Nazareth is described by some as ‘the Forgotten Son’ of Israeli tourism. Nazareth, located in Israel’s Galilee region not only has over a dozen important Christian sites, but as Israel’s largest Arab city, has some fascinating cultural sites and experiences to savor. The Pope came to Israel in early 2009, and Nazareth was one of the areas given big government grants to improve its tourism infrastructure for this. As a result, Nazareth has been given a push back onto Israel’s tourism map – and with its importance as the childhood home of Jesus, as the largest Arab city in Israel, and its stunning location right in the middle of the Lower Galilee (about 15 miles west of the Sea of Galilee), it’s a fascinating place.
Nazareth’s Old City is most famous for its traditional shuk (Arabic for market) which attracts Israelis from across the country looking for traditional Arabic produce. This in itself is an experience, and a great contrast to the air-conditioned malls dotted around the country. For those interested in Christianity, the Old City and surrounds are filled with important Christian sites, including the Church of the Annunciation.
Off the beaten track in the Old City are two sites which are worth a visit if you are feeling in a historic and cultural mood… The Nazareth Nuns’ Convent, located not far from the Church of Annunciation, is a totally unexpected, but very impressive archaeology site. The nuns, who arrived in Nazareth from France in 1855, purchased several stores in the market and started establishing the convent. During the building process, many archeological findings were uncovered, including a large hall with a big arch above it, catacombs, water cisterns, mosaics, an ancient church’s altar and a Jewish burial site believed to be from before the Second Temple period. The sisters also have a small museum exhibiting old coins and pottery. Tours of the subterranean site are by appointment only for groups, though.
The Synagogue Church, is according to Christian tradition, where Jesus studied and prayed. In addition, this is where he gave his famous sermon on Shabbat (Matthew 13, Mark 6, Luke 4) when he declared himself as the Messiah to his Jewish village members. This sermon infuriated the congregants and they allegedly dragged him to Mount Precipice planning to push him downhill, but he jumped and disappeared. Today, the Synagogue Church belongs to the Greek-Catholic community. According to historians, attributing this synagogue to the one where Jesus was praying is a late tradition that started after the Byzantine period: All early Jewish holy sites were destroyed by the Romans at the end of the Second Temple period, and most ancient Galilee synagogues are from the third to sixth century.
Nazareth also has some impressive architecture with an abundance of Ottoman era homes which have stunning frescoes – painted plaster walls and ceilings. Although not in the same condition as they were when they were constructed for wealthy merchants, many of these homes still have these impressive features which, if you want to, you can see by arranging a tour through the Nazareth Tourist Association.
Exploring the wider area, there are loads of places to visit in the Lower Galilee and Sea of Galilee regions. Of particular interest, however, might be the Gospel Trail which is a recently opened walking route which traces the footsteps of Jesus from Nazareth to Capernaum on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. It is designed to take a few days to hike, although you could just do short stages. The beautiful marked trail is perfect whether or not you are interested in it for its religious meaning, as it offers fantastic scenery and newly made footpaths.