National Geographic : 1929 Dec
BETHLEHEM AND THE CHRISTMAS STORY son and saying to his servants, "Go ye therefore into the highways, and as many as ye shall find, bid to the marriage" (Matt. xxii: 9). Crossing the village square, the proces sion made its way toward the Church of the Nativity, for to be married in this basilica is still considered a rare privilege. It is one of the oldest existing churches in Christendom, if not the oldest, one of the few used in common by the three Eastern denominations and revered by all sects of Christianity. The best authorities doubt not that it stands on or close to the site where Jesus was born and the place of the First Christmas. Built A. D. 330 by the Emperor Con stantine and added to by Justinian, it be came in the fifth century the home of St. Jerome, who here translated the Old Testament from the Hebrew. Since that time it has gone through many vicissitudes and restorations. From each street or alleyway more crowds poured out to get a glimpse of the bride or shower her and the party with attar of roses. All the main streets of Bethlehem lead to the market place front ing the church. Under this village square, the civic center of the town, are extensive rock-cut cisterns with stone troughs sur rounding their openings; and the natives still lead their animals here at the noon hour and draw water for them, as they have done for centuries. SIMPLICITY MARKS THE INTERIOR OF THE NATIVITY CHURCH The present entrance to the Nativity Church is so small that in passing through it one must bend very low. It is closed by a heavily sheathed, iron-studded door. Since but one person could enter at a time, those of us who formed the rear guard had to wait outside. We used the time to examine the old facade. The original entrance must have been an imposing one, for over the present miniature door is a large portal that repeatedly through the ages has been made smaller (see page 702). Stooping to enter, we came into an in terior of great simplicity, where, between the two double rows of pinkish limestone monolith pillars, said to have been brought from the ruins of the Temple of Jerusalem, the priest with swinging silver incense- burners met the bride and bridegroom. Above the supporting columns we saw the old wooden roof, the gift of Edward the Fourth and Philip of Burgundy. About the walls, scattered patches of gold and colored Byzantine mosaics, contrasting with the white plaster that was filled in as portions of the mosaics dropped off, caught our attention. Particularly inter esting was a fragment depicting a row of half figures intended to be portraits of the ancestry of Joseph. A pretty story is still told by the Bethle hemites, which, though it lacks historic backing, may account for the sparing of this church when the hordes of the ruthless Persian Chosroes burned and de stroyed all the other churches in Pales tine, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. It is said that among the earliest mo saics over the main entrance within was a large panel representing the Magi mak ing rich offerings to the Infant Jesus. Seeing this, and recognizing by the cos tumes that the Three Wise Men were Persians, the vandal hordes spared the church. Beyond the nave through which we en tered we saw the elevated transept, and in front a high altar separated from the choir by a carved and gilded screen. To this altar the bridal pair had been led. Below the transept a chamber, part cave, part masonry, was pointed out to us as the birthplace of Jesus. A silver star attached to the flagstones of the floor in this crypt marks the spot where sup posedly the birth took place, and across the room is an altar where the manger cradle is thought to have stood. Such semicave dwellings are still in daily use in Bethlehem (see page 719). The smallness of the church door had so delayed the entrance that when the last of the procession had managed to pass through, the marriage service was almost at an end. Mumbled in classic Arabic, the words of the priest were intelligible to very few of the guests. The service throughout lacked the drilled precision of an American wedding. Dis turbing noises were the footsteps of those still coming in, the bustle of others carry ing the burden of affairs, the merry voices of children, and the whispers of the elders.