The Significance of the Palestinian City of Nazareth During the Christmas Season
Nazareth in the Roman Period–during Jesus’ boyhood
By: John Mason, Arab America Contributing Writer
Nazareth is the largest Arab Palestinian city inside of Israel’s northern district, the Galilee. It is the childhood home of Jesus. This is why we know him as ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ The city is known as the Arab Palestinian capital of Israel since it is comprised mainly of Arabs, most of whom are citizens of Israel. They are a mix of Muslims and Christians, though today Muslims outnumber Christians by about three-to-one. Because of its most famous citizen, Jesus, Nazareth is a major point of attraction for Christian pilgrims. Shrines, churches, and other sites celebrate Jesus’ childhood home.
A Brief History of Pre-Israeli Nazareth
We first hear of the town of Nazareth from the New Testament period, in the Gospel of Luke. It is described as a town of Galilee and the home of Jesus’ parents, Mary and Joseph. A gap of a few hundred years occurs before we hear again about Nazareth, this time in a Roman history. Nazareth is the place of the Annunciation, the moment when the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus. According to the Book of Matthew, Mary and Joseph fled Bethlehem (ancestral home of Joseph) to Egypt, after which they resettled back in Nazareth. This is where Jesus grew up. Actual historical references to Nazareth during the early Christian period are, at best, murky.
Recognizing Nazareth as a Christian Center
By the sixth century, an initiative unfolded to build a community around the story of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus, a church was built there, now the Greek Church of the Annunciation. It was placed at the site of what is known as ‘Mary’s Well,’ a freshwater spring. Records also show that there was a Jewish synagogue in Nazareth, where Jesus went to school. It was mainly a Jewish town during the 4th – 6th centuries, though later it became a center for the Christian pilgrim trade. By the 7th century, the Byzantine rulers, representing easter Christendom, removed the Jews from the town, at which point it became a mostly Christian community.
Church of the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus
Muslim Invasion changes the Landscape
The Muslim invasion in the first half of the 7th century affected Nazareth only minimally. Eventually, however, the effects of Islam had begun to be felt, and of all the churches, only the Church of the Annunciation was allowed to stand. It was saved due to the Muslim requirement of a special tax imposed on the Christians. In the 11th century, the Christian Crusaders captured the Galilee region, placing its capital in Nazareth. Once the Muslim forces of Saladin reconquered the region in the 12th century, the Christian influence was vastly reduced.
In the 13th century yet another Muslim force took over the region, the Mamelukes. Christianity did not fare well under that regime. Nevertheless, Arab Christian families were allowed to remain in Nazareth, which by then was just a remnant of its former urban self. And, on it went. By the Ottoman period, beginning in the late 16th century, the regional ruler permitted the Christians to build or rebuild a small church at the place known as ‘the Grotto of the Annunciation. Under the Ottomans, an Arab sheikh who ruled Galilee rebuilt Nazareth into a major town. He aligned with France to protect the town’s Christian members, including one of his wives who lived there.
The World moves in on Nazareth
The British arrival in Palestine in 1917, under the rubric of the Balfour Agreement, foresaw the formation of the Jewish homeland in Palestine. By 1919, a group of representatives from Nazareth protested the Zionist movement by sending a delegation to the First Palestine Arab Congress. Christians and Muslims alike joined arms in condemning Zionism and promoting Palestinian nationalism. Christian and Muslim Nazarenes alike supported the right of the Jews of Palestine to remain in their communities. They just didn’t want their own homeland to be overwhelmed by new waves of Jews coming from outside the region.
Under the 1947 United Nations partition plan, Nazareth was supposed to be incorporated into an Arab state. As the 1948 Arab Israeli war unfolded, Palestinian Arabs flocked to Nazareth.
Nazareth under Israeli Rule
At the beginning of the 1948 war, a loose grouping of villagers and members of the Arab Liberation Army attempted the defense of Nazareth but were overcome in July by Israeli forces. In order to prevent the city’s destruction, its leaders succumbed to Israeli occupation. The Israelis then wanted to remove the Arabs of Nazareth by force. Because of the fear that the world’s Christians would reject the expulsion of the Arab Christians from Jesus’ homeland, Israeli leadership reneged on that decision.
By the 1950s and 60s Nazareth had become the largest Arab Palestinian city in Israel and, as well, a magnet of Palestinian Arab nationalism. Instead of forcing out the Arabs, the Israeli government built another adjacent city for the Jews, called, Nazerat Illit (Upper Nazareth).
View of Nazerat-Illit, the majority Jewish city built adjacent to Arab Nazareth. It was established by Israel as a competing settlement adjacent to Nazareth.
By 1964, the first papal visit to Nazareth was made to Jesus’ hometown by Pope Paul VI. Over the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, Nazareth’s citizens have supported the Palestinian cause, including during times of the Intifada (“tremor” or “shuddering”) protests. Realizing the potential of Nazareth to draw Christian tourists, as well as to present a better image to the world of the government’s treatment of its Christian Arabs, Israel’s Ministry of Tourism has invested in the City’s tourist industry. More recently, Nazareth has become known as the Silicon Valley of Arabs, due to its creation thereof several software development companies.
Historic Significance of Nazareth to Christianity
This city in the Lower Galilee is intimately tied to the boyhood home of Jesus. It was in Nazareth that Jesus’ preaching in a synagogue led to his expulsion by fellow Jews. Right outside of Nazareth, according to the New Testament Book of John, Jesus enacted his first miracle, that of turning water to wine at a wedding. Its Roman Catholic Church of the Annunciation is a key attraction since it embodies the ‘Grotto of the Annunciation,’ where the Book of Luke says the archangel appeared to the Virgin Mary, announcing that she would become the mother of Jesus.
Another famous Nazareth site is that of a church where there used to rest the synagogue where Jesus preached. Another is the ‘Table of Christ’ Church, depicted in the Gospel of St. Mark. There, following his resurrection, Jesus’ appears to the 11 remaining disciples and chides them for not believing witnesses to his return from the dead. The Church of St. Joseph is another stop along the tour route, where Jesus’ father, Joseph, had his carpentry shop.
Street scene in old Nazareth–showing the 18th century Greek Catholic Church at the end of the street
An Important Christian Pilgrimage Center
Visitors to Nazareth will find an older part of the City as well as a modern sector. The City rests on hillsides, which dip down as if into the bottom of a bowl. Arabs and Jews would attend each other’s’ numerous religious festivities, though tension over the years has diminished this tradition. However, they do interact regularly in the marketplace.
Nazareth is famous for its Christian weddings, of both residents and foreigners. These are long celebrations with lots of Arab music from around the region. More affluent Christian women adorned in the western dress are seen in Nazareth, promenading along its narrow streets lined with traditional Arab houses. A tour of the old city market makes one feel that she or he is ensconced in an Arab Palestinian society.
A modern wedding at the Cana Church, where Jesus performed the miracle of turning water into wine–also known as ‘The Wedding Church’
As a pilgrimage center, Nazareth offers different kinds of temporary residence, ranging from Christian hostels to multi-star hotels, and many types of restaurants. Christmas is an especially popular time to visit the City, with all its huge Christmas tree, colorful decorations, church bells, and prayers being offered in its main streets and numerous churches.
It’s no exaggeration if one says that to experience the true holy Christmas spirit, one of the most popular spots on earth is being in Nazareth.
(References: Goisrael, article 250; Haaretz, 2011; Enclyopaedia Britannica; Journal of Palestine Studies, 25, 1996; Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity: A history of New Testament Times, 2002; Times of Israel, 2015, 2018.)
John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.