Graffiti and selfies record pilgrims' progress at Bethlehem shrine
Academics are only now studying messages and paintings on the Church of the Nativity's columns dating back to the Crusades
Matthew Kalman in Bethlehem
The Guardian, Monday 23 December 2013 14.31 EST
Most visitors to the Church of the Nativity head straight for the grotto beneath the altar where, according to tradition, Jesus was born 2014 years ago. But among the throng of pre-Christmas pilgrims this year, Karen Stern, a historian at Brooklyn College, City University of New York, was more interested in the six-metre-high columns built to support the roof by the Emperor Justinian in the sixth century.
In the gloom of the ancient nave, Stern's torch picks out hundreds of tiny crosses scratched into the four rows of columns – a common practice of ancient pilgrims who wanted to make their mark on the holiest shrines in Christendom – long before Banksy helped transform the walls of Bethlehem into a canvas for world-class street art.
Almost invisible against the white-veined red stone, close inspection reveals hundreds of messages scrawled in ink from floor level to high on the columns, which have only come to the attention of scholars this year.
Much of the graffiti is more suited to a park bench than the birthplace of Jesus. Mazen and Mustafa simply wrote their names. Hassan signed each of the 44 columns with an artistic flourish. MAH tagged a column in 1940, just above YM, who visited in 1938. GS Diek signed off in English and Arabic in 1930.
The prayers are interspersed with scribbled passages from the Bible and Qur'an. "God remember me," is written in the stonework in several scripts and tongues. Ibrahim offers a prayer for his beloved wife, Suad, hoping she will have a happy life and that they will be "together for ever".
"Here in this blessed place, I write this in my own hand," proclaims B'shara Ibn al-Wafi, praying to God for the protection and prosperity of 21 family members. His prayer is undated, but the archaic names painstakingly listed suggest it is not recent.
There are more messages on the marble facing of the Holy Nativity grotto beneath the altar. "God have mercy on me, I am a sinner, Deacon Suleiman, 1960," confessed a Lebanese priest near the exit from the grotto in the Armenian chapel dedicated to the Magi. "God remember your servant Yusef and have mercy on his parents," says a prayer chiselled into the marble.
More prosaically, a wall nearby is covered with names of foreign visitors like a noticeboard in a backpackers' hostel.
"In the west today people are used to seeing graffiti as a type of defacement," said Stern, who has studied religious graffiti in Middle Eastern shrines, including a third-century building from Dura Europos in Syria that may be the oldest-known church prototype. "When you see graffiti in these shrines and pilgrimage sites, you realise that it's actually something quite different. People are literally leaving their marks in these places to be somehow witnessed by the divine and other worshippers," she said.
"It appears to be a sanctioned practice – not vandalism. People are going to these specifically religious places to write 'remember me'. It's very poignant and simple. This is graffiti as a form of veneration."
High on the columns are Crusader-era paintings depicting Jesus, the holy family and the saints. Beneath the Virgin Glykophilousa, an 1130 painting of a tenderly mothering Mary and infant Jesus, medieval pilgrims commissioned the original selfies – freelance votive images of themselves at prayer. The medieval French Crusader Lord de Coucy painted his family crest on a column sometime in the 12th century. There is another medieval coat of arms etched on the wall of the Chapel of Joseph, beneath the Catholic section of the church.
Lisa Mahoney, a medieval art historian at DePaul University, says there is a link between the centuries-old paintings high on the columns and the modern graffiti below.
"When people visited a place like this, a church that marked the site of a sacred event, it was important to them that they left some physical trace of their visit behind," Mahoney said. "This is the place where the divine entered the world so it makes it a special place for communicating with the divine. It's a place where there's been a real meeting of the earthly and heavenly realms."
Historians have noted the Crusader artwork, but the graffiti has so far attracted scant attention. Stern said it illuminates the life and practices of ordinary souls discarded by history. "We have these small voices from the past that otherwise would totally disappear," she said.