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Geography of Israel: Nazareth

Nazareth (Heb. נָצְרַת) is the largest Arab city in Israel with a population of some 60,000, of whom an estimated 30-35 percent are Christians. Nazareth is mentioned several times in the New Testament as the home to which Mary and Joseph, her husband, returned with the child from Egypt and where Jesus was brought up (Matt. 2:23; Luke 2:39, 51). Archaeological evidence has shown that the area was settled as an agricultural village as early as the Middle Bronze Age, and tombs have been found dating from the Iron Age to Hasmonean times. The village was home to only a few dozen families, which may explain why there are no earlier references, and why it was not included among the 45 cities of the Galilee listed by Josephus, nor in the 63 cities of the Galilee mentioned in the Talmud. It would also explain the seeming astonishment of Nathanael of Cana, who asks the Apostle Philip if anything good can come from such an insignificant hamlet (John 1:46).

According to the New Testament, Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth before Jesus’ birth, which was announced there to Mary by the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:26; 2:4). When Jesus tried to preach to the people of the town, he was attacked, his assailants attempting to throw him headlong from a cliff, identified by tradition as the Jebel Qafza, a hill 350 m. above sea level. Although he left Nazareth, possibly as a result of the incident (Luke 4:16–30; Matt. 4:13), the name Jesus of Nazareth nevertheless remained in common use both in his lifetime and among his followers, especially the apostle Peter. Members of Jesus' family continued to live in Nazareth at least into the second century. The term Nazarene was a derogatory name utilized by one's enemies during the first century (Matt. 21:11), and the Hebrew and Arabic terms for Christians (Noẓeri, Nasrāni) are derived from the town's name.

Nazareth is not mentioned in non-Christian sources until the third or fourth century, when it was recorded in an inscription found at Caesarea listing the priestly courses and their seats in Galilee. According to this list (which is reproduced in the seventh-century liturgical poems of Kallir and others), the family of Happizzez (I Chron. 24:15) settled in Nazareth, a name derived in this source from the root nṣr (to guard). It is described by Jerome as a very small village in Galilee (Onom. 141:3). Constantine may have included it in the territory of Helenopolis, a city which he founded, but the town remained purely Jewish in the fourth century.

Excavations conducted by B. Bagatti from 1955 to 1968 on the site of the Church of the Annunciation revealed the remains of a church with a mosaic pavement dating to about 450. Below the church and nearby were the remains of a Jewish town from the Roman period in which were pear-shaped silos, vaulted cellars, cisterns, ritual immersion pools (mikva'to), and olive presses. Among the remains were about 80 partly-stuccoed and inscribed stones, as well as column bases. The excavators view these finds as the remnants of a Judeo-Christian synagogue or a Constantinian church built for Jews. The first mention of a church in Nazareth was made in 570 by Antoninus Placentinus, who describes it as a converted synagogue.

In 614, the Jews in the mountains of Nazareth joined the Persians in their war against the Byzantines. Shortly before the Crusader conquest, the town was destroyed by Muslim Arabs. Tancred captured Nazareth, and the Crusaders built a church, whose finely sculptured capitals (now in the Franciscan Museum) exhibit French workmanship of the 12th century. The archbishopric of Beth-Shean was transferred to Nazareth during the Crusades.

After winning the decisive battle against the crusader forces on July 4, 1187, Saladin captured the town; its crusader forces and European clergy were forced to retreat to the coast. At that time, according to an eyewitness account, the townspeople were either massacred or imprisoned while the Basilica was profaned.

The city was again in Christian hands in 1240 and 1250, and in 1252 St. Louis of France visited there. In 1263, Baybars ordered a pogrom against the Christians and destruction of churches of the land which included the Basilica at Nazareth, which remained in ruins for 400 years. The Franciscans returned to the town in 1620 by permission of the emir Fakhr al-Dīn. A new church was built under Ẓāhir al-ʿAmir in 1730.

In 1955 the present Basilica was commissioned by Franciscans, and the building was consecrated in 1969 based upon a three-level design incorporating the remains from a Roman Period pubic building and the Byzantine and Crusader Basilicas in the lower church.

A number of Christian holy places in Nazareth are associated with the Annunciation, the childhood and the early ministry of Jesus. In addition to the imposing Basilica of the Annunciation, these sites include the Greek Orthodox Church of the Archangel Gabriel (built over the freshwater spring known as Mary’s Well), the Greek Catholic Synagogue Church (assumed site of the synagogue where the young Jesus was taught, and where he later read from Isaiah), and the Franciscan Church of St. Joseph (built over a cave identified since the 17th century as the workshop of Joseph).

Nazareth also contains a number of historical sites important to the Muslim community. As with the Christian churches in Nazareth, most of these buildings are of relatively recent construction. The el-Abyad Mosque, to the north of the Basilica of the Annunciation, was built in 1812, and is the oldest in the city.

The Tomb of Maqam Shihab el-Din, a Muslim leader and the nephew of Salah al-Din (Saladin), located 100 meters south of the Basilica of the Annunciation, has been the center of recent controversy between the Muslim and Christian communities in Nazareth. The cleared area between the church and the tomb is state-owned land that was intended to become a large public plaza. Muslim activists, however, demanded that at least a part of the site be used for the construction of a mosque. A government-initiated compromise has not fully satisfied either side in the dispute.


C. Kopp, Holy Places of the Gospels (1963), 49ff.; idem, in: JPOS, 18 (1938), 181ff.; 20 (1946), 29ff.; M.J. Stiassny, Nazareth (Eng., 1967); Prawer, Ẓalbanim, index; M. Barash, in: Eretz-Israel, 7 (1964), 125–34 (Heb. section); A. Olivari, in: La Terre Sainte (Aug.–Sept. 1961), 201–6; M. Benvenisti, Crusaders in the Holy Land (1970), index; W.E. Pax, In the Footsteps of Jesus (1970), index. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: B. Bagatti, Excavations in Nazareth, vol. 1, From the Beginning till the XII Century, tr. from Italian by E. Hoade (1969); B. Bagatti and E. Alliata, Excavations in Nazareth, vol 2, From the 12th Century until Today, tr. from Italian by R. Bonanno (2002). Websites:;

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry
Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.