It has been nearly 1,500 years since Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity was built. Thorough preservation and renovation work that has done there over the past several months, which revealed some of the building’s foundations, were the first major renovations at the site in more than five centuries. Those carrying out the renovations at the church, which Christian tradition holds is the site of the birthplace of Jesus, not only had to overcome challenges involving engineering and historic preservation, but also limitations imposed by Israeli security forces.
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In addition to the restoration’s significance in terms of religion, history, art and tourism, it also has a symbolic meaning related to the ties among the country’s Christian denominations. The three denominations, which in the past had experienced bitter and sometime violent disputes, are now in a honeymoon period of sorts.
“In carrying out this renovation work, the restoration and renovation of the Church of the Nativity, there is the symbolic value of unity and the restoration of relations between us and among our communities. By virtue of this work, following the renovation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, we are working to cultivate brotherly relations among our communities, restoring the sense of mutual trust, and restoring cooperation among us,” said The Custos, the Vatican’s guardian of the holy places, Father Francesco Patton.
The Church of the Nativity was established in what is now the West Bank town of Bethlehem in the year 333 C.E. by Emperor Constantine, but that structure was destroyed in the Samaritan revolt in the 6th century and rebuilt in 560. From the period of the Crusades until 1492, the church underwent comprehensive renovation a number of times.
Since then, however, there have been only a few minor repairs. The Ottoman Turkish authorities constructed large support structures for the church after an earthquake threatened to bring down one of its exterior walls, and the British added wooden beams to support the walls. But in recent centuries, the church hasn’t undergone a thorough renovation.
In 2012, the church was declared a UNESCO world heritage site, but was also placed on a list of those sites at risk. The hundreds of winters that the building has withstood had caused moisture to penetrate the beams supporting the roof. Stone walls were in need of support. Mosaics and paintings on the walls were covered with layers of soot from burning candles and dirt.
In response, a panel was convened by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and negotiations began among the three Christian denominations that maintain the church: Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox. An agreement reached among them in 2013 paved the way for renovation work to begin. That first agreement was followed by another one regarding renovations at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the site according to Christian tradition of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus.
The cost of the renovations at the Church of the Nativity was about 18 million euros ($20.5 million), which was funded by the Palestinian Authority, the Vatican and other governments, along with a large number of contributors from the Palestinian business sector.
The renovations are being carried out by a family-owned Italian restoration firm called Piacenti with the assistance of Palestinian workers. Haaretz was given a tour of the site by the engineer in charge of the project, Ibrahim Abed Rabbo of Bethlehem; Marcello Piacenti, who heads the company that bears his name; and Franciscan Father David Grenier, the general secretary of the local Custody of the Holy Land, with oversight of holy places.
The greatest preservation challenge was restoring the huge mosaics that in the past covered the church’s walls. The restorers have estimated that only about 7 percent of the original mosaics remain – a million and a half tiles covering 125 square meters of space, compared to the more than 2,000 square meters in the past.
One of the project’s major accomplishments has been the finding of a previously unknown mosaic that had been hidden under a layer of plaster and which features an angel who hovers between two of the church’s windows. The mosaic was found with the use of thermographic photography, which was resorted to after Israeli authorities did not allow the Palestinians to bring in ground-penetrating radar. The Vatican’s good relations with Israel were to no avail in that regard, nor did they succeed in securing visas via the Israeli Civil Administration in the West Bank for Italian workers.
The mosaics are composed of glass pieces painted in gold, silver, blue and green as well as regular tiles, some of which were imported from Venice, along with mother of pearl. Over the centuries, some of the mosaics were deliberately damaged, particularly the faces of saints that were sometimes shot at by Muslim zealots.
The renovations included the installation of a small number of modern tiles to restore the saints’ faces.
Visitors to the church prior to the renovation would have barely been able to notice the mosaics as a result of the soot covering them, but the restoration has brought back the mosaics’ color and shine. Similar work was done to paintings from the Crusader period on the large marble columns that support the church’s roof. The restoration work also revealed centuries-old “graffiti” scrawled by visitors, apparently including Crusader knights who chose to draw sketches of their helmets. One later visitor also included a date – “1586.”
Meanwhile, agreement was also reached with the Greek Orthodox Church, for which the use of candles is an important part of the ritual. The church agreed to have lighted candles placed in special receptacles that absorb the soot and prevent it from accumulating on the church walls.
The largest engineering challenge was restoration of the church roof, made of huge cedar and pine beams, some of which to the 6th century. They are covered with a sloping tin roof. Most of the beams were in surprisingly good condition. “Ultimately we only had to replace 8 percent of the wood. We were able to preserve the rest. Some of the pieces that we replaced we took from 250-year-old sources from churches in Italy that fit in,” said Piacenti.
Every piece of wood being replaced was stamped with a seal for the benefit of the church’s future preservation. The roof’s outer portion was dismantled and reassembled from layers of material that is resistant to humidity and sun and designed to better protect the church’s art treasures. Also found in the roof were fragments of an explosives charge that was fired at the church during the Six-Day War.
Nearby are signs of bullets fired by the Israeli army in 2005, when armed Palestinians holed themselves up in the church during the army’s drive against the second intifada in 2002. “We’ve restored the stone, but we’ve left the holes. That’s part of the history, part of the story,” said Abed Rabbo.
The project’s work manager estimated that in about three months, the electrical work, smoke detection system and restoration of the art will be completed. At that point the scaffolding will be taken down and the church will be able to be viewed in all its magnificence.