Restoration of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity uncovers long hidden treasures

Christian worshippers walk outside the Church of the Nativity ahead of Christmas the biblical city of Bethlehem on Dec. 19, 2021. (AFP)

By Daoud Kuttab for Arab News

  • This Christmas, visitors to the purported birthplace of Jesus Christ can encounter details uncovered for the first time in centuries
  • A baptismal font, a glass lantern and a mosaic of an angel are just some of the surprise discoveries made during repairs  

AMMAN: Years of meticulous restoration work at the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank city of Bethlehem have uncovered a precious trove of previously undiscovered artworks, relics and artifacts dating back centuries. 

Christians believe Jesus Christ was born at the site where the church now stands — an event that is celebrated every year on Dec. 25. As such, Bethlehem and the church itself are considered places of pilgrimage by Christians the world over. 

The COVID-19 pandemic may have reduced the long lines of pilgrims and tourists to a trickle over the past two years, but those fortunate enough to attend will have noticed significant changes at the site since renovations began.

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

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

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

Determined to do something to protect the site, Khoury, then chairman 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 kick-start the restoration.

The Presidential Committee for the Restoration of the Church of Nativity was established and, before long, donations to support the renovation were flooding in from around the world. 

An international tender was made with the help of CCC to ensure the renovation work was carried out to the highest standards in order to protect the church’s World Heritage status. 

“The Italian firm that won the tender, Piacenti, are expert restorers for three generations and they carried out the work according to the specifications that were dictated by UNESCO,” Mazen Karam, CEO of the Bethlehem Development Foundation, told Arab News.

Karam and his foundation colleagues, who raise funds and supervise the renovation work, are thrilled with the number of new discoveries that have been made over the course of the restoration. These included a beautiful, hand-crafted glass lamp. 

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

“The angel is just one of the many surprise discoveries that we have seen in the church once the renovation process began,” said Karam.

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

Tour guides encourage visitors to see the church after dark from the direction of Manger Square to experience the full effect of the new lighting installed among its restored walls. 

On entering the church, visitors pass through the Door of Humility — a stone entrance that was deliberately built with a low ceiling that forces worshippers to bow in reverence.

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

Perhaps most importantly, the restoration has halted the scourge of rain damage. The last time the roof underwent major repairs was in 1480 during the Mamluk period. “Now we can say with confidence that the ceiling will be good for another 1,000 years,” Karam said.

During the repairs, the whole roof was covered with 1,625 square meters of new lead sheeting and around 8 percent of its wooden trusses replaced with ancient wood brought from Italy, reinforced with steel connectors to protect the basilica from seismic activity.

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