Well, this day far exceeded my expectations! The itinerary listed Nazareth, Zippori (ancient Sepphoris), and Cana. These three sites are mere miles apart, AND our previous visit to Israel saw us spend several nights at a sweet little guesthouse in the modern-day village of Zippori. In a sense, I was feeling a bit of “been there, done that”.
Not even close!
“What good can come out of Nazareth?” That’s the classic question. While Jesus can provide his own answer to Nathaniel’s question, I can tell you what is to be found in Nazareth today—a whole lot of churches! Our itinerary—remember, the one that set my bar low today—included three of these churches, plus a convent. What would you have expected?
The surprises flowed like this:
1) The Church of Annunciation: Just beyond the site of Nazareth’s ancient well, we found this Orthodox church (pictured at the top of this post). The icons were unusually attractive to my eyes, with many depicting Bible stories in colourful and thoughtful scenes. Beyond that, my expectations were about on par.
2) The Basilica of Annunciation: I don’t easily gawk at buildings. It’s not that I don’t appreciate great architecture, but I sort of take it in stride with an, “It’s just a building.”
Well, not this one.
Wow! Build in the 1960’s the grand church is stunning. Really. It lacks the gaudiness of so many churches here and replaces it with class and pure beauty. It even incorporates right into its design a cave house excavated beneath and purported to have belonged to Mary’s family. Whether you believe that or not, the cave is used as a fairly magnificent sunken centerpiece in the sanctuary. If you can get over the “Mary overemphasis” in some of its displays, then you can be stunned too! And if this quick description has failed to sketch an accurate picture in your mind, don’t be shocked. Even my photos won’t do this place justice.
I’d visit this place again just to linger.
3) The Church of St. Joseph: Right next door to “Mary’s” basilica, Joseph gets a church in his honour too. Simpler and smaller in scope, this church did contain a few noteworthy stained-glass windows depicting events from Joseph’s life—his angelic revelation about Mary’s pregnancy, his marrying Mary anyway, and his death with wife and son at his side. If you can get over Joseph’s very European appearance, the windows are quite nice.
4) Sisters of Nazareth Convent: Okay, here’s where the real twists for the day began. We enter this convent, which doesn’t appear that big. I’m thinking, “They probably have a chapel to see.” They did, and it was nice enough. Then I’m thinking, “We probably stopped here for a bathroom break.” And we did. Then I’m thinking, “They probably have an excavated first-century home that could have even been Jesus’ childhood home… in their basement.”
Okay, so I never thought that. But I can assure you that there wasn’t a games room in the basement!
Some decades ago, a fellow was working on the water system. He fell through a cistern into a space that the French sisters didn’t know existed. Excavations began beneath the convent, unearthing (through the layers of several ages) an average home from first-century Nazareth. I kid you not—our guide walked us over the stones of a first-century street and led us through a first-century doorway into a first-century home, near which was also a first-century tomb with the “door stone” sitting there waiting to be rolled into place. This was the real deal—no fakey restoration.
Let’s add a detail. Nazareth—we know it was small. But what do you picture when you think “small”? I used to picture a thousand people, maybe a few more—something similar to my childhood hometown. Nope. There are pretty consistent guesses based on archaeology that the Nazareth of Jesus’ childhood topped out around three hundred people, many of who would have been related, and nearly all of whom lived in house based out of the caves in the hills nearby. So what are the odds that everyone knew everyone in a town of 200-300? Pretty much a given. And what are the odds that little boy Jesus ran down the street we touched today or visited the house we entered today or even lived there himself? Not crazy! And that in itself IS crazy.
The tomb nearby as well was fascinating—a perfect image of a tomb like the one where Jesus would have been laid on the Sabbath and looked for a couple mornings later. Our excellent guide made full use of use of this effective visual to flesh out the burial process in the first century. It was really something… and none of it had been on my mental itinerary for today!
And after that, I was ready for lunch!
The afternoon opened with a visit to Nazareth Village, an open-air museum that aims to recreate what village life in first-century Nazareth would have looked like. The site is actually a real-life farm with wheat, olives, grapes, and almonds being grown and harvested here in full-blown, first-century style. Along the way, we saw the real-life, functioning threshing floor, winepress, look-out tower (for the vineyard), and olive press. We also passed through a wood shop (with a “first century” carpenter making stools), and a weaving shop (with a “first century” weaver at work dying wool and spinning it before putting it on her loom. We visited a replica of Nazareth’s synagogue, a venue where Jesus would have given his shocking take on Isaiah 61 (as read in Luke 4), and was nearly stoned for it.
This site as well came a very pleasant surprise to my day’s expectations.
Weaving through Nazareth’s completely unsquared street layout, our bus took us to neighbouring Zippori. Now a sleepy village, Zippori was once called Sepphoris, and it was the booming centre beside poor little Nazareth. There are entire lines of theory that express the likelihood that Joseph and Jesus made a living as part of the horde of tradesmen who would have built this impressive city in their day.
Today, Zippori has faded from memory and is marked only by a tiny village and a large excavation site, while “nothing Nazareth” has boomed into a city of over 60 000. The real irony here is that we stayed in the sleepy village of Zippori during our first visit to Israel. And because of all that we were seeing here and there and elsewhere, we never even went to the other side of the hill to see the site right next door!
Count this site, with its mosaics and theatre and Byzantine church as yet another shock on today’s flow of events.
At that point in the day, we all could have used a drink. Good thing we were headed to Cana! As would be guessed, a church stands in commemoration of Jesus’ first miracle (recorded in John 2). There wasn’t much to see here, aside from a large stone jar as a model of what Jesus used in his “wine-making”. The jar was up to my chest, so let’s just say that he wasn’t going half-way when he stepped in to provide more wine for the feast!
And we weren’t going halfway in our first day of travel from Tiberias! We returned home for supper and an evening group conversation. Impossible as it feels, we are down to two days of itinerary before heading towards Tel Aviv and its airport. Tonight was a chance to visit together and share how we’ve all be processing these past weeks of learning and adventure. To be sure, there’s enough to be processing to keep one busy for a decade or more!
For now, it’s bedtime again. Breakfast and bus will break into our lives early again tomorrow, as we set out to explore the sites surrounding the Sea of Galilee.