The small, unassuming entrance (above) to the Church of the Nativity (below) in Bethlehem belies the importance of this site to Christianity. The infant Jesus is said to have been born here, in a small cave beneath the floor of the church. Today, a golden star in the cave floor (below) marks the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth.

The first Christian emperor, Constantine, had the original Church of the Nativity constructed above the site. Dedicated on May 31, 339 B.C., Constantine’s church consisted of a square hall (about 90 feet on each side) divided by four rows of columns into a hall with four aisles. At the northeastern end of the church, directly above the cave, was a raised octagonal apse, each side of which was 15 feet long. Pilgrims could view the cave through a 13-foot-wide hole in the center of the apse floor.

In the late fourth century, the church father Jerome moved to Bethlehem, where he translated the Old and New Testaments into Latin—a translation known as the Vulgate because it was done in the “vulgar,” or “common,” language of his day. Legend has it that Jerome used one of the caves beneath the church (adjacent to the nativity cave) as his study.

The church was at least partially razed in the sixth century by the Byzantine emperor Justinian, who then built a larger edifice on Constantine’s foundations. Justinian had his builders imitate the style of the original church’s columns, leading many modern investigators to believe that all of the capitals date to Constantine. Since Justinian’s day, only a few changes have been made to the building, in spite of earthquake and fire.