A Nazareth Walkabout

Linda is not your usual tour-guide. Of course, hers is not your usual tour.

For starters, this tour is free. It originates daily from the Fauzi Azar Inn. And even though the focus of our walkabout is Nazareth, the boyhood home of Jesus, the tour is not about the churches or shrines or even the mosques that draw most folks to this town.

Linda discusses a structure in old Nazareth with a unique ceiling. Some say it hails from the Crusader period. 

Detail of the (rib-vaulted?) ceiling. Apparently the swirl in the middle has the experts scratching their heads. (However, see Y. Hirschfeld 1995: fig. 88).

“You can do those on your own,” says Linda. This is “more like ‘a personal experience tour.’ I want to show you the things I’ve learned, the people I’ve met.”

I’m curious where this is all going.

We leave the inn through the small door (At least I don’t have my pack on my back this time). The walkabout begins with exercise and instruction: “You bend to honor God, honor the family,” Linda chips. On the other side of the portal, the alley winds away, musty and timeless.

Nazareth’s souq. This slide, simply labeled “Nazareth” was donated to CCU a few years ago. Credit unknown.

Of course, all things have origins, even musty markets. It has been suggested that because Nazareth has been a “pilgrimage town” since the Byzantine period, its souq, or market, did not evolve like those in other places. Most grow outwardly from the center. Here, the market developed arterially, along paths to and from holy sites (The argument makes perfect sense to any tourist who has run such gauntlets!).

Linda leads us through this souq wearing a Palestinian dress, vintage style. It is long and blue, with modest stitching around the neck. Everything else about her is severe. Her hair is pulled back tightly in pony-tail. Her face is thin. Her speech is tough, almost Chicago-style. And yet the content of her talk is anything but gangsta. It is about food, spices, orphans, economy, shops, people. There is a sprinkle of history, but it is a light scattering. Linda does her best to steer clear of the obvious land mines: history, politics and religion. When she does go there (and how can she avoid it in this place?), it is regularly prefaced with the disclaimer, “Now, off the record . . .”

On the record, her tour is about life in Old Nazareth, a place where time has left serious marks. Linda’s odd mix of tough and tender is somehow appropriate. She tells us about the shops that are open; she tells us about the shops that are closed. We hear about the Brides’ Market, the Carpenters’ Market, and others. We learn how these were once the engines of the local economy. She also tells us how these markets are not much more than labels today. Nazareth, incidentally, now has its own shopping mall. It is BIG, air-conditioned, and has a food court (including McDonalds and KFC). Such attractions make it tough for Ottoman markets of crumbling limestone to compete.

A coffee roaster. Can an Arab village survive without coffee? I don’t think so!

Still, there are signs of life in Old Nazareth, and we meet them. This man runs a coffee-shop. We stop, talk to him. We have coffee. That man works in a carpenter’s shop. We stop and admire his woodworking skills. We meet a dress-maker and fruity-drink-maker and even an imam. I am introduced to Tony, one of two brothers who runs a grain mill and spice shop. We walk through the mill, sniff, and enjoy; our senses are assaulted. Linda is gregarious to all, even if a little scattered at times. She calls each person by name and they greet her in return. She issues the thumbs-up repeatedly and says to us, “you need to come back here.”

Modern carpenters of Nazareth.

One resident is queried, “Who is going to be the next mayor of Nazareth?”

He grins and calls back:  “Linda! Linda!”

Grain processing in the family-owned el-Babour Mill.

At one stop we enter a dilapidated building and view a wall. I immediately recognize the kurkar, a sandstone common along the coast, but not found in the hills. Linda relays what she has heard: that this wall goes back to the first century. That gets my attention. We are some distance from the area often believed to be the original village center. And we are a long way from the coast.

A wall of kurkar.

I pursue it. “Are you suggesting that first century Nazareth might have been bigger than we think?” (After all, both Matthew and Luke call refer to it as a polis, “city.”).

Linda flashes. This is not where she wants to go. “Yes. This and the Roman bath down at the Cactus (Shop) tell me that Nazareth from Jesus’ time was big. Bigger than the Bible says.”

There is a twitch. She is clearly uncomfortable now.

But what she does not discern is the difference between text and interpretation. Archaeologists have suggested on the basis of a small and poorly excavated archaeological sample that biblical Nazareth was a tiny agricultural community of some 400 people. Challenging this conclusion is not the same as challenging the biblical text.

The most direct thing the Bible records about the community itself is Nathaniel’s disparaging remark, “Can anything come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). I believe this addresses the town’s character or reputation. It says nothing about its physical size. Nazareth is the proverbial black hole, according to one first-century view. If you are born here, you go nowhere. You live, work and die in the same hole. How could Messiah come from such a place?

This is not the venue for such discussion, so I let it go.

The souq of Nazareth is a fascinating maze of structures erected on debris that have scarcely been studied.

But that is not what this tour is about. It is not about rocks and debris and traditions and academic fussing, it is about people. Linda wants us to meet the faces of the modern village. She has become the spokesperson for the local “chamber of commerce.”

Her efforts should be applauded.