Sunday, December 26, 2010


The austere and simple character of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, one of the most important sites of Christianity, contrasts with the current season's paraphernalia: , awesome lighting arrangements, special decorations, giant and original trees and winter decorations (ironically,even in places like my country, wehre Chriistmas is in summer) of shopping centers in an era devoted to consumption.
I believe that the Church of the Nativity is of great importance, even if the reader is a believer or not, because of its historic architectural value (one of the oldest churches in the Byzantine style),and for being a conspicuous example of the relationship between architecture and the symbolic value of religious manifestations. This post will focus on both aspects.

Iglesia de la Natividad en los 1920s Church of the Nativity in the 1920s

Bethlehem, Bethlehem, whose name literally means "House of Meat" is a historic city in Palestine, located about 8 km from Jerusalem, the de facto capital of Israel. Surrounded by arid hills, with typical desert climate, Bethlehem has grown into a major Palestinian city.
Bethlehem view from the tower of the Church of the Nativity (1862)

Bethlehem is mentioned several times in the Bible , even from the Old Testament. Formerly called Ephrata, it was there where Rachel was buried ( Genesis 35:19 ) and it was also the land of King David. Given its proximity to Jerusalem, Bethelehm was, according to the gospels, the alternative chosen by Joseph, after finding no lodging in the ancient capital of Judea.

Bethlehem today.

It is ironic that in the birthplace of Christianity most people profess the Islamic religion. Bethlehem's urban landscape is more populated by minarets than by church belltowers, so we may have to update that Carol " Jingle Bells . "

Bethlehem has historically been a place for pilgrimages and religious disputes. Because of its proximity to Jerusalem, it is considered a sacred place of great importance. In fact both cities have been linked by their history, geographical setting and symbolism, recognized by three religions: Christianity, Islam and Judaism.Only recently this union between Jerusalem and Bethlehem has been fractured by the so-called "Wall of Shame", a barrier that divides Israel and Palestine and whose brutal stabbing appears as a scar on the beautiful ocher landscape of Judea.

Come, shepherds, come, come to Bethlehem ... but first have to cross the strict and unfriendly control in the Israeli-Palestinian border.


The Gospels of Matthew and Luke mention Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, but do not specify an exact location, even references. Only Luke wrote that Christ was born in a manger because there was no room at the inn "( Lk 2:7 ) How can we know that the church is standing on the actual birthplace of Christ?

There are two clues about that. The first one is the apocryphal Gospel of St. James , son of Zebedee, which states that Jesus was born in a cave, which makes sense since there were many caves in the area, annexed to houses, where livestock is often kept.
The second one comes from the Emperor Hadrian (76-138 AD), who had built a shrine honoring the Roman god Adonis in the cave that the early Christians venerated as the place where Jesus would be born. When they tried to suppress this new religion, in fact they underlined the place they were trying to hide (although some argue that it was the Christians who took over the temple of Adonis for his own religion).

But the truth is that there are no specific records that comfirm that this was the precise location of the birth of Christ, unlike the Golgotha in Jerusalem, which shows more clearly the place of his crucifixion. It is impossible to affirm or deny that indeed the birthplace of Christ is the one marked on the Church of the Nativity, nor is it impossible to prove that Jesus was born on December 24, but what this building means is more important than its exact geographical location or chronological accuracy. It is then that the basilica becomes important as a symbolic site and its architecture has provided a framework that marks a significant event for millions of people throughout history. In the words of Geoffrey Broadbent, the meaning becomes more important than significant.

Sketch of the Church of the Nativity in 1925.


In 326, St. Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine, ordered the construction of a church on top of the cave, culminated in 339. It was a small octagonal building with an area of 4 m in diameter in the center, where the cave revered as the birthplace of Christ was revered.

That first church mosaics are still visible, illustrating the genealogy of Jesus as the Gospel of Matthew, as well as floral and geometric compositions.

A fire destroyed that church, so that in 530 Justinian built the current basilica. In 614 the Moors invaded and razed Bethlehem, but the church was saved. It is said that the Islamists were moved by the representation of the three wise men in Persian attire (the magi in general were followers of Zarathustra, a Persian prophet who promoted one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world and greatly influenced Judaism during the exile in Babylon.)

Church of the Nativity in 1947, the creation of the state of Israel.

The church flourished again during the invasion of the Crusaders, a time when the interior was redecorated. However, it deteriorated during the occupation of the Mamelukes and Ottomans.
Since 1852 the custody of the church is in charge of the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenian Church.


The Church of the Nativity is located atop a hill and consists, in addition to the basilica, three convents.

Opposite the church there is a large square, an atrium called the Manger Square, which is usually flooded with people during Christmas celebrations.

The basilica itself is a rectangular building with three circular apses that give the shape of a cross. These are the main altar in the background and the altars of the Virgin and the Circumcision on the sides. Upon entering, we are received by a narthex , a sort of inner court was added after the building of the temple and in general is a transitional space between the exterior and the sacred space of the church.

A curious detail is that entrance is a small opening, called the Door of Humility. Formerly in Byzantine times the entry was an arcade, but during Ottoman times the entrance was reduced to prevent the infidels from entering the church horse.

Inside, the nave is divided into five islands defined by 4 rows of 11 columns each.The height of the main space suggests a monumental space while allowing the entry of light, while the lateral spaces offer a more intimate experience, ideal to the prayers of pilgrims.

Interior of the Church of the Nativity in 1867

The columns are decorated with figures of saints, made in the twelfth century during the rule of the Crusaders, but are darkened by the passage of time. Some of the figures include those of canonized kings, like St. Canute, king of England in 1017 and St. Olaf, King of Norway in 1016. Furthermore, in the lower parts of the columns there are many graffiti, made by pilgrims over the centuries.

Details of the columns of the nave.

Altar of the Virgin, one of the lateral semicircular apses

The wooden roof corresponds to the fifteenth century and originally was covered with lead, both donated by King Edward IV of England. Unfortunately the lead was cast by the Turks to make munitions during their war against the Venetians, and today the roof is in poor condition.

Since it is an Orthodox church, it is noticeable the presence of an iconostasis , a wall decorated with icons, located opposite the altar.

But undoubtedly the most important element of the church on the Grotto of the Nativity, located behind the altar and is in charge of the Orthodox Church. Some semicircular stairs give way to a narrow passage.

Given the large number of pilgrims, visiting the cave lasts just seconds, maybe a minute, before an Orthodox priest hurried us out.

Inside, in a marble-covered space, a silver star is located, marking the spot where it says Jesus was born, and bearing the inscription Hic Virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est.

In 1853 the theft of the Silver Star was an important factor in the outbreak of the Crimean War , between France, the Ottomans and Russia.

Other outbuildings include the Chapel of St. Jerome, who was the one who translated the Old Testament into Latin, and the church of Santa Catalina, ruled by Catholics.

Details of the Chapel of St. Jerome.
This bas-relief called The Tree of Jesse is the work of Polish sculptorCzesław Dźwigaj and located in the Church of Santa Catalina, which was a gift from Pope Benedict XVI during his visit to the Holy Land.

Junzo, Jan, My Parents and Emily. Thank you very much for joining us during our visit to Bethlehem.

Friday, November 19, 2010



Kiyomizu or "Pure Water" Temple (清水寺), located in Higashiyama, Kyoto's eastern mountains, of is one of the most impressive and famous Japanese traditional complexes, is a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1994 and was one of the 21 candidates to be elected as the new 7 wonders of the world .

The history of Kiyomizu dera (dera means Buddhist temple while ji or  jinja implies a Shinto shrine) is older than Kyoto itself. Legend has it that in 778 Enchin, a monk from Nara, inspired by a dream traced the path of a limpid stream until he found a crystalline waterfall on the the hillside of the Otowa mountain, and in that the place he built a small temple in honor of Kannon, the female deity of goodness. Two years later, in 780, the famous general Sakanoue Tamuramaro walked by the place after chasing a deer for his pregnant wife, because at that time it was believed that the blood of a deer was good for fertility. Enchin severely scolded Tamuramaro for killing the animal, so the ashamed general built a temple in honor of the pure water of the waterfall, which he called kiyo mizu and finished it in 798. The original building lasted until 1629 when it was destroyed by fire, being rebuilt in 1633. Today there are still several areas under restoration.

Preceding the temple, which sits on top of the hill, two attractive walkways, are historic survivors of the 1864 fire that destroyed 80% of Kyoto, the effects of Second World War and the turmoil of post-war modernistm which has destroyed much of the city's rich historical urban landscape. These narrow and steep alleys, called Ninen-zaka and Sannen-zaka (their names mean "slope of two years and slope of three years" respectively, and are named after the superstition that if you stumble on Ninen-saka you will endure two years of bad luck, and three years if you fall in Sannen-zaka) are authentic examples of the traditional urban environment of ancient Japanese cities, defined by small businesses of tiny windows, with two-story houses located in their back. Both lanes converge in another passage, the Kiyomizu-zaka, which continues his ascent to the temple offering interesting perspectives to the pedestrian, and of course, numerous shops which offer examples of  the famous school of ceramic Kiyomizu-yaki among other traditional items.

At the end of the narrow passage, the view is opened to a wide perspective of the Kiyomizu Temple. The composition and terraced successive elements, together with bleachers and platforms that give a superb and imposing character.

Kiyomizu dera complex consists of twenty buildings, the most important being those discussed below:

Located on an atrium, the so-called Gate of the two Kings is a two-storey block with a cypress bark roof, built in 1478. On either side, two separate kings and two koma-inu lions protect the temple from evil spirits.

After another set of stairs we found the Eastern Gate, another two-story vermilion and white structure, symbolizing the reference to its Chinese Buddhist roots, covered by a roof supported by eight cypress columns. It was built in 1607 in the elaborate style of the Momoyama period.

Also called the Bell Tower. It is located to the left of Sai-mon, and though it was built in 1596, the bell was cast in 1478.

Sanju no to
It is a 3-story pagoda located east of Sai-mon. It is the tallest 3-story pagoda in Japan. From a distance, it dominates the view with its graceful slenderness; up close, it is notable for the fine delicacy of its details and decoration.

Behind the pagoda, there is a series of smaller buildings not usually open to the public, such as a library Sutra Kyodo which houses sacred Buddhist texts, the Kaisan-do (Founder's lounge) that contains colored figures and the Todoroki-mon or central gate, with similar characteristics to the already mentioned structures. A Japanese contribution to the temples imported from China is the inclusion of a fountain as a purifying element for the visitor, and in the case of Kiyomizu dera it takes the form of a dragon spewing water from his mouth.

A hall donated by Asakura Sadakaga in 1633, which contains a statue of a Kannon of 11 faces and a stone representing Buddha's footsteps. The building is raised on a stone base and surrounded by a railing.

It is the main and most representative building of Kiyomizu dera.

It is a structure of 58 mx 27 m, standing on a creek and supported by 139 wooden columns, which can reach up to 15 meters high. Interestingly, these piles are placed on stone bases, without foundations. The columns support a wide terrace that served as proscenium for dances, and at both sides are roofed galleries where the monks orchestras used to be locate.

3D image Carlos Zeballos. Source M. Sawada

Hon-do section. Source Architectural Kyoto Map

Inside the Hondo there are two shrines, the external one or gejin, of wooden floor and simple ornament has but outstanding views, and the  internal one or naijin, of stone floor and prolific interior.

3D image Carlos Zeballos. Source M. Sawada View of the GEJIN . On the left you can see the NAIJIN

The roof of the hall is a huge coverage that reaches 16 m. high  and cantilevers over the terrace. Differently to other Japanese temples whose roofs are covered with tiles, the Hon-do's roof is covered with cypress shingles. It is flanked by smaller hedges to the sides and one roof that protrudes to the east side, called mokoshi.

3D image Carlos Zeballos. Source M. Sawada

Continues a series of smaller buildings, located in front of the broken L, among which is the Okuno-in, where the first hermitage was built. From its terrace one can enjoy a prime location to spectate the Hon-do and the panorama of the southern Kyoto city.

Otowa no taki
About 15 feet below the level of Okuno in, is the waterfall that gave name and origin to the temple. The "Sound of Feathers waterfall" runs through three channels stone. It is said to have healing powers, so it is common to see rows of Japanese drinking from its waters. Interestingly its location in the heart of the valley, protected by nature and architecture as the symbolic center of the temple.

This is another pagoda that is located south of the complex, and also visible from Hon-do, emerging from the trees.

Some experts like Mr. and Mrs. Young have associated the form of the Japanese and Chinese pagodas with the stupas in India.

A stimulating tour

One aspect that catches my attention when visiting Kiyomizu dera is the evocative journey that accompanies visitors from their ascension through  Ninnen-zaka or Sansen-zaka. The narrow, winding passages unfold prompting the visitor to a unique pilgrimage. Once in the temple, the buildings are arranged leading the visitor through a series of spaces, channels and lounges, which are brilliantly succeeded, allowing to experience changes of scale ranging from the protected to the open nature. The combination of mass and open space frames the breathtaking scenery of the city from the top of the hill.

Aerial view taken from "The Urban Space of Japan"

The integration of the building fabric to the topography offers the visit multiple choices, ranging from perching on a panoramic viewpoint, entering  into a thick forest, making contact with the water from the waterfall or enjoying the exquisite view of a garden that is organized around a pond.

Photo courtesy of Tobias Wittig

The integration of architecture with landscape is remarkable, not only for the materials used and the spatial fluidity that runs between the buildings, but because the form of hedges simulates the continuity of the mountain. As a counterpoint to the mass of temples of pyramidal roofs, highlights the verticality of slender  pagodas and the contrast of the profile of the mountain forest.

Final Anecdotes 
This traditional temple has many anecdotal occurrences that I would like to briefly comment.
- During the Edo period, many people used to jump from the terrace of the Hon-do, as an act of courage. In fact, of 234 jumps, more than 85% survived the fall on the trees. From this tradition comes the Japanese saying "jump from the terrace of Kiyomizu dera" to refer to a glorious or brave act.
- It is said that in the eighth century a pregnant woman came to pray at the Koyasu-no-to pagoda and the baby turned out to become the Empress Kokken, making it a favorite destination for pregnant women.
- As mentioned, it is said that drinking water from the waterfall Otowa no taki has good properties for health, success in studies and longevity. However, water should be drank from only one of the waterfalls, because if you drink from all three, you will get opposite effects, as divine punishment for greed.
- North of the temple is the Jishu shrine where there are a couple of stones called Mekura ishi, separated from each other by about 20 meters. It is said that you have to walk from one to another with your eyes closed, repeating the name of your beloved one. If you get to the correct destination, it will ensure a happy love life, if not ... you better find another partner...

Photo by MykReeve