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The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem
Maurizio Molinari

BETHLEHEM — Venetian larches, Turkish oaks, German lead, and 1,500-year-old nails: These are the base materials that a group of 30 Tuscan engineers, architects and archeologists are using to restore the Church of the Nativity for the first time in 600 years.

Originally built in the 6th century by Byzantine Emperor Justinian, the church is built on the spot where the scriptures say Jesus was born. The basilica, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has been subject to renovation since the 1480s, when multiple regions committed resources to the project, and the Venetians provided the labor.

Since then, the repairs have been only occasional, and the wooden roof has fallen prey to termites and water in such quantities that experts fear a possible collapse at any moment.

It was from here that the Palestinian National Authority, which has sovereignty over Bethlehem, decided to put together a team to restore the church. It was a team from Prato, Tuscany, that beat out competition from the U.S. to the Vatican and will restore it to its former glory by Christmas this year.

Finding the right materials

To understand what we’re really dealing with, I climb up to the roof of the basilica with Marcello Piacenti, 53, son of the founder of the Italian contract company of the same name. For the past eight months he has been shuttling between a small apartment in Beit Sahour and his lab here at the church, "where we work following the same techniques as Justinian’s engineers."

He tells us that his team "examined the roof, centimeter by centimeter, noticing that the original choices made for the beams, intersects and structure are absolutely still the best ones." But working like it’s 1,500 years ago isn’t an easy challenge, least of all in terms of the materials used.

"Justinian used cedar from Lebanon for the beams of the roof, but that’s a wood that has almost disappeared from the Middle East now," Piacenti says. How do you replace beams ravaged by fungi and termites made of a wood that isn't available.

"In the northeast of Italy there's a similar kind of larch. We brought it here by ship to Ashdod port and then from there to Bethlehem, where our workers aged it using a technique that made it look similar to the other beams holding up the roof," explains Piacenti, showing that every beam was wedged into the same holes in the stone walls made by the original engineers. "We used advanced computers to calculate the most complex numbers, but the outcome each time showed that the original cavities were placed in exactly the best places in the 6th century."

To protect the beams during 15th century repairs, the Venetians put a double layer of lead around them. The Ottomans had used clay, which revealed the true weak point because it allowed water to infiltrate and termites to bury in and devour them. The Tuscan restorers decided to position the Italian wood in a way that used smaller pieces as well, creating an aeration system capable of drying any droplets of water that may eventually get through.

"This church is an architectural gem built almost entirely out of stone," says Piacenti, "but, still, water is its enemy." The reason for that is that the dry air of Bethlehem can allow wood to last forever, provided that it is protected from rain. Hence, the new lead plates for exterior protection came from Germany, "because the quality is the absolute best."

47 tons atop millennia-old grottos

Working on the roof, however, poses the rather obvious need for a crane, but the Church of the Nativity has never used one. "We went through a long consultation process through the three denominations that share the management of the church: The Greek-Orthodoxes, The Armenian-Orthodoxes and the Roman Catholics," Piacenti says. "In the end, the consensus was to put the crane in the Armenian-Orthodox garden."

They needed a mobile crane to bring in the fixed crane, he ways, with the obligation of being constantly vigilant to "every single millimeter of the ground." That's because "erecting a structure that weighs 47 tons isn’t easy when the subsoil underneath has grottos that are millennia old." Tradition states that Jesus was born in one of these grottos, so the utmost caution was crucial.

To stabilize the crane, a deep foundation was dug a meter and a half deep, and giant slabs of reinforced concrete were added. The result was a huge boom that dominates the skyline and that draws the curiosity of tourists. Pope Francis will celebrate Mass in Manger Square outside the church on May 25, the second day of his visit to the Holy Land.

To hold the wood and lead together, the technicians decided to keep the original nails. "Justinian used three different lengths: small, medium and long," says Piacenti, "And we extracted them one by one, restored them, and then put them back in to hold the new beams." Just to put this in perspective, the company estimates the total weight of these nails to be "nearly nine tons."

Then, there are the windows. The current ones — damaged, dulled and perforated by bullets from wars and intifadas — will soon be replaced with new panes of glass to filter out ultraviolet rays from the sun.

The restoration's headquarters lies just below the roof, where the Tuscan team has created a laboratory to perform scientific tests, make changes, treat the wood and take care of the precious Byzantine mosaics. "It's a job that combines engineering, restoration and archeology," says Piacenti. "We must know how to listen to every single piece of this church and then act accordingly."

To do this, the team in Bethlehem are consulting with experts in many European and American universities, sharing the most delicate of decisions. "We talk often via Skype, examining 3D images and data on the cavities, beams and mosaics, comparing different options and deciding how to proceed," Piacenti explains.

All of this is happening literally over the heads of the thousands of tourists and pilgrims who come to the basilica each day. The lightweight scaffolding runs along the aisles, and in the coming weeks this will be extended to the cloister to finish the final part of the repairs, the total cost of which will not exceed two million euros.

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