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The town of Galilee where the Blessed Virgin dwelt when the Archangel announced to her the Incarnation of the Word, and where Christ lived until the age of thirty years, unknown, and obedient to Mary and Joseph. In the manuscripts of the New Testament, the name occurs in a great orthographical variety, such as Nazaret , Nazareth , Nazara , Nazarat , and the like. In the time of Eusebius and St. Jerome (Onomasticon), its name was Nazara (in modern Arabic, en Nasirah ), which therefore, seems to be the correct name; in the New Testament we find its derivatives written Nazarenos , or Nazoraios , but never Nazaretaios . The etymology of Nazara is neser, which means "a shoot". The Vulgate renders this word by flos , "flower", in the Prophecy of Isaias (xi, 1), which is applied to the Saviour. St. Jerome (Epist., xlvi, "Ad Marcellam") gives the same interpretation to the name of the town.
Nazareth is situated in the most southerly hills of the Lebanon range, just before it drops abruptly down to the plain of Esdraelon. The town lies in a hollow plateau about 1200 feet above the level of the Mediterranean, between hills which rise to an altitude of 1610 feet. The ancient Nazareth occupied the triangular hillock that extends from the mountain on the north, having its point turned to the south. Its northwestern boundary is marked by numerous Jewish tombs which have been discovered on the slope of Jebel es Likh. The southeastern limit is the small valley that descends from the beautiful spring called St. Mary's Well, which was, no doubt, the chief attraction for the first settlers. In the last fifty years the population has increased rapidly, and amounts at the present day to more than 7000 souls. The modern houses, white and clean, run up all along the hillsides, especially on the north. Spread out in the shape of an amphitheatre, set in a green framework of vegetation, Nazareth offers to the eye a very attractive picture.
The town is not mentioned in the Old Testament , nor even in the works of Josephus. Yet, it was not such an insignificant hamlet as is generally believed. We know, first, that it possessed a synagogue. Neubaurer (La géographie du Talmud, p. 190) quotes, moreover, an elegy on the destruction of Jerusalem, taken from ancient Midrashim now lost, and according to this document, Nazareth was a home for the priests who went by turns to Jerusalem, for service in the Temple. Up to the time of Constantine, it remained exclusively a Jewish town. St. Epiphaenius (Adv. Haereses, I, ii, haer., 19) relates that in 339 Joseph, Count of Tiberias, told him that, by a special order of the emperor, "he built churches to Christ in the towns of the Jews, in which there were none, for the reason that neither Greeks, Samaritans, nor Christians were allowed to settle there, viz., at Tiberias, at Diocaesarea, or Sepphoris, at Nazareth, and at Capharnaum ". St. Paula and St. Sylvia of Aquitaine visited the shrines of Nazareth towards the end of the fourth century, as well as Theodosius about 530; but their short accounts contain no description of its monuments. The Pilgrim of Piacenza saw there about 570, besides "the dwelling of Mary converted into a basilica ", the "ancient synagogue ". A little treatise of the same century, entitled "Liber nominum locorum ex Actis", speaks of the church of the Annunciation and of another erected on the site of the house "where our Lord was brought up". In 670 Arculf gave Adamnan an interesting description of the basilica of the Annunciation and of the church of the "Nutrition of Jesus".
The toleration which the Moslems showed towards the Christians, after conquering the country in 637, did not last long. Willibald, who visited Nazareth about 725, found only the basilica of the Annunciation, "which the Christians ", he says "often redeemed from the Saracens, when they threatened to destroy it". However, in 808 the author of the "Commemoratorium de easis Dei" found twelve monks at the basilica, and eight at the Precipice, "a mile away from the town". The Greek emperor, John Zimisces, reconquered Galilee from the Arabs in 920, but, five years afterwards, he was poisoned by his eunuchs, and his soldiers abandoned the country. The basilica, finally ruined under the reign of the Calif Hakem (1010), was rebuilt by the crusaders in 1101, as well as the church of the Nutrition, or St. Joseph's House. At the same time the Greeks erected the church of St. Gabriel near the Virgin's Well. The archiepiscopal See of Scythopolis was also transferred to Nazareth. After the disastrous battle of Hattin (1187), the crusaders, with the European clergy, were compelled to leave the town. On 25 March, 1254, St. Louis and Queen Marguerite celebrated the feast of the Annunciation at Nazareth; but nine years later, the Sultan Bibars completely destroyed all the Christian buildings, and Nazareth soon dwindled down to a poor village. In the fourteenth century, a few Franciscan Friars established themselves there, among the ruins of the basilica. They had much to suffer during their stay, and many of them were even put to death, especially in 1385, in 1448, and in 1548, when all the friars were driven out of the country. In 1620 Fakher ed Dîn, Emir of the Druses, allowed them to build a church over the Grotto of the Annunciation ; but it was ruined some years later by the Bedouins. The Franciscans nevertheless remained near the sanctuary, and in 1730 the powerful Sheikh Dhaher el Amer authorized them to erect the church which is still to be seen.
In the fourth century, local tradition indicated the house of the Virgin at the top of the southern point of the hill, which rises some 30 feet over the plain. The dwelling consisted of a little building with a grotto in the rear. Even now, other dwellings like this are to be found in Nazareth. Explorations made in 1909, beneath and around the present church, brought to light the whole plan of the ancient basilica of Constantine. It was built from west to east, divided into three naves by two rows of syenite columns, and the grotto was in the north nave. The crusaders followed the same plan, and even kept the two rows of columns; they only added new pillars and gave to the façade, as well as to the apse, the appearance and solidity of a fortress. The Franciscans erected their church across the ancient building, so as to bring the grotto beneath the choir at the end of the central nave. The crypt was always three or four feet below the pavement of the church. Since 1730 there have been fifteen steps leading down to the Chapel of the Angel, and two more to the Grotto itself. The chapel is the traditional site of the house, properly so-called, of the Virgin; at the north end of it, the mosaic pavement is well preserved, and is adorned with an inscription in Greek letters which undoubtedly dates from the sixth century. A beautiful altar dedicated to the mystery of the Annunciation occupies the Grotto. On the left are two columns of porphyry, certainly placed there in the fourth century.
About 300 paces northeast of the basilica of the Annunciation, "the church of the Nutrition" marked the traditional site of St. Joseph's dwelling, where, after the warning of the Angel ( Matthew 1:20 ), he received Mary his spouse with the ceremonial prescribed by the law for matrimony. After his return from Egypt, Joseph came back to Nazareth and, with the Virgin and the Divine Child, again occupied his own house. There Jesus was brought up and dwelt till he left the town at the beginning of His public life. Two documents of the fourth century allude to this place, and two others of the sixth and seventh mention the church of the Nutrition, built over it. Excavations made in 1909 brought to light the lower layers of a fine church of the twelfth century, from which a staircase hewn in the rock descends to an irregular grotto excavated beneath the sanctuary. Several interesting details answer to the description given by Arculf in 670. The Franciscans are about to rebuild this sanctuary.
The mountain "whereon the city is built" ends in a row of hills that overlook the town. On the south, one mile and a half away, the chain of hills terminates abruptly in two precipitous peaks separated by a deep, wild gorge. The western peak is called Jebel el Qafsah, "Mount of the Leap", or "of the Precipice". A monastery building on this mountain, where the Jews would have cast Christ down headlong, was still occupied by eight monks at the beginning of the ninth century. The ruins now to be seen there belong to the convent of the time of the Crusades.
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