Bethlehem 2.0: Church Of The Nativity Gets A Makeover

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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A check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Здраво!*

Welcome to Friday, where Joe Biden vows to protect Taiwan from China, Alec Baldwin accidentally kills a cinematographer, and can you guess what day it is TODAY? We also have a report from a researcher in San Diego, USA on the sociological dark side of food trucks.

[*Zdravo - Macedonian]


Iran-Saudi Arabia rivalry may be set to ease, or get much worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before, writes Persian-language media Kayhan-London:

The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.



• Biden vows to defend Taiwan: U.S. President Joe Biden said the United States would come to Taiwan's defense if it were attacked and had a commitment to defend the island nation that China claims as its own. The White House clarified for the second time in three months that U.S. policy on the subject has not changed, and declined further comment when asked if Biden had misspoken.

• Call on China to respect Uyghurs: A statement from 43 countries denounced China's human rights record at the United Nations over the reported torture and repression of the mostly Muslim Uyghurs, as well as the existence of "re-education camps" in Xinjiang. The declaration calls on Beijing to allow independent observers immediate access. In response, Cuba issued a rival statement shortly afterwards on behalf of 62 other countries claiming "disinformation".

• Alec Baldwin fires prop gun, kills cinematographer: U.S. actor Alec Baldwin fatally shot cinematographer Halyna Hutchins and injured director Joel Souza after discharging a prop gun on the set of his new movie, near Santa Fe. The accident is being investigated.

• Berlusconi acquitted: Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was acquitted of judicial corruption charges. The 85-year-old media mogul had been accused of seeking to bribe guests present at his infamous "Bunga Bunga" parties to lie about the evenings as part of an underage prostitution case.

• COVID health workers death toll: A new WHO working report estimates that between 80,000 and 180,000 health and care workers may have died from COVID-19 between January 2020 and May 2021. The same report also noted that fewer than 1 in 10 healthcare workers were fully vaccinated in Africa, compared with 9 in 10 in high-income countries, and less than 5% of Africa's population have been vaccinated.

• Seven killed in Russian gunpowder factory blast: An explosion at the Elastik gunpowder and chemicals plant southeast of Moscow killed at least seven people, while nine are still missing.



Dutch daily De Volkskrant pays tribute to "sound master" and renowned classical conductor Bernard Haitink, who died at 92. Born in Amsterdam, Haitink made more than 450 records and led some of the world's top orchestras in the span of his 65-year career.


The food truck, a sign that the white and wealthy are moving in

In San Diego, California, researcher Pascale Joassart-Marcelli tracked how in the city's low-income neighborhoods that have traditionally lacked dining options, when interesting eateries arrive the gentrification of white, affluent and college-educated people has begun. In The Conversation she writes:

🥡 In 2016 in City Heights, a large multi-ethnic San Diego neighborhood, a dusty vacant lot on the busiest boulevard was converted into an outdoor international marketplace called Fair@44. There, food vendors gather in semi-permanent stalls to sell pupusas, lechon (roasted pig), single-sourced cold-brewed coffee, cupcakes and tamarind raspado (crushed ice). Just a few blocks outside the gates, informal street vendors — who have long sold goods such as fruit, tamales and ice cream to residents who can't easily access supermarkets — now face heightened harassment.

🤑 Cities and neighborhoods have long sought to attract educated and affluent residents – people whom sociologist Richard Florida dubbed "the creative class." The thinking goes that these newcomers will spend their dollars and presumably contribute to economic growth and job creation. Food, it seems, has become the perfect lure. It's uncontroversial and has broad appeal. It taps into the American Dream and appeals to the multicultural values of many educated, wealthy foodies.

🏙️ My analysis of real estate ads for properties listed in City Heights and other gentrifying San Diego neighborhoods found that access to restaurants, cafés, farmers markets and outdoor dining is a common selling point. San Diego Magazine's home buyer guide for the same year identified City Heights as an "up-and-coming neighborhood," attributing its appeal to its diverse population and eclectic "culinary landscape," including several restaurants and Fair@44. When I see that City Heights' home prices rose 58% over the past three years, I'm not surprised.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


€6.65 million

The remains of "Big John," the world's largest triceratops skeleton ever found, were sold at auction for a European record price of 6.65 millions euros in Paris to a private anonymous collector from the U.S. The 200 pieces of the skeleton were unearthed in 2014 in South Dakota and reassembled by specialists in Italy.


Police bust Mexican drug gang recruiting boys via online video games

Police in Mexico have intervened to rescue three minors, aged 11 to 14, from recruitment into a drug gang that had enticed them through online gaming.

A top Mexican police agency official Ricardo Mejía Berdeja, said the gang had contacted the youths in the south-central city of Oaxaca, chatting through a free-to-download game called Free Fire, which involves shooting at rivals with virtual firearms.

Calling himself "Rafael," another player of the same age, the suspected gang member offered one of the youths work "checking radio frequencies and watching out for police presence" in Monterrey, northern Mexico, reported national daily El Heraldo de México. The pay was unusually good — 8,000 pesos (almost $400) every two weeks — and the youth called two friends who also wanted to get in.

The three boys were set to take the bait, but an anonymous Mexican intelligence agent following the exchange while also posing as youth playing Free Fire, ultimately led police to a safe house in Santa Lucía del Camino, outside Oaxaca.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com


"I just want to make China understand that we are not going to step back."

— U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to defend Taiwan if it came under attack from China, an assertion that seems to move away from the U.S. stated policy of "strategic ambiguity." His administration is now facing calls to clarify this stance on the island.


Paramilitary soldiers are conducting a check operation in Indian-administered Kashmir, following a spate of targeted attacks on the region's Hindu minority that have left at least 33 dead since early October. The region, claimed in full by both India and Pakistan, has been the site of a bloody armed rebellion against India since the 1990s — Photo: Adil Abbas/ZUMA

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

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