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“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.
There is always something special to explore or someone interesting to meet when traveling on a Holy Land tour. During our tour to Nablus, the town on the site of biblical Sechem, we decided to visit the Samaritan inhabitants living in Mt. Gerazim. Till that day, we only read about them in the Bible.
We knew the famous story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan women on the site of the Jacob’s Well in Shechem. “When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.” (John 4:7-8)
So, it was amazing to take ourselves back to the biblical times during our visit to the Samaritan museum, located on the top of the sacred mountain. Our group was kindly welcomed by the museum’s director, Mr. Husney, who right away began explaining the habits of the sect.
Paintings on the wall of the museum.
Who are the Samaritans?
We learned that the Samaritans are the descendants of the original children of Israel, who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses. They are divided into two religious strata: the leaders - Kohanim (priest) and the community, who are the descendants of Ephraim and Manasseh tribes. Nowadays, there are only around 740 Samaritans living in Nablus and 350 in the city of Holon, near Tel-Aviv.
The Samaritan community is monotheistic and believes only in the 5 books of Moses. For them, Moses and Amram are the prophets and the Mt. Gerazim is a holy place. They observe Sabbath in a strict manner.
They celebrate most of the same feasts as Jews. However, they follow different practices and habits while feasting. The most important and spectacular is Passover, celebrated to commemorate their exodus from Egypt. To learn more about the Samaritan sacrifice on Passover, click here.
Samaritan’s Sacred Scripts - Torah
Why Mt. Gerazim is so Important to the Samaritans?
The Samaritans have unique beliefs regarding the Mt. Gerazim. They believe that Adam and Eve first met on that mountain. Moreover, they believe that this was the spot where Abraham wanted to sacrifice Isaac to God. Mt. Gerazim holds other significance to the Samaritans which further reinforce the importance of the site to them.
Samaritans and Nablus
While walking the streets of Nablus, you would probably not recognize a regular Samaritan from the crowd. With the exception of the priests, most wear modern clothes and speak Arabic. It is only during the religious feasts and prayers they use the ancient Hebrew language.
It is also believed that much of the Nablusi population descends from Samaritans who converted into Islam, mainly during the Ottoman period. Mr. Husney gave us an interesting theory how we could recognize a descendant of a Samaritan: The lower parts of their ears would be disconnected from the face.
Visit the Samaritans
If you are seeking to learn about Samaritan culture and to perhaps even meet members of the community, visit the Samaritan Museum on Mt. Gerazim in Nablus. There you will see many records from their rituals and feasts, as well as some of the archaeological findings discovered around the mountain.
Items in the Samaritan’s museum
There are no regularly scheduled day tours to Mt. Gerazim, however, the site can be visited on a privately guided program. For further information on the museum contact: Samaritansfirstname.lastname@example.org ; mobile: +970 523 545006. Mt. Gerazim and Nablus can both be visited on a day tour and can also be combined with a visit to nearby Sebastiya. If you are interested in arranging a tour to include these sites, contact email@example.com
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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.
The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven is a common Christian belief saying that the Virgin was taken into Heaven. However, there are some disputes among the Christian fractions about the fact if that happened after her death or maybe still during her life.
The feast of the Assumption occurs annually on the 15th of August according to the Julian Calendar, and is followed by the Eastern Orthodox Churches, on the 28th of August.
During the holiday the Christians of the Holy Land and numerous pilgrims gather in the Church of the Mary’s Tomb in Jerusalem to celebrate it with a solemn mass.
Tomb of the Virgin Mary
Tomb of the Virgin Mary, beside the Holy Sepulcher, is one of the two empty tombs venerated in Jerusalem, as we follow the dogmal belief that Mother of Jesus was assumed into Heaven with her body and soul.
The tomb, which might be dating from the 1st century A.D., is located at the base of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem in a Crusader church. The chapel is baisicly underground and can be reached by descending stairs from a square yard in front of it.
Despite the fact that there are no accounts about the end of Mary’s life, many people consider the site as the actual tomb where Jesus’ mother was laid after her death.
The underground chapel dates to the Byzantine (5th-century) times and features a crypt partly carved out of a stone.
According to the 7th century’s records of the pilgrim Arculf, the ancient church consisted of two round levels with the lower one containing the tomb of Mary. However, when the Crusaders arrived to Jerusalem, they found the structure in ruins and they rebuilt the church in 1130 adding a Benedictine monastery. Queen Melisande was buried in the lower church in 1161.
After the Crusaders were defeated in 1187 A.D, the Islamic ruler Salah al-Din destroyed most of the upper church and used the stone to repair the walls of Jerusalem. The lower chapel remained mostly intact.
The site was then taken over by Franciscans and since the beginning of the 19th century it has been owned by Greeks, Armenians, Syriacs, Copts and Abyssinians. The Ethiopian altar is on the west apse and the altars of the Greeks and Armenians share the east apse. The only day in which Latins celebrate an official mass in the Mary’s Tomb is the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven (15th of August).
Holy not only for Christians
The Tomb of the Virgin is also a holy site for Muslims. According to their beliefs, during the Night Journey from Mecca to Jerusalem, the Prophet Muhammad saw a light over the place where Mary's tomb is located. In fact there is a niche south of the tomb that has a mihrab indicating the direction of Mecca.
Plan your visit
Check Travelujah’s tips before visiting Mary’s Tomb.
For a better overview of the site, visit Mary’s Tomb as part of a group or private tour you by using a licensed tour guide. Check this link for assistance in planning your tour.
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...