The Real History of Nazareth: Where an Angel Revealed Himself to Mary

Legend has it an angel revealed himself to Mary and announced she would give birth to Jesus at the site of Nazareth's Basilica of the Annunciation. What can historians tell us about this storied site?

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Fireworks over the Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation.Credit: Hanan Isachar

The following is an excerpt from "Churches and Monasteries in the Holy Land" (first published in Hebrew), the result of a collaboration between author David Rapp, an art historian and critic, and photographer Hanan Isachar. They are currently documenting liturgical Christian celebrations in the Holy Land.

NAZARETH – The modern Basilica of the Annunciation rises over the buildings of Nazareth and is visible from a distance. The church's main focus is the Grotto of the Annunciation, a cave where, according to tradition, the angel revealed himself to Mary and announced that she would conceive from the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Son of God.

Pilgrims began making their way to Nazareth early in the history of Christianity. In a letter written at the end of the fourth century, Saint Jerome referred to Nazareth as the “Galilean flower”. He claimed that the town’s name derived from the Hebrew word netzer ("sprout" or "branch"). The word is also used in Isaiah 11:1 -- "And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots." Saint Jerome argued that the verse from the Old Testament foretells the arrival of Christ.

The Christmas procession in Nazareth. Photo by Hanan Isachar

A modest shrine probably already existed in Nazareth at that time. A mosaic in the basilica dates to the fifth century and bears an inscription in Greek that means “Conon, deacon of Jerusalem," who may have helped establish a church there. Over the ensuing centuries, the different conquerors of Nazareth brought about the destruction of most of the city’s Christian holy sites. The church at the site of the Annunciation was also damaged.

The Crusaders’ arrival in the city in 1099 changed the picture. Nazareth was declared the seat of a bishop and a large church was built on the remains of earlier structures; it was among the largest ecclesiastical buildings in the Crusader kingdom. The church was decorated with funds provided by the French knight Tancred, who became the head of the Crusader principality in the Galilee.

In 1187, during the battles between Saladin and the Crusaders, many of Nazareth’s Christian residents found temporary shelter in the Basilica of the Annunciation. Following Saladin’s victory in the battle at the Horns of Hattin, the Crusaders lost the city. Many of its Christian residents were slaughtered, but the crypt, which is known as the Grotto of the Annunciation, and some of the ecclesiastical structures surrounding it, remained standing for many years.

It was only in the thirteenth century that the Basilica of the Annunciation was methodically destroyed at the orders of the Mamluk Sultan Baybars. The site remained neglected until the seventeenth century, but pilgrimage to it was permitted over the years and Franciscan monks ultimately returned and settled nearby.

The Franciscans acquired the grounds in 1620. Initially, they were forbidden to build there. The ban was revoked in the eighteenth century, although severe time restrictions were imposed: the Ottoman authorities demanded that the work be completed within six months, which it was. Orderly excavations were conducted at the site only when the church was expanded, towards the end of the nineteenth century, revealing part of the ancient Byzantine church that once stood there.

In the twentieth century, it was decided to rebuild the Basilica of the Annunciation almost from scratch. In the first decade of that century, Father Prosper Viaud led archaeological excavations that uncovered remains from Crusader times, including five spectacular capitals dedicated to, among others, the Apostles. These capitals, along with many other finds, are on display in the museum next to the basilica.

In the middle of the twentieth century, additional excavations were conducted under the supervision of Father Bellarmino Bagatti. The remains of an ancient house of prayer and a baptismal font were uncovered. The excavations also turned up centuries-old inscriptions, including the introduction of the story of the Annunciation, as related in the New Testament, and a reference to Jesus as the Son of God. These inscriptions and the many other finds from the region led Bagatti to hypothesize that a Judeo-Christian community existed at the site during the first few centuries AD and that its worship centered on the Annunciation.

The Franciscans turned to Italian architect Giovanni Muzio. He was commissioned to design a modern complex that would incorporate the remains of the Grotto of the Nativity and the buildings that were established above and around it over the years. The new church is a massive building, significant parts of which consist of exposed concrete.

Those hoping to find a traditional church in Nazareth will be surprised. The Franciscans aspired to present a contemporary structure that would be as relevant today as it was throughout history. In accordance with Muzio’s proposal, two churches were built on separate levels, one atop the other.

The Christmas procession in Nazareth. Photo by Hanan Isachar

The lower structure follows the plan of the Crusader church, although a few meters were trimmed from its western edge in order to distance it from the tumultuous streets of contemporary Nazareth. Not much remains of the Crusader church, but the walls that did survive are impressive due to their great thickness. Thanks to the tons of concrete at the base of the modern church, the central nave does not rest on a row of supporting columns and, thus, the space remains open. The massive bases of the Crusader-era piers stand out. Not far from them are stone pillars from Byzantine times that were reused in a later period.

The archaeological site is at the heart of the lower structure. Its main focus is the Grotto of the Annunciation. Visitors can also discern the remains of a Byzantine chapel, mosaics and a baptismal font. Other visible remnants may have been part of a house of prayer that stood at the site in the first few centuries AD. Not far from the archaeological remains, still in the lower church, three impressive modern apses were built facing east, in accordance with the original plan of the Crusader church that stood here.

The church on the upper floor is a huge structure, covering over 1,000 square meters. The ceiling of its central nave rises to a significant height and is topped by a large dome in the form of an inverted Madonna lily, the symbol of Mary. The dome indicates the location of the grotto. The upper church’s central apse is adorned with a mosaic dedicated to the principles of the Catholic Church, as they crystallized in the Middle Ages and were reformulated by the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in 1962-1965: Unam, Sanctam, Catholicam et Apostolicam (“One, Holy, Catholic, and continuing in the path of the Apostles.”)

Works of art from around the globe hang on the walls surrounding the courtyard of the church. All of them are dedicated to Mary. The various communities that sent portraits of the Mother of Christ depict her with different ethnic identities, demonstrating her significance to Christians worldwide.

Church of the Annunciation, Saint Gabriel, and Mary’s Well

Inside the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, Saint Gabriel, and Mary’s Well, visitors still can see the gurgling water at the point where tradition tells the Archangel Gabriel revealed himself to Mary.

The giant Christmas tree in front of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, Saint Gabriel, and Mary’s Well. Photo by Hanan Isachar

The New Testament does not provide many details regarding the event. Various apocryphal writings tried to fill in the missing information. One such text is The Infancy Gospel of James, also known as the Protoevangelium of James, which was composed in the second half of the second century. The author, who tradition identifies as the Apostle James, relates that Mary went out to draw water from a well and heard a voice blessing her. Mary returned home, where an angel approached and conveyed the message that she would conceive from the word of God.

This version of the story neutralizes the sting of the debate over the Annunciation’s location, since it presents two revelations at two different places. Indeed, the Greek Orthodox believe that their church in Nazareth was built where Mary went to draw water on the day that Archangel Gabriel revealed himself to her for the first time.

As early as the start of the twelfth century, pilgrims were writing about a well above which was a chapel dedicated to the Annunciation. Orthodox Christians apparently maintained the building. Some pilgrims also reported seeing a public fountain from which, it was said, Jesus would draw water as a youth.

In the seventeenth century, Catholic Christians were permitted to visit the site that was already known as Mary’s Well and perhaps even renovated it. However, control was transferred to the Greek Orthodox in 1741, at the orders of Muslim ruler Dahir al-Umar. A new church was built there and incorporated both the chapel and the well.

Today, once inside the church, a gate that stands on Crusader columns leads to a flight of steps that descends to a narrow, arched hall. Tiles from Crusader times and others that were imported from Turkey during Ottoman times are preserved here. At the end of the hall is a round niche and water runs in an ancient trough at its bottom. It is called Mary’s Well, although the water is channeled for several dozen feet from a spring outside the church to this spot. A painting of Mary carrying Baby Jesus hangs on the wall and small containers make it possible to taste the water. Stairs can be seen clearly on the side of the niche and the running water. In the past, they led straight up to street level.

Starting in the twelfth century, efforts were made to make the spring’s water available for public use. The Ottomans, who gained control over the region at the beginning of the sixteenth century, eventually opened a fountain in a nearby square. Today, however, the water can only be seen within the Greek Orthodox Church. Its flow onward, to the refurbished but now unused fountain, was halted.

The church has a central nave with two aisles on its sides and a small bell tower at its front. At the end of the 1970s, the walls were decorated by the Morosan brothers, two artists from Moldova who were commissioned by the Romanian Patriarchate in Jerusalem. The church is beautifully decorated with scenes from the lives of Jesus and Mary, with a special emphasis on the Annunciation. On the lower part of the walls are images of various saints along with their names written in Greek and Arabic, for the benefit of the local population. 

The Christmas procession in Nazareth. Photo by Hanan Isachar

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