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The Shepherds’ Field

By Qustandi Shomali

The precise location where the angels appeared to the shepherds is unknown, but several sites in Beit Sahour have been venerated by Christians over the centuries. St. Jerome (347–420 AD) believed the field to be identical with the location where Jacob, long before, had spread his tent beyond the Tower of Eder (Genesis 35:21). He also tells us that the tower itself lies about a thousand paces to the east of Bethlehem. Not long after St. Jerome’s time, a church was built nearby. Arnulfus (670 AD), a French bishop who traveled to the Holy Land and toured there for about nine months, related that he himself visited this church that contained the tombs of the three shepherds. The traditional custody of the site goes back to the time of the Roman Saint Paula and is centered on two locations that have been under the care of the Greek Orthodox Church and the Franciscans, respectively.

The cave and the Tower of Eder.

The first site, located in a broad valley dotted with olive trees, some of which are 2,000 years old, is called by local Christians Der Er-Ra’wat, meaning Convent of the Shepherds. It is a subterranean church dedicated to Mary, Mother of God. It is revered as the spot where an angel surrounded by a supernatural light appeared to the bewildered shepherds and chanted “Glory to God in the highest: and on earth peace to men of good will.” Three of the shepherds to whom the angel announced the birth of Christ were buried on the western side of the cave church; their tombs are still visible today.

Over this cave, St. Helena built a church and beside it a convent for nuns that was called the Convent of Gloria in Excelsis. Today, only the crypt of the church remains. Via a flight of 24 steps, visitors descend into a dark subterranean chapel that, at its eastern side, contains an altar with a number of paintings and a small apse behind it. Some fragments of a mosaic pavement can be seen on the floor, and faint traces of painting remain on the walls. The few ruins in the vicinity probably belong to the church of Gloria in Excelsis. Its crypt is still in use, and the key is kept by the Greek priest in Beit Sahour whose help is required to visit the church.

A new church was erected near the traditional site of the underground Church of the Shepherds. In 1972, during excavation work for the foundations of the new church, the remains of three different churches from the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries were found. To preserve these precious remains, it was decided to build the new church adjacent to rather than immediately above the cave.

The second site, known as Der Es-Siar (Sheepfold) lies one kilometer to the northwest of the Church of Er-Ra’wat. In the eighteenth century, the Franciscan fathers bought it from the Shomalis, a local Christian family, and carefully excavated the site to reveal a vast monastic agricultural establishment with cisterns and grottoes. Evidence in the field indicates that an early church that dates from the fifth century was enlarged in the sixth century, and that stones from the octagonal construction of the Basilica of the Nativity were employed in the construction of its apse. There are also Byzantine remains of mosaic floors, water channels, wine vats, and the ruins of a group of buildings that suggest a farmstead rather than a specifically monastic establishment.

A fresco in the basement of the Franciscan Church.

Nearby, there are the remains of a watchtower, known as Eder Tower (Tower of the Flocks), which is now incorporated into the Franciscan Hospice. Eusebius of Caesarea, a bishop and scholar, wrote that Eder Tower, located a thousand paces from Bethlehem, marked the place where the shepherds received the heavenly message. This location was also understood to be Migdal Eder, mentioned in the Old Testament (Genesis 35:21).

Excavation in Site One.

The new church in Site Two.

The new church in Site One.

The present church, which was erected between 1953 and 1954, stands over a cave that traditionally has been considered as having been inhabited by the shepherds. It is built in the shape of a tent, a polygon with five straight and five projecting sides. The light that floods the interior reminds visitors of the strong light present when the angels announced the divine birth. Inside the church, the frontal and the upper part of the altar are decorated with fifteen panels that depict scenes from the Annunciation to the arrival of the Holy Family in Egypt. The Italian artist Umberto Noni frescoed the three apses, and sculptor A. Minghette created the ten stucco angels for the dome. The church was designed by the celebrated architect Antonio Barluzzi, and both the laying of the foundation stone and the dedication took place on a Christmas Day. Every year on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, these fields are crowded with thousands of pilgrims singing Christmas carols to celebrate the joyous event

3-D Image: Shepherds Field:
courtesy of LionHeart.

  • Qustandi Shomali is full professor at Bethlehem University, where he teaches Palestinian literature, journalism, and translation. With degrees from universities in Algeria (1970), Canada (1972), and France (Sorbonne, 1976), he possesses a wide range of personal and academic interests that include history, literature, and cultural tourism. He has published many books, including a series of academic studies about the Palestinian press (1990–96), Literary and Critical Trends in Modern Palestinian Literature (Jerusalem 1990), The Nativity in Bethlehem and Umbria (Perugia, 2000), and A Guide to Bethlehem and the Holy Land (2015).

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