One of the world’s first churches is undergoing major renovations. It’s in Bethlehem and despite COVID limiting visitors, the church’s spiritual life remains strong.
Commissioned by the Roman Emperor Constantine at the request of his mother, Helena, the Church of the Nativity is built over the place where many believe Jesus was born.
“Whenever anybody comes from all over the world, they have to taste and to feel the place where actually Jesus was born here [so] as to give the people the peace and love,” said Father Issa Thaljieh, Greek Orthodox Parish Priest at the Church of the Nativity. The church was originally built about 1,700 years ago. Since then, it’s been destroyed and rebuilt, a number of times.
The most recent renovation began in 2013 with the help of the Bethlehem Development Foundation or BDF’s fund-raising efforts. Its goal is to renew Bethlehem by providing a sustainable life for residents while making the city attractive for visitors. They started by upgrading Manger Square and then moving onto the Church of the Nativity.
Mazen Karam, CEO of BDF, said the original church was octagonal in shape.
“When it was rebuilt because [they] did not have mass earth moving equipment, they built on top of it. So we have like a little over two feet of the change in elevation” between the original church floor and the floor today, Karam told CBN News on a recent visit to the church.
According to Karam, the large colonnade at the current entrance to the church used to be a marketplace but Justinian built the 50 columns in the 6th century and later the crusaders decorated them.
The church had not undergone major renovations for hundreds of years, so restorers started by fixing the very leaky roof and the windows.
“The original [windows are] not here anymore. They replaced them with new windows,” Karam said.
The wall mosaics added to the church more than 850 years ago as well as the original floor mosaics, desperately needed repair.
“Eleven percent of the mosaics exist. The rest was lost. So they cleaned up all the mosaic[s]. [They were] very dirty and, you know, soot and debris and they cleaned it.
In the process came a surprise.
“They discovered the third angel,” Karam said. “The third angel was completely covered with plaster and you can see that all the angels are pointing to the grotto, which is where Jesus was born.”
To help raise money, they also created “adopt-a-column” to refurbish the church’s 50 columns at a cost of around $50,000 each.
Others like art conservator Andreas Miaoulis, from the Greek restoration company Artis, are working to restore the area by the altar, beyond which only priests can go.
“We try to bring everything back to the beginning before it had damage over the time,” Miaoulis told CBN News.
The part at the front of the church decorated with intricate gold-covered carvings is around 250 years old. Miaoulis pointed out how clear it is to see the difference before and after it is cleaned and repaired.
“As you can see these really dark areas are a …….