BETHLEHEM — Christians planning on making a Holy Land pilgrimage — for many, a once-in-a-lifetime journey — may want to wait until Easter 2017, when the scaffolding used to restore the ancient Church of the Nativity is expected to come down.
While the $15-million repair, conservation and restoration of the church, which is revered as the site of Jesus’ birth, will not be absolutely completed for another couple of years, due to a funding gap, pilgrims who visit next Easter will be able to see the extraordinary work that has been done to the roof, walls and 900-year-old mosaics.
For nearly 1,700 years, pilgrims have flocked to the stone church marking the spot where Tradition holds that Mary, seeking refuge from the Romans, gave birth to Jesus.
But the centuries of wear and tear took a catastrophic toll on the church. Its rotting roof and leaky windows let in torrents of water, causing extensive damage to its mosaics, murals and infrastructure. Priests and Palestinian officials feared parts of the church were in danger of collapsing.
Nearly 2,000 years of candle soot darkened the walls to the point where the artwork was nearly obscured. When restorative specialists carefully cleaned the blackened mosaics, the difference was night and day.
The original Church of the Nativity, built in A.D. 339 by the Roman Emperor Constantine, was almost destroyed by the Samaritans 200 years later. The existing church was built on the same site.
Since Medieval times, the church has grown into a complex of religious buildings maintained, sometimes uneasily, by the Roman Catholic Custody of the Holy Land, the Greek Orthodox Church and the Armenian Apostolic Church.
In 2009, the Palestinian Authority established the Presidential Committee for the Restoration of the Nativity Church, with the permission of the three Churches, to put the repair and restoration on an official footing. In 2012, UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) designated the church a Palestinian heritage site and placed it on its list of structures in need of urgent repair.
Repairs on the basilica, which was built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in about the year 600, began in 2013.
At a recent Jerusalem press briefing, Giammarco Piacenti, president of Piacenti Spa, a 150-year-old Italian restoration company, detailed the monumental task of repairing the church and bringing it back to its former glory. His company, which his family has owned for generations, has also restored the Effizi Gallery in Florence and many other iconic structures.
“This was an international team effort of 170 restorers, architects, engineers, archaeologists, geologists, biologists and chemists,” Piacenti said. “It involved 64 companies.”
Before any other work could begin, the team set about repairing the roof and windows, which Piacenti said were in “precarious” shape for “centuries” and allowed a “waterfall” of water to endanger the church.
In addition to being beautiful, the new roof system creates internal ventilation and waterproofing protection. The windows provide ultraviolet light transparency to protect the mosaics and trusses.
The team also restored the ancient wooden door of the eastern narthex (the basilica’s main entrance), and pilgrims can now see the original marquetry, or inlaid work. The three damaged vaults in the narthex were excavated by archaeologists; the restoration will be completed by the end of June.
The team also set about restoring the soot-stained stone walls and internal wall plasters, frescoes and icons.
The restoration work on the church’s superb wall mosaics began in March 2015. Following a painstaking cleaning that revealed their rich colors — most of the tiles are glass, some covered with gold and silver leaf, while others are made of stone or mother of pearl — conservationists applied special grout, and restorers filled in the sections where tiles had fallen off long ago.
“Some of the damage to the mosaics was caused by human hands,” Piacenti said, referring to long-ago efforts to repair them. “Some sections were completely detached, and we employed laser scanning and other high-tech means to restore them.”
The mosaics, which were commissioned in the 12th century, depict the Twelve Apostles, saints, Jesus and Mary and a small camel, as well as other motifs.
During the course of restoring the mosaics, the team discovered remnants of an angel, which they were able to fully restore, thanks to infrared thermography.
Unfortunately, due to water damage and centuries of erosion, only 20% of the church’s mosaics survive. But the ones that remain are magnificent, Piacenti said.
In an interview with the Register, Ziad Al Bandek, a former Palestinian minister of tourism and the man spearheading the restoration, said that although 98% of Palestinians are Muslims, “the church is a historic Palestinian church.”
“It is part of our heritage and culture,” Al Bandek said.
Piacenti emphasized that the work has taken place alongside the prayers of the countless pilgrims who have visited the church during the past three years.
“This is not a museum,” he said. “This is a church.”
Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent.