Category Archives: Tomb

Church of the Nativity

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a major Christian holy site, as it marks the traditional place of Christ’s birth. It is also one of the oldest surviving Christian churches. Map.

Map of Church of Nativity
Map of Church of Nativity

The first evidence of a cave here being venerated as Christ’s birthplace is in the writings of St Justin Martyr around AD 160. In 326, the Roman emperor Constantine ordered a church to be built and in about 530 it was rebuilt by Justinian. The Crusaders later redecorated the interior, but much of the marble was looted in Ottoman times. In 1852 shared custody of the church was granted to the Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches, the Greeks caring for the Grotto of the Nativity.

The grotto is the church’s focal point. A silver star is set in the floor over the spot where Christ is said to have been born. The wide nave survives intact from Justinian’s time, although the roof is 15th-century, with 19th-century restorations. Thirty of the nave’s 44 columns carry Crusader paintings of saints, and the Virgin and Child, although age and lighting conditions make them hard to see. The columns are of polished, pink limestone, most of them reused from the original 4th-century basilica. Fragments of high quality mosaics decorate the walls. Incorporating columns and capitals from the 12th-century Augustinian monastery that previously stood here, this attractive, peaceful cloister was rebuilt in Crusader style in 1948.

Church of the Nativity, Plan
Church of the Nativity, Plan

The birth of Jesus is narrated in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Matthew gives the impression that Mary and Joseph were from Bethlehem and later moved to Nazareth because of Herod’s decree, while Luke indicates that Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth, and Jesus was born in Bethlehem while they were in town for a special census.

Church of the Nativity, Plan
Church of the Nativity, Plan

Scholars tend to see these two stories as irreconcilable and believe Matthew to be more reliable because of historical problems with Luke’s version. But both accounts agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth. According to Luke 2:7 (in the traditional translation), Mary “laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.”

Church of the Nativity, Plan
Church of the Nativity, Plan

But the Greek can also be rendered, “she laid him in a manger because they had no space in the room” — we should perhaps imagine Jesus being born in a quiet back room of an overflowing one-room house. The gospel accounts don’t mention a cave, but less than a century later, both Justin Martyr and the Protoevangelium of James say Jesus was born in a cave.

Church of the Nativity, Grotto
Church of the Nativity, Grotto

This is reasonable, as many houses in the area are still built in front of a cave. The cave part would have been used for stabling and storage – thus the manger. The first evidence of a cave in Bethlehem being venerated as Christ’s birthplace is in the writings of Justin Martyr around 160 AD. The tradition is also attested by Origen and Eusebius in the 3rd century.

In 1852, shared custody of the church was granted to the Roman Catholic, Armenian and Greek Orthodox churches. The Greeks care for the Grotto of the Nativity.

Door of Humility

The Crusader doorway, marked by a pointed arch, was reduced to the present tiny size in the Ottoman period to prevent carts being driven in by looters. A massive lintel above the arch indicates the door’s even larger original size.

It’s a small door, only about four feet tall and two feet wide.  You have to bow down to go through it. The threshold is surrounded by three large stones.  For security reasons, there is usually an armed soldier standing next to it.

All pilgrims who visit the sacred site of Jesus’ birth, must bow down to enter. They must bow as the Magi did in bringing their gifts from afar.  The gospels say that as they approached the child, they fell down and worshiped, and only then offered their treasures.  They approached him in great humility      .

Grotto

Interior

Wadi Qelt & Nabi Musa

The steep canyon of Wadi Qelt links Jerusalem to Jericho and has a number of interesting religious sites along its course, as well as springs, plants and wildlife, and often breathtaking views over the mountains and desert. The whole canyon is hikeable, although it would take a full day, and even in the spring and autumn the heat can be intense. Map.

St. George’s Monastery
St. George’s Monastery

The key sites of the wadi are linked to the highway that connects Jerusalem with Jericho and the Dead Sea, and are well signposted in both directions. Beware of extreme heat in summer and flash floods in winter. The spectacular St George’s Monastery (9am to 1pm daily) is a must see in Wadi Qelt, built into the cliff face in the 5th century.

Wadi Qelt
Wadi Qelt

Turn right off the access road and park in the car park, from where it is a steep 10-minute walk to the monastery – expect to be hassled by donkey-taxi vendors the entire way. The paintings inside the main chapel are worth the walk, and parts of the original mosaic floors are visible below perspex screens. Up another flight of stairs there is a beautiful cave chapel.

Wadi Qelt
Wadi Qelt

Drinking water is available at the monastery. You’ll see signposts along the way for the three main springs (Ein Qelt, Ein Farah and Ein Fawwar) but don’t drink the spring water, it’s not safe and you can become sick after drinking.

Nabi Musa
Nabi Musa

Another road off the highway towards Jericho will take you to the complex of Nabi Musa (Prophet Moses; 8am till sunset). About 10km north of the Dead Sea, this is where Muslims believe Moses (Musa in Arabic, Moshe in Hebrew) was buried.

Nabi Musa
Nabi Musa

A mosque was built on the site in 1269, under Mamluk Sultan Baybar (it was expanded two centuries later) and annual week-long pilgrimages set out from Jerusalem to Nabi Musa – they continue today.

Nabi Musa Muslim graveyard
Nabi Musa Muslim graveyard

The road beyond the mosque takes  you past a Muslim graveyard – including the tomb of a former imam of Nabi Musa, sadly today covered in graffiti – and then into the Judean desert for some 20km. The road passes solitary camels, abandoned tanks and vast open desert.

Bethany

This was the city where Jesus found friendship with Martha, Mary and Lazarus. It’s also the place where Jesus resurrected Lazarus from death and finally, it’s the place where we can find the Tomb of Lazarus. Map.

Bethany
Bethany

When Lazarus was dying, as John’s Gospel (11:1-44) recounts, his sisters sent for Jesus. But Jesus delayed his arrival until four days after Lazarus had been buried, “so that the Son of God may be glorified”.

Bethany
Bethany

Arriving at the tomb, Jesus called: “Lazarus, come out!” To the amazement of mourners who had witnessed the burial, the dead man walked out. This miracle confirmed the determination of the religious leaders in Jerusalem to have Jesus put to death.

Pilgrims keep coming here

Bethany
Bethany

This is another Holy Place, which is taking over by the Muslims in the Holy Land. The present Arab village, on the south-eastern slope of the Mount of Olives, is called Al-Azariyeh, an Arabic version of Lazarus. The original village was higher up the hill to the west of the tomb of Lazarus.

The Franciscan Albert Storme says the reason why pilgrims have been drawn to this place is not based on “some ‘casual’ wonder. In their eyes, Lazarus’ resurrection prefigured that of Christ, and heralded their own return from the grave.”

Christian churches have been built here since the early centuries. By the 14th century the churches were in ruins and the original entrance to the tomb had been turned into a mosque. In the 16th century the Franciscans cut through the soft rock to create the present entrance.

Bethany
Bethany

Today’s pilgrims enter from the street down a flight of 24 well-worn and uneven steps to a vestibule. Three more steps lead to the burial chamber, little more than 2 meters long. Tradition says Jesus stood in the vestibule to call Lazarus from the grave.

The present Catholic church, with mosaics depicting the events that occurred here, was built in 1954. Architect Antonio Barluzzi contrasted the sadness of death with the joy of resurrection by designing a crypt-like, windowless church, into which light floods from the large oculus in its dome.

Bethany
Bethany

A Greek Orthodox church, dedicated to Simon the Leper, is to the west of the tomb.

Bethany
Bethany

Since 2005 Bethany, in the West Bank, has been cut off from Jerusalem by Israel’s separation wall. The wall actually cuts across the main street, making a visit to Bethany a lengthy detour, so the Tomb of Lazarus has become isolated from the normal pilgrim and tourist route.

Ancient Sebastiya, rooted from Canaanite, Israelite, Hellenistic, Herodian, Roman and Byzantine Cultures

The ancient city Sebastiya is rooted from Canaanite, Israelite, Hellenistic, Herodian, Roman and Byzantine Cultures. Currently, Sebastiya is falling under Palestinian rule, located about 12 kilometers northwest of Nablus, to the east of the road to Jenin. Currently, only two religions are making claims: the Christians and Muslims alike honor a connection to John the Baptist. The Romans used this site to worship the Roman empire! And earlier then all of them, this site was being used for the worship of Phoenician gods by the Canaanites (Baal and Astarte). Map.

Sebastiya
Sebastiya

To start with the Christians, John the Baptist’s disciples buried his body here after he was beheaded by Herod Antipas during the infamous banquet at which Salome’s dance enthralled the governor (Mark 6:21-29). An Orthodox Christian tradition holds that Sebastiya was also the venue for the governor’s birthday banquet, though the historian Josephus says it was in Herod’s fortress at Machaerus, in modern-day Jordan. Overlooking the present village of Sebastiya are the hilltop ruins of the royal city of Samaria. Excavations have uncovered evidence of six successive cultures: Canaanite, Israelite, Hellenistic, Herodian, Roman and Byzantine.

Sebastiya
Sebastiya

Omri, the sixth king of the northern kingdom of Israel, built his capital on the rocky hill of Samaria in the ninth and eighth centuries before Christ. His son Ahab fortified the city and, influenced by his wife Jezebel, a Phoenician princess, built temples to the Phoenician gods Baal (Lord of the Flies) and Astarte (Goddess of Fertility).

Sebastiya
Sebastiya

Ahab’s (devil’s worship, sacrificing children and worse) evil deeds incurred the wrath of the prophet Elijah, who prophesied bloody deaths for both Ahab and Jezebel. During its eventful history, Samaria was destroyed by Assyrians in 722 BC (ending the northern kingdom of Israel), captured by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, destroyed by the Maccabean King John Hyrcanus in 108 BC, and rebuilt by the Roman general Pompey in 63 BC.

Sebastiya
Sebastiya

Herod the Great expanded the city around 25 BC, renaming it Sebaste in honor of his patron Caesar Augustus (Sebaste is Greek for Augustus). Herod even built a temple dedicated to his patron, celebrated one of his many marriages in the city, and had two of his sons strangled there.

Sebastiya
Sebastiya

The pattern of destruction and rebuilding continued during the early Christian era. Sebaste became the seat of a bishop in the 4th century, was destroyed by an earthquake in the 6th century, flourished briefly under the Crusaders in the 12th century, then declined to the status of a village.

John’s Tomb

Sebastiya
Sebastiya

John the Baptist’s burial place was at Sebastiya, together with the remains of the prophets Elisha and Obadiah.

Around the year 390, St Jerome describes Sebastiya as “… where the remains of John the Baptist are guarded.”. By then, according to a contemporary account by the historian Rufinus of Aquileia around 362, pagans had desecrated the tomb during a persecution of Christians under emperor Julian the Apostate. The Baptist’s remains were burnt and the ashes dispersed. But all was not totally lost. In the night, when the pagans slept, monks saved some of the bones.

Sebastiya
Sebastiya

In the 6th century two urns covered in gold and silver were venerated by pilgrims. One was said to contain relics of John the Baptist, the other relics of Elisha. Two churches were built during the Byzantine period.

One was on the southern side of the Roman acropolis (on the site the Orthodox Church believes John was beheaded).

The other church, a cathedral built over the Baptist’s reputed tomb, was just east of the old city walls and within the present village. Rebuilt by the Crusaders, it became the second biggest church in the Holy Land (after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem).

But after the Islamic conquest of 1187 the cathedral was transformed into a mosque dedicated to the prophet Yahya, the Muslim name for John the Baptist. The mosque, rebuilt in 1892 within the ruins of the cathedral, is still in use.

Sebastiya
Sebastiya
Sebastiya
Sebastiya

Pilgrims still visit the tomb associated with John the Baptist and other prophets. Under a small domed building in the cathedral ruins, a narrow flight of 21 steps leads down to a tomb chamber with six burial niches set in the wall. Tradition places John the Baptist’s relics in the lower row, between those of Elisha and Obadiah.

Sebastiya
Sebastiya

The remains of the cathedral’s huge buttressed walls dominate Sebastiya’s public square.

In the extensive archaeological park at the top of the hill are remnants of Ahab’s palace, identified by the discovery of carved ivory that was mentioned in the Bible (1 Kings 22:39). The ivory pieces are displayed in the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem.

Sebastiya
Sebastiya

Also to be seen are the stone steps leading to Herod the Great’s temple of Augustus, an 800-metre colonnaded street, a Roman theater and forum, and a city gate flanked by two watchtowers.

Sebastiya
Sebastiya

Interest in Sebastiya’s heritage and community — now entirely Muslim except for one Christian family — has been revived in the early 21st century by a project involving the Franciscan non-profit organization ATS Pro Terra Sancta, funded by Italian aid.