You don't need the Star of Bethlehem to find the cave where Jesus was born
Carefully bending over, visitors go through a tiny door in the stone wall, which seems more like part of a mediaeval fortress in Europe than a church in the West Bank. Although the entrance to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is known as the Door of Humility, you are certainly not required to bump your head in penance when entering the basilica over the cave where Jesus is believed to have been born 2007 years ago.
Watching the scene enacted in front of him every day, the Palestinian policeman lights a cigarette. “It is peaceful here,” he says, summing up life in Bethlehem. The city is situated five miles from Jerusalem and has been an administrative centre of the Palestinian National Authority since 1995. The policeman's statement applies equally to Manger Square in front of the church, which is in fact not a single building, but rather a complex comprising the Basilica of the Nativity, the Roman Catholic Church of St Catherine, plus various chapels and monastic rooms. The reason the site is so crowded with sanctuaries can be explained by what lies beneath it: the Grotto of the Nativity.
Manger Square is rarely empty, but it seems like paradise compared to the infernal traffic beyond its boundaries. The traffic in Bethlehem is like that in every city of the Near East: the inevitably chaotic result of numerous narrow streets, a glut of vehicles and countless drivers with a penchant for honking their horns.
Things change before Christmas, however. Stars of Bethlehem are present in and around the square throughout the year, but they multiply before the holiday, while small flags appear too. The flow of pilgrims also increases and when it is time for the holiday procession – with a horseman carrying a cross, priests, administrative officials and armed police officers – the square is literally bursting at the seams.
An Arab family in the Bethlehem of the 1890s
In the Church of the Nativity, the oldest functioning church in the Holy Land, Christmas actually comes twice a year. The arguments between the different Christian denominations that caused the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to be divided into distinct parts have also affected the Church of the Nativity. The status quo among the various factions was legally fixed by a sultan's firman, or edict, in 1852 that split the church between the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Apostolic authorities. Catholics celebrate Christmas on 25 December according to the Gregorian calendar, but the Orthodox Christians stick to the older, Julian calendar, which observes the holiday on 7 January.
Bethlehem is mentioned in the Old Testament as the site of Rachel's death. Ruth – the grandmother of the Jewish King David, famous for his defeat of the giant Goliath – also settled there. The city first became popular with Christians in the 2nd Century, when St Justin Martyr declared it the place where the pregnant Virgin Mary and her carpenter husband Joseph arrived to register for the population count. Reputedly, Jesus was born there, outside the city walls in a cave which was used as a stable. Led by the Star of Bethlehem, the Three Magi from the East came to do homage to the infant, who was still lying in the manger.
The Grotto of the Nativity
Bethlehem had to wait until the age of Emperor Constantine the Great and his mother Helena's visit to the Holy Land, however, to become a centre of pilgrimage. She supposedly discovered the true cave of the Nativity (the mangers were still there) and in the year 333 her son built a basilica over it.
In the Near East, politics, religion and disputes over land and water had been going on since time immemorial and Bethlehem soon became one of the most contested holy spots in Palestine. The various battles have left indelible marks on the architectural plan of the church. The complex around it covers an area of 12,000 sq m, or 130,000 sq ft – the only place with a more confusing topography is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built on the site where Jesus was thought to have been crucified and buried.
Changes to the Church of the Nativity began back in 529, when Constantine's basilica was destroyed during the Samaritan Revolt against Byzantine Emperor Justinian I. After quashing the revolt, he ordered the construction of a new church. Several decades later it again faced the threat of destruction, this time by the army of Sassanian Persia, which was fighting the Byzantine Empire for control of the region. The Basilica survived, thanks to a stylistically astute image of the Adoration of the Magi.
When the Persians invaded the city in 614, their commander Shahrbaraz went into the church to look around before deciding its fate. While walking past the four rows of columns in the naos, he looked up and saw the gold and glass mosaics above them.
Shahrbaraz stopped, rooted to the spot. On the north side of the nave he could see the usual image of the baby Jesus with the usual Joseph and Mary, but the Three Wise Men from the East, who were paying their respects to the young man-god, were anything but the usual figures. Instead, they wore Persian clothes. The officer ordered his soldiers not to touch the church. The Magi still adorn the wall to this day and anybody who looks up as Shahrbaraz did can see the attire that saved the church from destruction.
Reaching the cave where the first Christmas took place requires a bit of spelunking. First, you must go down a steep flight of steps which leads into a small cavity in the rock and then continue to a semicircular apse, which was covered with white marble in the 12th Century. Embedded in it, there is a shining 14-point silver star with the inscription HIC DE VIRGINE MARIA JESUS CHRISTUS NATUS EST (Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary) encircling it. To touch the original rock where this miracle supposedly took place, you not only have to duck your head, but you must also kneel.
For the religious tourist, the grotto is a place of revelation, prayer and hymn singing. The Palestinian Christians from Bethlehem have, however, become so used to their church that sometimes the pious silence in the cave is broken by the patter of feet and the giggles of the local children, who find the service above a bit too boring.
Despite living near one of Christendom's holiest sites, the life of Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem is far from idyllic. The tradition of electing a mayor and most of the city counsellors from among their ranks is still observed, but while they were 70 percent of the city's population in 1947, now they have become a minority. The reasons, like almost everything else in the Near East, are complex. Frequently quoted explanations are the Palestinian Christians' traditionally lower birth rate compared to that of the Muslims, as well as the economic difficulties due to the internal conflict with Israel, especially after the construction of the West Bank barrier. In December 2004, two enthusiasts dressed as Joseph and Mary tried to enter Bethlehem (with the usual media in tow). The Jewish security forces stopped them at the checkpoint, thus assuming the role of the “bad guys” in the subsequent publicity. There are also occasional reports of religious intolerance from the Muslims living in the city.
The silver star marks the exact place where Jesus was born
Nevertheless, Bethlehem continues to be regarded as a place of remarkable religious tolerance in this highly sensitive region. Michel Sabbah, the current Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, called the church a “place of refuge for everyone” a few years ago; his words proved prophetic soon afterwards. When the Palestinians started the Second Intifada in 2000, the Israeli army responded with a military operation in the West Bank. Bethlehem was surrounded by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) in the spring of 2002. At the beginning of April a group of Palestinian militants sought refuge in the church, taking hostages with them. The Siege of the Church of the Nativity lasted 39 days. Eleven people were killed and a fire was started in the church.
“The intifada is over and it is absolutely safe now. Nobody wants to chase off the tourists,” the Palestinian policeman says. He extinguishes his cigarette and starts on his routine beat, casting a glance at the group of believers who are bowing their heads at the Door of Humility. The main door to the church was actually much larger originally. Legend has it that a Turkish sultan ordered it to be lowered so that armed horsemen could not enter the church.
10 Must Do's in Bethlehem
• Play detective and calculate the true year of Christ's birth. The Gospel of Luke mentions a compulsory census, but does not say which of the two coincided with Mary's birth pangs: King Herod's in 4 BC or Emperor Augustus's in 6 BC.
• Bribe the Virgin. Some believers leave jewellery, watches and money in front of her icon in the Eastern Orthodox basilica as a votive offering.
• Enjoy a moment of peace in the inner courtyard where the monastic cells begin.
• Where to next? The new Bethlehem Peace Centre on Manger Square has a tourist office, where you can get information about all the landmarks in the city.
• The Mosque of Omar, also situated in the square, is one of them. You needn't bother going in because the most noteworthy thing about it is its exterior.
• The other places that the tourist centre will recommend are Rachel's Tomb on the outskirts of the town, the Shepherds' Fields, where just over 2,000 years ago people first heard the news of the Nativity, and the Milk Grotto. According to legend, drops of milk falling from Mary's breasts gave the rocks their white colour.
• To visit the three Solomon's Pools, which are still used to store water, you will need to drive 4 km, or 2.5 miles, south of the city.
• If you need a second-hand fridge, a packet of peanuts, or simply to stretch your legs, take a walk in the streets of the old city.
• Show your compassion while waiting at the checkpoint. There is normally a Palestinian man nearby selling cheap necklaces to support his family – or at least this is what he tells foreign tourists.
• Do you like Banksy? If you are still at the checkpoint, examine the concrete wall. You may see some of his graffiti.