Nazareth, located in the Galilee region in the north of Israel, is one of the most important Christian holy sites in Israel. Some 1 million tourists and pilgrims visit this city every year. It is the city where Jesus grew up, and today it is the largest Arab city in Israel.
Nazareth is the city where the Virgin Mary was told that she was carrying in her womb the Son of God; it is the city where Jesus grew up, and today it is the largest Arab city in Israel, with a population of approximately 70,000 people, most of whom are Muslims and only the minority is Christian. The city is the financial, political and cultural center for Arabs who are citizens of Israel.
With this background, and the enormous interest in the Christian sites, which are found mostly in the center of the city within walking distance of one another, a visit to the city provides the essence of the Middle Eastern experience! It includes roaming through busy commercial streets and crowded market alleyways, full of the colors and smells of spices and ground coffee, scattered with superb eateries and bakeries that feature the best of Arab cuisine.
You are invited to see, hear, savor and experience some of Nazareth’s secrets:
The Church of the Annunciation
The Church of the Annunciation is located in the center of town, near the entrance to the market, and its towering dome is a symbol associated with the city of Nazareth. According to Christian belief, the Church was built over the grotto where Mary lived when she was told by the Angel Gabriel that through the Holy Spirit she would conceive a child who would be the Son of God.
The current church was built in 1969 and it combines the remnants of previous churches built on the site. In the lower level of the church is the Grotto of Annunciation, where the ruins of the ancient cupola from the Byzantine and Crusader periods can be seen. The upper level houses a wide prayer hall, decorated with large and impressive mosaics, which were contributed to the church by Christian communities from countries all around the world. The doors of the church are covered in bronze and copper carvings, featuring important figures from the world of Christianity. From inside the prayer hall, the interior of the copula represents an inverted lily, the flower associated with the Virgin. The cupola rises to a height of nearly 60 meters above the grotto.
The Salesian Church
The Salesian Church is one of the most ornate churches in Nazareth, and because of its location on one of the peaks of this hilly city, it can be seen over a great distance. The church was founded by Italian monks of the Salesian order. The building of the church began in 1906 and was completed in 1923. It is built in the Romanesque style. Next to the church there was an orphanage, which today houses a technological school named after the founder of the church, Don Bosko. The frontal façade of the church displays a sculpture of Jesus as a young boy, which is why this church is also known as the Young Jesus Church.
The White Mosque
The White Mosque is located in the heart of the municipal market in Nazareth, and it is the most ancient mosque in the city. Before it was founded, the Muslim residents of Nazareth used to pray in the Soraya house, which was built by the Dahar-El-Omar in the middle of the 18th century. The first part of the structure was built in 1785 by the governor of Acre, Ahmed Al-Jazzar. He commissioned the building of the mosque to Sheik Abdullah Al-Ninni, who was known by the name Al-Fahoum. He is buried in the yard on the western side of the mosque. The building of the mosque was completed and 1812 and was managed by Al-Fahoum until his death, in 1815. It was he who dubbed it The White Mosque, as it was to symbolize a new era, one of purity, enlightenment, and peace among religions.
A small yard in the front of the mosque leads into the main hall, which houses two prayer rooms. The central room is flanked by the southern Kiblah wall, in which the Mihrab (the semicircular niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca) is situated. This hall is transversed lengthwise by a row of stone pillars, which hold five arches. The floor is covered with a carpet in shades of green and gray, in which the motif of a row of arches is repeated. The walls are either whitewashed or covered in wood panels. Two rows of chandeliers light the central hall. To the west of the central hall is a second prayer room with a similar carpet and on the eastern side there is an opening that leads to the inner courtyard. The courtyard is covered for the most part with tin plates and its walls are designed with arches in green and white. In the southwestern corner of the courtyard is an octagonal ablution fountain, which is covered in marble and it is covered with a wooden roof.
Nowadays inside the mosque there is a small museum that displays various documents, an additional prayer room for women, and a room forthe Islamic funeral process. The mosque plays a vital role in the life of the community, as it supports the local Scouts Youth Movement, and is a venue for cultural and scholarly activities.
The Synagogue Church
The Synagogue Church is located within the market of ancient Nazareth. It was built in the year 330 CE, and belongs to the Greek Catholic community. It is an important historical and archaeological site. According to tradition, the place first functioned as the synagogue for the Jews of Nazareth in the days of the second Temple, and it is believed that Jesus came to the synagogue and delivered a sermon, prayed and studied there; this is why it is referred to in Arabic as the Academy of the Messiah. The site of the Jewish synagogue was desecrated in the 17th century and turned into an animal shed. Afterwards, it was used to house a weaving factory, until finally, in 1740 the structure was rebuilt as a church, by members of the Franciscan Order, who then transferred it to the Greek Catholic church.
The market in Nazareth is situated to the west of the church of the Annunciation and North of Paulus the 6th street. The market extends between two centers, the Church of the Annunciation and its surroundings, and the Municipal Hall (the Soraya), and the White Mosque. A walk through the colorful alleyways of the market, some of which are covered by roofing, is a multi-sensual experience, a celebration of flavors smells, sounds and sights. The market was renovated in recent years and is subdivided according to product categories: food items, clothing and textiles, shoes, baked goods, vegetables, sweets, toys, spices and artisans’ workshops, among them trades that have all-but-disappeared from the modern world, such as a blade maker. The market opens at 8:30 AM and closes after dark on Mondays Tuesdays Thursdays and Fridays; Wednesdays and Saturdays it closes earlier, and on Sunday it is closed.
Miriam’s Well is located in the center of the city of Nazareth. It is an ancient well, which was first built during the Period of the Crusader’s. The city of Nazareth has always relied on the natural spring located next to the well, which was also called Miriam’s Spring, The spring is currently located within the territory that belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church of Gabriel. Approximately 30 meters north of the church, a cave was found, from which the spring originates. This was the main water source of the ancient city of Nazareth, and it remained so up until the 1950s. According to an early Christian tradition, when Mary went to gather water from the spring, she was met by the Angel Gabriel, who announced the upcoming birth of her son Jesus. That is why the spring was considered holy even in ancient times, and why the Crusaders built a church over the spring’s origin and named the church in honor of Gabriel. After this church was built, it was impossible to access the water source for the city, and as a result, a public fountain and water trough was built next to the church. According to Crusader sources, the fountain was in the form of a lion’s mouth, and the water flowed from the mouth into a marble trough. The well and the church were destroyed in the early Mamluk Period, during the reign of Sultan Baibars. Until the church was rebuilt, in 1750, residents of the city drew water from the spring among the ruins of the Church of Gabriel. However, once the church was rebuilt, it was again impossible to access the source of the spring. Consequently a pool was built and afterwards a public fountain and trough.
The waters of the spring are considered holy by both Christians and Muslims, and in ancient times they were thought to have miraculous healing powers. Until the end of the 19th century, Miriam’s Well was outside the border of the village of Nazareth, but by the end of the 19th century, the area had developed substantially, and a large khan (inn) and public bath were built next to the well. The site of Miriam’s Well, which for hundreds of years had been the center of life in Nazareth, is now only a mere shadow of its past glory. Miriam’s Well can be freely approached, anytime during the day or night.
All of these sites make the city of Nazareth a unique and attractive tourist site in Israel.
I am Dr. Maayan Hess Ashkenazi, geographer and historian and the manager of Israel-webguide.com, a travel guide to the best of Israel.