This historic town, whose name means “Place of the Night Watch,” in reference to the shepherds who keep watch over their flocks by night, lies one kilometer east of Bethlehem. In the past, the Canaanites inhabited its numerous caves, and today it is the home of many churches and convents. Churches now mark the sites of Shepherds’ Fields, the Field of Ruth and the Well of Our Lady.
The village Beit Sahur is located almost one kilometre east of Bethlehem in a small valley with the Shepherds’ olive tree fields; some of the trees are 2000 years old. In the middle of the valley there is a cave which Saint Helen had converted to a Church dedicated to the Theotokos and it celebrates on 26th December. That was the cave of the Shepherds who on Christmas night heard the Angels’ hymn: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14).
This cave was one of the many churches Saint Helen built in 325 A.D. when she came to the Holy Land to find the Lord’s Sacred Cross. Historically we mention that out of all the churches the Saint had built, this cave is the only one that still keeps its original form. All others have been destroyed and reconstructed over the centuries. This cave served as a shepherds’ shelter initially, later on as a place for their worship and from the 4th century onwards it has been used as a church by the Christians. Consequently, as the cave is associated with Christ, it has been honoured as a holy place since the first Christian years. The chronicles of the first Christian pilgrims reference the cave, the first of which is that of Etheria, and mentions the one kilometre distance of the cave from the Basilica of the Nativity.
According to archaeological findings, the church is dated back on the first Byzantine period and it is the first Christian building in the area.
Nowadays the Holy Structure is comprised of five churches:
The natural cave which was converted into a church on the second half of the 4th century
The church of the cave, dated back on the 5th century
The Roof Chapel, also dated back on the 5th century
The 6th century Basilica
The church of the monastery, dated back on the 7th century
Finally, the new three-aisled church was built next to the underground church. Archaeological research in 1972-73 brought to light colourful mosaics which covered the floor of the natural cave. They belong to the 4th century and are similar to those of the Basilica of the Nativity.
From the 6th century onwards, the “Fields of the Shepherds” had been one of the most important and venerated shrines. Its relevantly easy access from the main road that leads to the monasteries of the desert and Judea from Jerusalem and Bethlehem and its physical proximity to the Basilica of the Nativity (the two places were joined together with a Litany on Christmas Eve), contributed to the decision of building a bigger Church here. Up to the beginning of our century, the Patriarch and the Holy Synod with thousands of Orthodox clergy and laymen came to the church of the cave, which is dedicated to the Theotokos and celebrated the Christmas Eve Divine Liturgy. Afterwards they would form a procession towards Bethlehem for Christmas’ Great Vespers. Today the schedule is different.
On Christmas Day afternoon, a Bishop from the Patriarchate of Jerusalem together with many members of the Brotherhood comes to Beit Sahur to celebrate the Great Vespers of the Theotokos’ Gathering.
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