The old city of Bethlehem sits on a high thin ridge at the edge of the desert, facing the Church of the Nativity. However, the original “little town” of the Gospels once stood on the hilltop now occupied by the church and its monasteries. In effect, as the church expanded, the town was pushed on to the ridge opposite. The entire built environment of Bethlehem has been shaped by the growth of the church: and one of the more remarkable, if forgotten facts is that almost all those responsible were women.
Bethlehem was a popular place of pilgrimage by the second century, but it was only when the Romans began to embrace Christianity that the fabric of the city changed. Many Roman women had amassed fortunes as heiresses, divorcees, widows, and even investors and entrepreneurs. However, this was wealth without power. As the excellent new book by classical historian Mary Beard, Women and Power, points out, political life in Rome was based around the principle that women had to be excluded from exercising their voices. The great attraction of Christianity was that it offered women a new platform, and throughout the fourth century, the spread of the faith was shaped and driven by women.
Helena, the bar maid who rose to become empress, is the most celebrated of the early church mothers, but there were many others. The imposing and beautiful Marcella, for instance, handpicked bishops and edited church liturgy from the salon that she ran in her austere yet, somehow, still opulent city-center palace. The indomitable Poimenia sailed to Egypt at the head of a private fleet accompanied by numerous bishops and personal confessors, from whence she continued a pilgrimage to Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Christianity had placed a female figure at its heart, and the cult of Mary certainly played its part in attracting these women. But far more important was the triumph over biology and the flesh so eloquently dramatized by Christ’s struggle against temptation in the desert. The celebration of piety allowed women to reject the idea that they had to re-marry after divorce or widowhood, and acquire a husband in order to exercise their will. Helena had been cast aside when her husband made a political second marriage. At almost 80 years of age, when her son Constantine became emperor, she seized power and used it in a very personal way. As her son’s emissary to the Eastern Empire, she built churches and spread wealth in a kind of New Deal program that kick-started an economy that had been moribund for a century. In Bethlehem, the church she commissioned was so unusual, following a design so unprecedented, we should take it as Helena’s own personal statement.
Helena’s original Church of the Nativity comprised a circular chapel that stood over the cave that pilgrims revered as the birthplace of Christ. Helena’s architects opened up the cave and built a gallery within the chapel. The building is described by the Spanish-Roman noblewoman Egeria, who attended an early Christmas mass there. The gallery functioned as a viewing platform that allowed worshippers to look down into the mystery below their feet. It does not take a Freudian analyst to work out the symbolism.
When Helena’s church was rebuilt after being destroyed by Samaritan rebels in the sixth century, it lost this unique feature. The grotto is now sealed with a cave-like roof and accessed by two sets of steps, to the north and south. I have spent so much time inside this grotto while living in Bethlehem, that if I think it has a womb-like quality perhaps it is just my imagination running away with itself; though local women, Muslim and Christian, pray here for help with childbirth and conception. Helena’s design was influential, used by Poimenia for the Chapel of the Ascension in Jerusalem, and in the design of a sixth century chapel built by Ikelia to commemorate the spot where a pregnant Mary paused to rest at the edge of Bethlehem.
The noblewoman Paula, a descendant of leaders of Rome’s equestrian order, was a protégée of Marcella. At the end of the fourth century, she moved her entire household to Bethlehem to be near the desert and the sight of Christ’s greatest struggle and triumph. She turned Bethlehem into a kind of vertically integrated publishing house for the work of her personal confessor, Jerome, the hubristic genius responsible for the Western Bible. Dozens of men and women were employed to copy Jerome’s writings, which were dispatched to subscribers across the Roman world. The monasteries, libraries, guest houses, canteens, and chapels that supported Paula’s imprint evolved into the campus of the Church of the Nativity we see today, later augmented by monasteries built in the 11th century by the Crusaders’ Armenian allies, and in the 15th by Franciscans acting as diplomats between east and west.
Later Roman women built new monasteries, leper hospitals, and palaces. However, their legacy was obliterated by a church that became increasingly patriarchal and unhappy with women’s influence. Ikelia not only built the Kathisma, or Seat of Mary, but also the monastery of St. Theodosius, the greatest seat of learning in the world in the seventh century. She was never rewarded with sainthood, however. Her church is a forgotten ruin beside the so-called Lieberman Highway, the road that joins the network of settlements around Bethlehem to downtown Jerusalem. The only surviving example of the design created for Helena in Bethlehem is the Dome of the Rock, the mosque in Jerusalem. The mosque sits above a cave in which Abraham is said to have almost sacrificed Isaac. The cult of Mary survived well into the Islamic Age: The mother, Mary, is mentioned far more times in the Quran than the son, Christ. But the architecture created to commemorate childbirth and women was appropriated to frame the relationship between a father and his son.
Bethlehem’s debt to powerful women may survive in oblique ways, however. It is home to female politicians including Bethlehem’s mayor, Vera Baboun, the town’s first female city boss since St. Paula, who will welcome presidents and patriarchs to the church over Christmas. Bethlehem is home to renowned artists Emily Jacir and Larissa Sansour; and also their sisters, award-winning filmmakers Annemarie Jacir and Leila Sansour (my wife, who taught me to love her hometown).
On Dec. 12, Leila screened her documentary, Open Bethlehem, to Congress. The hope is that U.S. lawmakers will gain a better grasp of the needs and future of the Holy Land by listening to Bethlehemites and Palestinian Christians than relying on the version taught in American Sunday schools. The Jacir sisters are building a cinema museum in their old family home in Bethlehem, while Annemarie has just scooped the two big prizes—best film and best actor—at the Dubai Film Festival for her film Wajib. It will be Palestine’s Oscar submission this year.
And so, even into the 21st century, a hidden legacy of female power endures in Bethlehem, not just in its churches, monasteries, palaces, and homes, but also in the platform this little town provides for the energy and creativity of its women.