This spacious nave is the original nave built by Justinian in 530 AD. Justinian built the structure which stands today to replace the octagonal Church built by Constantine after it was destroyed by a fire during a revolt in 529 AD.
The nave includes 44 columns made of pink lime stone, which create 5 aisles in the Church. Most of these columns existed during the original Church built by Constantine in the 4th century.
On the floor at the center of the Nave, a small patch of the original mosaic floor from the original Constantinian church can be found. The mosaic depicts illustrations of birds, vegetation and geometric signs.
On both sides of the Nave partial mosaics of Jesus and angels dating back to the 12th century can be seen.
On some 30 of columns paintings of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and various saints can be found which date back to the Crusader period. These paintings are quite faint in color and are hard to distinguish due to natural decay and lighting affects over the years.
High Altar& Iconostasis at the Church of the Nativity
The main altar of the Church, the High altar, is located at the far eastern end of the church. In front of the High altar from the nave and congregation is the extravagant ‘iconostasis’.
The iconostasis is a wall of ornamented and gold crowned icons which separates the nave and congregation from the holy sanctuary of the High Altar.
The high altar, the catholicon where the choir stand, the nave and its aisles all fall under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox denomination.
The incorporation of the iconostasis as a portable wall of icons began in the Byzantine Empire around the 5th century when it was also known as ‘Templon’. It is common among Eastern churches such as the Greek, the Armenian and Syriac churches. Originally intended to merely separate the nave from the sacraments at the altar, it evolved over time to become the impressive ‘iconostasis’ which can be found in Orthodox churches today.
Altar of the Circumcision at the Church of the Nativity
The altar at the far right side of the church is the Greek Orthodox Altar of Circumcision. This altar commemorates the circumcision of Jesus. Like all Jewish newborns, Jesus too was circumcised on the 8th day of his birth - an event celebrated today as New Year’s Eve which follows Christmas by eight days.
As it is written in the gospel of Luke:
According to Jewish tradition, all male infants must be circumcised on the 8th day of their birth to be brought into the covenant of God and Abraham. It is customary to name the child only after the circumcision ceremony.
Altar of the Virgin & Altar of the Three Kings at the Church of the Nativity
At the left wing of the church, there are two Armenian Orthodox altars – the altar of the Virgin Mary, dedicated to the mother of Jesus and The Altar of the Three Kings, dedicated to the Magi, also known the three kings, who followed the star and came from the east bearing gifts for the newborn son of god.
As it is written in the gospel of Matthew:
There are several traditions regarding the Magi and their identities. They have been referred to as wise men, astronomers and kings. According to Latin and Catholic Church, the three kings were: Melchior - a Persian king and scholar, Caspar, or Jaspar - an Indian king and scholar and Balthazar - an Arabian king and scholar.
The Grotto of Nativity at the Church of the Nativity
The Grotto of Nativity, or cave of nativity, is the underground cave which is believed to be the actual birthplace of Jesus Christ. Millions of pilgrims come to catch a glimpse of this holy site.
It is upon this cave that the church was built and although the gospels do not say that Christ was born in a cave, this cave was recognized as the birthplace of Jesus by Justin Martyr already in 160 AD.
The Grotto of the Nativity is rectangular cavern located beneath the church and is 12 meters in length and 3 meters in width. There are two flights of stairs to the grotto, one for entrance and the other for exit. Except for the bronze gates on either sides of the cavern which date back to the 6th century Justinian church, all other furnishings is from after the destructive fire of 1869.
Altar of the Birth of Christ at the Church of the Nativity
The altar of the Birth of Christ was built over the site of the miracle of nativity - where the Virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus. Scholars believe this may very well be the site of Christ’s birth since the cave part would have been used for stabling and storage as a Manger for houses nearby.
The exact spot is marked by a 14 pointed star on the marble floor of the altar. It is said to represent the three sets of 14 generations which led to the birth of Christ: fourteen generations from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the Babylonian Jewish exile, and fourteen from the Jewish exile to the birth of Jesus.
Around the opening at the center of the star is a Latin inscription which translates
"Here Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary".
In 1847 the Silver Star was stolen which created tension between Russia and the Ottoman Empire. Scholars point to this as part of the motivation for the 1853 Crimean War.
Altar of the Manger & Altar of the Magi at the Church of the Nativity
Across the Roman Catholic Altar of the Birth of Christ is the Altar of the Manger believed to be the Manger where the Virgin Mary laid Jesus after he came into the world. On Christmas Eve a wooden figure of the baby Jesus is brought from the adjacent Church of St. Catherine and is placed in the Altar of the Manger.
Across the Altar of the Manger is the Altar of the Magi which is dedicated to the three wise men who followed the star to Bethlehem carrying gifts for baby Jesus. A depiction of the Magi in Persian cloths once adorned the church and is said to have saved the church from destruction during the Persian invasion in 614.
The wooden figure of baby Jesus remains in the Altar of the Manger until Epiphany, the Orthodox Christmas which is on January 6th. Around the Manger, partial 12th-century wall mosaics can be seen.