Although I’ve been to Israel many times, it wasn’t until this past December that I made my way to Nazareth, home town of Jesus, center of Christian pilgrimage, and, depending on how you cipher the archaeological record, some 3,000 years old. Today, the agricultural village of Jesus’s time, thought to have a population of 500 or so, is a modern, primarily Arab city of steeples and domes and the hurly-burly of commercial enterprise. It is home to the largest Arab community in Israel (both Muslim and Christian), with a secondary, smaller Jewish community in nearby, newer and slightly suburban Upper Nazareth.
And herein lies just one of the conundrums that confront even the most casual visitor to modern-day Israel: who lives where, and why, and at what social, economic, religious or cultural cost? But this is to get into a debate that has no end, when the pleasant reality is that the modern city of some 60,000 — sprawling, business driven, and nestled within a natural bowl of steep Galilean hills — presents itself as a place that primarily wants everyone to go along and get along. And if, while you’re at it, you can promote cultural understanding and sell religious tchotchkes to tourists, so much the better.
If what you’re hoping to find is a storybook vision of rusticity, complete with, say, donkeys, you may be disappointed. Instead, as you approach the city from the west (the main route available from within Israel), you first descend into a shallow valley, and then enter a snarl of traffic and a cacophony of honking horns before ascending again through a crush of pedestrians, bicyclists and groups of tourists to reach the old town. This is where most of the religious sites are, and where I stayed, with my husband, in the Fauzi Azar Inn, a 200-year-old Arab mansion-turned-guesthouse and hostel.
But first we had to find it. Which isn’t so easy given that, like those in most Arab towns in Israel, many of Nazareth’s streets lack names, not to mention numbered house addresses. (The streets are assigned numbers, which no one uses or remembers.) Also, you can’t drive a car through narrow streets built to accommodate, at most, pack animals.
So we parked, grabbed our bags and set off on foot.
But, as wandering is at least half the fun — not to mention that it’s hard to get seriously lost when there are signs all over the Old City with arrows pointing the way to the inn — the lack of on-site parking was hardly an issue. And the inn itself is a marvel of simple loveliness, a many-layered confection built around an open courtyard, designed to accommodate many generations or branches of a single family, with Ottoman arches, high ceilings, frescoes and — in the large room that now serves as the reception area — marble floors and elegant arched windows.
Like almost everything in Nazareth in particular, and Israel in general, the Fauzi Azar has a back story. Indeed, for two centuries before opening for business, the house was known as the Azar Mansion, but after the last Mr. Azar died in the 1980s, it fell empty. Meanwhile, an Israeli Jew named Maoz Inon and his wife came up with the idea of turning it into a guest house where Jews, Christians and Muslims could feel equally at home, and where even the poorest of cash-strapped students could find an affordable bed in a large dormitory-style room. Thus, the present total of 16 guest rooms (including the dorm-style room), most with a private bath, with simple furnishings punctuated here and there by brightly colored coverlets, pillows or area rugs. It’s an aesthetic charmer, all right, especially if you’re a sucker for Old World, slightly worn charm — and balconies. Depending on how you count them, there are three or four layers of them, some with running fountains, some under an open sky, some tucked away at the top of a steep flight of stairs, and all of them adorned with outdoor furniture, flowering plants and vines.
On top of serving as an inn, the guest house is the de facto starting-off point for another of Inon’s local endeavors, in this case the Jesus Trail (created in partnership with David Landis), which opened in 2009. It links Nazareth to Capernaum via the backcountry where the New Testament records that Jesus preached and taught, healed the sick, fed thousands with only a few loaves and fish and turned water into wine. Today, the roughly 40-mile trail can be walked, hiked or biked in three or four days, through meadows, along ancient Roman roads, past archaeological wonders and modern-day Israeli agricultural collectives, with stops in Cana, the traditional site of Jesus’s first miracle; the tomb of Jethro (father-in-law of Moses); among ancient olive groves and Crusader ruins — with a range of modern accommodations along the way.
As I gazed out the tall windows in the main reception area onto the roofs of nearby buildings glowing white, yellow and brown in the early winter light, I thought about how lovely it would be to simply take off down the stairs, around the corner, up a few thousand more stairs, and at last into the pastures and the valley of the Galilee, walking the landscape much as Jesus and his followers did.
But although December in Nazareth isn’t December in Vermont, and in fact was warm and sunny, I was more interested in losing my way through the valley of the souq (an open-air Arab market), with its hawkers of everything from toy trucks to fragrant spices, than embarking on any kind of real hike. And then there’s this: Nazareth has more than its share of holy places. And with Christmas on its way, seekers from all corners of the world, including large groups of Nigerians and Filipinos led by Orthodox priests in full vestments, were visiting. (Although not as many, apparently, as in past years. The summer’s war in Gaza has put a damper on Israeli tourism in general.)
Even so, there were several thousand miniature snowmen, Santa Clauses and other Christmas-related knickknacks for sale in the souq (and just about everywhere else) and though they didn’t tempt me, I couldn’t help but buy a silk scarf. At the next stall, my husband gazed with longing at the barrels filled with spices, nuts, coffee and dried fruits of all kinds — figs, dates, apricots, lemons.
Nazareth sprawls, but all the sites are wellwithin walking distance, and as we left the souq, we stumbled into the main entrance of the large and looming Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation, built on the site of what is thought to be Mary’s childhood home, and where, according to the Gospels, she received the news that eventually changed the world. Built in the 1960s, and topped by a soaring dome, the building is, er, architecturally eclectic, mixing marble with concrete, modernist with mosaics. While in Nazareth, you can’t not see the place, but I preferred the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, marking the spot that the Eastern Church believes is where Mary encountered the angel Gabriel while fetching water from the spring that still runs beneath the crypt. The crypt was originally constructed during the time of the Roman emperor Constantine, though the rest of the magnificently frescoed church dates from the 17th century. And yes, the faithful were lined up to fill their water bottles from the same year-round spring where Mary and no doubt most other ancient Nazarenes drew their water.
I honestly didn’t know what to expect at the Mary of Nazareth International Center, but four separate multimedia rooms designed to replicate ancient gathering spots, and presenting what I can call only a hokey and simplistic version of the life of Jesus, wasn’t it. On the other hand, upon entering the center, we came across an archaeological site of ruins from a 1st-century house, and, as we exited the last of the multimedia onslaughts, we ascended to a lovely garden with astonishing views of the hills above the town. There, as if on cue, there was the clap of a thunderbolt, followed by a brief rain, followed by the sound of bells ringing along with the Muslim call to prayer.
And I was hungry. Fortunately, modern Nazareth offers more than curds, dates and rue (this last mentioned in Luke 11). For tip-top and cheap hummus, falafel and the like, you can’t beat the charm-free but flavor-rich Abu Ghanem, an eatery on Paulus VI Street. (Lunch for four was about $15.)
And for the best fish you will ever have, a meal at GKF Fish, also on Paulus VI Street, is worth a trip to Nazareth all by itself. The standard tourist map of Nazareth available everywhere weirdly leaves GKF — or “Gazi’s KingFish,” according to the sign — off the list of restaurants, which is kind of like leaving the Empire State Building off a list of New York skyscrapers. Not much in the way of decor, elegance or ambiance here, but who notices when the food is so darn delicious? Ordering in a mixture of English, Hebrew and gestures without so much as glancing at a menu, we feasted on mixed platters of both salt- and freshwater fish, followed by excellent knafeh, a local sweet cheese confection, also available down the street at Mahroum Sweets. I marked the occasion by asking the King of Fish himself to pose with me for a photo, which he gladly did, with a grin so wide that you’d think he’d never posed with a stuffed, happy customer before.
You’re more likely to hear Arabic than Hebrew, but Nazareth is both English-friendly and friendly, period. Tension between Israeli Arabs and Jews? You don’t feel it here, or at least I didn’t. That may be in large part because Nazareth, despite being a significant town in its own right, is also, obviously, a draw for tourists both religious and secular.
Interestingly, despite the fact that almost all the literature indicates that the Nazareth of biblical times was so small as to barely count as a village, at least one important archaeological site indicates otherwise. While renovating their gift shop in 1993, a couple by the name of Elias and Martina Shama came across the remains of an ancient bathhouse.
Thus the modern-day Cactus gift shop sits atop a network of terra-cotta pipes that may be at least 2,000 years old, and some that may date back to 320 years or so before the common era, similar to those found at Pompeii. For about $7 per person, you can take a 30-minute tour of it. There are fan and palm tree motifs typical of the Hellenistic period, and more than 3,000 square feet of the bathhouse itself, making it one of the biggest in the world for its time, according to Shama, who led the tour my husband and I were on. He explained how the discovery of the bathhouse, with its motifs, artifacts and pipes characteristic of ancient Roman times, suggests that the facility was in use at the time of Jesus and perhaps for some decades or centuries before.
The question that arises from all this is: Why would a tiny village be the site of an immense (for its time) bathhouse, unless the village weren’t so tiny at all, but rather a big enough town, on a trade route, where not only the locals, but visitors as well, stopped for a shvitz? One answer — the conclusion that Shama and others have since come to — is that the discovery of the bathhouse is proof that Nazareth was a big and important city during the time of Jesus. It might also mean that Jesus, his family and his circle must have bathed there.
Yup: It was different back then, in biblical times, and although you can try to imagine yourself into it, the place that Jesus and his contemporaries knew is gone, buried under the modern town, lost to weather and history and war and drought, to marching armies and shifting civilizations. Even so, in the end what stuck with me was the layering of time and place, the buildings built over buildings and then climbing up the steep hills, the ringing of bells and calls to worship, the smells of spices and coffee that permeate every corner and sink into every moment, of this town where people have made their homes for more than two millennia.
Moses is a regular contributor to Time, as well as the author of four books, most recently the young adult novel “Tales From My Closet” (Scholastic).
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Fauzi Azar Inn
16 guest rooms of varying sizes. Double rooms from about $125, breakfast included.
Al-Mutran Guest House
10 rooms, including a family suite; about $120 a night for a double room, breakfast included.
GKF King of Fish
Paulus VI Street
Freshwater and saltwater fish; salads made from fresh vegetables ; fries; coffee; about $23 per person.
Paulus VI Street
Hummus, falafel, Middle Eastern salads, shawarma. About $4 per person.
Basilica of the Annunciation
Modern Roman Catholic basilica built in the 1960s, believed to be standing on the site of Mary’s childhood home. Open 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free.
Mary of Nazareth International Center
A new nonprofit ecumenical Christian center devoted to the life of Mary, open most days from 9:30 to noon and 2:30 to 5 p.m.; closed Sunday and feast days. Free.
Greek Orthodox Church of
Frescoed 17th-century church sheltering a spring where, according to Greek Orthodox tradition, Mary received the Annunciation. Open 7 a.m. to noon; 1 to 6 p.m. Free.
The Ancient Bathhouse at Cactus
Mary’s Well Square
Gift shop with ancient bathhouse beneath it; guided tours include a Turkish coffee break. About $8 per person.
The Jesus Trail
This 40-mile hiking trail in the Galilee connects important sites mentioned in the Gospels to other points of historical and archaeological significance. “Jesus didn’t take the bus.” Walk, dine, stay at small inns along the way.
Nazareth Cultural & Tourism Association