Bethlehem (AsiaNews) – Sobhy Makhoul, chancellor of the Maronite Patriarchate in Jerusalem and director of the Christian Media Center, spoke to AsiaNews about the restoration work currently underway at the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Palestine.
For him, what is going on is "very interesting", something "beyond our expectations,” and is leading to “the uncovering of long-hidden wonders of the past". Still, the "work in progress" needs "new funding to move forward."
The wonders uncovered in recent months include a series of mosaics and artefacts that have an "extraordinary" artistic and historical value.
The Palestinian Authority, together with the Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Churches, which are responsible for the UNESCO World Heritage Site, spearheaded the basilica’s restoration.
The Christian Media Center recently released a video illustrating the work done so far. It shows the restored mosaics and the techniques used to achieve the desired results.
The Basilica of the Nativity was built in the 4th century AD under Emperor Constantine and contains the grotto and the manger where Jesus was born and laid. In the 6th century, the building was damaged by a fire and was rebuilt under Justinian.
According to tradition, in 614 the basilica was saved from destruction by the Persians thanks to the presence inside the church of the depiction of the Three Magi wearing Persian clothing.
In 2002, the church came under siege by Israeli troops who wanted to flush out some Palestinian militants who had sought refuge inside.
Experts have been calling for urgent action for quite some time to stabilise the walls and columns, blackened by fires, and repair the very unstable roof on a building visited by millions of pilgrims and visitors each year.
Originally, the Church of the Nativity was entirely covered in mosaics, which, due to time, carelessness and overlapping and uncoordinated repairs ended up hiding the former.
The latest restoration efforts began in 2013 when the Palestinian Authority embraced the project and decided to fund most of the work. A leading restoration company, the Piacenti SpA, based in Prato (Italy) was awarded the contract.
Thanks to the work of the technical staff, about 140 sq. metres have been restored and returned to their original splendour to the delight of visitors and believers.
The restoration of the mosaics should be complete by June. This will be followed by work on the columns painted in hot wax, the Corinthian capitals, the underground floors, and the pink stone of the baptismal font. Lastly, work will start on the Grotto, which is the heart of Christianity.
In addition to the Palestinian Authority, Italy, the Vatican, Greece, Russia and Germany provided funds for the restoration. So far, some US$ 8 million have been spent, with an additional US$ 11 million needed to complete the project.
Work started a year and a half ago and has led to the salvage of mosaics, three layers of the fifteenth-century roof that had rotten, and the trusses in Lebanese cedar, Venetian larch and Anatolian oak. These structures are fragile, subject to continuous renovations over the centuries by Venetian, Greek and Ottoman carpenters.
"In recent months, the restoration work has given back to the public really wonderful mosaics from the Crusader period,” Sobhy Makhoul said. However, “Work is proceeding relatively slowly because not all the funds needed for completion are available."
In the city, people “are interested" in what is going on, he added, but "we are looking at a work in progress with no time limit".
"Anyone can contribute to the work,” the Catholic leader added, “by supporting the fundraising action launched by an ad hoc commission set up by the Palestinian Authority."
The interesting thing is that "together with experts from Italy, many young Palestinians – engineers, workers, simple volunteers – have joined with great spirit and enthusiasm the project of boosting the value of the basilica.”
In addition, the restoration will “improve” the building and "attract more pilgrims and tourists."