Two millennia ago, Nazareth was a tiny, sleepy farming village, no different than dozens of others in Galilee except for one thing – Jesus spent his childhood here. And so today, the ancient core of the city, cupped in a deep valley north of Afula, has become a world-famous richly woven tapestry of churches, mosques, markets, history and heritage shot through with colorful ethnic skeins.
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You can easily spend a whole day here; perhaps think about spending the night at one of several hotels or Old City guest houses, the latter ensconced in restored old mansions. That way you can enjoy dinner at restaurants, ranging from bistro-style to traditional Middle Eastern fare, and the quiet early morning ambiance combining the sense of the sacred with a European village atmosphere.
There are two great places to take in the view before beginning a walking tour of Nazareth. One is Precipice Mountain, south of the city with a view of the Scripture-steeped Jezreel Valley. The other is St. Gabriel’s Hotel, a picturesque former convent on the ridge to the north that takes in the city itself.
The huge Basilica of the Annunciation is Nazareth’s premier sacred monument. It was built in the 1960s, some would say, ironically, as one of the largest projects of Israel’s first major construction corporation, Solel Boneh, over remains of earlier churches and antiquities. Mary is a major figure commemorated here and at all the city’s churches, the annunciation being the moment the angel Gabriel told her she would give birth to Jesus. The church is adorned literally from floor to ceiling with magnificent, symbol-laden artwork commemorating Mary, much of it contributed by the faithful from around the world.
The street from the basilica leads to the icon-adorned Greek Orthodox Church of St. Gabriel. A still-flowing spring inside the church marks the traditional site where, based on ancient legends, Gabriel came to Mary while she was drawing water from the spring. And if you want to know more about the way Nazareth would have looked in those days, leave time in town for a two-hour visit to Nazareth Village, where ancient rural life has been recreated down to costumed presenters – except for the Mozi, the very real village donkey.
Mary at the well has a lot of cultural credence, as drawing water was a basic women’s task in Eastern society. The well at Nazareth is a recurring theme in ancient pilgrims’ journals, so much so that in the 1960s, the city revamped the town’s old well and put it on the municipality logo. A latter-day urban legend has it that a mistaken calculation left the new well structure literally high and dry, but the structure can still be seen under a stand of tall old cypress trees.
A walk through Nazareth’s Old City market will lead you to more fascinating churches, such as the Mensa Christi Church and the Synagogue Church. But the market is also the place to give yourself over to the aromas of freshly ground coffee and intoxicating spices that envelop you as well as the taste of the goat cheese, fresh bread, vegetables and olives you might buy for a picnic lunch. When it’s time to rest your feet, choose from dozens of coffee shops serving the variety of honey-dipped traditional nut snacks the city is famous for, or to satisfy the more Western sweet tooth, there’s always cheese cake and apple pie a la mode.
For more information:
Nazareth Culture and Tourism Association www.nazarethinfo.org. 04-6106611
Tourism Ministry Information Office in Nazareth 04-6570555.