Church of the Holy Nativity

Church of the Holy NativityWhile guided tours still come daily from Jerusalem to see Jesus’ birthplace, the locality is so drained by military turmoil that routine maintenance has been ignored in the decaying church guarding where he was born.

Even if you’re not a practicing Christian, you probably know where Jesus Christ was born—the story of his birth in a stable in Bethlehem has been told over and over again for 20 centuries now. But Bethlehem today is no simple village of shepherds, camels, and donkeys; it’s a busy, modern town in the West Bank, that political tinderbox torn between Israel and Palestine.

Milling around a plaza called Manger Square, you’ll notice different priests protecting their sects’ claim to this sacred site—Franciscan priests in brown robes, Armenians in purple- and cream-colored robes, bearded Greeks in black robes with long hair tied into a bun. After being tussled over for centuries, it’s no surprise that the ancient Church of the Holy Nativity looks dilapidated—competing priests may even come to blows over the right to scrub a certain section of the worn floors. (Having armed Palestinian soldiers occupy the church, as has happened recently, only aggravates the situation.) Though it was first built in A . D . 326 by the Roman emperor Constantine, and rebuilt 200 years later by Emperor Justinian, its present fortresslike facade was the work of 12th-century crusaders, aggressively reinforcing their claim to the site. Unlike the grand portals of most churches, this one has an odd low doorway—some say lowered by Christians to prevent Ottomans from riding their horses inside, others say built by post-crusade Muslins to humble Christian pilgrims.

Inside, the stately Corinthian pillars that line the basilica’s naves bear faded paintings of apostles, bishops, saints, and kings; gilded lamps hang from the oak ceiling, and trapdoors in the stone-and-wood floor give mere glimpses of old Byzantine mosaic glories beneath. But the heart of the church lies not with its ornate goldand-silver main altar, but down narrow staircases beside the altar: a subterranean marble grotto, draped in worn tapestries. According to ancient tradition, this shallow cave is where Mary gave birth to Jesus; altars mark nearby spots where the manger stood and where the Magi bowed to the baby Jesus. Historically accurate or not, after centuries of adoration this hushed grotto is full of spiritual aura.

While you’re here, you should also visit the grand Franciscan church just north of the Church of the Holy Nativity, which offers a competing Nativity site: A stairway from the back of its nave leads to an underground maze of rock-hewn chambers that supposedly includes the stable where Joseph and Mary stayed the night of Jesus’ birth. In the scrum of modern Bethlehem, finding not one but two holy retreats isn’t a bad bargain at all.