Bethlehem – my visit and my photos!

We all know Bethlehem, birth place of Jesus. Clearly to the Templars and crusaders, capturing Bethlehem in 1099 had huge spiritual significance. Like the rest of the Levant, it had been taken by Muslim armies from the control of the Byzantine empire four hundred years before. Now it was back in Christian hands.

The Church of the Nativity had been built by the mother of Constantine, the first Christian Roman emperor, in the early fourth century CE. Helena had been on a visit to the Holy Land to promote the new state religion and she certainly left her mark, discovering both the sites of Christ’s birth and death. Immediately, basilicas began to be constructed over these places.

It was destroyed during a revolt by the Samaritan population but then rebuilt by the Byzantine emperor Justinian. Somehow the church survived various invasions including the Muslims and even the rule of the insane caliph Al-Hakim who smashed up the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Then the crusaders arrived in 1099. The first king of Jerusalem, Baldwin, was crowned in the basilica, recognising its importance.

I visited in 2012. Bethlehem is on the Palestinian side of the wall separating their territory from Israel. So you have to go through the high wall built by the Israel authorities. The town now is slightly depressed economically and the basilica has been ravaged by both ancient looters and earthquake damage. It’s a bit dowdy and unloved but at the same time, not over restored.

Here are my pictures of both the church and the wall you have to get through before arriving.

 

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The Holy Sepulchre – sacred to the Knights Templar

Crucifixion site
Site of the crucifixion – photo I took during my visit

In 2012, I visited the church of the Holy Sepulchre several times in the heart of Jerusalem. It’s a church that inspired the construction of Templar places of worship from London to Tomar with its distinctive circular shape. The dome of the Holy Sepulchre also appeared on Templar seals

The Holy Sepulchre was originally built by the Romans after they converted to Christianity in the early fourth century CE. It was, they believed, the site of both the crucifixion and the tomb of Jesus. How did they arrive at this conclusion?

Well, the first Christian Roman emperor, Constantine, authorised the demolition of a temple to the goddess Venus in order to venerate the place where Christ died to save the sins of humanity. As the temple came tumbling down, a tomb was revealed. All those present decided that it had to be the resting place of the Messiah.

The first church erected by Constantine was a richly decorated affair with brilliant mosaics and a garden with the rock of Golgotha as its centrepiece. From there, the pilgrim would have entered another open space where a rock cut tomb was exposed to the elements. This church was damaged massively by invading Persians in the seventh century CE and then all but flattened by the volatile Fatimid caliph Al-Hakim in 1009. It’s more than likely that Al-Hakim had the tomb of Jesus hacked to bits.

Holy Sepulchre
Photo I took in the crypt 

The Byzantine emperor Constantine IX Monomachus began funding of a new church decades later but it was never completed.

In fact, when the crusaders invaded Jerusalem in 1099, the church had no roof. It was left to the newly victorious crusaders to put up a new building that would enclose the site of the crucifixion and the tomb, giving the latter it’s own little chapel. This was consecrated in the mid-12th century. The crypt is possibly the most evocative of the Middle Ages and its walls are covered in carved medieval crosses.

Up until the 19th century, you could have seen the tombs of Godfrey of Bouillon and Baldwin I, the first rulers of the crusader kingdom of Jerusalem. But they were removed by Greek monks doing repairs. I assume that the ill feeling of the Greek church towards the Latin crusaders had continued from the 12th century to the 19th!

The tomb of Jesus was excavated in 2016 and it revealed the existence of an older tomb under a marble slab placed on the spot where Jesus was said to have been buried. The slab dated to 1555 when the Franciscans carried out major renovation work.

Ethiopian monkOne oddity of the Holy Sepulchre is that the church is divided up between different Christian denominations. Since the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic have been custodians. In the 19th century, the church was divided up again to include the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox. The relationship between these different groups is often competitive and unfriendly.

priests
Priests riot in 2011

Things got ludicrous in 2011 when priests rioted and beat each other with broom handles in a vicious row over who controlled which bit of the church. When I visited, I saw a Coptic Orthodox priest sitting on the roof. Apparently, there is always a Coptic at that spot staking a claim against the Ethiopians. There is also a ladder that has been propped up against a window since 1852 and nobody has moved it because of similar aggro about who can go where and do what.

The tomb of Jesus
Photo I took within the chapel covering the tomb of Jesus