The Galilee home of Jesus is a hub for Christian tourism, eco-tourism, hiking paths, new hotels and attractions.
By Avigayil Kadesh
A parade of 120 classic cars down the main street of Nazareth in mid-September was not the usual sort of event in this Israeli Christian tourism hot spot. But the two-day show and festival - sponsored by the municipality, the Five Club and the Nazareth Cultural and Tourism Association (NCTA) - highlights how Nazareth is growing as a general destination for Israelis and foreigners alike.
The Galilean childhood home of Jesus is one of the largest Arab cities in Israel with about 72,000 Christian and Muslim Arab residents. In addition to the classic car event, it hosts a yearly Ramadan festival, a Sacra Music Festival at Easter and Christmas, and a Christmas marketplace in December, when the city is lit up with decorations.
"Nazareth has been doing well in the past few years, and there are many entrepreneurs wanting to open businesses in the tourism industry," Sigal Ben-Oz of the Tourism Ministry told Ynet News last summer.
The website of the municipality is in Arabic. However, Niveen Aburass of the NCTA is typical in her facility with Hebrew and English as well. She explains that although the organization gives a variety of guided tours of churches and mosques, the old marketplace, magnificent private houses and archeological sites, "three hours is never enough" to explore everything Nazareth has to offer.
Neither are there enough hotel rooms to accommodate all the visitors. "We have 20 hotels in Nazareth, including guest houses and a convent where many Christian pilgrims stay," she says. "But all the hotels are overbooked, so people stay in [nearby] Tiberias or even Jerusalem or Tel Aviv when they visit here, and it's a loss for us."
Three new hotels are under construction in the center of Nazareth and others are being enlarged, thanks to Tourism Ministry incentives totaling about $114.5 million. Others await permits to begin building and a few have opened in recent years, including the 120-room Gardenia Hotel, which caters to Jewish tourists as it has a kosher kitchen.
Eco-tourism has taken hold in Nazareth, too. The six-year-old Fauzi Azar Inn, named after the original owner of the 200-year-old Arab mansion in which it's situated, serves as the base for participants in a popular six-week program to work alongside local residents in restoration and community projects in the Old City of Nazareth.
The ecologically oriented visitors also lend a hand to keep the grounds clean along Israel's 40-mile Jesus Trail that runs from the Mount of the Precipice in Nazareth to the Sea of Galilee. At trail's end at Capernaum, many pilgrims cross the sea to Tiberias in a wooden replica of a boat from Jesus' days. Another Christian hiking route in this area, called the Gospel Trail, opened recently and is attracting tourists as well.
Nazareth's Christian sites
About two-thirds of the 3.45 million tourists in Israel last year were Christian, and 2,000-year-old Nazareth, the cradle of the faith, is a must-see on the Christian itinerary. It has about 30 churches and monasteries in addition to ancient synagogues and newer mosques.
The official symbol of Nazareth is Mary's Well, the centerpiece of Spring Plaza along with a more recently discovered elaborate Roman bathhouse. According to Christian tradition, this is where Mary used to bathe Jesus and wash his clothes, and where Jesus fetched water. Muslims and Christians consider the well and its water to contain unusual healing properties.
When the entire plaza area was renovated as part of millennium celebrations in 2000, archeologists discovered the remains of tunnels and pools from different periods, which are now described in an exhibition at City Hall. The well's current shape is based on pictures taken by 19th century pilgrims.
The Mary of Nazareth International Center was opened in 2010 by the Chemin Neuf Community, offering an audiovisual journey (in several different languages) into the life of the Virgin Mary and the Marian roots of Christianity. Complete with meeting rooms, prayer spaces, a cafeteria and gift shop, "Mary's Center is an awesome place," says Aburass.
About 100 feet south of Spring Plaza, above the actual spring supplying the well, is St. Gabriel Church of the Annunciation. Greek Orthodox tradition maintains that this is where the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus.
The nearby Basilica of the Annunciation sits above the grotto where Roman Catholics believe Joseph and Mary lived and where Mary received the angel's announcement.
The present building was constructed on the ruins of churches dating back to Byzantine (324-634 CE) and Crusader (1095-1291) times, some of which are still visible. A $24 million commercial complex under construction is planned to include a 186-room hotel with a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Basilica.
Nazareth Sisters Convent next door offers subterranean tours of ancient tombs, columns and houses possibly dating back to the Roman period in the Holy Land, which started around 37 BCE and continued until the Byzantine conquest. There's a small museum exhibiting old coins and pottery, and an enclosed courtyard and guest rooms.
Other sites of Christian interest are the Church of St. Joseph, built on the ruins of agricultural buildings where Joseph's carpentry shop is believed to have been located, and the Crusader-era Synagogue Church, next to the Greek Catholic Church in the middle of the old market. The odd name of this house of worship comes from a tradition that this was once the synagogue where Jesus prayed and preached.
The Mount of the Precipice (officially Mount Kedumim), at the entrance to the city from the direction of Afula, is traditionally where Nazareth's citizens took Jesus after he declared himself the Messiah. You can still see the remains of a Byzantine convent later established there. It's easier to explore the rocky terrain since the Jewish National Fund built a parking lot at the top and a wheelchair-accessible paved lane leading to an observation point overlooking the Jezreel Valley, Carmel Mountains, Gilad Mountains and Mount Tabor.
The Old City
Over the past decade, the historical Old City section of Nazareth has been extensively renovated, preserving and restoring the architecture amid its narrow lanes and alleys. Lots of new restaurants serve a variety of cuisines. Here you'll find Ottoman-era (1299-1923) buildings including the Saraya, or Government House, built by the governor of the Galilee in the 18th century. You can tour private homes from this period, whose wealthy owners commissioned intricately painted frescoes on the ceilings.
The 17th century marketplace boasts colorful stalls and merchandise ranging from fabrics and spices to artwork. Aburass says it's a popular shopping destination for residents of all the surrounding towns in the Lower Galilee because it offers so much in one place. In the middle of all this is the 19th century White Mosque, a house of prayer and an education and culture center with a museum documenting Nazareth's history.
At the edge of the Old City, near Mary's Well, the Galilee Mill, (el-Babour) combines history with an active store selling more than 1,000 varieties of spices and herbs. The mill was built by German Templars at the end of the 19th century to provide grinding and storage services for Nazareth's farmers. A great view of the Old City is available from the top of St. Gabriel's Bell Tower, part of a former monastery that was remade into a 60-room boutique hotel in 1993.
Kids and adults can watch experienced potters turning marl clay into useful and beautiful items at the Ceramics Workshop beneath the Nazareth courthouse. This factory was founded by a local resident sent to study pottery making in Syria in the early 1900s, and his descendants run the place, helping visitors try their hand at the craft.
Nazareth Village, also located in the southern section of the city, was opened several years ago to provide a glimpse of everyday life as it was in the early days of the Roman era contemporary with Jesus. There are demonstrations of ancient agricultural and building methods, olive pressing and authentic dishes cooked on site by "villagers" in period costume. At night, guides give tours by oil lamp, and at holiday times the site hosts special shows.
"We have so much to offer in Nazareth," says Aburass