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ARAB NEWS: The restoration of Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity reveals long-hidden treasures

AMMAN: Years of careful restoration work at the Church of the Nativity, West Bank city of Bethlehem has revealed a treasure trove of undiscovered artworks and relics that date back to 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. Christians all over the globe consider Bethlehem and its church to be places of pilgrimage.

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.

The Church of the Nativity grotto is believed by Christians to be the location where Jesus Christ was born. (Supplied)

Inscribed On the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2012, a church was first completed at the site in 339. After a fire in the sixth century, the edifice which replaced it still retains intricate floor mosaics from its original structure.

Many hidden details were revealed thanks to years of careful restoration. This includes original stonework and intricate ornamentation.

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.

Khoury, the then-chairman of the Athens-based Consolidated Contractors Company, (CCC), discussed the matter with Mahmoud Abdul Basa and gave half a million dollars in order to help kick- start restoration.

Donations from all over the globe made restoration possible. (Supplied)

The Presidential Committee for the Restoration of the Church of Nativity (PCR) was formed and donations began to pour in from all over the globe.

CCC assisted in the preparation of an international tender. This was to ensure that the work was done to the highest standards to preserve the church’s World Heritage status.

Arab News was told by Mazen Karam (CEO of the Bethlehem Development Foundation) that Piacenti, an Italian firm, won the tender. They are experts in restoration and have been doing this work for three generations.

Karam and his foundation colleagues who fundraise and oversee the renovation are delighted with the many new discoveries made during the process. These include a hand-crafted, beautiful glass lamp.

A baptismal font was also found under a layer made of marble. The restoration team also found a plastered angel on the northern wall.

Karam said, “The angel is one of many surprises that we have seen in church since the renovation process started.”

A big surprise was also the discovery of the original door to the church, which has been faithfully restored. He is believed that the door was gifted by an Armenian King.

Tour guides recommend that visitors visit the church at night from Manger Square in order to fully experience the effects of the new lighting.

Visitors enter the church through the Door of Humility, a stone entrance with a low ceiling. This forces worshipers to bow in reverence as they pass through it.

Visitors can appreciate the hard work that went into the restoration of the high ceilings, pillars and walls as soon as they step inside.

The restoration has stopped the rain damage epidemic. 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.

(FASTFACTS

The church roof last underwent major repairs in 1480 during the Mamluk period.

UNESCO removed the church from its List of World Heritage in Danger in 2019.

Restoration to date has cost around $15m, but a further $2.8m is needed.

All 42 of the church’s wooden window frames were replaced and fitted with UV-deflecting double glazing. About 3,365 square meters of internal plastering, 3,076 square meters of external stone facades, and 125 square meters of wall mosaics were renovated, consolidated and cleaned, while 50 stone columns were restored and repainted.

Such was the success and quality of the restoration work that UNESCO removed the Church of the Nativity from the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2019.

The Bethlehem Development Foundation expresses gratitude for the “extremely professional, respectful” support it received from the presidential committee of Palestine and the Palestinian government. This ensured that the necessary resources and expertise were made readily available.

To date, the restoration work has cost around $15 million. The repairs are still not complete and additional funding of $2 million will be required to finish this stage.

The restoration of sixth-century marble tiles to the Bema, in front of the Orthodox Iconostasis south, was completed.

The conservation of the front yard stone tiles, installation of a firefighting and microclimate control system, structural consolidation at the north- and south corners, consolidation of the external southern wall against seismic activity and Restoration of the central nave are some of the projects still to be funded.

The Grotto of the Nativity is the most sensitive part of the church. It is a subterranean area where Christians believe Jesus was born. A silver star marks the exact spot.

According to the foundation, the grotto needs urgent repairs. It has been subject to centuries of fires and earthquakes and also the wear and tear from hosting millions of people.

The issue isn’t just about money. Because of its religious importance, all work on the grotto needs to be approved by the three churches which guard it — Orthodox, Catholic, and Armenian.

The site’s restoration could result in tourists and pilgrims being denied access for up to eight weeks.

The foundation stated that the grotto would require several things before we could begin work on it. “We need to get the approval of three churches before we can begin working on it. This will require us to spend $2.8 million more and ensure that all works including the grotto can be completed by 2023, if funding is available.”

A phased restoration would allow for regular prayer and visits to the grotto. This is what the Bethlehem municipality, the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and the churches would love to see.

Karam stated that this will allow the Church of the Nativity, while it is being repaired, to continue to be a place of worship as well as a historical site for people of all faiths.

He said, “Your visit will keep it alive as testimony to the living Church and will prevent it turning into a museum.”

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