In this, the first in an occasional series of Extra reports from our foreign correspondents, Harriet Sherwood visits the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It’s shared by three denominations and attracts two million visitors each year. The building is about to undergo the first major renovation in its 1,700-year history, which is being led by the Palestinian Authority
The rain, when it came to the Holy Land last week after a drought stretching back to the spring, was greeted with relief by almost everyone.
But in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, built over the grotto where Jesus is widely believed to have been born, it was a graphic reminder – if one was needed – of the parlous condition of the iconic structure and the scale of a mammoth restoration project ahead.
Amid the murmurings of priests and the jostling of pilgrims, you could hear the dripping of rainwater on to the ancient flagstones of one of Christianity’s holiest sites. Small puddles reflected light from the silver and ruby-red glass lamps hanging from the roof beams; streaks of rainwater were visible on the walls, some perilously close to precious murals and mosaics.
Beyond a small door to the side of the central nave and through an arched and shuttered stone cloister, Theofilaktos, the Greek Orthodox Patriarchal representative in Bethlehem and the most senior figure in the Church of the Nativity, sat behind a large, empty desk, considering the task of repairing the iconic structure.
Experts who had inspected the rotting timbers had said it was a miracle the roof had not collapsed, he said. Despite the urgency of the repairs, work could not begin until the results of tests on timber samples were delivered in the spring.
The church, founded in the 4th century, was added to a list of the world’s most endangered historical sites two years ago by the World Monuments Fund. “Many of the roof timbers are rotting and have not been replaced since the 19th century,” it said. “The rainwater that seeps into the building not only accelerates the rotting of the wood and damages the structural integrity of the building, but also damages the 12th century wall mosaics and paintings.”
It recommended a comprehensive renovation programme, but warned it needed co-ordination between the church’s joint custodians. “Such a collaboration has not occurred in nearly a thousand years.”
The church is shared by three denominations: the Greek Orthodox, the Roman Catholics represented by the Franciscans and the Armenian Orthodox. It is not a harmonious arrangement; there is a long history of bitter disputes over the church’s administration, ranging from territorial claims to petty squabbles over sweeping-up privileges. Punches have been thrown between warring priests.
Two years ago, the Palestinian Authority (PA) approached the guardians to seek an agreement on the church’s restoration. “They came back to us to say they could not reach agreement because of divisions between them,” said Ziad Bandak, who now heads the PA’s restoration committee. Instead, he added, they “blessed an interference from the PA” to take on the project.
A lengthy process of bidding for the work was initiated, which resulted in a consortium of seven companies – five Italian, one Canadian and one Palestinian – being commissioned. Preliminary investigative work began in September.
“There have been cosmetic renovations several times but this is the first comprehensive restoration project since the building of the church 1,700 years ago,” said Bandak.
The work would cost “tens of millions of dollars” and take many years, he said. Christian countries were being approached for donations. “It is an honour for the PA to administer this,” he said. “The church is part of our history and culture, and we have a big respect for Christianity.”
Up to two million pilgrims and tourists are expected to visit the church this year, peaking on Christmas Eve when choirs from around the world will sing carols in Manger Square in front of the ancient stone edifice.
Back in the central nave last week, the rain stopped and shafts of sunlight from high windows pierced the dusty gloom. Groups of tourists in plastic capes followed guides towards the steep and narrow staircase leading to the tiny grotto. Few looked upwards towards the leaking roof.
•Harriet Sherwood is Jerusalem correspondent for the Guardian.