The Holy Land: Nazareth, the town of Jesus
Our guide described Nazareth as one of the oldest cities in the Holy Land. “Archeological excavations of the area have found remains dating back some 3000 years to the time of the Bronze Age," said our guide. "It was the Crusader capital of the Galilee in the twelfth to the thirteenth century and had been destroyed and rebuilt many times. The first Prince of the Galilee, Tancred, rebuilt much of the town that he found in ruins." He then told us the meaning of Nazareth - a new branch or a flower - because it was overlooking the fertile Jezreel valley. But after passing the rolling hills of Galilee covered with ancient groves of olive trees along modern agricultural plants of mango trees, and banana plantation covered in plastic sheeting, it did not seem I was traveling into antiquity.
Nazareth is a quaint and pretty old town set along the rolling hills of Galilee. We walked the narrow cobbled street lined with religious artifacts and souvenir shops, and restaurants offering falafels and shawarmas. We heard the muezzin call to prayers and saw a mosque nearby as we walked uphill to see the highlight of our tour/pilgrimage in Nazareth: The Basilica of the Annunciation. What impressed upon me as we reached the top of the hill was the imposing church that looked very modern. Our guide said, “The basilica was designed to resemble a lighthouse - to reflect the meaning of the town's name Guardian that watches over the Jezreel valley.”
We first gathered outside the church to listen to our guide's narration. "We are standing in front of the biggest church in the Middle East." our guide explained, "This is the church, which according to the Bible the angel Gabriel came to the Virgin Mary and announced to her that she was going to carry the baby Jesus. I know you have lots of questions. One of your questions: how do we know that this is the right place?" He then explained the significance of the cave and the spring. "In the time of Jesus, the town was very small with less than 500 people, an almost abandoned area, where most of the people were farmers and lived in caves." We learned that there are two churches named 'the church of the Annunciation' in Nazareth: one for the Greek Orthodox and one for the Catholics. Our guide explained the differences between the two as they relate to water, "The Greek Orthodox church had the spring, the Catholic church had an aqueduct connected to a house believed to be the house of Mary. They are within seven-minute walk from each other, so both covered the area mentioned in the Bible."
The Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation was erected and consecrated in 1969. It was built over the ruins of a Byzantine church that was built over a shrine that was built over the spot believed to be part of the house of the family of Mary, the spot where she received the announcement from the angel Gabriel. Ceramics and stone columns on which the letter "M" (for Mary) carved in were found on the remains of the Byzantine church that was built in the 4th century. After the crucifixion of Jesus, it was believed that people worshiped secretly in the house of the family of Mary. Our guide asked if we saw the letter “M” embedded all over the church walls and windows. The architects tried to follow the pattern of carving the letter M over the limestone structure. We wandered through a gallery of mosaic or paintings of the Virgin Mary. Different representations of the image of the Virgin Mary sent from all over the world adorn the walls outside the main church.
Before entering the church, we admired the iron door that depicts the life of Jesus. The church was airy inside and looked modern with the main altar at the center. We found an altar in the cave, which Mary had lived. A robed deacon/priest and a group of nuns were standing around the gated altar, mumbling prayers. I wished I were able to join them to really feel like a pilgrim and feel fervor and the spirit of the site. But I felt more like a tourist rushed to go to the next pilgrim site.
Wandering around the church plaza gave me a clearer sense of the 'town of Jesus' though. We saw the Church of St. Joseph in the compound of the Basilica of the Annunciation - said to have been constructed over a cave - the site of Joseph’s home and workshop. Earlier, our guide connected the setting referenced in the Bible (Matthew 2:19-23).
Behind the basilica, we saw old residential buildings. I heard voices of children playing nearby. I enjoyed the site of birds and the sound they made as they flew from one rooftop to the next. We sat in the shaded area outside the Church of St. Joseph while waiting for the rest of the group. It was a pleasant place to sit and while away an afternoon, but we had another pilgrimage/tour attraction to see and shopping to do.
#1. The Basilica of the Annunciation looks modern both from the outside and inside.
#2. Inside the Basilica
#4. Relics from the Byzantine Church
#4. A view of the Basilica from the outside
#5. Outside the Church of St. Joseph in the compound of the Basilica.
NOTE: All photos by the author