A historic renovation of the Church of the Nativity is lifting spirits in the biblical town of Bethlehem ahead of Christmas, offering visitors a look at ancient mosaics and columns that have been restored to their original glory for the first time in 600 years.

The renovation started in 2013, a year after UNESCO declared the church a world heritage site, and is expected to be completed by the end of next year. The Palestinian Authority formed a committee of local Christian leaders to oversee the renovation and contracted an Italian company to carry out the project.

One of Christianity's most sacred shrines, the church was built in the 4th century by St. Helena over a cave where the Virgin Mary is said to have given birth. What pilgrims mostly see today is the basilica built by Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, who ruled from 527 to 565.

Neglected for decades before the renovation, the roof of the church was leaking, windows were broken, mosaics were covered in grime and walls and columns were damaged. After five years of work, it has been transformed.

Associated Press