Sun | Sep 23, 2018

Tour of the Holy Land Part 11 – Nazareth, where Mary and Jesus lived

Published:Saturday | January 21, 2017 | 12:47 AMPaul H. Williams
The façade of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Israel.
A view of the Arab section of Nazareth, Israel.
The cupola of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, Israel.

The story goes that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea, but it is Nazareth that he is commonly associated with. In the New Testament, the city is described as the childhood home of Jesus, thus Jesus Christ of Nazareth. However, some modern scholars also regard Nazareth as the birthplace of Jesus.

The Gospel of Luke says Nazareth was also the home village of the virgin Mary. It was there that the archangel Gabriel informed her that she would give birth to Jesus. That disclosure is known as the Annunciation. Mary consented by saying, “Let it be done to me according to your word.”

Today, Nazareth is the biggest city in northern Israel, and consists of Nazareth Illit (Upper Nazareth) and Old Nazareth. It is known as the Arab capital of Israel as the residents are predominantly Arab citizens of Israel, of which 69 per cent are Muslim and 30.9 per cent are Christian. The Jewish section, which was declared a separate city in June 1974 has a population of over 40,000 people.

The city is built on several mounds. Thus, it is more hilly than flat. Some streets are steep making getting around on foot quite tiresome. From several spots the valley below can be seen. There are many juxtapositions of old and new edifices, and places of worship.  In this ancient city, domes and minarets are common features of buildings.

But it is the towering cupola of the Basilica of the Annunciation that stands out, more than any other. The information is that it was constructed directly above the cave in which it is said the virgin Mary once lived. On top of it is a lantern symbolising the ‘Light of the World’. 

From inside the building, the cupola represents an inverted lily opening its petals to the shrine below. The lily is a dual symbolism, a representation of Mary’s purity, and a flower called Nazareth.

The church itself is a grand two-storey architectural marvel, which was the largest Christian church in the Middle East when it was completed in 1969. It contains two churches, the upper one being the parish church for Nazareth’s Catholic community. The outcome of Mary’s consent is carved in Latin across the façade over the triple-doorway entrance.

On the beige limestone façade are etchings of Mary, Gabriel and the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Above them is a bronze statue of Jesus. Over a door on the southern side stands a statue of Mary, aged 14, welcoming all who come to visit her home.

Enshrined in the lower level of the church is a sunken cave that contains the traditional home of the virgin Mary. The cave is surrounded by remnants of earlier churches on the site. The shrine entrance is sometimes blocked by a security grille. Inside the cave stands an altar with a Latin inscription, which means, 'Here the Word was made flesh'.

In front of the cave is another simple altar, with tiers of seats around it on three sides. Above it, a large octagonal opening is situated exactly under the cupola of the church. A spiral staircase at the main church entrance leads to the large and spacious upper church.

Around the walls of this church are artistic representations of the Virgin Mary in a variety of materials, presented by many countries. Behind the main altar is a huge mosaic, one of the biggest in the world, depicting the 'one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic church'.

When the original church was demolished to prepare for the modern basilica, extensive excavations uncover the remains of the ancient village of Nazareth with its silos, cisterns and other cave dwellings.

In addition to the Basilica of the Annunciation, there are many other religious sites in Nazareth including the Church of Saint Joseph, which, it is believed, was built on the site of Joseph’s carpentry workshop. Joseph was Jesus’ stepfather. The church named for him is a sanctuary, also called the Church of the Nutrition, because Jesus lived and grew up there, learning his father’s trade, until he was an adult.

From primitive dwellings to post-modern architecture, Nazareth, which Family and Religion toured last December, is a bustling city of religious diversity that has many historical sites making it one of the places in the ‘Holy Land’ to which people make regular pilgrimages.