Exploring Nazareth: A Traveler’s Guide to Israel’s City of Miracles
BY Lee Saunders DATE 29/08/2023
Visitors to Israel inevitably gravitate towards the life force of Tel Aviv, the awe-inspiring spirituality of Jerusalem, the eclectic feel of Haifa or the stunning natural wonders of Eilat, but the city of Nazareth is a charming mix of religion, faith and archeology, with a modern twist, all under an hour from Haifa.
Where is modern-day Nazareth located?
Surrounded by hills and valleys in northern Israel, modern-day Nazareth lies in the Lower Galilee, about 25 km west of the Sea of Galilee and 9 km from the city of Tiberias. Home to a significant Arab Christian population, as well as a Muslim majority, the city is today an economic hub in northern Israel, with growing numbers of businesses, an industrial High-Tech Park, several educational institutions, dotted around, close to restaurants, markets, and a robust tourist infrastructure.
History of Nazareth
The city’s journey, however, has been long and winding, evolving from its origins as an agricultural village during the Middle Bronze Age. Archaeological discoveries in Nazareth include tombs spanning from the Iron Age to the Hasmonean era. Many theories are floated on the meaning of Nazareth, one suggesting it comes from the Hebrew word, “netzer,” meaning “branch” or “shoot.” After the northern half of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrian Empire in 722 BC and the southern half by the Babylonian Empire in 587 BC, the name used the metaphor of Israel being like a tree that had been cut down but would grow once again.
Jesus Christ from Nazareth
During the Roman period, it existed as a serene, rural Jewish settlement with approximately 500 residents – a far cry from today’s bustling urban center of almost 80,000 inhabitants. According to Christian tradition, Jesus was born in Bethlehem but his family hails from the city of Nazareth, where his mother, Mary received the news of her pregnancy from the angel Gabriel, and where Jesus himself spent most of his early life. It was here he learned his family’s trade of carpentry, and developed his early understanding of faith and spirituality. His association with Nazareth underscored his identification with ordinary people. He was often referred to as Jesus Christ of Nazareth, a title underlining his humble origins and connection to the common man.
Why is Nazareth important to Christianity?
Nazareth has become a site of pilgrimage for Christians. Many believers visit Nazareth to see the Basilica of the Annunciation, a significant church that commemorates the angel Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she would conceive and bear Jesus. The church is built over the traditional site where this event is believed to have taken place.
Although Jesus was born in Bethlehem, when he was older, one of the first recorded miracles of Jesus took place in Cana, a nearby town, where he turned water into wine at a wedding feast. This event marked the beginning of his public ministry, with Nazareth acting as a launch pad for his teachings and works.
What do Christians tend to in Nazareth?
Home to a diverse community of Christians, both Arab and non-Arab, Nazareth provides a tangible link to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, and allows Christians to explore the places mentioned in the Gospels, and deepen their understanding of the events that have shaped their faith.
Many Christians undertake pilgrimages to Nazareth as a way to connect with the places where Jesus lived, taught, and performed miracles. The main attractions in Nazareth transport you back through the history of a city that has drawn pilgrims and tourists for 2,000 years. As the number of visits increased, the city built the first church – the Basilica of the Annunciation – in 1969, on the site of Joseph and Mary’s home and where Mary learned of her pregnancy. Pilgrims visit the various churches here, with many praying, reflecting, participating in Mass, and attending services, with the Basilica among the sacred places around the world to do so.
Churches and Religious Significance
What to see in Nazareth? Many churches in Nazareth and religious sites that hold significant historical and religious importance for Christians, the most significant landmark being the Basilica of the Annunciation, which is believed to have been built on the spot where the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and bear Jesus. The church features a prominent statue of Mary with the words, while the interior is adorned with artwork and mosaics representing the Virgin Mary from various cultures around the world. Close by is St. Joseph’s Church, dating back to the Crusader era, and believed be on the site where Joseph’s carpentry workshop was once located. Having undergone many renovations and changes over the centuries, this church, nevertheless, is a reminder of Joseph’s role in the Holy Family, and a dedication to Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. There is also the Greek Orthodox Church of the Archangel Gabriel, which was built over the freshwater spring known as Mary’s Well, a structure from the Crusader period, and the Greek Catholic Synagogue Church (or Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation), believed to be the site of the synagogue where the young Jesus was taught. As one of the oldest churches in Nazareth, its construction stretches back to the Byzantine period, and commemorates the Annunciation and with décor reflecting the Orthodox tradition.
What to do in Nazareth?
In addition to the splendid churches referenced above, take a walk through the narrow streets, between the picturesque houses, and imagine the significance then of this tiny village. Take a guided tour through the open-air museum, Nazareth Village offers a vivid journey into the 1st century, immersing visitors in the daily life of Jesus and Mary’s era. The living history farm recreates Nazareth’s ambiance, letting you stand in a replica synagogue where Jesus taught. The process of pressing olives into oil and the craftsmanship of carpenters and weavers come to life before you. Walk alongside shepherds tending their flocks and witness the authentic wine press utilized in Jesus’ time.
Mary’s Well Hotel: A Blend of Tradition and Modern Comfort in Nazareth
Some 400 meters north of the Church of the Annunciation, just off the main street, is Mary’s Well, a public fountain built over a well that has drawn pilgrims and tourists for the last 2,000 years and is believed to have been visited daily by Mary, often accompanied by her young son. Today, many Catholics and Orthodox Christians believe that the well was the exact place where Mary learned of her pregnancy. Five minutes from here is the welcoming Mary’s Well Nazareth Hotel, with delightful and comfortable rooms overlooking the Old City quarter, walking distance to the spice markets, the centuries-old churches, and a large number of local traditional restaurants. If you are embarking on a northern road trip, the Ruth Zefat emerges out of the lush green mountains of the Upper Galilee, just an hour away, in Zefat. Explore the picturesque, cobbled lanes, ancient synagogues, and local artisans in a fascinating city steeped in mysticism and history.
Is it worth visiting?
For those interested in exploring its history, culture and religious heritage, Nazareth is absolutely a must and an ideal starting point to explore the broader Galilee region. Nearby attractions include the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum – where many healing miracles are believed to have occurred, the village of Tabgha – where the feeding of the multitude is to have taken place, and the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus is believed to have delivered his Sermon on the Mount. A half-hour from Nazareth lies Megiddo, the UNESCO-listed archaeological site of an ancient fortress town, which has revealed more than 20 layers of ruins, ranging from the Neolithic Period (7000 BC) to the end of the Persian Period (332 BC).
How long do you need in Nazareth?
If you are interested in the major religious and historical sites, such as the Basilica of the Annunciation, St. Joseph’s Church, and the Synagogue Church, you can allocate a day or two to fully immerse yourself in these locations. If you are looking at taking in the other gems in the Galilee region, take your time over four-five days.
In Nazareth, Israel, that’s plenty of time to experience your own miracles.
Written by Lee Saunders