When it comes to Christian pilgrimage sites, there is no better place to begin then at the beginning, in Nazareth, where Mary the mother of Jesus was first visited by the angel Gabriel. While Bethlehem and Jerusalem boast the great shrines of Jesus’ birth and death, it is Nazareth where Jesus spent most of his life in between, and the surrounding region of Galilee where he spent most of the few short years of his ministry. The region is peppered with shrines and churches which commemorate the events of Jesus’ life, first and foremost being the Basilica of the Annunciation. Despite its lesser status, at least compared to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Nazareth and the Basilica of the Annunciation are among the oldest and most popular stops for Christian pilgrims working their way across the Holy Land. It is also the largest and most important Christian shrine in Israel exclusively under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church.
As far as is known, Nazareth did not play a significant role in history prior to the Christian era. In fact, Nazareth was never mentioned as such in the Old Testament, and may not even have existed as a village until the Second Temple period. Its first appearance in history, and in the Bible, was during the reign of Augustus Caesar. It was probably a rural outlying community of the much larger town of Tzippori, an important center of Jewish priestly activity during the Hasmonean and Herodian periods. Sometime before 6 BC, Nazareth became home to what would be its most famous couple: Joseph the carpenter and his young wife, Mary. It was during their residence here that the first miracle of the New Testament, the Immaculate Conception, took place.
The Bible offers only a brief overview of this pivotal event. According to the New Testament, Mary was informed of her delicate condition by the Archangel Gabriel, the herald of the Lord, though it is uncertain whether the conception took place at this time or earlier. Presumably, she spent most of her pregnancy in Nazareth. However, because of the census decreed by Caesar Augustus, Joseph and Mary were forced to travel to his ancestral home of Bethlehem, in the old tribal territory of Judah, where the actual birth took place.
There are some discrepancies among the Gospels as to exactly what happened after Jesus’ birth. The general belief is that the family fled to Egypt immediately afterwards, and did not return to Nazareth until the death of Herod the Great. Whatever the case, they eventually did return to Nazareth, where Jesus spent most of his life until he began his ministry at around the age of thirty. During these later years he returned to his home at least a few times, after which Nazareth once again fell into obscurity. Christian tradition suggests that by the time of the Pentecost, not even Mary continued to reside there.
While much of the Galilee region became Christianized during Jesus’ life, Nazareth itself remained solidly Jewish for the next three centuries. During the shrine-building craze of the 4th century AD, Christians finally began to take an active interest in Nazareth as a sacred destination. The first Church of the Annunciation was built around that time. Nazareth is now a bustling city, one of the largest in the Galilee region. Despite the mixed Jewish-Christian-Muslim population, Nazareth is considerably more peaceful than other such places. This is due in large part to the fact that Galilee is not part of the disputed territories. This in turn has made it much easier for hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims to visit the Church of the Annunciation every year.
According to tradition, the original Basilica of the Annunciation built in the 4th century was constructed on the site where the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary. However, the Byzantine-era structure that once stood here has since been rebuilt several times. The current incarnation is a massive modern-age church that only dates from the 1960s. Although not particularly venerable, it has the distinction of being the largest Christian church in the Holy Land, and the largest church in active use in the Middle East in general.
Architecturally the building is a hulking white structure which blends earlier Byzantine and Crusader elements into a quasi-modern design that has received mixed artistic reviews. The exterior of the basilica is decorated with a collection of Christian art donated from around the world. The interior of the Basilica is so large that it probably would enclose most of what would have been the original village of Nazareth. As with the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, the highlight of the shrine lies beneath the basilica: the Grotto of the Annunciation. This is supposedly located in the exact spot where the house of Mary once stood, and the place in which Gabriel appeared to her.
The Basilica of the Annunciation dominates the center of Nazareth. About twenty-five miles east of Haifa and a hundred miles north of Jerusalem, Nazareth is a geographic anomaly in the region: it is home to a major Christian shrine in a predominantly Arab city located solidly within Israeli Jewish territory. Despite this Nazareth is generally free from the problems and violence that plague other areas, and visiting is relatively easy. The Church of the Annunciation is open daily from 8:30am-5:00pm (closed for lunch from 11:45am-2:00pm). There is no cost of admission. Web: www.basilicanazareth.org (official website)
Nazareth is brimming with sites directly related to the life of Christ and the holy family. According to tradition, Mary’s Well was once used by Jesus’ mother, and is considered to be an alternative site for the location of Gabriel’s appearance. The Church of St. Joseph marks the site of Joseph’s carpentry shop. Part of what is believed to be the original workshop is still preserved below the church. The Synagogue Church was built over the ruins of an ancient synagogue. Being the only one in Nazareth, it is assumed that this is the synagogue where Jesus preached when he was in town. Not far outside of Nazareth is the Basilica of the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, where Jesus was transfigured in the presence of his Apostles.