Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Nazareth - a destination for Jesus fan, political tourist and foodie alike

Contrary to my earlier trips in Israel, this time I found myself touring Arab Israel, which is quite a departure from the rest of the country - based on its architecture and overall appearance alone. This is, without a doubt, also down to the minimal resources allocated to maintaining and developing infrastructures of the Arab cities, widely criticized by them and East Jerusalem alike. 

In addition to Jaffa and Akko, Nazareth was an obvious place to include in my itinerary. It is the largest city in Northern District and also known as the capital of Arab Israel. 

Whereas the market streets of Old City of Akko were instantly welcoming, my first impression of Nazareth wasn't particularly charming. As the first young guy I passed hissed "sharmouta" I was optimistically certain I might remember it wrong. After the third time mustering the strength to control my temper (and tongue) proved significantly harder. Yep, I'd remembered just right. 

(In case you don't have an Arabic dictionary in front of you, I can tell you in English the translation starts with letter "w" and rhymes with shore...)

Nazareth is virtually 100% populated by Arabs. Close to 70% of them Muslims, rest of them Christian. Up until mid 19th century and the last decades of the Ottoman Empire the population was pretty much 50-50 Muslims and Christians, but towards the beginning of British Mandate in the end of first decade of the 20th century Christians made up two thirds of the population. 

Jewish population inhabits Nazareth Illit (the Upper Nazareth), built in the 1970's around the Arab Nazareth.

If you google Nazareth, the first 500 hits in the search results are about the Scottish rock band that gave the world "Love hurts"

But that carpenter's son (you know the one: born in Betlehem, whose birthday the world is about to celebrate?) has been almost as good PR for the city of Nazareth.

The sheer amount of churches, monasteries and schools and inns run by these two are a testament to the fact.

Nazareth is, in addition to Betlehem (and Jerusalem, of course), one of the most popular destinations for Christian pilgrims. The proportion of Christian population here is significantly higher than average (almost 31%) and this shows. 

In good...

... and... well, in all the other ways, too.

There are several theories of the origins of Nazareth. According to one the city gave name to the entire Christianity (depending on the language, Christians in Middle East are known as nasrani or notzri).

Excavations have shown that this place was inhabited already 9000 years ago, but the lac of archaeological findings after Assyrian era indicates that it came to a halt by 720 BC, when Assyrians started kicking the shit out of everything around them. No sources outside New Testament even really mention Nazareth until 200 AD, which, too, would imply it wasn't particularly significant at the time. 

Christian pilgrimages here started around 300 AD, but hostility towards them escalated in 614 when Persians gained control of the region. When Heraclius, Byzantine emperor invaded Nazareth in 630, it was Jews' turn to be evicted. 

Upon the First Crusade of 1099 Nazareth became the capital of Galilee from where the Nazarene Archdiocese was ruled from. Much like Akko, however, the city fell into the hands of Muslim rulers in 1187 and in 1260's the ruler at the time destroyed the Christian sites, banning Latin clergy in a bid to finally get rid of the Crusaders. 

The centuries that followed were bit of a tug of war between the Christians and the local rulers and the inhabitants.  Any kind of longer-term peace wasn't reached until Zahir al Umar's rule in 18th century which is when churches started appearing here. Under his rule Nazareth grew from a measly little village into a large and thriving city.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

In UN Partition plan Nazareth (like Akko) was to be part of the Arab state.  And just like with Akko, Israel invaded Nazareth, too, in the Independence War, which followed Israel's declaration of independence in 1948.

Unlike with Muslim population, Israel was afraid of the reaction evicting Arab Christian population might evoke in the international (and mostly Christian) community. The forcible displacements of the rest of the Arab population along with the fighting in the surrounding Galilee led to an influx of internally displaced refugees. In 1951 census refugees constituted a quarter of Nazareth's population. 

The city remained under Martial law until 1966.

In case you fancy a bit of political tourism yourself, Nazareth is not a bad place for that and your go-to-guy is no less than the award-winning journalist and author Jonathan Cook. He organizes informative tours in Nazareth and rest of the Galilee that shed light on the political, social, economical and historical dimensions of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

If Akko's colour was turquoise, Nazareth's is definitely green.

Unlike Betlehem, which is really only attractive for political tourists (the wall, you see) and those seriously into Jesus, Nazareth is becoming increasingly interesting for foodies as well. The city's culinary culture has been influenced by the neighbouring countries such as Syria and Lebanon and the various restaurants enable you to really explore the Arab cuisines in all their glory. Especially in the recent years the city has served inspiration to a whole host of up and coming chefs in Israel.

And here's a little something interesting you should definitely not pass on: Taybeh beer. Brewed in a first microbrewery in Middle East, located in a village by the same name near Ramallah, Taybeh is intriguing for a variety of reasons. 

(Bet you didn't see that one coming: beer? From Palestine? Oh, it gets even better!)

Not only is the beer really good, they're manufactured according to German Purity Laws and are completely free of additives and preservatives. My own faves are Golden (fresh, crisp with lovely hoppiness) and Dark (so velvety rich and smooth!). They are made with unwavering passion and patriotism and hey - brewed by a lady. Yep, Madees Khoudry is the first and only woman in Palestine with that job title. 




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