To enter the Church of Nativity, located in the center of Bethlehem’s Old City, you have to bow. Every visitor bends down to step through the four-foot-high “door of humility”, a symbolic gesture for pilgrims, even if its construction was originally meant to prevent looters on horseback from entering the church. Upon straightening up again, you will find yourself in the vast basilica that is a strange mix of grand columns, precious paintings and mosaics, and hurriedly-built scaffolding meant to hold up the church’s ancient (and failing) roof. The mix is somehow beautiful, especially in the afternoon when beams of sunlight slant through thick clouds of frankincense.
The Church of the Nativity demonstrates the vast diversity of Christianity as over 1.5 million visitors a year pour in from Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, Italy, Korea, Nigeria and every corner of the world. The church was already a site of secret Christian pilgrimage in the 4th century, prompting the Roman Emperor Constantine to build a church there. The building was destroyed two centuries later, possibly during a Samaritan rebellion. The emperor Justinian rebuilt the church soon after, and the structure he created is largely what remains today.
Although it is famous as a Christian holy place, the Church of the Nativity has a long tradition of importance to other religions as well. There are theories that before the church was built, the site was used by the Canaanites for fertility rites. One story recounts that when Persian forces swept through the area destroying churches as they went, they left the Church of the Nativity untouched because of a a mosaic depicting the Magi wearing Persian attire. Muslim’s also consider the church sacred since they revere Jesus as a prophet.
The church’s status as a multi-denominational site is one of the reasons the church remains standing today. In the seventh century, the caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab ensured that the basilica would remain sacred for both Muslims and Christians when he prayed there, but chose not to turn the church into a mosque. Four hundred years later, when a decree went out to destroy Christian monuments, local Muslims prevented anyone from damaging the church because they saw it as both a Muslim and Christian holy site. The church also made the news in modern times as the scene of a 39-day siege in 2002 between the Israeli military and Palestinian fighters and civilians who sought refuge in the church. The church as fortress, with the incense-laden cave of Jesus’ birth close to the bullet holes in the outer wall.