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By Mariam Shahin with photographs by George Azar
“A thousand forgotten conquerors have passed over my country and melted like the snow.” Tawfiq Zayyad, Six Words
Nazareth is situated in the southernmost hills of the Lebanon mountain range. The town lies on a hollow plateau about 1,200 feet above sea level (Mediterranean), among hills that rise to an altitude of 1,610 feet. Ancient Nazareth occupied the triangular hillock that extends from the mountain on the north to the south.
The origins of the name Nazareth are not entirely clear. The Hebrew word nazir, meaning Nazarite (monk), is one explanation. Some say that the name means “those who have made a vow,” whereas others believe that “Nazarenes” was the name given by Jews to the early Christians as a derogatory nickname. Many scholars today think that the name Nazareth comes from the Hebrew word netzer, meaning “branch.”
Nazareth is most famous as the town where Jesus lived and preached. It is most celebrated as the place of the Annunciation, where the Archangel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary to announce the impending birth of her child, Jesus.
Historically Nazareth is often portrayed as less important than other cities in the country. However, archaeological evidence shows that Nazareth has been inhabited since the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1500 BC). The Hebrews lived in the area around 1200 BC, and the Romans and Byzantines had burial grounds on the hill across from the Church of the Annunciation. The recent discovery of an extensive Roman bathhouse implies that there had been a full-fledged Roman colony in Nazareth, but not much is yet known about it.
In Biblical times Nazareth was a small agricultural town settled by few dozen families. It appears that although the family of Christ was from Nazareth, converts were few until the 3rd century. Historical accounts indicate that Nazareth was a Jewish community with only a few Christians until the 6th century. By 326 AD the Emperor Constantine had ordered the building of a small church over the Grotto of the Annunciation, which was Mary’s home. Two churches existed in the city by 570 AD.
The first detailed description of Nazareth came under Muslim rule, when Christian pilgrims started coming to Palestine in large numbers and larger churches were built. During the Crusader period Nazareth became a “Christian city” in the commonly understood sense of the word; all Muslims and Jews were expelled and monastic orders set up. The city became the seat of an archbishop.
Significant parts of Nazareth were destroyed during and after Sultan Baibars’ final expulsion of the Crusaders, and although Franciscan Friars were allowed to return and establish themselves in Nazareth, the state of the churches remained ambiguous until the reign of the Ottomans. In 1620 the Lebanese ruler of northern Palestine Emir Fakhri Din encouraged Christians to settle in the city and invited the Franciscans to return and invest in Nazareth in large numbers. Their presence seemed to be precarious, and until the reign of the Palestinian Dhaher Omar al Zaidani (1730) this community appeared to be in peril. Zaidani encouraged the Franciscans to build, and they constructed a church over the Grotto of the Annunciation.
Nazareth remained marginalised, except for some missionary activity during the later part of the Ottoman Era. In WWI, it was made into a regional command centre under German control. During the Mandate period, the British favoured the city. The Mandate employed many of the city’s Christians, in particular, and facilitated scholarships and business opportunities for them. Nazareth was to be part of the Arab state of Palestine according to the UN partition plan. However, the Israelis wanted it to be part of their state and tried to have all the Arabs evacuated during the war. The act of a single volunteer commander from Canada, who refused to accept verbal orders to evacuate the Arab population, insisting that he get a written order instead, ensured the continued presence of the Arab community.
In order to force a Jewish presence in Nazareth, the Israeli government established Nazareth Illit, on a mountain opposite Nazareth. It is an almost entirely Jewish city, which receives preferential treatment from the Israeli government and has no tourist sites.
Nazareth has about 65,000 inhabitants, many of whom are refugees from the 1948 war. Like all Arab populations in Israel, the Nazareth community lived under martial law until the 1960s. Local politics has tended to be a competition between members of the Communist Party and the Islamic wing; thus far the communists have always won the municipal and parliamentary elections. In 2000 Nazareth was the site of major unrest when local youths challenged Israeli police to a duel after large numbers of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza were killed by the Israeli army.
Excerpted from Palestine: A Guide by Mariam Shahin, photography by George Azar, Chastleton Travel, 2007.
This Week in Palestine 2009