Pilgrims visiting the Holy Land this Christmas season will encounter an unfamiliar sight: The historic Church of the Nativity, wrapped in scaffolding. The church was erected by St. Helena over a cave which is believed to have been the place where Mary gave birth to the Christ Child. The Emperor Justinian I, Byzantine emperor who ruled from 527 to 565 AD, constructed most of the church as it is visible today. Parts of the Church of the Nativity date back more than 1,500 years; the last significant repair was in 1478, when Venetian carpenters painstakingly restored the ceiling. Today, after 600 years of wind and weather, the rooftop is leaking—threatening the priceless mosaics and other artwork and sacred items in the church, as well as the plaster, floors and frescoes. First on the “To Do” list, according to the Palestinian engineering consultants hired to develop a plan for the repairs, are the rooftop and windows. Once the building is protected from the elements, work can begin on the external facade, internal plastering, wall mosaics and paintings and wooden works. The budget for the first phase of the project is expected to reach $3 million. Of that, the Palestinian government has agreed to cover $1 million, with another $800,000 raised by private donors. The rest will come from European nations including France, Hungary, Russia and Greece.
The first phase, expected to last one year, is being carried out by "Piacenti," an Italian firm that specializes in the renovation of historical sites. One by one, experts will repair the hundreds of wooden beams in the roof.
Company president Giammarco Piacenti said the rooftop was masterfully restored by Venetian carpenters in 1478. He said the project would be conservative and seek to keep as many original pieces as possible.
"We'll save as many parts, even those in bad conditions, as we can," he said. "We'll only replace pieces that are no longer functional and can no longer help hold the roof. They will be as few as possible and will be made of a compatible wood, of aged wood of the same type and quality.
Aside from the roof and windows, other elements that will need repair in the future are the external facade, internal plastering, wall mosaics and paintings and wooden works. If funding is secured, the work could take four to five years.
Not included in the restoration project is the area under the altar crypt. On that spot, the highlight of the pilgrims’ visit to Bethlehem, a 14-point silver star marks the spot where, according to long tradition, the Baby Jesus was born.