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The post-Crusader period

With the end of the crusader experience Bethlehem passed definitively under Moslem rule but notwithstanding the difficulties encountered it remained for long centuries the principle Christian enclave of the Holy Land. In 1333 the Franciscans established themselves in Bethlehem in the deserted Augustinian monastery (where they still reside). In 1347 the Franciscans started officiating the Basilica. Till 1637 they could freely celebrate their liturgies, welcome the pilgrims, and whenever the need arose restore the church through the help of the Christian nations with the consent of the Moslem authorities. Later on Bethlehem became an arch bishopric as it is today, for the Greek Church. Bethlehem became poorer and poorer, and the church was fast decaying.
In 1435 the Emperor Alexis IV Comnenus and in 1448 the Duke of Burgundy attempted to persuade the Mamluks to authorise repairs. Both appeals failed. In 1480, however, the Franciscan Custos Giovanni de Tomacellis, obtained permission to renew the roof. Venice sent wood, Edward IV of England supplied the lead, and Philip of Burgundy supplied the craftsmen for the work which was soon completed. The structure was thus preserved but the interior deteriorated until in the end of the 16th century, Felix Fabri described it: "a barn without hay, an apothecary's without aromatic pots, a library without books"
With the occupation by the Turks in 1617 looting was openly done. Marbles from Bethlehem can still be seen in the Haram esh-Sherif in Jerusalem. In 1628 the Franciscan Custos, Quaresmi, wrote a detailed description of the church, and this was accompanied by engravings made by another Franciscan, Bernardino Amico, in 1596. This is today the one source of accurate information on the medieval appearance of Bethlehem. The roof of 1480 had almost disappeared in 1670, when the Greek Patriarch got permission to repair it.
With the 16th century begins the period of conflict between the Franciscans and the Greeks for the possession of the Sanctuary. Consequently the Basilica passed alternatively from the Franciscans to the Greeks according to the favour enjoyed at the Sublime Porte by the nation which supported the communities. During the war between the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice (1646-1669), which ended with the expulsion of the Venetians from the Island of Crete, the Greeks were authorised to renew the roofing of the Basilica and take over the Grotto of the Nativity.
In 1690 the Latins retook possession of the Grotto and in 1717 they placed there a new silver star, instead of the old one which had been worn out, with the Latin inscription: "Hic de Virgine Maria a Jesus Christus natus est, 1717". This situation lasted until 1767, when the Greeks took possession once more of the Basilica and, inside the crypt, of the Altar of the Nativity. Between 1810 and 1829 the Armenians succeeded in establishing themselves in the Church, getting the left arm of the transept.
The star which by its Latin inscription consecrates the right of the Latins to the ownership of the Altar of the Nativity, disappeared on the 12th October 1847. After five years' negotiations between the French Embassy and the Sublime Porte, the Sultan Abdul Mejid compelled the Greeks to allow a new star to be put in its place in 1868. The firman of the Sultan contained also a guarantee for the Status Quo in the Sanctuaries. Nevertheless, the Franciscans have had since then many times to pay with their blood for the defence of the Sanctuaries.
On April 26, 1878, a number of Greek orthodox people broke into the Sacred Grotto, maltreating and wounding 8 Franciscans and pillaging the Holy Place, tearing the hangings and carrying off everything that had any intrinsic value, even to the marble slabs that covered the Holy Crib.
Since then, by an order of the Sublime Porte, never cancelled, a policeman is on duty at the Nativity Basilica. Against fire, the walls of the crypt were clothed with a tapestry of amianthus, which depicts the salient facts of the Childhood of Jesus.
With the coming of the 17th and 18th centuries, the little town of Bethlehem began to recover as a result of contact with the West even if some visitors complained about their treatment at the hands of the sellers of olive wood and mother-of-pearl souvenirs. Robbery and violence seamed to be the reason why in 1834 Ibrahim Pasha destroyed the Moslem quarter and disarmed the population. Under the Turkish regime the question of ownership and rights took on a political and international outlook. In 1893 the Brother Sacristan was shot and another Friar wounded by a Croatian.
Following an earthquake in 1834, the church suffered horrible repairs in 1842. The grotto was partly destroyed by fire in 1869. The screen wall closing the east end of the central nave was removed in 1918 by Sir Ronald Stom. In 1933 the dangerous conditions of the church caused the British administration to have a structural survey made. This brought to light the ancient mosaic floor of Constantine, and resulted only in a few wooden props in the narthex.
A door at the back of the Grotto leads to a subterranean passage to the other adjoining grottoes which were excavated by Fr. Farina, ofm. in the early sixties. His finds prove that the grottoes were occupied between 700 and 587 BC. Abandoned after the Babylonian captivity they were occupied again at the time of Christ and on till 333, when the Constantinian basilica was finished. He found 35 tombs: 15 of them underground, all prior to Constantine. The early Christians desired to be buried near a holy place, especially the tombs of the martyrs: how much more near a place sanctified by the Birth of Christ! In these grottoes there are the empty tombs of SS. Paula , Eustochium and St. Jerome. The remains of St. Jerome are shown in St. Mary Major's in Rome. There is no doubt about the tombs for St. Jerome himself tells us that he was responsible for cutting these tombs in the rock.

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Created / Updated Wednesday, December 19, 2001 at 18:14:47 by John Abela ofm
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