Grotto of the Nativity

Church of the Nativity - The Birth Cave

Useful Information

Location: Bethlehem city center, West Bank. 10 km south of Jerusalem.
Open: In Winter daily 8-17. In Summer daily 7-18. [2004]
Fee: free [2004]
Classification: SpeleologyKarst cave. SubterraneaCave Church
Light: LightIncandescent Electric Light System
Dimension: A=760 m asl., L=12.3 m, W=3.15 m.
Guided tours: n/a
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
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700-787 BC cave occupied.
~0-333 AD cave occupied.
326 first church built by Bishop Makarios of Jerusalem.
529 first church burnt down in the Samaritan revolt.
529 present church built by the Emperor Justinian.
12th century cloister and monastery built by the Crusaders around the north side of the Church.
1165-1169 restoration in coordination between the Byzantine Empire and the Frankish Kingdom, covering many of the walls and the floors with marble.
1470 a passage dug by the Franciscans in order to have access to the Grotto from the Church of St. Catherine.
1962 excavations by the Franciscan Father Farina.
1964 excavations by the Franciscan Father Farina.
02-APR-2002 Palestinian Arab terrorists forced their way into the Grotto of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
09-MAY-2002 the 38-day stand-off came to an end.


The Church of the Nativity is one of the world's oldest churches, built like a citadel over the cave where it is believed that Jesus was born. During the millennia the church became a holy place for many world religions, and so it is today a sacred place for various Christian religions and for Muslims. The main basilica above the cave ist today Greek Orthodox, the adjoining church is Roman Catholic and the is neutral although it features primarily Armenian Orthodox design.

The Bible does not mention the existence of a birth cave, it only tells of a manger in a barn. Skeptics note that many biblical events were commemorated in caves because it is more convenient for pilgrims (and the site operator) to be sheltered from sun and rain. But in this area many houses are built in front of caves, where the cave provides shelter for the animals or storage room. And so it is logical to interpret the typical barn of the area as a cave.

The Grotto of the Nativity is entered through a pair of Crusader Gothic doorways on either side of the raised sanctuary, two flights of steps lead down to the Alter of the Nativity. The cave is an irregular chamber more or less rectangular in shape, 12.3 m long and 3.15 m wide. The walls are partly of rock, partly of masonry, and largely covered with amianthus hangings. Altars mark the traditional places of the Nativity, the Adoration of the Magi and the Manger. The altar of the Nativity is located right on the spot where Jesus is said to have been born. The exact location is marked by a hole in the marble flow below the alter, surrounded by a silver star and silver lamps.

At the end of the Grotto of the Nativity a door leads to a few chapels, the key of which belongs to the Franciscans. They dug a passage in 1470 in order to have access to the Grotto from the Church of St. Catherine.