Nazareth is rich in history and known as “the Arab capital of Israel”. Arab citizens living in Nazareth are a mix of Muslim and Christian faiths. Nazareth became a part of Israel in 1958. Originally this city was an Arab state. Palestinians fleeing from parts of their country came to Nazareth for refuge before the Arab-Israeli War. Middle eastern influences in stores, restaurants and markets were all around.
We stayed at Fauzi Azar Hostel. This was originally a home built in 1830, now named after the man who owned the home- Fauzi Azar. His granddaughter Suraida manages the home turned hostel. She shared memories they spent in the house as a family together many years ago, before the trouble began with Israelis and Palestinians in this area. Her father lost all of his property to the state of Israel (with the exception of the house in Nazareth) during the war in 1958. It was literally taken from him.
Nazareth is rich in history. This city is also sacred to Christians. Aside from being the birthplace of Jesus, the annunciation site and the synagogue where Jesus read from the Torah there are many other historical landmarks in Nazareth.
Nazareth also marks the starting point of the route Jesus walked and ending where he gave his sermon on the mount. Tour companies offer 3 days trips walking the forty mile trail Jesus preached along from Nazareth to Mount of the Beatitudes (see: www. Synagogue.com). The trail is open to anyone, some people do it on their own without a guide.
There was a time when Nazareth was only open for “limited tourism”. Tourists didn’t spend the night or spend days here exploring the city. Before buses would come in with tourists, give them a short amount of time to visit the sites and leave later in the day. Since 2005 Nazareth has become a vacation destination. Shops are beginning to open again and people are slowly starting to move back and make a living. “This town was overrun with the drug dealers because most of the people had moved and it became a dangerous area” Synagogue told us.
The political and racial tension in Nazareth is still simmering. This was the my first time hearing the ‘other side’ of the story as told by the Palestinians. I spoke personally to a couple of people about the tensions between races and religions. Their information and experiences gave me an insight on how others may feel as a whole.
Synagogue on the wall in Nazareth
The food in Nazareth has a combination of spices and flavors very different from middle eastern food in America. What I enjoyed most is trying all of these things in the authentic style as made by a local.
Authentic middle eastern and Arabic restaurants are highly rated in Nazareth. This is the place we really dove into Arabic dishes. Graffiti restaurant serves a traditional Arabic bread pudding called Graffiti el saraya. The bread pudding is served chilled and covered with a fresh berry syrup and crushed pistachios. Kanafeh is a fried cheese dessert topped with thin strings of phyllo dough and then doused with a sweet sugary syrup and served warm. The first time we tried this was in Rosh Pina at a Turkish market but it’s a staple middle eastern dessert.
We would have never be able to find these dishes in America. Israeli food and Middle Eastern food parallel each other as do their religions. Tahini, nuts, spices are used in most dishes. Arabic spices were also a natural preservative in the days of no refrigeration. Alreda restaurant served Syrian stuffed artichokes. Artichoke bottoms are stuffed with ground beef/lamb, spices and pine nuts in a savory cinnamon/allspice gravy.
Taking a walking city tour offered by the hostel helped us learn so much about the area. Shoghul Eid is a store in Nazareth that specializes in traditional Palestinian formal wear. This store makes and sells a traditional Palestinian makeup called Kohl. Kohl is an eye cosmetic (still used today). Kohl is made by grinding stibnite stone to a powder. The powder is put into a formal kohl holder. The powder is applied to the eyes with a wand (included in the holder). It can also be mixed with water when applying to create a darker tint. The stibnite stone seemed impossible to grind but it’s been done for centuries in middle eastern countries.
Since 1914 Abu Salem’s Coffee House in Nazareth has been preparing a special cinnamon tea topped with walnuts crushed in a mortar . The bark of the cinnamon (different from the clean smooth cinnamon stick) is boiled four hours then lightly sweetened. This process creates a very sweet but strong flavor. Before serving it’s topped with crushed walnuts. This drink is served hot. Abu Salem’s Coffee House is run by third generation of the family, Abu’s grandson.
Another unique drink we tried here is a lemonade mixed with pomegranate juice. The lemons are boiled to a point where the acidity is very low creating a syrup, then mixed with ice-cold water and a swirl of fresh pomegranate syrup is blended in. The cinnamon tea is said to be a natural energy drink. These are the only two drinks served here.
The architecture of the stone buildings have a purpose. Curves in the windows is to create an airflow system keeping the inside cool. Water was received through wells throughout Nazareth in the early days. If a person was very wealthy they had a well built under their home with a hole in the ceiling where the bucket could be drawn down into the well. Otherwise it was a trip to the nearest water well.
Kibbeh is a Levantine dish made of bulgur, minced onions, and finely ground beef with Middle Eastern spices. Khazen Restaurant the Old City has been specializing in kibbeh since the 1960’s. The restaurant is a small space with no room to move. Seating is outside on the pathway. Mona [tour guide] took us here to try the best kibbeh, just tasting Arabic home cooking was a treat.
Restaurant Coffee and Spices is a coffee shop specializing in roasting and selling ground coffee in bulk. Around the room a variety of spices are for purchase in bulk. We watched as he poured the raw beans into a huge roasting machine. The beans are roasted (but not long) creating a very nutty taste in the coffee bean after the coffee is roasted.The whole roasted beans were mild with a nutty flavor. Whole roasted beans are then ground and mixed with ground cardamom giving it a Middle Eastern flavor. Arabic coffee is meant to be served in shot glass size glasses. I learned this the hard way. After having two full coffee cup sizes I suffered horrible jitters later in the day.
The famous White Mosque is a couple of blocks from the Church of the Annunciation. Mosque and churches are built close together in Nazareth. Throughout the day church bells ring along with mosque prayer callings ring loudly through the city streets.
With all the misinformation going around, here is a quick lesson about Muslim faith. Islam is the name of the religion. Muslims believe in the Prophet Muhammad. He was the one who revealed the Islamic religion to humanity and is seen as the last prophet sent by God to humanity. This was founded back in 570 AD. According to the Quran: Muhammad was meditating in the Cave of Hira when he received a revelation about the new religion, Islam, from God. He believed that God had chosen him to be a teacher and leader of the new religion.
Instead of a priest or rabbi, the Islamic faith has mullahs. The term mullah refers to religious leaders and teachers. Mullahs have a formal religious education and can lead people in prayer or recite the Quran during holy periods.
Mona (our tour guide) explained how tension between Israelis and Arabs have taken a toll on the city itself. Arab residents (both Christian and Muslim) felt as if Nazareth was neglected, left to be in ruins and ignored purposely over political reasons. It is sad to hear what Arab people endured and the repercussions people living here are facing. This is happening as a result of the prejudices that go on between the two.
Nazareth is a beautiful city mostly made of stone and it has an Old City within the city. Shallow canals are along most of the sidewalks and streets within the Old City. These shallow dips in the sidewalks were once used for donkeys to travel though carrying items on their backs. This also helped the loading and unloading process by lowering the animal for easy access to his load.
The Church of the Annunciation is the place Roman Catholics believe Mary was told she would be pregnant with the son of God. The church doesn’t charge entrance fees for visitors and holds weekly mass open to the public. Inside a shrine is built around the original ruins of Mary’s home.
Carved into the front door tells the story of Jesus from birth to death.
Worldwide interpretations of how Mary is perceived in every country surrounds the outside of the church. She ranged from the white skinned brown hair Mary I’ve seen in America to a dark-skinned dark curly hair Mary in other countries.
Mary’s original house is underground from thousands of years of shifted earth. The shrine was placed around the home during the 4th century.
The entire church is built over the area of Mary’s house, preserving the house inside and creating a walkway for tourists to walk past the front door and ruins exposed. Priest were kneeling and praying at the gate around the shrine. A confession booth was open to anyone willing to confess their sins to a priest. The priest spoke English, Italian, Tagalog, French, German and Hebrew.
Many tourist groups line the surrounding streets. Christians, Orthodox Christians and Catholics travel far from home just to see this church in real life. Large tour buses, groups of people following a person with a tour flag and individual tourists swarm the landmarks in Nazareth. The dress code in Nazareth for women is conservative out of respect for the religions and sacredness of the landmarks.
The cars in Israel look exactly like the model cars driven in the United States except the names are different. Renult Fluence and SEAT Ibiza cars were common along the highways and roads. Renult was a brand I noticed the most. There were a few Mercedes and BMW luxury cars too.
Nazareth is a place I always associated with the bible. It was surreal being there in person. Especially learning so much about Palestinian foods, culure and way of life. Experiencing a different side other than what is projected through media and internet. Seeing people of different faiths respecting each other and living among each other is something I have only witnessed in Israel. I strongly believe Israel is protected by something Divine. Israel is living proof religions can get along in close quarters. It’s really sad to leave a place that left such an impression on your heart and soul. Israel is one of those places.