basilica of the Nativity Bethlehem Travelujah

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.


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Beata M. Andonia works for the Bethlehem tourist bureau and blogs regularly about Bethlehem for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours. She is originally from Poland and moved to Bethlehem in 2010.

January 1, 2013January 1, 2013  0 comments  Bethlehem

So Joseph [and Mary] also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem […] While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. (Luke 2:4-6)


Celebrating Christmas in Bethlehem, the town where Jesus was born, is a magical, once in a lifetime experience for many people. The fact that most Christmas events occur on Manger Square, just couple of meters from the Nativity Grotto – the place of Christ’s birth, makes it even more unique.


Last week, thousands of visitors came to Bethlehem to join local Christians in civic and church Christmas events.


Christmas Eve Bethlehem Travelujah


On the 24th of December, people gathered on the beautifully decorated Manger Square, in front of the ancient Basilica of the Nativity, to welcome the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Fouad Twal.


The parade of hundreds of scouts, presenting their musical skills, followed Star Street, believed to be the way Mary and Joseph took arrived to the Nativity Grotto. In June 2012, this street was added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites together with the Nativity Church.


Christmas Eve Bethlehem Travelujah


In the early afternoon, the Patriarch arrived to walk on the specially prepared podium, lined with a red carpet and decorated with flowers. He was welcomed by the new Mayor of Bethlehem, Mrs. Vera Baboun, the representatives of different churches in the region, and many other important personalities. This year, His Eminence, instead of walking straight to the Nativity Church, stopped in the middle of the podium and greeted the people, prompting cheerful ovations among them.


Project Peace on Earth


The day continued with a special message of peace, unity and love coordinated by the Project Peace on Earth. With help of their instructions, children and scouts gathered on Manger Square formed a ‘peace sign’ and words ‘love all’.  This powerful message  went viral extremely fast.


Christmas Eve Bethlehem Travelujah


Christmas Eve Mass in the Nativity Church


The solemn Christmas Eve Mass is always celebrated at midnight between the 24th and 25th of December, which according to the Christian tradition symbolizes the day of the Christ’s birth.


Christmas Eve Bethlehem Travelujah


The Midnight Mass, lead by the Patriarch Fouad Twal and held inside the Franciscan church of St. Catherine, within the Nativity Church complex, required special passes, obtained by advance application in the Christian Information Center in Jerusalem. Those  lucky enough to securee tickets had the opportunity to experience this unique church ceremony, preceded by the scripture reading and common carols singing.


Many important officials were invited to attend the service, along with the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh.


The mass was celebrated in many languages, as gathered believers were from all around the world. Nevertheless the main liturgical language was Latin, the official tongue of the Catholic Church. Patriarch’s homily was delivered in Arabic - his mother tongue, and papers with its translation were provided for all.


Christmas Eve Bethlehem Travelujah


The Patriarch began his speech with these words: ‘I greet you all from the Basilica of the Nativity, a few steps away from the grotto where the Blessed Virgin brought forth her admirable Son into the world.’ He also called for peace and the stability in the region saying: ‘Only justice and peace in the Holy Land can re-establish balance and stability in the region and in the world!’


Solemn procession to the Nativity Grotto, lead by the Patriarch holding a sculpture of a baby symbolizing Christ, concluded the liturgy.


Planning Christmas in Bethlehem: next year … or?


Christmas Eve Bethlehem Travelujah


Have you ever heard that the Christmas in the Holy Land is celebrated three times? It is because of the different liturgical calendars followed by the different Christian denominations of the Holy Land. Catholics and Protestants celebrate Christmas Day on the 25th of December, the Orthodox and Oriental Churches on the 7th of January and the Holy Land Armenians on the 18th of January.  As a result this special holiday season is celebrated for an extended period of time.


Attend the Christmas Eve Celebrations of Orthodox (6/01) and Armenian Churches (18/01) in Bethlehem, which will also feature scouts parades and midnight masses, which do not require any tickets.


Christmas period and especially days between 23rd and 26th of December mark a very high touristic season in Bethlehem. Thus, if you are planning to visit the town next year during that time, think about early accommodation booking.


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Beata Andonia works for the Bethlehem tourist bureau and blogs regularly about Bethlehem for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours. She is originally from Poland and moved to Bethlehem in 2010.

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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...


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