“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
“Come and see.”
The above conversation took place between two of Jesus Christ’s would-be disciples, Nathanael and Philip, some 2,000 years ago and has been recounted many times over through the Bible.
Nazareth back then was a city steeped in vice. Against a backdrop of crime and derelict morals, a young innocent virgin was told she would give birth to the son of god. This son went on to spend his childhood and youth in Nazareth’s by-lanes and eventually lead a religion that has 2.4 billion followers today or almost one-third of the global population.
Though Bethlehem is more closely associated with Christ during Christmas, I thought I’d write about his hometown instead this festive season, and the sites connected with his home and family—for is that not what Christmas is about? A time for celebration with family. 😊
Like all sites in Israel, Nazareth’s chief claim to fame—Mary’s Annunciation—has multiple sides as well. The Roman Catholic version and the Greek Orthodox version in this case. While the former is grand and popular, the second is mystical and intimate.
But it does not end there. I went to Nazareth in search of Christ’s hometown and whilst at it I got to learn a whole lot of new things, like I did everywhere else in Israel.
For instance, the Hebrew word for Christians is Notzrim meaning “from Nazareth” and Jesus’ original Hebrew name was Joshua. I would never have guessed it!
That Christianity started off as a sect in Judaism and when the Romans labelled Jesus as “The King of Jews” just before his crucifixion, they were not exactly wrong. Jesus was a Jew. Born a Jew, and died a Jew.
Lastly, the concept of “Christians” as a separate religion only developed in the second half of the 1st Century AD, a good few decades after Christ’s lifetime, thanks to St. Paul who spread the faith to non-Jews. Before this, his followers were still called Jews. And the very word Christ is derived from the Hebrew word Messiah, the “Saviour.”
What was also interesting for me was that Christian Nazareth was the Jewish State of Israel’s most Arab city. The White Mosque in the Old City is taken in the same breath as Mary’s Well by travellers.
You don’t need a guide for Nazareth. Grab a map and wander its by-lanes and two main streets where pilgrims become travellers and travellers become pilgrims. Oh, and maybe this post will help you ensure you don’t miss out on anything. ❤
[Note: Top image: Detail, Mary and Jesus Mosaic by France inside Basilica of the Annunciation, Nazareth.]
It all started here. That is, at least according to the Roman Catholic Church. The Basilica of the Annunciation is a 1969 structure built over previous churches on the site where St. Gabriel gave the Virgin Mary the momentous message, “the Annunciation”—that she was to give birth to Jesus, the son of god.
Grotto of the Annunciation: The original cave-home of Mary and the Basilica’s centre of attraction where the Annunciation actually took place. Though usually packed with pilgrims, if you hang around long enough, you’ll get the place to yourself.
Atop the Grotto, is the Basilica, the largest church in the Middle East. It is built in a heavy architectural style called Italian Brutalism characterised with exposed concrete and stark geometric lines.
In dazzling contrast to the architectural heaviness are these gorgeous, airy mosaics of Mary and Jesus which line its walls. They offer fascinating insights into different cultures and how each interprets this central Christian theme in their own unique way! Clockwise, starting top left, is the mosaic from America, Japan, Mexico, and Canada.
The mosaics inside the church carry on onto the outer corridors. A key design feature of the Basilica, there are 61 mosaics in total. To see the full set, click here.
Next door to the Basilica is the Church of St. Joseph. In its courtyard stands the above effigy of Joseph, Jesus Christ’s father. The church is built on the supposed site of his carpentry workshop. Christ spent many a day in this workshop as a youth, by his father’s side.
Remember, I said there are many sides to every story in Israel. Some believe Mary’s Well, fed by Mary’s Spring since ancient times, is where the Annunciation actually took place. Marked by a modern, public fountain, half a kilometre away from the Basilica, it functions as a base for pigeons and Israeli soldiers now.
This enigmatic and compact 18th Century church festooned with exotic icons near Mary’s Well is the Greek Orthodox St. Gabriel Church. According to the Eastern Church tradition this is where St. Gabriel visited 14-year-old Mary and told her, her role in the scheme of things.
Mary’s Spring, the exact spot where the Annunciation is believed to have happened, bursts forth in the underground 12th Century Crusader chapel inside. It is customary for Eastern Orthodox Christian pilgrims to fill up their water bottles here to take back home.
Some sites are less disputed. And also, almost empty.
One such is the Synagogue Church, nestled deep in the Souk [local market]. According to custom, this marks the spot of the ancient synagogue where Jesus studied and prayed. It is also where he preached one Sabbath day and declared himself to be the Messiah, only to infuriate his own townspeople.
Much has changed since Christ’s time. And so has Nazareth.
But in the old Arab city, travellers and pilgrims still come from afar, staying at the various inns, in search of Christ’s hometown. All armed with one common story—the story of Christ and his human parents, Joseph and Mary.
- Getting to Nazareth: I took the Abraham Shuttle from Tel Aviv. It leaves at 10.30 AM, 5 days a week, US$14.
- Nazareth to Jerusalem: Though there is an Abraham Shuttle to Jerusalem I took Egged Bus #955 which leaves at 8.40 am so I could reach Jerusalem before noon. The bus leaves from opposite McDonalds at Paulus VI Street.
- Getting around: I walked. The old city is stepped. Public transport is only available on the outer main streets.
- Eating: For the best shawarmas and falafel in town, don’t miss Falafel Kazan in the Old City.
- Staying there: I stayed in a private room at the 200-year-old Arab mansion Fauzi Azar Inn for two nights [the most charming guest house in Nazareth], and at Al-Hakim Guest House for one night [has the most delicious breakfast in Nazareth].
- Other attractions: Cactus Ancient Bath House [excavated 2,000-year-old Roman baths] and Nazareth Village [recreated village of Jesus’ times].
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[Note: This blog post is part of a series from my solo and independent travel to Israel for 15 days in November 2019. To read more posts in my Israel series, click here.]