In the holy land of Jerusalem time stands still. Nobody can claim that the land is peaceful though. For centuries, Jerusalem has been witness to various bloody battles for possession. Ever since Moses set out in search of the Promised land, Jerusalem has seen it all- from the Crusades of the Middle ages to the Siege of Jerusalem in 2002. Palestinian and Israeli armies have fought tooth and nail, taking refuge in some historical structures that have withstood invasions, fires, earthquakes and calamities since times unknown.
And there in Bethlehem stands the Church of the Nativity. It is believed that the fortress like Basilica has been built over the very manger where the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus of Nazareth. The Church of the Nativity is believed to be the oldest Christian Church still in operation. The imposing structure is indeed special. Christian from all over the world assemble here to behold the spot where their lord was allegedly born. Apart from the obvious religious significance, this church has a very rich historical legacy to boast of. It has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Danger.
It is believed that the Roman Emperor Constantinople and his mother originally commissioned the construction of this church in 327 A.D. Parts of the original mosaic floor still remains today but most of the original structure was demolished in the Samaritan Rebellion of 529 A.D. Most of the structure that we see today is a remnant of what the Byzantine Emperor Justinian rebuilt with pronounced grandeur. Church of the Nativity indeed has survived many a hostile invasion.
The mosaic of the original church showed the Magi wearing Persian attire visiting newborn Jesus. It is said that out of respect to the depiction of the Magi on the mosaic, the Persians spared the church of the Nativity in their war against the Byzantine Empire in 614 AD. All other churches and religious structures were shown no such mercy.
When the Crusaders conquered the Holy Land, 100 armed knights were appointed to guard the Church. The Church was adorned with mosaics and column paintings of Saints in the style of the Renaissance period. Various techniques like pigments suspended in wax has been used.
The Fourteen Point Star
Visitors to the Church of the Nativity today can see a fourteen point silver star on the ground marking the exact spot where Jesus was born. Its a serene experience when you walk past the site that marked the birth of someone who changed the course of the entire world history. You need not be a devout Christian to realize that there is something in the air of the Church of the Nativity which proclaims that history was created here.
The Door of Humility
When you enter the Church of the Nativity you pass through a four feet tall entrance called the Door of humility. One might opine that the door was built to make all pilgrims bow in front of the Lord and related philosophical gibberish, but they would be mistaken. The door of humility’s primary purpose was to ward off soldiers on horseback, dacoits on camels and plunderers who ran haywire after the crusades. Today, tourists from all over the world click selfies in abandon.
The Fight for Possession
Today a turmoil exists over the administration of the Church of the Nativity. Three different sects of Christianity claim stakes in the Church and are often at loggerheads with each other. The three sects are- the Greek Orthodox Church, the Armenian Orthodox and the Franciscan order of the Roman Catholic Church. The resident clerics are so embroiled in their claims of custody over the church that they can never agree on a plan of action to adopt for the church renovation. The Crusaders’ paintings on the red limestone columns of the basilica are threatened by water dripping from the rotting roof. The wooden structure of the Basilica has remained the same since the fifteenth century, threatening the structural integrity of the building. The problem is worsening and yet, no one can reach a consensus despite interventions on the parts of the authority. Scholars rue the fact that the holiest shrine of Christianity is falling prey to a hostile atmosphere.
The fight over Jerusalem is not new. In fact the warring sects had worsened to such a condition that the then Ottoman Sultan had to intervene. An unwritten system of status quo was introduced. According to that status quo , it was mandated that things in the church would be done exactly as it always had been. Anyone who had cleaned a particular tapestry, sat beneath a particular statue, dusted a particular painting or processioned down a particular aisle would continue to do so exclusively. And that is how it is done, even today.
Though the Church of the Nativity today will not offer you a glimpse of green fields, stables and everything about the Nativity scene you have been conditioned to expect, what with tourists jostling over each other, come here anyway just to behold the magic and charm that pervades the very core of the basilica where history was conceived.