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.