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The Sites

Israel and Palestine – In Jerusalem

Israel and Palestine – Outside Jerusalem

Jordan

Egypt

Extras

Kathisma

Israel

 

Weeds surround the low rock on which Mary is believed to have rested (Seetheholyland.net)

Weeds surround the low rock on which Mary is believed to have rested (Seetheholyland.net)

Midway between Jerusalem and Bethlehem lie the largely ignored remains of one of the Holy Land’s biggest churches — and probably the first of them dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

The Kathisma church was built around a rock where early Christian tradition says that Mary rested while on her way with Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

The church was built by a wealthy widow named Ikelia in AD 456 on what was already a major pilgrimage site. It was enlarged in the 6th century, but destroyed around the 11th century.

Its existence was known from Byzantine literature, but the location was a mystery until 1992 when a bulldozer dug into a mosaic floor buried in an olive grove during widening of the Jerusalem-Hebron highway.

Highway traffic passing ruins of Kathisma church (Seetheholyland.net)

Highway traffic passing ruins of Kathisma church (Seetheholyland.net)

The site is about 6 kilometres from Jerusalem, on the left side of the highway — just before the route 398 turnoff to the Har Homa settlement and Herodium, and 600 metres before the Mar Elias monastery.

Passing traffic glimpses scattered stonework and weeds between the multi-lane highway and the olive trees, but on the site the octagonal outline of the church is evident. At its centre protrudes the limestone rock on which the pregnant Mary is believed to have rested.

 

This was more than just a church

Kathisma (the name is Greek for seat) was more than just a church. Archaeologists describe it as a martyrium — a structure intended to bear witness to the Christian faith by commemorating an event in the life of Christ, a martyr or other holy person.

The importance of the structure is shown by its width of 43 metres — only 10 metres less than the octagonal Dome of the Rock, built more than 230 years later and also enclosing a holy rock.

Mosaic floor uncovered at Kathisma (Gabrielw.tour / Wikimedia)

Mosaic floor uncovered at Kathisma (Gabrielw.tour / Wikimedia)

Three concentric walls surrounded the Kathisma rock. The first two formed a walkway leading to a large apse at the eastern end. The third wall encompassed four chapels and adjacent rooms.

Most of the floors were paved with colourful mosaics, in geometric and floral designs. These are well preserved, but covered with sand to protect them.

Excavators found a clay waterpipe near the rock. An early tradition says a miraculous spring appeared there to quench Mary’s thirst, and a 6th-century account tells of pilgrims drinking sweet water at the site.

 

Building may have been shared with Muslims

Broken column from Kathisma church (Seetheholyland.net)

Broken column from Kathisma church (Seetheholyland.net)

The Kathisma church escaped destruction during the Persian and Islamic conquests of the 7th century. But evidence of a prayer niche facing Mecca indicates that part or all of the building was used as a mosque in the 8th century.

Bearing in mind the respect shown by the Koran for Mary, experts speculate that this may have been one of a few churches that were shared by Christians and Muslims during the Arab period.

Such harmony did not exist in the middle of the 20th century when the site was in no man’s land during hostilities between Jordan and Israel. The 1949 armistice agreement line (“green line”) runs across the property.

In the 1990s the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, which owns the site, had plans to develop a major pilgrimage centre but these have not eventuated.

 

 

References

Prag, Kay: Jerusalem: Blue Guide (A. & C. Black, 1989)
Shanks, Hershel: “Where Mary Rested — Rediscovering the Kathisma”, Biblical Archaeological Review, November/December, 2006
Vamosh, Miriam Feinberg: “The Kathisma: The most important ancient church you never heard of”, Haaretz, February 24, 2014

 

External links

Kathisma — Place of Rest on the Way to Bethlehem (Travelujah)
Kathisma (BibleWalks)
The Church of the Seat of Mary (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Older Posts »

Mar Saba

West Bank

Mar Saba

Mar Saba from above (Steve Peterson)

 

The greatest of the ancient monasteries dotting the wilderness of the Judaean Desert, Mar Saba hangs dramatically down the cliff edge of a deep ravine.

The grey-domed Greek Orthodox complex was established in the 5th century by St Sabas (Mar Saba in Arabic), a monk from central Turkey, and was largely rebuilt following a major earthquake in 1834.

Its remote location is 15 kilometres east of Bethlehem, off route 398 and reached down a steep road.

During its heyday the monastery was home to more than 300 monks. Though it remains a functioning desert monastery, its numbers have dropped to fewer than 20 in the 21st century.

Mar Saba

Women’s Tower standing apart from monastery at Mar Saba (© Deror Avi)

Occupied almost continuously since its founding, Mar Saba ranks with St Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula as one of the oldest inhabited monasteries in the world.

It also provides an enduring reminder of the age-old tradition of holy people leaving behind worldly distractions and seeking God in the solitude of the desert.

Part of the Mar Saba tradition is the exclusion of women visitors. They may only look over the complex from a vantage point called the Women’s Tower — built, according to tradition, by St Sabas’ mother, who was also forbidden to enter the monastery.

Saint’s body returned from Venice

Mar Saba

Defensive wall around Mar Saba (Kaasmail)

A thick wall and slit-like windows give Mar Saba the appearance of a fortress. These defensive features recall plunder by the Persians in 615 and attacks from Bedouins in the following centuries.

What began as a series of cell-caves along two kilometres of cliffs has been consolidated into a complex containing two churches, several chapels, a common dining room, kitchen storerooms, 14 cisterns, cells for monks and a hostel for visitors.

From the entrance, a low door in the western wall, a stepped passageway descends to the central courtyard. In the centre is a hexagon-shaped dome which was once the tomb of St Sabas.

During the Crusades the saint’s body was taken to Venice. Pope Paul VI arranged for its return after his Holy Land visit in 1964, and it now lies in a glass case in the main church.

Mar Saba

Remains of St Sabas in main church of Mar Saba (Adriatikus)

This church, with a large blue dome and small bell tower, is dedicated to the Theotokos (Mother of God).

From the entrance area, a stairway leads to a series of small chapels — one in the cramped cave where a brilliant monk, St John Damascene, spent 20 years in the 8th century writing classic defences of Christianity against heresy and Islam.

On the northwest side of the courtyard is the second church, built into a grotto in the rock. It is dedicated to St Nicholas.

The skulls of monks killed by Persians invaders are displayed in the sacristy and their bones are collected behind a grille.

Mar Saba

Visiting priest in cave of St John Damascene (© Gregory Edwards)

In contrast to the austere simplicity of the monks’ lifestyle, church and chapel walls glitter with the gold of innumerable icons, many donated to the monastery by the Russian government in the 19th century.

 

Holiness attracted other hermits

Mar Saba clings to one side of the Kidron Valley — the valley that begins between the Temple Mount and Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and runs eastward to the Dead Sea.

At the foot of the monastery, beneath three great buttresses that support the wall of the dining room, kitchen, storehouse and bakery, is a walled-in space containing the spring that attracted St Sabas to the site. The Kidron stream is dry in summer.

Mar Saba

Steps down to the walled-in spring at Mar Saba (© Deror Avi)

Across the valley is a cave where St Sabas spent five years in solitude. The opening is protected by a metal grille with a cross set between the letters A and C. Inside an entrance lower down, two ladders climb a 6-metre shaft to the simple cave, containing a rock-cut bench and a prayer niche cut into the eastern wall.

St Sabas had been a monk for 18 years before he sought seclusion in the Kidron Valley. Other hermits, attracted by his holiness, settled nearby and their cluster of cells led to the founding of Mar Saba.

A legacy from his mother and the arrival of two monks who had been architects paved the way for the construction of a large church and communal facilities.

Mar Saba

Cave of St Sabas (© Clara Bonnet)

St Sabas founded several other monasteries and became superior of all the hermit monks of Palestine. He is credited with taming a lion that tried to eat him, and vowing never to eat apples because he believed Eve tempted Adam with this fruit.

Monks developed Orthodox worship

Originally the monks of Mar Saba meditated in isolation in their caves from Monday to Saturday, then gathered to spend Saturday night in prayer together before celebrating Mass at dawn on Sunday.

Mar Saba

Church domes at Mar Saba (© Deror Avi)

They returned to their caves on Sunday evening, taking food for the following week and palm branches and rushes for their daily work of making rope, baskets and mats to be sold in Jerusalem to finance the monastery.

The monks of Mar Saba made a crucial contribution to the development of the liturgy in the Orthodox Church. They compiled a typicon — a book of directions for worship services and ceremonies — that became the standard for the Orthodox world up till the 19th century.

 

Administered by: Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem

Tel.: 972-2-2773135

Open: Open daily except Wednesdays and Fridays, 8am-4pm (ring bell). Only men may enter monastery; women are admitted only to Women’s Tower.

 

 

References

Bourbon, Fabio, and Lavagno, Enrico: The Holy Land Archaeological Guide to Israel, Sinai and Jordan (White Star, 2009)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Prag, Kay: Israel & the Palestinian Territories: Blue Guide (A. & C. Black, 2002)
Walker, Peter: In the Steps of Jesus (Zondervan, 2006)

 

External links

Mar Saba (BibleWalks)
Holy Lavra of St. Savas (Orthodoxwiki)
Older Posts »

Field of Boaz

West Bank

 

The romantic story of the Moabite woman Ruth, who is remembered for one of the most celebrated statements of devotion in the Old Testament, is linked to a field near Bethlehem.

Field of Boaz

Field of Boaz with buildings encroaching (© Lissa Caldwell)

The Field of Boaz is east of the Palestinian town of Beit Sahour, in the fertile plain that descends to the Dead Sea. Now increasingly hemmed in by buildings, it lies in a shallow valley north of the Shepherds’ Field Greek Orthodox Church.

As the Book of Ruth recounts, Ruth was a daughter-in-law of Naomi, a Bethlehem woman who had gone with her husband and two sons to the land of Moab (east of the Dead Sea) to escape a famine.

Naomi’s husband died and her sons married Moabite women. Then, after about 10 years, both of the sons died.

 

Ruth’s devotion was rewarded

Field of Boaz

Ruth on the Field of Boaz, by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1828 (National Gallery, London)

Naomi decided to return to Bethlehem, but she urged her daughters-in-law to stay in their homeland of Moab. One of them, Ruth, insisted on going with Naomi.

Ruth said: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die — there will I be buried . . . .” (Ruth 1:16-17)

Ruth’s devotion was to find its reward. The two women reached Bethlehem as the barley harvest was beginning. So they would have food to live on, Ruth went to the fields to pick up barley the reapers had left behind for the poor, a practice known as gleaning.

The field she went to was owned by a rich landowner named Boaz, who was kind to her because he had heard of her loyalty to Naomi.

Field of Boaz

Beit Sahour with Jordan in the background (© Lissa Caldwell)

Eventually Ruth and Boaz married and Ruth gave birth to Obed. He became the father of Jesse, who was the father of King David — forefather of Joseph, the foster-father of Jesus Christ. Thus the faithful Ruth was an ancestor of Jesus.

Today, Ruth’s memorable words of devotion to her mother-in-law, “Where you go, I will go . . . .” are used in some marriage services.

 

Other sites in the Bethlehem area:

Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity

Grotto of the Nativity

St Jerome’s Cave

Church of St Catherine of Alexandria

Milk Grotto

Shepherds’ Field

Tomb of Rachel

Herodium

 

In Scripture:

Ruth and Naomi: Ruth 1:1-22

Ruth meets Boaz: Ruth 2:1—4:17

 

 

 

References

Bowker, John: The Complete Bible Handbook (Dorling Kindersley, 1998)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)

 

 

 

Older Posts »

Herodium

West Bank

Herodium

Herodium (David Pishazaon / Wikimedia)

 

Looking south-east from Bethlehem, the skyline is dominated by a volcano-shaped mountain on which Herod the Great built the fortress-palace he dedicated to himself.

Constructed within two huge concentric walls, the seven-storey Herodium palace was “private, intimate, exotic and protected”, according to archaeologist Ehud Netzer — who in 2007 announced he had discovered Herod’s long-lost tomb on the mountain’s north-east slope.

But to the Bethlehem parents whose infant sons Herod had massacred in a desperate attempt to eliminate the newborn “King of the Jews”, the presence of Herodium less than 6 kilometres away would have been a daily reminder of the king’s brutality.

 

Murderer and visionary builder

Herodium

Inside the ruins of Herodium (© Deror Avi / Wikimedia)

The “Massacre of the Innocents”, following the visit of Wise Men from the East to pay homage to the baby Jesus, is recorded only in Matthew’s Gospel.

Other sources record that the murderous Herod had two of his sons strangled, executed one of his 10 wives for treason, killed numerous in-laws and on his deathbed ordered his eldest son beheaded.

Herod, who ruled Judea on behalf of Rome from 37 to 4 BC, was also a man of great architectural vision. His projects included the Second Temple in Jerusalem, the desert fortress of Masada and the city and massive harbour works at Caesarea.

He chose the site of Herodium because it was near the scene of a crucial battle victory against a bitter rival, Antigonus, the last Hasmonean king.

 

Pleasure palace and small city

Construction of Herodium began around 25 BC. Using thousands of slaves, Herod reshaped the summit of the hill to create an almost impregnable pleasure palace, the third largest in the Roman world.

Herodium

Herodium from the air (Asaf T. / Wikimedia)

The historian Josephus described it as “a hill raised to a height by the hand of man and rounded off in the shape of a breast . . . . Within it are costly royal apartments made for security and for ornament . . . .”

At its base stood a small city. Its architectural focus was a huge artificial pool, more than twice the area of a modern Olympic swimming pool, and deep enough to accommodate boats. An aqueduct brought water from spring nearly 6 kilometres away.

Four towers gave a commanding view of the Judean desert and as far as the Dead Sea and the mountains of Moab. Using mirrors to reflect the sun, Herod could convey messages from Jerusalem to Herodium to Masada.

 

Grave was undiscovered until 2007

After Herod’s time, the Romans used the fortress against the insurgents during the First Jewish Revolt in AD 70. In AD 132-135 the Jewish Zealot leader Bar Kokhba converted it into his headquarters in the Second Revolt.

Herodium

Herod’s tomb (© Deror Avi / Wikimedia)

In succeeding centuries, the abandoned Herodium was occupied by monks. In the lower part, three different churches have been excavated, all with mosaic floors.

The location of Herod’s grave continued to puzzle archaeologists until 2007. Thirty-five years after he began excavating Herodium, Ehud Netzer of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem reported success when he and his team uncovered pieces of a large sarcophagus made of pink Jerusalem limestone and decorated with expertly carved floral motifs.

These were found among the ruins of a lavish, two-storey mausoleum about 25 metres high.

“The location and unique nature of the findings, as well as the historical record, leave no doubt that this was Herod’s burial site,” Netzer told reporters.

While continuing excavations, Netzer suffered fatal injuries when a wooden railing at the site gave way in October 2010.

 

Other sites in the Bethlehem area:

Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity

Grotto of the Nativity

St Jerome’s Cave

Church of St Catherine of Alexandria

Milk Grotto

Shepherds’ Field

Tomb of Rachel

Field of Ruth

 

In Scripture:

The massacre of the Innocents: Matthew 16-18

Administered by: Israel National Parks Authority

Tel.: 050-623-5821

Open: 8am-5pm (4pm Oct-Mar)

 

 

References

Brownrigg, Ronald: Come, See the Place: A Pilgrim Guide to the Holy Land (Hodder and Stoughton, 1985)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Maier, Paul L. (trans. and ed.): Josephus: The Essential Writings (Kregel Publications, 1988).
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Tomb of King Herod Discovered at Herodium by Hebrew University Archaeologist (Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Herodium (BiblePlaces)

 

Older Posts »

Tomb of Rachel

West Bank

 

Tomb of Rachel

Women at Rachel’s Tomb (© Judy Lash Balint)

The death of Rachel, beloved wife of the patriarch Jacob, is remembered on the Jerusalem-Hebron road north of Bethlehem. The tomb, a small building with a white dome, is now hidden behind a long bunker-like structure with guard towers and barbed wire. The access road is hemmed in by high concrete walls.

The book of Genesis recounts that Jacob and his family were travelling from Bethel when Rachel was about to deliver her second child:

“When she was in her hard labour, the midwife said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; for now you will have another son’.” (Genesis 35:17) But Rachel died giving birth to Benjamin, and Jacob erected a pillar at her grave.

Over the years, the Tomb of Rachel has been a place of pilgrimage for Jews, especially women unable to give birth. A Jewish tradition says Rachel’s tears have special powers, inspiring those visiting her grave to ask her to cry and intercede with God.

The tomb with its dome and olive tree became a Jewish symbol, appearing in thousands of publications and on the covers of Jewish holy books.

 

Venerated by three faiths

Tomb of Rachel

Men in prayer at Rachel’s Tomb (© Bethlehem University)

There is disagreement over the actual place where Rachel was buried. Some maintain it was further north, near the present village of A-Ram.

Nevertheless, the site of the Tomb of Rachel on the edge of Bethlehem has been venerated for centuries by Jews, Muslims (who claim it as an Islamic site) and Christians.

All three faiths have had a hand in its construction.  The earliest construction over the tomb, a square building with arches and a dome, was erected by the Crusaders. Previously the place seems to have been marked by a small pyramid.

 

Tomb has been fortified

Tomb of Rachel

Armour-plated bus at entrance to Rachel’s Tomb (© Judy Lash Balint)

The Ottoman Turks allowed only people of their own faith to enter the tomb after they expelled the Crusaders. But in 1841 Sir Moses Montefiore obtained the keys for the Jews and was given permission to restore the tomb.

The tomb has been the scene of fighting between Palestinian and Israeli forces and in 1997 the building was heavily fortified.

When Israel’s separation barrier was erected, its high concrete walls cut Rachel’s Tomb off from the rest of the West Bank. Access for visitors is available only from Jerusalem. Men and women have separate visiting areas.

The present tomb consists of a rock draped with velvet. Eleven stones on it represent Jacob’s 11 sons who were alive when Rachel died.

Other sites in the Bethlehem area:

Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity

Grotto of the Nativity

St Jerome’s Cave

Church of St Catherine of Alexandria

Milk Grotto

Shepherds’ Fields

Field of Ruth

Herodium

In Scripture:

The death of Rachel: Genesis 35:16-20, 48:7

Administered by: Israel Ministry of Religious Affairs

Tel.: 1888-2-2762435

Open: All day, every day, except for Shabbat and religious holidays, and from 10.30pm to 1.30am Sun-Thurs.

 

 

References

Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Kever Rachel Imeinu (Rachel’s Tomb Institute)
Rachel’s Tomb (The Committee for Rachel’s Tomb)
Rachel’s Tomb (Wikipedia)
Older Posts »

St Jerome’s Cave

West Bank

Glossary

St Jerome, detail, by Marinus van Reymerswaele, c.1490-c.1546 (Wikimedia)

From a cave beneath the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem came the most enduring version of the Bible ever translated.

In this underground study — pleasantly cool in summer but chilly in winter — St Jerome spent 30 years translating the Scriptures from Hebrew and Greek into Latin.

The scholarly Dalmatian priest began his task around AD 386. The text he produced in St Jerome’s Cave was the first official vernacular version of the Bible. Known as the Vulgate, it remained the authoritative version for Catholics until the 20th century.

This version, asserts the historian G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville, was “assuredly heard by more Christians than any other”.

St Jerome (also known as Hieronymus, the Latin version of Jerome) spent more than 36 years in the Holy Land. He was well-known for his ascetic lifestyle and his passionate involvement in doctrinal controversies.

 

Bethlehem was a monastic centre

St Jerome's Cave

Chapel in St Jerome’s Cave (Seetheholyland.net)

Access to St Jerome’s two-room cave is from the Church of St Catherine. On the right hand side of the nave, steps lead down to a complex of subterranean chambers. At the end, on the right, are the rooms where Jerome lived and worked.

The adjacent caves have been identified as the burial places of Jerome (whose remains were later taken to Rome), his successor St Eusebius, and Sts Paula and Eustochium.

Paula, a noble Roman widow, and her daughter, Eustochium, worked with Jerome in making Bethlehem a great monastic centre.

The first cave on the left at the bottom of the stairs is identified as the Chapel of the Holy Innocents. This is said to be the burial place of infants killed by King Herod in his attempt to eliminate the newborn “King of the Jews”.

 

Opinion of pilgrims varied

Jerome wrote of innumerable pilgrims flocking to Bethlehem from Britain and India, Pontus (a part of Asia Minor, now in Turkey) and Ethiopia.

St Jerome's Cave

St Jerome with skull at his feet, outside St Catherine’s Church (David Niblack)

His opinion of them fluctuated, as shown by two conflicting statements:

• “The very best of the Christian community comes to the Holy Land; they speak different tongues, but the devotion is one and the same. There is no sign of conflict or arrogance, no differentiation whatsoever, except in the mode of dress. No one censures another, no one criticises or judges his neighbour.”

• “They come here from all over the world, the city regurgitates every type of human being; and there is an awful crush of persons of both sexes who in other places you should avoid at least in part but here you have to stomach them to the full.”

Jerome died in 420. His body was later transferred to Constantinople and then to Rome, where his bones rest today in the Basilica of St Mary Major.

In front of the Church of St Catherine, his statue stands on a granite column in a restored Crusader cloister. At his feet is a skull, a symbol of the transience of human existence.

Other sites in the Bethlehem area:

Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity

Grotto of the Nativity

Church of St Catherine of Alexandria

Milk Grotto

Shepherds’ Field

Field of Ruth

Tomb of Rachel

Herodium

In Scripture:

Massacre of the Holy Innocents: Matthew 2:16-18

Administered by: Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land

Tel.: 972-2-2742425

Open: Apr-Sep 6.30am-7.30pm, Oct-Mar 5.30am-5pm (grottos closed on Sunday mornings)

 

References

Brownrigg, Ronald: Come, See the Place: A Pilgrim Guide to the Holy Land (Hodder and Stoughton, 1985)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Joseph, Frederick: “Bethlehem”, Holy Land, winter 2002
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Saltet, Louis: “St. Jerome”: The Catholic Encyclopedia (Robert Appleton Company, 1910)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

St Jerome (Catholic Encyclopedia)
Jerome (Wikipedia)
Bethlehem (Obethlehem.com)
Older Posts »

Shepherds’ Field

West Bank

Shepherds' Field

Shepherd and sheep near Bethlehem (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

Caves where shepherds “kept watch over their flock” still abound in the area east of Bethlehem. Here, the Gospel of Luke tells us, an angel announced the birth of Jesus.

The angel’s good news was not given to the noble or pious, but to workers with a low reputation. Jewish literature ranked “shepherd” as among the most despised occupations of the time — but Christ was to identify himself with this occupation when he called himself “the Good Shepherd” (John 10:11).

The traditional place of the angel’s visit is the town of Beit Sahur. Originally known as the Village of the Shepherds, it is now an eastern suburb of Bethlehem.

The tradition connected with the Shepherds’ Field is complicated by the fact that archaeologists have identified more than one possible site.

 

Three possible locations

• In the eastern part of Beit Sahur is a red-domed Greek Orthodox church at a site known as Kaniset el-Ruat (Church of the Shepherds). This site is identified with the biblical Tower of Edar (Tower of the Flock) where Jacob settled after his wife Rachel died. Eusebius (AD 265-340) says the tower, 1000 paces from Bethlehem, marked the place where the shepherds received the angel’s message.

Excavations here have uncovered a series of remains dating back to a mosaic-floored 4th-century subterranean church, said to have been built by St Helena, the mother of the emperor Constantine.

Shepherds' Field

Catholic chapel at Shepherds’ Field (Seetheholyland.net)

• On the north ridge of Beit Sahur, about 400 metres north of the Orthodox site, a Catholic site is located in an area called Siyar el-Ghanam (Place for Keeping Sheep).

A tent-shaped Chapel of the Angels, designed by Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi, adjoins the remains of a 4th-century church and a later agricultural monastery. Paintings in the chapel depict the angel’s announcement to the shepherds, the shepherds paying homage to Jesus and the shepherds celebrating the birth of the Messiah.

Beyond the chapel is a cave for small group worship. The area is administered by the Franciscans.

Eastwards from the Greek and Catholic churches is the Protestant Shepherd’s Field, a meadow filled with pine trees. Here a YMCA rehabilitation centre contains large caves with pottery remains.

 

Field of Boaz is nearby

Beyond Shepherd’s Field to the east is the plain known as the Field of Boaz (or Field of Ruth).

Ruth, a Moabite woman from east of the Dead Sea, is one of the few women to have a book of the Old Testament named after her. She is celebrated especially for her statement of devotion to her mother-in-law, Naomi, who came from Bethlehem: “Where you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God . . . .”

The “Field of Ruth” was really the field of Boaz, a wealthy landowner. She met him while gathering up the barley left behind by the harvesters. They married and she became the great-grandmother of King David.

Other sites in the Bethlehem area:

Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity

Grotto of the Nativity

St Jerome’s Cave

Church of St Catherine of Alexandria

Milk Grotto

Field of Boaz

Tomb of Rachel

Herodium

 

In Scripture:

An angel appears to the shepherds: Luke 2:8-20

The story of Ruth: Ruth 1-4

 

Administration:

Greek Orthodox church (972-2-2773135): Open 8-11.30am, 2-6pm (5pm Oct-Mar); telephone first

Franciscan chapel (972-2-2772413): 8am-5pm (Sunday closed noon-2pm)

YMCA, Shepherds’ Field (972-2-2772713)

 

 

References

Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Bethlehem: Shepherds field (Franciscan Cyberspot)
Shepherds’ Fields, near Bethlehem (Sacred Destinations)
Older Posts »

Milk Grotto

West Bank

Milk Grotto

Inside the Milk Grotto church (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

A short distance south of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a shrine called the Milk Grotto, on a street of the same name.

An irregular grotto hollowed out of soft white rock, the site is sacred to Christian and Muslim pilgrims alike. It is especially frequented by new mothers and women who are trying to conceive.

By mixing the soft white chalk with their food, and praying to Our Lady of the Milk, they believe it will increase the quantity of their milk or enable them to become pregnant.

Rows of framed letters and baby pictures sent from around the world to the Milk Grotto testify to the effectiveness of the “milk powder” and prayer. (The powder is available only at the shrine; it may not be ordered from overseas.)

Spilt milk turned stone white, tradition says

According to tradition, while Mary and Joseph were fleeing Herod’s soldiers on their way to Egypt, they stopped in this cave while Mary nursed the baby Jesus. A drop of Mary’s milk fell upon the stone and it turned white.

Milk Grotto

Milk Grotto church (Seetheholyland.net)

The grotto has been a site of veneration since the 4th century, the first structure being built over it around AD 385.

From as early as the 7th century, fragments from the cave were sent to churches in Europe. The site was recognised by a proclamation of Pope Gregory XI in 1375.

The Franciscans erected a church around the Milk Grotto in 1872. The people of Bethlehem and local artisans expressed their love for the site by decorating the shrine with mother-of-pearl carvings.

In 2007 a modern chapel dedicated to the Mother of God was opened. It is connected to the Milk Grotto church by a tunnel, which enabled the addition of a further chapel in the basement.

Other sites in the Bethlehem area:

Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity

Grotto of the Nativity

St Jerome’s Cave

Church of St Catherine of Alexandria

Shepherds’ Field

Tomb of Rachel

Field of Boaz

Herodium

In Scripture:

The escape to Egypt: Matthew 2:13-15

 

Administered by: Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land

Tel.: 972-2-2743867

Open: 8am-5pm (Sun closed noon-2pm)

 

 

References

Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)

 

External links

Milk Grotto Church of the Virgin Mary in Bethlehem
Bethlehem’s Milk Grotto brings faith, hope and sometimes babies (Catholic News Service)
Older Posts »

Grotto of the Nativity

West Bank

Grotto of the Nativity

Grotto of the Nativity (Darko Tepert)

Far from the Christmas-card image, the place of Christ’s birth is a dimly-lit rock cave. Instead of a star above, a 14-point silver star on the marble floor of the Grotto of the Nativity bears the words “Hic de Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est” (Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary).

Entry is from Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. Steps to the right of the iconostasis (the carved screen standing in front of the main altar) lead down to the subterranean cave.

Rectangular in shape, the cave measures about 12 metres by 3 metres. Like the church above, it is in the possession of the Greek Orthodox Church.

The rough rock of the first Christmas has given way to marble facings and, in the words of biblical scholar E. M. Blaiklock, the cave is “hung and cluttered with all the tinsel of men’s devotions”.

On feast days the cave is lit by 48 hanging lamps. Following a serious fire in 1869, three of the walls are protected by heavy leather drapes backed with asbestos.

 

Manger covered with marble

Grotto of the Nativity

Grotto of the Manger (Seetheholyland.net)

At a slightly lower level is the Grotto of the Manger. The rock shelf has been covered with marble, but the original rock may be seen around the manger. The dimensions match those of feeding troughs cut into the rock by Bedouins.

When the original church was built in the 4th century, the Grotto of the Nativity was enlarged to make room for pilgrims and at that time a silver manger was installed.

St Jerome, whose own cave was nearby, did not approve: “If I could only see that manger in which the Lord lay! Now, as if to honour the Christ, we have removed the poor one and placed there a silver one; however, for me the one which was removed is more precious . . . .”

Grotto of the Nativity

Stone trough from the 9th century before Jesus was born, found at Megiddo (Seetheholyland.net)

A small altar in the Grotto of the Manger is dedicated to the Adoration of the Magi, the Three Wise Men described in Matthew’s Gospel as coming from the East (probably Persia) to worship the newborn Jesus. This is where the Catholics celebrate Mass.

 

Other sites in the Bethlehem area:

Bethlehem

Church of the Nativity

St Jerome’s Cave

Church of St Catherine of Alexandria

Milk Grotto

Shepherds’ Field

Tomb of Rachel

Field of Boaz

Herodium

 

In Scripture:

The birth of Jesus: Luke 2:1-20; Matthew 1:18-25

The visit of the Wise Men: Matthew 2:1-12

Administered by: Greek Orthodox Church

Tel.: 972-2-2742440

Open: Apr-Sep 6.30am-7.30pm, Oct-Mar 5.30am-5pm (grotto closed Sunday morning)

 

 

References

Blaiklock, E. M.: Eight Days in Israel (Ark Publishing, 1980)
Brownrigg, Ronald: Come, See the Place: A Pilgrim Guide to the Holy Land (Hodder and Stoughton, 1985)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Joseph, Frederick: “Bethlehem”, Holy Land, winter 2002
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Petrozzi, Maria Teresa: “The Nativity Grotto”, Holy Land, winter 1997
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Bethlehem (Custodia Terrae Sanctae)
The Nativity Church
Church of the Nativity (Wikipedia)
Older Posts »

Church of the Nativity

West Bank

Church of the Nativity

Entering Church of the Nativity (Seetheholyland.net)

Entering the church that marks the site of Christ’s birthplace means having to stoop low. The only doorway in the fortress-like front wall is just 1.2 metres high.

The previous entrance to the Church of the Nativity was lowered around the year 1500 to stop looters from driving their carts in. To Christians, it seems appropriate to bow low before entering the place where God humbled himself to become man.

Today’s basilica, the oldest complete church in the Christian world, was built by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century. It replaced the original church of Constantine the Great, built over the cave venerated as Christ’s birthplace, and dedicated in AD 339.

Before Constantine, the first Christian emperor, the Romans had tried to wipe out the memory of the cave. They planted a grove dedicated to the pagan god Adonis, lover of Venus, and established his cult in the cave.

As St Jerome wrote in AD 395, “The earth’s most sacred spot was overshadowed by the grave of Adonis, and the cave where the infant Christ once wept was where the paramour of Venus was bewailed.”

 

Invading Persians spared the church

Church of the Nativity

Grotto of the Nativity (Darko Tepert)

The Gospels do not say that Jesus was born in a cave, but there are written references to the Nativity cave as far back as AD 160. Even today in the Judean hills, families live in primitive houses built in front of natural caves used for storage or to shelter animals.

When the original Church of the Nativity was built, the cave was enlarged to make room for pilgrims and a silver manger was installed.

St Jerome did not approve: “If I could only see that manger in which the Lord lay! Now, as if to honour the Christ, we have removed the poor one and placed there a silver one; however, for me the one which was removed is more precious . . . .”

Persians invaded Palestine in 614 and destroyed many churches. They spared the Church of the Nativity when they saw a mosaic on an interior wall depicting the Three Wise Men in Persian dress.

In 1482 King Edward IV sent English oak and tons of lead to renew the roof. In the 17th century the Turks looted the lead to melt into bullets. The roof rotted and most of the rich mosaics on the walls of the nave were ruined.

When Unesco put the basilica on its list of world heritage sites in 2012, it was also deemed to be endangered because of damage due to water leaks. A $US15 million restoration of the church’s roof, walls and mosaics began in 2013.

Christmas is observed on January 7

Church of the Nativity

Columns of red limestone in Church of the Nativity (Seetheholyland.net)

Today’s Church of the Nativity is cool and dark, its interior bare with no pews. Wall mosaics from the 12th century — depicting saints, angels and Church councils — have had their original sheen restored.

The restorers even uncovered a 2-metre mosaic of an angel that had been lost for centuries.

Trapdoors in the floor allow glimpses of the mosaic floor of Constantine’s basilica. The red limestone pillars were quarried locally. Many are adorned with Crusader paintings of saints.

Steps to the right of the iconostasis (the carved screen, adorned with icons, that stands in front of the main altar) lead down to the Grotto of the Nativity.

As the ornamentation, icons and lamps in the front of the church suggest, the basilica is now almost wholly a Greek Orthodox place of worship. The Armenian Orthodox own the northern transept. The Catholics have the site of the manger and the adjoining altar next to the Nativity grotto.

So while Christians in the Western world are celebrating Christ’s birthday on December 25, the church at his birthplace still has 13 days to wait for the Orthodox observance on January 7 and a further 12 days for the Armenian Christmas.

So where does the televised Christmas Eve service come from? The adjoining Church of St Catherine of Alexandria, which is Catholic.

Other sites in the Bethlehem area:

Bethlehem

Grotto of the Nativity

St Jerome’s Cave

Church of St Catherine of Alexandria

Milk Grotto

Shepherds’ Field

Tomb of Rachel

Field of Boaz

Herodium

In Scripture:

The birth of Jesus: Luke 2:1-20; Matthew 1:18-25

The visit of the Wise Men: Matthew 2:1-12

Administered by: Greek Orthodox Church, Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land, Armenian Apostolic Church

Tel.: 972-2-2742440

Open: Apr-Sep 6.30am-7.30pm, Oct-Mar 5.30am-5pm (grotto closed Sunday morning)

 

 

 

References

Baldwin, David: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Companion (Catholic Truth Society, 2007)
Bastier, Claire, and Halloun, Nizar: “Restoration: Revealing the glories of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem”, Holy Land Review, winter 2016
Blaiklock, E. M.: Eight Days in Israel (Ark Publishing, 1980)
Brownrigg, Ronald: Come, See the Place: A Pilgrim Guide to the Holy Land (Hodder and Stoughton, 1985)
Chabin, Michele: “Church of the Nativity’s Face-Lift Reveals Ancient Treasures”, National Catholic Register, June 15, 2016
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Joseph, Frederick: “Bethlehem”, Holy Land, winter 2002
Martin, James: A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Westminster Press, 1978)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

External links

The Nativity Church
Bethlehem (Obethlehem.com)
Church of the Nativity (Wikipedia)
Bethlehem (Custodia Terrae Sanctae)
Older Posts »
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