JERUSALEM-the 50 sites you may overlook

In a historic and religious city like Jerusalem there is so much to see no matter how much you tour. When time is a limiting factor, even the most efficient tour guides have to compromise while deciding what to incorporate in the itinerary. Although it depends on the interest of the individual visitor as well, there is still a huge must-see-list in Jerusalem that cannot be avoided. At every stop so much information is thrown on a visitor that sometimes s/he tends to forget the details after leaving the place.

I remember when I first visited the Church of Holy Sepulcher, it appeared to me more like a small museum than a church. I was virtually clueless inside a dark and dull overcrowded massive complex of more than 25 chapels with several curious artifacts and antiques scattered under some dusky arches and dingy columns. It took me at least three visits with a proper map in hand to understand the Church complex. A normal visitor for instance would be satisfied with Golgotha, the ‘Stone of Unction’ and the ‘Holy Sepulcher’, but the oldest part of the complex, viz. the first century tombs inside the Syrian Orthodox Chapel could be easily missed.

In the upcoming posts I plan to upload 50 such sites from Jerusalem that I believe can be easily overlooked or go unnoticed by an average visitor. I am incorporating the following sites from my previous visits, again with no specific order of importance. I am sure that a serious traveler who loves history, traditions and the Bible has noticed or been to most of them.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

THE CHURCH OF NATIVITY (BIRTHPLACE OF JESUS)-BETHLEHEM. The site honoured since at least 2nd cent; Oldest continuously used church in Israel (333 AD).

The birthplace of a person considered divine by one third of mankind has to be special. Today, one of the holiest sites of Christianity is inside a 54m x 26m basilica known as the "Church of Nativity". Inside the church, the most important area is a cave (12m x 3m), called the "the Grotto of Nativity". The holiest spot is inside this cave marked by a 14-pointed 'Silver Star' surrounded by silver lamps-the traditional site of His birth. The "Church of Nativity" is one of the oldest continuously operating churches in the Holy Land. The site has been venerated as the birthplace of Jesus Christ since at least 2nd century AD.

The modern basilica has foundations from at least three older churches. The first Church was constructed by St: Helena (333 AD), followed by later additions from Emperor Justinian (6th Century) and Crusaders (12th Century). Presently, the church is administered jointly by Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Orthodox communities. The ‘Basilica of Nativity’ is surrounded by Franciscan (Catholic), Greek Orthodox and Armenian convents.

It was first attested by Justin Martyr of Caesarea (100-165 AD), followed by Origen of Alexandria (185-254 AD) and Eusebius of Caesarea (263-339 AD). In 326 AD, St. Helena mother of Roman Emperor Constantine decided to build a Church over the cave. Under the supervision of Bishop Makarios of Jerusalem, the construction started in 327 AD and was completed in 333 AD. This first church was dedicated on May 31, 339 AD. The Church was burnt down in the Samaritan Revolt of 529 AD. A new basilica was rebuilt on the same spot in 565 AD by the Roman Emperor Justinian I.

A few decades later in 614, Persians under Chosroes II invaded the Holy Land. Unexpectedly they did not destroy the structure. According to a legend, they mistook one of the paintings inside the church, that of the 'Three Wise Men (Magi)' wearing Persian clothing, for their ancestors, and decided to honor these sages by sparing the church. The Crusaders (12th cent) added new buildings to the basilica and the first King of Jerusalem was crowned in the church. During the later Islamic periods (Mamluk and Ottoman periods), the Church was neglected, but not destroyed.

In relatively modern periods the "Church of Nativity" has withstood an earthquake (1834), a fire (1869), and even a theft (1847). The theft of the 'Silver Star' has ultimately led to a war among nations (the Crimean War; 1854–56)! More recently (2002), the Church witnessed a large scale military operation (“Operation Defensive Shield”) conducted by Israeli army to flush out the Palestinian militant groups who took shelter inside. Moreover, the basilica is an endangered site now. Many of its roof timbers are rotten (not been replaced since the 19th century) allowing rainwater to seep into and causing damage to the wood, wall mosaics and paintings. A consensus has to be reached among the three Christian denominations before taking the necessary steps over the restoration work. The chance to have a positive outcome is grim. Thanks to their harmony which have not happened for hundreds of years. Just for instance, every silver lamp hanging above the birth spot of Jesus is marked. Of these 15 lamps; 6 belong to the Greeks, 5 to the Armenians and 4 to the Catholics! Their is not even a consensus for the birth day of Jesus. The Roman Catholics celebrate the Nativity on December 25 while the Orthodox Church will celebrate on January 7.

What to see?

1. The Grotto of Nativity
No doubt, the cave where supposedly Jesus was born is the most revered site in the Church of Nativity. The exact spot of his birth is marked with a ‘Silver Star’ surrounded by 15 Silver Lamps. There are three altars inside the cave; 1) The Altar of the Nativity- beneath which is the Silver Star; 2) The Manger Altar- where Mary laid the baby Jesus; 3) An altar to the “Three Wise Men”.

2. The Main altar of the Basilica of Nativity
Look for the array of lamps and gilded icons.

3. The 4th Century Church Mosaics enclosed in a trap door

4. The 4th Century Pillars with Crusader paintings (12th Cent)
The pillars are 6m tall and 44 in total.

5. The 15th Century Door of Humility
Visitors must enter the Church through this door bending over, therefore the name. Why such a a small door? The main idea was to prevent looters to enter the church in horsebacks! Originally the church had three entrances; two of them are now blocked.

6. The Modern Catholic Church of St: Catherine
The Church whose Midnight Mass on the Christmas Eve is broad casted worldwide live.

7. Ancient Tombs and Caves beneath the Church of Nativity
Which include the Study and Tomb of St: Jerome (4th Century); Chapels dedicated to St: Joseph and the Holy Infants slaughtered at the time of Jesus birth by King Herod.

The Biblical significance of Bethlehem is not just confined to the birth of Christ. It was also the birthplace of King David. However, nothing is shown in Bethlehem related to David today. Rachel and Ruth are two other prominent figures associated with Bethlehem. See also the blog archives from December, 2008 for my earlier Bethlehem visit.

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