'What's there to do in Nazareth?" friends asked when I told them I was touring the city commonly referred to as the Arab capital of Israel.
The celebrated hometown of Jesus might not seem a prime destination, especially for Jewish tourists. Hardly any Jews live there: its population of 75,000 is split two-thirds Muslim, one-third Christian. Add to that the heightened current Israeli-Arab tension in the wake of the Jerusalem attack on Yeshivat Merkaz Harav, and it's understandable why some Israeli Jews might shy away.
"That shouldn't be the case," said Tareq Shihada, the director of the Nazareth Cultural and Tourist Association. "People infer their understanding of Nazareth according to what happens in Gaza," says Shihada. "Nazareth is an Arab city, but it's also an Israeli city. There have been no incidents of politically motivated violence here. It's quiet and safer than any other city in Israel."
The Nazareth Cultural and Tourist Association, which hosted my tour, presents Nazareth as a rich tourist hub, and justly so. The city intertwines religion, archeology and history with contemporary culture and cuisine to entice people of all faiths, admittedly mostly Christian. "Nazareth is marketing Israel, not the other way around," says Shihada.
Judging from the number of Christian pilgrims flocking to the city a few days before Easter, there's no denying his point. The streets and shops were bustling; the churches were full. Given the demographics and language, I almost felt like I was in a foreign city - and that's part of Nazareth's charm for the Jewish Israeli visitor. This northern city offers an alternative to the more predictable Israeli tourist sites and a great - and safe - landing pad for people interested in gaining insight into Christianity and Israeli Arab culture.
Leave it to Christians to become experts in Jewish life. Jesus, after all, was a Jew, and so his life and times can actually provide insight into Jewish living ca. 70 CE. Nazareth Village presents "the Nazareth Jesus knew," an interactive recreation of a Jewish farming village under Roman occupation based on years of historical and archeological research informed by New Testament scholarship.
The site was built on actual archeological remains of a first-century farm, where a wine press and vat indicate that it specialized in grapes. About half a dozen actors dressed in ancient garb move about the fields, bringing the village to life. A female shepherd (played by an American volunteer) leads sheep, while a dark man in a brown robe presides over the watchtower. This same man also plays Joseph the carpenter. Watch him create a wooden farming tool and, next door, watch a weaver make yarn.
The "Parable Walk" along the olive groves, wheat fields and cisterns dramatizes New Testament agriculture parables, but tours can be tailored to non-Christians who may want a less Christian-oriented commentary.
What might be of particular interest to Jewish visitors is the reconstructed synagogue, which looks nothing like an Orthodox shul today. Stepped platforms surround an open area without a mechitza (partition dividing men and women).
Amer Nicola, the program director, explained how a first century synagogue was literally a beit knesset, a house of gathering where Jewish men and women sat together to hear the Torah reading. It was only after the destruction of the Temple that synagogues became ritual centers. Here, guides dramatize, using a fake Torah scroll, how Jesus's message about universality caused a stir among the Jewish synagogue goers.
To further the time-machine effect, Nazareth Village offers groups biblical meals consisting of lentil soup, cabbage salad and chicken using foods and spices grown in the village.
Tel: (04) 645-6042: www.nazarethvillage.com
Those interested in deepening their understanding of biblical pottery should pay a visit to Musmar Pottery, a third-generation family business that fashions ceramics using ancient and modern methods. After treating us to some coffee in the shop's own mugs, Bassam Musmar showed us what kind of pots were used for storing water, oil and cheese as well as for cooking and baking in ancient times.
The shelves of Musmar Pottery are cluttered with unfinished ceramic bowls and jugs, but this lack of retail finish adds to its authenticity. The pottery shop was founded by Hanna Said Musmar in 1919 who studied the ancient art in Munich. He chose to set up shop in Nazareth for its rich marl clay, made from the soil right behind the shop. Today his friendly grandsons, Hanna and Bassam, are usually on hand to offer coffee - and some breakfast at an extra charge - before introducing individuals and groups to their world of ceramics.
NIS 20 for a one hour visit, extra NIS 5 to make a pot, extra NIS 10 for a breakfast consisting of pita and vegetables. By appointment. (04) 657-5996; 052-631-3775; www.musmar.net
One tour guide, Fawzy Nasser, a non-practicing Christian Nazarene and author of books on Israeli tourism, explained to us that Mount Precipice is so named because, according to Christian legend, this is where Jews tried to execute the heretical Jesus by casting him down the mountain. Miraculously, Jesus escaped unscathed.
I'm sure Christians are raised to new heights of belief upon visiting the site, but this writer was more inspired by the breathtaking view of the colorful patches of farmland of the Jezreel Valley. Although the air was hazy, on a good day, Nasser explained, one can see Haifa, Mount Carmel, Umm el-Fahm and Jenin.
THE CHURCH OF THE ANNUNCIATION
The Basilica of the Annunciation dominates the landscape of the city and is the center of Christian pilgrimage. The church was first built in 427 CE above a sunken grotto, which, according to Roman Catholic tradition, was the home of the Virgin Mary and the place where she heard the announcement by the Archangel Gabriel of the imminent birth of Jesus. Since then the church has been destroyed and rebuilt by the various powers who have conquered the Levant. The present church was built and consecrated in 1969.
The impressive and large church, designed by Italian architect Giovanni Muzio, looks like it belongs in Florence. A huge bronze door depicts milestones of Jesus's life in relief, with tributes to both the Old and New Testament. Our guide expertly pointed out the Christian symbolism embedded into the design of the interior - the flowers, the colors, the portraits - a sure-fire Christian crowd pleaser. What spoke to my artistic rather than religious sensibilities was its renowned display of beautiful, multi-colored mosaics depicting Mary in the eyes of artists from all over the world.
The White Mosque next door was built in the early 19th century on the principles of intercity peace and tolerance.
Where to eat:
As the Arab metropolis, Arab villagers flock to Nazareth for upscale and international cuisine. A blend of Arabic, European and Asian cooking is finely executed at Tishrin, considered one of the best restaurants in the city. It's designed like a homey bistro, and offers a totally different atmosphere from the Mizrahi grills or men's cafes common to traditional Arab societies. It was full for lunch with Arabic-speaking, secularly-dressed men, women and children.
To seal in flavor, much of the food is prepared in the taboon at the entrance or in ceramic pots. Go for the parsley-rich tabouli salad and mushrooms stuffed with cheese and garlic. As an example of their Arabic fusion dish, try the chicken freike, chicken strips fried in a wok with onion, pine nuts and parsley, served with green wheat. Tel: (04) 608-4666; www.rol.co.il
Where to sleep:
FAUZI AZAR INN
For those who may want to relax in some Jewish-owned hospitality at the end of the day, there's the Fauzi Azar Inn. Despite its somewhat misleading name, the inn was founded by Maoz Inon, a 32-year-old former Tel Aviv resident who saw the tourist potential of Nazareth's abandoned old city. He bought and converted an Ottoman house (that belonged to Fauzi Azar's family, hence the name) into a multilevel, clean and friendly hostel. Inon's best advice for people who want to know where to go: "Walk through the old city and get lost." The Inn won Mapa's "Find of the Year" award in 2006.
Single room for couples: NIS 300 weekdays/ NIS 400 weekends; Family/group room: NIS 100 per person; dorm bed: NIS 60. Tel: 054-432-2352; www.fauziazarinn.com
For more info about Nazareth: Nazareth Cultural and Tourist Association: (04) 601-1072; www.nazarethinfo.orgn