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From Justinian to the Crusaders

  
In 527 Justinian became Emperor of the Byzantine Empire. His reign was one of great prosperity and expansion for the churches, but not for the non-Christians. In 529 the Samaritans revolted. Spreading from Nablus, they plundered the countryside. The rising was soon quelled and the Samaritans in great part exterminated. According to a posterior source (Eutichius of Alexandria) the rebuilding of the Church in Bethlehem is attributed to this emperor. This same source says that the Emperor himself was not "satisfied" with the job carried out by his architects who had pulled the Constantinian church down, damaged during the Samaritan uprising, and built in its place a new one. The Emperor found that this new church was "dark" and he even accused the architect of wasting the Empire's money. So much was his dissatisfaction that the architect was executed! Whatever was the Emperor's judgement about this new Church remains the fact that it survived time and history and today is still standing at the site of the Nativity.
  
The essential form of the church has not altered since but the original plan of the Constantine edifice was modified. The atrium was raised to o higher level. The fašade retreated back about two metres. The Constantinian mosaic floor was covered up with two feet of imported soil and a new marble pavement was laid at a higher level. The lower part of the interior walls was also covered with marble and the upper parts with mosaics. It was one of these mosaic scenes that spared the Church from destruction during the Persian invasion (614 AD). This is what a ninth century greek document states: "(when the Persians) arrived at Bethlehem, they saw with awe the figures of the Persian Wise Men, star-gazers, their country folk. For the respect and love towards their ancestors they revered them as if they were still alive and spared the church. That is why it is still standing today".
  
The main modification to the Constantinian church plan was performed at the "sacred area" above the grotto. This was enlarged to the East, North and South in each being added an apse to create a cross-form basilica. The canopy was substituted by a "crescent shaped" (semicircular) presbytery leaving access all around it. It is at this time that the two side entrances were opened. It is also at this time that the whole grotto was vaulted in stone and an altar on the Easter side built under which the "exact birth-site of Jesus" started to be venerated.
  
With the occupation of Palestine by the Islamic army we assist to a gradual decline of the Christian presence. The Caliph Omar visited Bethlehem and promised that the Moslems would pray in the church as individuals only, without assembly or muezzin. At Christmas time members of both religions performed their devotions together in the church and on the whole lived on peaceful terms due to the common respect of Moslems and Christians for the birth-place of Jesus and to the money paid by the Christians as a price of peace. This probably saved the church from the orders of the Caliph Hakim in 1009.
  
Samuel did what the LORD said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, "Do you come in peace?" Samuel replied, "Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me." Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice. When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, "Surely the Lord's anointed stands here before the LORD." But the LORD said to Samuel, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, "The Lord has not chosen this one either." Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, "Nor has the Lord chosen this one." Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, "The Lord has not chosen these." So he asked Jesse, "Are these all the sons you have?" "There is still the youngest,"The arrival of the Crusaders in 1099 changed things for the better. The Crusader army under Godfrey de Bouillon was resting at Emmaus, when messengers arrived from Bethlehem requesting aid against the Saracens of the villages who were about to attack Bethlehem. Tancred with one hundred knights was dispatched and in the morning the flag of Tancred was raised over the Basilica. From that day the Normans regarded the church of the Nativity as something peculiarly their own. On Christmas Day, 1100, Baldwin the first king of the Latin Kingdom was crowned in Bethlehem. His successor Baldwin II followed his example in 1122.
  
The Crusaders did not have to do restoration of the Church as it seems that it was in a good state. But to the north side of the church they built a cloister and monastery which was given to the Canons of St. Augustine.
  
The restoration affected most of the church. The walls below the architraves were covered with white marble: above were coloured or gilt mosaics of glass and mother-of-pearl. Although time and man have destroyed much of this splendid work we can, through literary sources, know exactly what was represented. In the absidal semi-dome a dominant Virgin Mary with her son Jesus. In the absidal arch the Annunciation scene flanked by two biblical figures: Abraham and David. On the lower walls of the apse scenes from the life of Mary based on the apocryphal writings. Greek and Latin inscriptions praised the Latin crusader king Amalircus, bishop Radolfus and the Byzantine emperor Commenus. A date at the foot of this work dated the mosaic: 1169 A.D.. In the Northern transept the scenes of the bewilderment of Thomas and Ascension while in the Southern transepts scenes depicting the Transfiguration and the Entry of Jesus in Jerusalem. These scenes, parts of them still visible, had latin inscriptions. The upper part of the central nave was also decorated with this golden mosaic, of which large parts are still visible.
  
In the space between the windows a procession of angels, all moving towards East (as if going to adore Baby Jesus in the Holy Grotto). At the foot of one of the angels the signature of one of the artists "Basilius pictor". Under the windowsills, in very elaborate architecture compositions a synthesis, in greek, of the principal decisions of the main ecumenical and provincial councils of the Church. These Greek and Latin inscriptions in the same works reflects the short period of peace between the Latin and Greek worlds. The northern and southern frieze above the cedar wood architrave contained portraits of the ancestors of Jesus, the former based on the Gospel of Matthew (1,1-16) while the latter based on that of Luke (3,23-38). Of these medallions only the first eight on the northern frieze survived. During this period the roof of cedar wood was covered with lead. The two entrances to the holy grotto received their present monumental form.
  
The rosy columns of the central nave, made from the red stone of Bethlehem, were depicted with figures of our Lady, Eastern Saints (St. Macarius, St. Euthimius, St. Saba, St. Theodosius, St. George....) and Western Saints (S. Cathaldus of Taranto, S. Canutos of Denmark, St. Olaph of Norway...).
  
With the fall of Jerusalem, things went bad for Bethlehem. In 1192 Hubert Walter, the Bishop of Salisbury, obtained permission from Saladin for two priests and two deacons of the Latin rite to remain in Bethlehem, but now a Moslem guard sat at the door collecting fees. The treaty of 1229 between Frederick II and Sultan Kamil Mohammed restored temporarily Bethlehem to the Franks, but ten years later the church was in financial straits under the mismanagement of Bishop Giovanni Romano. His successor Godfrey de Prefetti tried to repair the losses. Godfrey had been the holder of two benefices in England, Long Kensington and Coleby and he visited France and England to get funds. He had some success and was back in Palestine in 1253. Three years later he helped to negotiate marriages between the royal families of England and Cyprus: Hugh II and Dowager Queen of Cyprus with a daughter and son of Edward I of England.
  
When Bibars came into power, Palestine suffered. In 1263 he ordered the destruction of Bethlehem, but the church somehow escaped. When finally the Crusaders were driven from Palestine in 1291, the Moslem rulers used the holy places for political and financial ends. Although Bethlehem was still nominally endowed, collection of revenue from the estates was impossible. In 1332 Pope John XXII wrote to Edward III of England, to David II of Scotland and to Simon of Meopham, Archbishop of Canterbury, asking them to help the bishop of Bethlehem recover his revenue and so enable him to return to Bethlehem and carry out repairs. It seems little was done!

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Created / Updated Wednesday, December 19, 2001 at 18:16:04 by John Abela ofm
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