Shepherds’ Fields

Shepherds’ Fields

Located in the town of Beit Sahour two kilometers east of Bethlehem, this is the site where the angel of the Lord is said to have appeared to shepherds to bring them good tidings of the birth of Jesus. Joined with a multitude of heavenly hosts, the angel sang “Glory to God in the Highest and on Earth, Peace among all people.”

There are two places identified as such today: the Latin one, north of the historic center, and the Greek one, to the southeast. Both places, 500 meters away from each other, stand on the remains of the Byzantine monastic complexes, which in turn incorporated previous settlements into themselves. Thus, it is not as helpful to use the Bible or the ancient first-hand accounts of pilgrims to understand where the shepherds had camped.

St. Jerome (who died in Bethlehem in about 419) had already provided information on the place where the shepherds kept watch during the Holy Night, calling it Migdal Eder, or the tower of the flock. Jerome’s account suggests that in the fourth century, at the Shepherds’ Field, the place of the announcement brought by the angels, was venerated. Higher up from the current chapel, the remains of a tower have also been found, likely identifiable as the Migdal Eder.

Much later in 1858, in the valley between the rocky heights, an official of the French Embassy, Carlo Guarmani, discovered the remains of a monastery on the hill of Khirbat Siyar al-Ghanam (or the ruins of the sheep enclosure). He then began excavations and claimed to have found the three “shepherds’ tombs” mentioned by the pilgrim, Bishop Arculfo, around the year 680 at the church of the Shepherds’ Field. So, that should have been the authentic field. Between 1889 and 1906, the Franciscans succeeded in buying the land and carrying out archaeological research, but systematic excavations were carried out only in 1951-52 by Fr. Virgilio Corbo.

As a result, the ruins belong to a monastery built around 400 A.D. that was expanded and partially rebuilt in the sixth century and that survived until around the year 800. The main rooms, particularly the grottos, were used for agricultural activities. In the small room that served as a bread oven there were two invocations and two depictions of Golgotha, which unfortunately were not preserved. The church of the monastery, which was rebuilt twice, stood on the lower terrace, in the northeastern corner, in a rather hard-to-reach place.

It is however established that the hill was already inhabited and being exploited at the time of Jesus: in the grottos, Herodian ceramics and coins dating back to the time of the first Roman procurators and of the First Jewish war were found.

Information and timetables

Summer Hours (April – September)
Mon-Sat: 8am-5pm
Sun: 8-11:30am/2-5pm

Winter Hours (October-march)
Mon-Sat: 8am-5:30pm
Sun: 8-11:30am/2-5pm

The Holy Monastery of the Shepherds in Beit Sahur

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.