All content on this blog is protected by copyright.
Content used elsewhere without attribution constitutes theft of intellectual property and will be prosecuted.

Friday, December 25, 2020

The Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem - A Short History


Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

According to Christian traditions, 2,020 years ago today Joseph of Nazareth and his pregnant wife Maria, went to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Joseph, in order to comply with a Roman edict to register for a census. They found the city of Bethlehem full to overflowing, and were unable to find a room in either in an inn or the home of Joseph’s relatives. In consequence, they lodged in the cave behind the residence of Joseph’s family in which, as was common at the time, livestock and stores were kept.  (To this day, this is a custom in the region.) Here Mary gave birth to a son, Jesus. 

At the time of his birth, Jesus was not of particular importance, hence his birthplace was not in any way noted, marked or honoredIt was only after he had died that some of his followersought to locate the place where he had been born. Since this was within the living memory of many of his friends and family, it is not improbable that the house in which Joseph and Mary had stayed--and the stables attached to it--could be accurately identified.   

Following the Jewish uprising of 132-135, Hadrian ordered Roman temples erected on top of all Jewish and Christian holy sites. Over the cave in Bethlehem, revered by the small but significant Christian community still resident in Palestine, a temple to Adonis was built. Although certainly an insult to Christians of the time, it was a fortuitous development for later generations since it effectively marked a location that might otherwise have been lost from memory.

In 312, Constantine became Roman Emperor and raised his mother Helena to the rank of Empress. Helena had converted to Christianity and within a year of coming to power, Constantine issued an edict that ended the persecution of Christians.  Thereafter and throughout his reign, Constantine was to protect and serve as a patron to the Christian church, without, however, fully suppressing pagan rites.   

Emperor Constantine - Wall Mosaic in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (Constantinople)

Helena, however, had been an early convert to Christianity and after her son’s rise to ultimate power, she traveled to Palestine in search of the sites of Christ’s passion. According to Christian traditions, she located the site of the crucifixion, excavated the cross on which Christ had been crucified, and also found the tomb in which Christ had been buried. While her son commissioned the construction of a church over the Holy Grave (the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem), Helena is credited with commissioning the construction of a church on the site of Christ’s birth to replace the temple to Adonis.

Helena’s church was a five-aisled basilica, some of the mosaics of which are still visible to this day. However, in  529, this church was destroyed in a revolt by the Samaritans.

In 540, Emperor Justinian I sponsored the construction of a new basilica over the foundations of the old that stood over and incorporated the cave in which Christ had been born. When Palestine was overrun by the Persians in 614, they destroyed all the churches and monasteries, including Constantine’s church over the Holy Sepulcher — except for the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which was spared. The portal of the church was a mosaic depicting the adoration of the magi or Three Wise Men in which the magi were shown wearing “oriental” robes.  Based on their dress, Persians invaders recognized the figures in the mosaic as Persian priestsout of respect for their own priests they spared the church.  It is this church that can still be found in Bethlehem today, although the mosaic that saved it from destruction has itself since been lost.

In 640, Bethlehem fell to the forces of the Muslim Caliph Omar. Omar, rather than destroying the Church of the Nativity, used it as a place of prayer.  Thereafter, parts of the church complex were reserved for Muslim worship. This preserved the church from destruction by less tolerant Muslim leaders such as Caliph el-Hakim, who demolished the Church of the Holy Sepulcher again.

When the Crusaders reached Palestine in 1099, they took possession of Bethlehem before launching the assault on Jerusalem. The population of Bethlehem was still predominantly Christian at the time and welcomed the crusaders

With the establishment of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem, Bethlehem became the seat of a bishop. It remained part of the royal domain, however, and Baldwin of Bouillon was crowned the first King of Jerusalem in the Church of the Nativity. A tradition followed by his successor, Baldwin II, but not subsequent kings, who preferred to be crowned in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. 

Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

The Church of the Nativity became the second most important pilgrimage destination in the Christian world after the Holy Sepulcher itself.  As Christian pilgrims flooded to the Holy Land, the city of Bethlehem enjoyed an economic boomThis was supplemented by massive investments on the part of the crusader kings to restore a church that was in a state of significant disrepair when the crusaders arrived. Especially under King Baldwin III and King Amalric I, both of whom were married to Byzantine princesses (Theodora and Maria Comnena respectively), the restoration work was carried out by artists with very high levels of sophistication and influenced by Byzantine traditions -- and partially paid for by the Byzantine Emperor. 

The most extensive mosaics from the crusader period are found in the Church of the Nativity, and 28 frescos dating from the twelfth century can still be identified.  Furthermore, under Christian rule, religious orders were re-established in the Holy Land and a beautiful Romanesque cloister was built adjacent to the Church of the Nativity which can still be visited today. 

Crusader Mosaics at the Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

All that ended with the devastating defeat of the Christian army at Hattin on July 4, 1187.  Bethlehem had no defenses. It fell without a fight to the army of Saladin, and, except for a brief interval from 1229 to 1244, it remained in Muslim hands until it came under the British Protectorate in 1920. Under the various Muslim leaders, Bethlehem became impoverished again. In 1516, the town had only 100 inhabitants. Meanwhile, the church fell into increasing disrepair. The marble wall panels were ripped out to be used in other construction. In 1646 the tin roof was torn off and melted down for other purposes. The Church would almost certainly have become a complete ruin had not the Greek Orthodox church set out to restore the church with the tolerance of the Ottoman rulers in 1670.

Unfortunately, the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries saw a bitter fight between the Greek Orthodox,  Roman Catholic and Armenian churches for control of the Church of the Nativity. Meanwhile, earthquakes, fires and uprisings damaged both the church and the town of Bethlehem. 

In 1920 Bethlehem came under British administration, and in 1948 fell to Jordan. In 1963, the city numbered roughly 60,000 mostly Christian inhabitants, but the number fell dramatically after Israeli occupation. Today, Bethlehem suffers visibly from the political situation and the tensions between Palestinians and Israelis.   

The Fortress-like Construction seems sadly appropriate. Palestinian Terrorists held nuns, priests and tourists hostage here in April 2002.

Nevertheless it is still worth a visit. To be sure, the mosaic mural depicting the adoration of the magi that saved the Church from Persian destruction has been lost, but St. Helena’s floor mosaics can still be seen, as can the mosaic murals of the crusader kings and the crusader-period cloisters. Most important, of course, beneath the high alter in the crypt of the church is the cave in which, according to two thousand years of tradition, Christ was born over 2000 years ago.

The Crusader cloisters -- my favorite place.

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the author of six books set in the Holy Land in the Era of the Crusades. Find out more at:



Monday, December 14, 2020

Christian Charity for the Poor in the Crusader Kingdoms

  For roughly two hundred years in the very heart of Christendom — in the Kingdom of Jerusalem -- free, modern (by the standards of the day), professional health care became "the norm." It was the product of an innovative new institution that viewed providing health and hospice care for the poor it's primary mission. At the time,  hospitals as institutions for the treatment and cure (as opposed to the spiritual care) of the sick were unknown in Western Europe. The innovations introduced by this new institution were rapidly imitated in the West and hospitals are now nearly universal. Yet the concept of providing all care free-of-charge is far less common. The example of Christianity set by this medieval institution seemed like a particularly appropriate topic for an entry here in the Christmas Season.

The Order of St. John of Jerusalem, soon known to contemporaries more simply as "the Hospitallers" evolved out of a hospice operating in Jerusalem in the decades before the First Crusade. After the establishment of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, this hospital expanded, assumed more duties and became a recognized order. It would eventually have thousands of associated houses spread all across Europe. It would also for several hundred years add military operations in to their agenda (the Knights Hospitaller and Knights of Malta). Yet throughout their history and to this very day the end the original mission of providing health care and what we would call hospice care to the “holy poor” has remained at the heart of hte institution. 

 PCS St John Ambulance Instructor Badge (woven) | Cadet Direct

To fully appreciate just how innovative and charitable the Hospitaller were one must bear in mind that in the midst of the crusades the Hospital of St. John vow to provide medical assistance to anyone, regardless of their faith.  Jews and Muslims as well as Christians of all kinds (Latins, Greek Orthodox, Maronite, Jacobite, Coptic, Ethiopian etc.) — could obtain care and treatment at any Hospitaller facility — free of charge.

Furthermore, because many in need of medical care were not well-enough to walk to a hospital, the Hospitallers scoured the streets of city and town, collecting any in need of care. After a battle, they scoured the battlefield for the wounded and dying and transported them to field hospitals. The Hospitallers are, therefore, views as the first Western institution to develop an ambulance corps. Something the decendents of the Order still provide today.

Order Of Malta Ireland - Ambulance Corps - Limerick, St John's House, 7A  Davis Street, Limerick (2020)

The Hospitallers also took in nursing mothers (including and especially unwed mothers) and abandoned children also received free care at the institutions of the Hospital, and they provided for abandoned children. Children were raised by foster mothers, who received payment from the Hospital -- but were also subject to oversight to prevent abuse.

The hospitals of the Hospital were staffed by professional physicians and surgeons — again regardless of faith, so including Jewish and Muslim and Orthodox as well as Latin Christian doctors and surgeons. Each doctor had responsibility for a ward and had two trained assistants for making medicines and take lab tests and nine “servants” to feed, wash and otherwise care for the patients. (That’s a total of 12 staff members per ward.) The “servants” were the brothers and sisters of the Hospital itself, who viewed themselves as “serfs to the poor.”

Because the Hospitallers viewed every poor man and woman as Christ, the Hospitallers believed that the poor deserved not just care and treatment but the best and most luxurious care possible. Travelers from the 12th century particularly reported in awe about the size and brightness of the wards with large windows to let in the light. One described it as “a palace.” They noted too that hospital complex contained several baths, gardens, and cloistered courtyards to make it pleasant. Most important, however, was the care given to the individual patients.

Professor Jonathan Riley-Smith notes in his book Hospitallers (Hambledon Press, 1999, 26) that: There were separate beds for the sick at a time when only the grandest lords had their own beds (and in the obstetrical ward there were little cots so that the babies should not be disturbed by their mothers.) The beds had feather mattresses and coverlets, and the patients were provided with cloaks and sandals, so as to protect them when they went to the latrines.”

Speaking of which, the flagship facilities in Jerusalem and Acre had extremely sophisticated plumbing and sewage systems. Patients took regular baths and received foot washing twice weekly. There were also multiple kitchens to enable food to be prepared in accordance with Jewish and or Muslim dietary rules or for special meals for patients with special dietary needs.


The food offered patients was lavish and extravagant by contemporary standards including white bread, fresh meat on three days a week, fish on fasting days, and a wide range of fruits and vegetables. This was, remember, in the Near East where citrus fruits, dates and plums, pomegranates, grapes, apples and pears abound.

And all for free….

All my novels set in the crusader states reflect the important role of the Hospitallers. Find out more about all these books at: