Brief History of Nazareth
Nazareth’s history is largely linked to the Palestinian Arab community. Looking back in history, the Arab citizens first prospered here during the Ottoman Empire. Christian Arabs were able to build many churches, and Muslim Arabs built this city’s first mosque.
After 400 years, the Ottoman Empire fell, and shortly after, in 1948, during the Arab-Israeli War, the city of Nazareth was taken over by Israel. Because the city of Nazareth has such religious significance, the Israeli-military decided to maintain peace in this Palestinian city. Unlike other cities, in which Arabs were forcefully expelled into neighboring Syria and Lebanon, the Arabs of Nazareth were not forced to leave. Instead, the government made the Arabs here obtain an Israeli identity card, and Nazareth became a peaceful place to seek asylum from the war. When Arab Muslims in neighboring villages heard of this, they began pouring into Nazareth by the thousands. To this day, Nazareth is still a densely populated community of Muslim and Christian Arabs, which has given it the nickname, “the Arab capital of Israel.” Furthermore, this Arab city has also created a unique Middle Eastern atmosphere, quite different from any other place in Israel.
The Arab City of Nazareth
With such an Arab influence, I’ll start by describing the smells of Nazareth. An array of aromatic spices literally engulf you as you walk through the streets. The most common Arab spices being cardamom, clove, cumin, coriander, cinnamon, paprika, and pepper.
The Arab coffee here is boiled, then mixed with cardamom and sugar, which gives in a distinct smell and spicy flavor. The street vendors here sell grilled flatbread that they pair with zaa’atar, a mix of herbs, sesame seeds and sumac, spread on with olive oil, and served warm.Luckily they sell it vacuum-packed, so it can be taken home as a souvenir. 🙂
They also serve a pancake dumpling called Katayef. The pancakes are stuffed with either walnuts and cinnamon, or salted goat cheese, then topped with a sweet syrup.
Of course, they still have the staple falafel (fried chickpea balls) and shawarma (grilled meat wraps) too.Overall, there’s a beautifully authentic feeling to this Arab city. As a traveler, not a tourist, I crave this type a genuine atmosphere. 😀
Here, building bricks are prepared like pottery, which keeps the homes cool in this arid heat. A canal runs along the middle of the walkway, which was designed to help guide pack mules carrying goods. A local woman sits on a woven rug, selling her fresh produce.It may be a no-frills environment, but the people here are overly kind, which is honestly a rare gem in today’s world. Old men were giving me samples of sweets in the market, and some were inviting me in to sit down for a coffee. As a frequent traveler, I can tell when someone has a hidden agenda, and these hospitable acts felt nothing but sincere.
What really helped me gain a better understanding of this Arab community’s plight, was my stay at the Fauzi Azar Inn.
While in Nazareth I stayed at Fauzi Azar Inn.
This 19th century Ottoman mansion was owned by Fauzi Azar, a Palestinian Arab who once lived in Nazareth. The mansion is influenced by Ottoman architecture, with Turkish wooden beams, and Turkish marble floors. There are also Christian influences in the decor, with colorful mosaics painted along the ceiling, of cherubs holding wheat, a symbol of good harvest and prosperity.Sadly, many years ago, Fauzi Azar lost his life protecting the inn, when a fire nearly destroyed it. The remaining Azar family took over the home, and considered this regal residence the last piece of Fauzi’s legacy. Luckily, during my stay, I was able to meet with Suraida, the granddaughter of Fauzi Azar, who talked about her experience growing up in the home, and its recent development into a guesthouse.
Suraida began by elaborating on recent events in Nazareth’s history. Suraida explained that although the Arab citizens were not forced to leave Nazareth in 1948, they have yet to live safe and comfortably. The negative media coverage surrounding northern Israel has hindered efforts to encourage tourism in this holy land, and without visitors, the economy plummeted, and many residents began to leave. This abandonment opened up the opportunity for squatters and drug addicts to begin infiltrating this once peaceful place. As the squatters took over the city, they desecrated the buildings and cultivated violence. This left the remaining Arabs here both disheartened and desperate for change. They were slowing watching a city that they once took such pride in, now being trashed.
At one point, for their safety, the Azar family also abandoned their Ottoman-era home in Nazareth. And even when Suraida would periodically return to check on the home, she would find that addicts had broken into it for ill-purposes, and the courtyard had been turned into a public toilet.
It was at that time, in 2005, that a Jew named Maoz Inon, founder of Abraham Hostels, came to Nazareth. To make a long story short, he saw something special and authentic in this city. The winding cobblestone alleyways. The close proximity to significant biblical sites. He approached the family about buying their property, in hopes of bringing more tourists to Nazareth. Suraida and her family were initially hesitant. Historically, Israeli Jews had taken land from the Arabs, so naturally they were suspicious of foul play. Fortunately, they took a leap of faith, and hoped for the best outcome of this exchange, ideally being the restoration of their family’s home. They agreed to give the mansion to Maoz Inon at no cost, yet under one condition. The condition being that the home would be called Fauzi Azar Inn, and not Abraham Hostel, so that the legacy of their grandfather could live on. ❤
The hostel was successful in its first year; however, Maoz Inon knew that something was missing. You see, people who stayed in the mansion would inevitably ask questions about the history of the place, and he couldn’t tell them all the answers. Because of this, he asked Suraida to visit the inn, and give a talk to all the guests. She said she was nervous to go back to her childhood home, afraid of what she might find. She was pleasantly surprised though, to see that everything looked just as she had remembered. The inn was clean and tidy, yet maintained the same charm of years past. Furthermore, when she gave her first talk to the guests, she felt so inspired by passing on these tales, she decided it was her duty to become actively involved in the guesthouse. Now she gives a daily talk to all the visitors at the inn. 😀
Well, luckily, in this past five years, things have also begun to vastly improve for the city of Nazareth. They’ve appointed a new mayor, who has cleaned the city of its squatters and addicts, so it is slowly becoming a safe haven once again.
Fauzi Azar Inn has also put Nazareth back on the tourist map, since the inn received numerous awards and recognition by both TripAdvisor and Lonely Planet. Furthermore, not only does the inn increase tourism in the city, they also provide a free walking tours, showing guests all of the local businesses to support. 🙂
Aside from the inn’s contribution to the city, as a guest, I also enjoyed my stay there. This guesthouse has the same perks as the other Abraham Hostels, yet this they also provide a free Arabic lesson and dance class, and their breakfast is absolutely delicious!On top of that, every day they bake free homemade cake.It felt like staying at grandma’s house. ❤
Overall though, I just enjoyed the incredibly peaceful atmosphere at this inn. On my first night, I sat in the courtyard listening to the fountain trickle, and then to the call to prayer from the White Mosque, as the sun set across the perfectly pink sky. ❤
On the other nights, most guests spent their evening in the common room discussing their spiritual journey, and last night in particular, I helped this cute old pastor staying at the guesthouse figure out how to post travel photos to Facebook. ❤
Now aside from the enjoyable inn, and the exotic Arab community, there are other notable sites in Nazareth as well.
Nazareth is well-known for being the childhood home of Jesus. In fact, Mary’s Well is the place where Mary received the message that she would give birth to Jesus.Mary grew up in Nazareth too, and the Basilica of Annunciation is a church here that contains a grotto, believed to be the remains of Mary’s childhood home.For this reason, the church is considered a minor basilica.The church has many mosaics of Mary hanging along the walls, and a statue of Mary, with hands turned brassy from all the visitors that have held her holy hands.And its in this town that Christ’s earthly father, Joseph, once lived and worked. In fact, the St. Joseph’s Church is said to be the exact location of his old carpentry workshop.Furthermore, the region surrounding Nazareth is packed full of impressive biblical sites as well. Up next, I took a day trip to miraculous Sea of Galilee. Stay tuned to hear all about it. 🙂