Israel's Largest Christian City Glows on Christmas. Then Reality Returns

Tourist crush in Nazareth exposes poor and neglected infrastructure in Jesus' hometown

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The city of Nazareth
Credit: Gil Eliahu
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

At the entrance to one of the bustling restaurants near Kikar Hama’ayan in Nazareth, an elderly woman shouted to her husband last Shabbat to park his car “anywhere” and come to the restaurant already.

“So they’ll damage it, in any case it’s not our car,” she called out impatiently. The scolding by the hungry woman was a good illustration of the poor state of infrastructure in the biggest Arab city in Israel, which becomes really acute on Christmas Eve.

Tens of thousands of Israeli and foreign tourists crowd the streets of the Old City in December, almost without any place to park a car or efficient public transportation. Some of the drivers of the buses that line the steep roads give up along the way and emit swarms of tourists who continue to the tourist areas on foot.

The visitors will walk among amazing historical sites and an array of culinary experiences while walking on neglected sidewalks with the incessant sound of car horns in the background. Even on our way out of the city we got stuck in a traffic jam of over an hour and 20 minutes. And if that’s the experience awaiting the visitors, imagine what city residents go through trying to drive a child to school or to the doctor.

A Christmas tree in Nazareth.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Motivated tourists

About 900,000 tourists visited Nazareth in 2017. They stayed for an average of 2.7 nights, according to a Tourism Ministry survey of incoming tourism that year. They come for good reason. Despite the neglect by the government and the municipality, there are many tourist attractions in the city that are in reasonable or even good condition.

Nazareth native Hussam Badir, one of the many tour guides taking groups around the city on the day I visited, mentioned several sites on his route: the Roman bathhouse; Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, built in the 18th century (also called the Church of Mary’s Well and the Church of St. Gabriel); Moscovia Building; Synagogue Church; International Marian Center (Beit Miriam); St. Joseph’s Church and Khan al-Basha.

The most important site, which every tourist visits for a moment or for two days, is the Church of the Annunciation, which houses many architectural remains, including two attributed to the time of Jesus: the grotto – holy cave – in which, according to tradition, the angel Gabriel informed Mary of the birth of the son of God, and the village identified with Nazareth from the beginning of the 1st century C.E. There are also remains of a Byzantine and Crusader church at the site.

The present Church of the Annunciation was designed by Italian architect Giovanni Muzio, and the fortress-like entrance to it, which was built by the Solel Boneh construction company and dedicated in 1969, was designed to preserve the remains of the ancient basilicas.

Muzio wanted a large church whose fate would differ from that of the previous ones built on the site, and therefore designed it like two churches: the bottom one in which the archaeological remains are displayed, and the upper one for religious rituals. The structure is reminiscent of another church designed by Muzio in the Italian city of Varese.

Inside the Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Whatever the case, fans of church architecture will be shocked when they first enter it, since it differs from the familiar buildings, and some people call it “the ugliest church in the world.” It is dark, due to the small number of windows (which are designed as crenels for shooting), constructed of exposed concrete, massive, with prominent columns but without the adornments characteristic of churches. The exterior walls, unlike in pure Brutalist architecture, are covered with stone. That is the origin of its eclectic-Brutalist, or “Brutalist-Italian” style, as the tour guide Badir describes it.

One of the many buildings that stand abandoned and are awaiting restoration is the Schneller complex in the west of the city. This is a lovely historical complex built by German Protestant minister Johann Ludwig Schneller in the early 19th century, which resembles its Jerusalem twin complex that is located today in the heart of the ultra-Orthodox area. Another place that is awaiting a solution is the Saraya (palace) built by Daher al-Omar, which served in the past as the city hall.

There have been preservation initiatives over the years. The Old City was marked for preservation in National Master Plan 35, and in the 1990s an initial preservation plan was prepared in the context of the Nazareth 2000 project, in advance of the pope’s visit to the city during the millennial year.

At the time there were also restoration activities in the Old City (which turned out to be damaging to its human fabric and to businesses). In addition, an urban master plan was drawn up to set down general principles. A decade ago there was even an attempt to submit the city as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but the scope of the preservation processes did not meet the criteria of the world organization for the purpose of such a declaration.

Uri Ben-Zioni, director of the northern district of the Society for Preservation of Israeli Heritage Sites, explains: “Until now there hasn’t been a single municipality that has promoted the subject of preservation in an operative manner. You need a plan that will determine the order of priorities, rules and incentives. At the moment these things are being done on an individual basis, alongside some good preservation initiatives coming from the field, from the owners of hotels and restaurants.”

Dr. Sharif Sharif Safadi, director general of the Nazareth municipality, tells Haaretz he is aware of the preservation problem. “There was a preservation committee and we’re planning to bring it back. We’re still in the process of forming a city council after the last election, and I hope that in early 2019 it will happen and we’ll also issue a tender for an urban preservation architect.”

Nazareth is built in a valley on an area of about 14,500 dunams (3,580 acres), with a population of about 80,000. Although its residents were not expelled when the state was established, as happened during the 1948 War of Independence to other Arab cities, its development was restricted with the construction of Upper Nazareth to the east and communities such as Kibbutz Kfar Hahoresh to the west.

Credit: Gil Eliahu

Architect George Suleiman, who works in the Equality Policy Department of Sikkuy – the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, was born in Nazareth and now lives in Tel Aviv. He also cites transportation as the city’s most urgent problem. “I had to drive my sister, and what should have taken 15 minutes took two and a half hours. But in addition, there are also infrastructure problems in the city that keep young people away: There are no industrial zones, no university. The plans have remained in the drawer.

That’s why many educated young people leave, he says. “I have a profession, but if I return to the city I’ll be able to design private homes at best. Anyone who has decided to stay here has to go outside for work. In addition to employment problems there are housing problems. There aren’t many residential options.”

If he were the city engineer, what would he do?

“The Old City is too oriented towards tourists. This area was abandoned over the years. In my final project I proposed bringing in young people. You could take the buildings in the Old City and use them as a university, for example. There’s a lot that can be done with transportation too: Let’s begin with the fact that there aren’t any traffic lights in the city and the police don’t bother to direct traffic when it’s crowded. Some of the streets could become one-way, some of the streets could be closed for part of the day. There are lots of solutions. You have to work holistically.”

Suleiman is less optimistic about the old neighborhoods. “It’s hard to deal with them and urban renewal isn’t economically feasible. The main thing that can be done is to improve infrastructure such as sewage and electricity.”The accumulation of obstacles causes some of the city residents to move to the largely Jewish neighbor, Upper Nazareth.

Yazid Hamis, a landscape architect and industrial designer who is a graduate of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, has lived in Upper Nazareth all his life. He says that his grandfather’s house was on land that is now within Upper Nazareth’s jurisdiction. “My family’s land was expropriated and became part of Upper Nazareth, so that I’ve lived in Upper Nazareth all my life. Today we live in the south of the city.”

His story is only one example, but he says many Nazareth residents have moved here in recent years. “The Arabs who leave for Upper Nazareth are usually educated and from a high socioeconomic class, and are looking for quality of life. In Nazareth itself there are no meeting places, no open spaces. Less that 2 percent of the city is open space – it’s like in the favelas in Brazil. There are many private areas that are hard to turn into public areas, the only open space you can go to is near Mount Hakfitsa.”

The present mayor, says Hamis, is very popular and is advancing projects, “but no thought goes into planning. For example, we built a traffic circle at the end of the centrally located Tawfik Zayyad Street, but buses can’t turn around there and there are terrible traffic jams. Most of the houses in the city were built without permits. For example, you have to leave three meters from the boundary of the plot, but they build up to the edge.”

A cafe in NazarethCredit: Gil Eliahu

So what is being planned?

“There’s a plan to build interchanges and a new ring road, and three parking lots that can turn into park-and-ride lots, one of them next to Mount Hakfitsa.” He says a cable car is also planned between the city center and Mount Hakfitsa, with an intermediate stop near the light railway station, which is scheduled to be built on the Nazareth-Upper Nazareth-Haifa route.

Other projects that he has announced are a parking lot that will serve visitors and employees in the new city hall building, and a project for branding the city, a plan to rehabilitate the Old City, and an upgrading of the open space near Mount Hakfitsa. In the Hagalil neighborhood in the northwest of the city 1,000 residential units have been built and he says that another 2,000 are planned.

Tourism entrepreneur Maoz Yinon, who open the highly praised Fauzi Azar Inn in the city (which became the Abraham Hostel) and became a public transportation activist, has a tip for the city fathers: “Before the big projects you need a bus terminal that will connect the city to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Today tourists who arrive here have to go through Afula and Haifa.”

Tourism Ministry director general Amir Halevi admits that the transportation problems are bad for tourism. “A bus driver whose time is limited and who knows that there’s transportation chaos in Nazareth won’t enter.” But regarding the development of infrastructure and streets, he stresses that there is no budgetary problem; the ministry helps as much as necessary. “We give money for the development of hotels and support the city with millions of shekels. The main problem is that the local government has to be responsible for maintenance: It can’t be that we’ll give money and the local authority won’t deal with things.

Garbage on a street in NazarethCredit: Gil Eliahu


“There’s also a problem with the companies that carry out the work – the Old Acre Development Company will also be in charge of the development and restoration of sites in Nazareth,” says Halevi. “We passed a government decision on the subject, but the Nazareth municipality is opposed. The plan was to do a facelift like that in Tel Aviv, to invest in street lighting, flowers, benches, but it got stuck.”

What isn’t done from above, they’re trying to do with grassroots preservation initiatives. Daher Zidani, who is named after his great-great grandfather Daher al-Omar, is one of the familiar figures in the city and the owner of the Al Reda restaurant that is situated in a historic building, and he complains about architectural mistakes that were made.

“In the 1990s they demolished beautiful buildings in the city center, including the school where I studied. In the late 1990s they renovated the marketplace and the planning was a catastrophe and the market died.” The renovation that Zidani describes made the place overly engineered and scared away visitors and merchants.

“It was a combination of a lack of sensitivity, and stupidity. I came to this restaurant in 2000, I renovated it for three years and opened it. It was a house belonging to wealthy people who did nothing with it and we preserved the spirit of the place, although it’s not a copy of it. The restaurant has become an institution.”

Neither nor others like him are waiting for help from the municipality, says Zidani. “All I need is that they won’t interfere. The previous municipality interfered. The municipality often tries to bring all kinds of tourism experts. Most of them fail. Most of the successful places that are started are private initiatives. In recent years we’re seeing new places started by women.”

What would he like the government and municipality to do?

“In the marketplace, for example, there’s no traffic arrangement and there’s chaos with the stalls. The municipality isn’t doing enough, they’re afraid of confrontation. It’s the government I’m afraid of. It has interests that could take precedence over the local interests and you have to be careful.”

Yinon also thinks they have to be careful of too much intervention by bureaucrats: “What’s nice about the Arab communities is that everything develops according to the real needs, and many hostels have been added to the Old City. There don’t have to be extreme changes made here. I wouldn’t want to see high-rises here.”

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