At this church marking the traditional site of the birth of Jesus, the stone exterior is crowned by the crosses of the three denominations sharing it: the Greek Orthodox, the Latins (Roman Catholic, represented by the Franciscan order), and the Armenian Orthodox. The blocked, square entranceway dates from the time of the Byzantine emperor Justinian (6th century), the arched entrance (also blocked) within the Byzantine one is 12th-century Crusader, and the current low entrance was designed in the 16th century to protect the worshippers from attack by hostile Muslim neighbors.
The church interior is vast and gloomy. In the central nave, a large wooden trapdoor reveals a remnant of a striking mosaic floor from the original basilica, built in the 4th century by Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, the Roman emperor who first embraced Christianity. Emperor Justinian's rebuilding two centuries later enlarged the church, creating its present-day plan and structure, including the 44 red-stone columns with Corinthian capitals that run the length of the nave in two paired lines.
This is the oldest standing church in the country. When the Persians invaded in 614, they destroyed every Christian church and monastery in the land except this one. Legend holds that the church was adorned with a wall painting depicting the Nativity tale, including the visit to the infant Jesus by the Three Wise Men of the East. For the local artist, "east" meant Persia, and he dressed his wise men in Persian garb. The Persian conquerors did not understand the picture's significance, but "recognized" themselves in the painting and so spared the church. In the 8th century, the church was pillaged by the Muslims and was later renovated by the Crusaders. Patches of 12th-century mosaics high on the walls, the medieval oak ceiling beams, and the figures of saints on the Corinthian pillars hint at its medieval splendor.
The elaborately ornamented front of the church serves as the parish church of Bethlehem's Greek Orthodox community. The right transept is theirs, too, but the left transept belongs to the Armenian Orthodox. The altar in the left transept is known as the altar of the kings, because tradition holds this to be the place where the three magi dismounted. For centuries, all three "shareholders" in the church have vied for control of the holiest Christian sites in the Holy Land. The 19th-century Status Quo Agreement that froze their respective rights and privileges in Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher and the Tomb of the Virgin pertains here, too: ownership, the timing of ceremonies, the number of oil lamps, and so on are all clearly defined.
From the right transept at the front of the church, descend to the Grotto of the Nativity, encased in white marble. Long lines can form at the entrance to the grotto, making the suggestion of spending just an hour to see the church an impossibility. Once a cave—precisely the kind of place that might have been used as a barn—the grotto has been reamed, plastered, and decorated beyond recognition. Immediately on the right is a small altar, and on the floor below it is the focal point of the entire site: a 14-point silver star with the Latin inscription "hic de virgine maria jesus christus natus est" (Here of the Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was born). The Latins placed the original star here in 1717 but lost control of the altar 40 years later to the more influential Greek Orthodox. In 1847 the star mysteriously disappeared, and pressure from the Turkish sultan compelled the Greeks to allow the present Latin replacement to be installed in 1853. The Franciscan guardians do have possession, however, of the little alcove a few steps down on the left at the entrance to the grotto, said to be the manger where the infant Jesus was laid.
Manger Sq., Bethlehem, Israel