Bethlehem Church of Nativity Restoration Reveals Long Hidden Treasures

AMMAN: Years of meticulous restoration work at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem has uncovered a treasure trove of previously unknown, centuries-old works of art, relics and artefacts .

Christians believe that Jesus Christ was born on the site where the church now stands – an event that is celebrated on December 25 each year. As such, Bethlehem and the church itself are considered places of pilgrimage by Christians around the world.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have reduced the long lines of pilgrims and tourists to a trickle over the past two years, but those lucky enough to witness it will have noticed significant changes to the site from the start. renovations.

Christians believe that the cave of the Church of the Nativity is the place where Jesus Christ was born. (Provided)

Inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2012, a church was first completed on the site in 339. The building that replaced it after a fire in the 6th century retains elaborate floor mosaics from the original building.

Thanks to several years of delicate restoration work, many hidden details have been revealed for the first time in centuries, including original stones, detailed ornaments and precious objects lost in time.

Renovation work began in 2013 after a generous donation from Palestinian philanthropist Said Khoury, who during a visit noticed rainwater seeping into the church through its deteriorating roof.

Determined to do something to protect the site, Khoury, then president of the Athens-based Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC), met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss the matter and donated half a million dollars to start the restoration.


The restoration work was made possible by donations from around the world. (Provided)

The Presidential Committee for the Restoration of the Church of the Nativity was established, and soon after, donations to support the renovation poured in from around the world.

An international tender was launched with the help of CCC to ensure that the renovations were carried out to the highest standards in order to protect the church’s World Heritage status.

“The Italian company that won the tender, Piacenti, has been an expert restorer for three generations and has carried out the work according to the specifications dictated by UNESCO,” Mazen Karam, CEO of the Bethlehem Development Foundation.

Karam and his colleagues at the foundation, who are fundraising and overseeing the renovation work, are delighted with the number of new discoveries that have been made during the restoration. These included a beautiful handcrafted glass lamp.

The restoration team also discovered a baptismal font hidden under a layer of marble, and discovered an angel on the north wall of the basilica, which had been covered with plaster.

“The angel is just one of many surprise finds we saw in the church once the renovation process began,” Karam said.

Another big surprise was the discovery of the building’s original door, now faithfully restored, believed to have been donated to the church by an Armenian king.

Tour guides encourage visitors to view the church after dark on your way to Place Manger to take full advantage of the new lighting installed among its restored walls.

Upon entering the church, visitors pass through the Door of Humility – a stone entrance that has been purposefully constructed with a low ceiling that forces worshipers to bow reverently.

Once inside, visitors can fully appreciate the tireless effort that has gone into restoring the high ceilings, pillars, walls and paintings.

Perhaps more importantly, the restoration put an end to the plague of rain damage. The last time the roof underwent major repairs was in 1480 during the Mamluk period. “Now we can say with certainty that the ceiling will be good for another 1,000 years,” said Karam.

During the repairs, the entire roof was covered with 1,625 square meters of new lead sheets and about 8% of its timber trusses were replaced with old timber imported from Italy, reinforced with steel connectors for protect the basilica from seismic activity.

QUICKFACTS

The roof of the church last underwent major repairs in 1480 during the Mamluk period.

UNESCO removed the church from its List of World Heritage in Danger in 2019.

The restoration to date has cost around $ 15 million, but an additional $ 2.8 million is needed.

The church’s 42 wooden window frames have been replaced and fitted with anti-UV double glazing. Approximately 3,365 square meters of interior plastering, 3,076 square meters of stone exterior facades and 125 square meters of wall mosaics were renovated, consolidated and cleaned, while 50 stone columns were restored and repainted.

The success and quality of the restoration work was such that UNESCO removed the Church of the Nativity from the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2019.

The Bethlehem Development Foundation said it was particularly grateful for the “extremely professional and respectful” support from the presidential committee and the Palestinian government, who ensured that resources and expertise were made available.

To date, the restoration work has cost around $ 15 million. However, the repairs are not yet complete and additional funding estimated at $ 2 million will be required to complete this phase of the project.

Work completed to date includes the restoration of the 6th century marble tiles for the Bema in front of the Orthodox iconostasis and the south transept.

The projects not yet funded include the conservation of the stone slabs of the front yard, the installation of a firefighting system and microclimate controls, the structural consolidation at the north and south corners of the basilica, the consolidation of its southern exterior wall against seismic activity, and the restoration of the central nave.

Perhaps the most sensitive part of the church that remains to be renovated is the Grotto of the Nativity, an underground space where Christians believe Jesus was born. The exact place is marked with a silver star.

The foundation said the cave was in urgent need of repairs, which will cost around $ 2.8 million, after suffering centuries of earthquakes, fires and wear and tear from welcoming millions of visitors. .

However, the issue is not entirely about the money. Given its religious significance, any work on the cave must first be approved by the three churches guarding the site – Orthodox, Catholic, and Armenian.

Restoration of the site could also prevent pilgrims and tourists from accessing the cave for up to eight months.

“The cave will require a number of things before we can start working on it,” the foundation told Arab News. “We need the approval of the three churches and we anticipate that this will require an additional $ 2.8 million and require that all work, including the cave, can be completed by 2023 if the necessary funding is obtained. ”

One solution the churches, the Municipality of Bethlehem and the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism would love to see is a gradual restoration that allows for a scheduled prayer and a few visits to the cave.

Karam said this approach will allow the Church of the Nativity to remain both a place of worship and a site of historical curiosity for people of all faiths and faiths while it undergoes repairs.

“Your visit will help keep it alive as a testament to the living church and prevent it from turning into a museum,” he said.

Jerry B. Hatch