During the 14th century, Roman Emperor Constantine ordered the construction of the first Church of the Nativity. Since its founding, the church was adorned with many sacred and coveted pieces of art and insignia by wealthy and high-ranking individuals. Located in Bethlehem, it is regarded as one of the earliest Christian churches and given its coordinates is strongly tied to the birthplace of Jesus Christ and the start of the Christian faith. Over its long history, the Church of the Nativity has endured through political and religious strife, natural disasters, and vandalism. Starting in 2013, the Palestinian Authority launched a large project to renovate much of the church, including valuable pieces of artwork it has been home to for centuries.
The River Jordan holds so much importance in the Christian faith historically. The place of Jesus’ baptism, this river holds a special meaning for many around the globe. More recently, it has been an area of strife between Israel and Jordan. During the time of conflict, the River Jordan was used as an instrument in warfare and the Christians that practiced there were forced out. With a period of peace once again upon the area, it is time for a rebuild and rebirth of the sacred land.
During war, the River Jordan was an active military zone. Landmines were planted in the ground surrounding pathways and holy buildings. Peaceful Christian buildings that were home to faithful practice along the river were deserted and military personnel booby-trapped them for enemies. Bullet holes and other signs of war mark the buildings as a reminder of the conflict between Jordan and Israel. As a result of this war, one of the most visited places on Christian pilgrimages was partially blocked from viewing and was absent of God’s Word. Jordan and Israel declared peace in 1995, and the work to rehabilitate the baptismal site of Jesus Christ followed shortly after.
In 2000, Israeli authorities started clearing a pathway for the visit of Pope John Paul II. Eleven years later that pathway was reopened to the public for pilgrimages. Christians can now visit the river where Jesus confirmed his faith and was baptized in the name of the Lord. Since 2011, many Christians have visited the Holy Land and seen the River Jordan as a part of their spiritual growth and continued love for God and His creations. Over 55% of tourists visiting Israel in 2017 were Christians according to the Ministry of Tourism.
Now, 24 years after the end of the war, Israel is starting to clear more landmines in a plan to rehabilitate the Christian buildings along the river. The seven buildings in this area are collectively known as the Land of Monasteries, each home to a Christian denomination living in harmony with one another. The buildings had not been visited for at least 50 years during the dangerous time period and are still in the infant stages of rehabilitation. First, the area will have to be cleared of any threats and then the Christians will rebuild the Land of Monasteries to the glory it once held.
This plan for rehabilitation took much negotiating between interested parties and will cost over $4 million. Halo Trust, a company specializing in demining around the globe, will handle the removal of the mines with assistance from the Israeli government. As of December 2018, officials have confirmed they have cleared over 1,500 landmines from three of the seven buildings in the Land of Monasteries. It’s the hope that after the site has been completely cleared, tourism will increase and Christians can enhance their experience of the Holy Land.
The most notable of these art pieces are the large mosaics that hang from the walls of the church. For fifteen months, art restorative experts cleaned and repaired what is left of the beautiful mosaics. Earthquakes, soot, construction work, weather, and war are a handful of the factors that have caused the mosaics to need restoration. Before the work began the mosaics were easy to overlook and not the showstopper they are today because of the black surface layer that made them almost indistinguishable. Once the mosaics were restored Father Asbed Balian, a senior cleric of the Armenian church, was absolutely “stunned” at the transformation of the mosaics. Balian said, “Spiritually, we feel more exalted.”
When visitors enter the church and look up, the restored mosaics gracefully contradicting the high white walls greet them. The supervisor from the firm handling the restoration of the mosaics, Piacenti, described the way in which the pieces were created noting that they are, “made of gold leaf placed between two glass plates,” and “only faces and limbs are drawn with small pieces of stone.” The detailed artwork is nothing short of miraculous with the estimated cost in today’s marketing totaling around $20.5 million.
Crafted in the 12th century, the mosaics today encompass roughly 1,300 square feet compared to the original 21,500 square feet at conception. The scenes depicted in the mosaics are some of the most memorable and significant stories in the bible. Including doubting Thomas putting his fingers in the wounds on Jesus’ sides from his crucifixion after he rose from the dead. Another scene shows Jesus arriving in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
The mosaics were accompanied in their restoration by several other elaborate art pieces including paintings that date back as far as the year 1127. Before the cleaning and repairs Piacenti describes these paintings as, “Barely distinguishable, blackened over the years.” He also talks about his and his team’s dedication to the project because of its special location joking that, “Sometimes I have to force them to leave.”
Consultant for the Palestinian Authority, Afif Tweme, suspects the restorations of art in the Church of the Nativity will positively influence tourism. Tweme hopes that the benefits from the restoration will, “persuade more of Bethlehem’s dwindling local Christian population to stay in the city rather than move away.”