BETHLEHEM (Palestinian Territories) • Masked for centuries by the soot of candles and lately by scaffolding, the mosaics of Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity have been restored to their Crusader-era splendour in time for Christmas.
Over the past 15 months, experts have cleaned and repaired surviving fragments of the 12th-century masterworks, preserving 125 sq m of what was once 2,000 sq m of glittering gold and glass. The rest has been eaten away by wear, humidity, wars and earthquakes.
Now, the restored remains shine against the white walls above the heads of visitors to the church in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem that marks the traditional birthplace of Jesus.
Overlooking the nave are seven angels framed in gold who appear to have landed on a carpet of vivid green grass. Each is placed between windows symbolising divine light.
One of the angels was discovered during the restoration work beneath a layer of plaster.
"These mosaics are made of gold leaf placed between two glass plates," Mr Marcello Piacenti, who supervises the work on behalf of his Italian family restoration firm Piacenti, told Agence France-Presse. "Only faces and limbs are drawn with small pieces of stone."
One of the partially destroyed angel figures was restored using different materials from the original so as not to mislead future archaeologists.
Palestinian Authority (PA) engineer Ibrahim Abed Rabbo said the transformation caused by the restoration is striking. "When you entered the church before, you could not even make out that there were mosaics, it was so black," he said.
In a rarity for the period, the works were signed by the craftsmen responsible, Mr Abed Rabbo said.
In the choir of the church, the visitor can now see an image of St Thomas, incredulous at the resurrection, poking his finger into Christ's wound from his crucifixion. Elsewhere, there is the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
"It's meticulously detailed, it gives the impression of being brand new," said French tourist Patricia Lieby, 44, visiting the church for the first time. "I have never seen a mosaic like this outside Jerusalem, it's sublime."
Father Asbed Balian is the senior cleric of the Armenian church at the basilica, where property rights are shared with the Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox faiths. After seeing the completed restoration, he said, he was "stunned". "Spiritually, we feel more exalted," he added.
On the nave walls, the restorers also gave renewed life to paintings dating from 1127 and the end of the 12th century, when wealthy pilgrims commissioned artists to paint their family or home region saints, for display in the holy site.
The first Church of the Nativity was built in the 4th century by Roman Emperor Constantine and his mother Helene. That original structure was believed to have been destroyed by fire, but Mr Piacenti said no trace of burning was found during the restoration work, leading him to think an earthquake was a more likely cause.
The Byzantines rebuilt the basilica in the 6th century and the Crusaders later added to it.
Due to disagreements between the three faiths responsible for the site, the building had gone unrepaired since the middle of the 19th century.
In 2002, bullet holes pocked the front of the church after a five-week Israeli army siege, when some 100 Palestinians took refuge inside.
PA restoration consultant Afif Tweme said the restoration would "influence tourism for sure". He hopes the economic benefits will "persuade more of Bethlehem's dwindling local Christian population to stay in the city rather than move away".