Nazareth, located in the Galilean hill country, is one of the most popular Christian pilgrimage destinations in Israel.
Jesus spent his boyhood in Nazareth. While in his day Nazareth was very small (about the size of two football fields), today it’s the largest Arab city in Israel, with the majority of its 75,000 citizens Muslim.
The city’s major holy site is the Basilica of the Annunciation, which is located in the city’s old market quarter. By tradition it marks the spot where the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to tell her she was going to bear God’s son.
There has been a church on this spot dating back many centuries. The first shrine was built in the fourth century after Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine, visited the Holy Land and directed the building of churches in the holiest sites connected to the story of Jesus. Thus this church was first founded at about the same time as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
The present basilica was built in 1969 and is the fifth church to occupy this spot. Its lower level contains a grotto at the level of the former churches, while the upper level serves as the Catholic parish church for the area. To the side you can see some of the ruins revealed by archeological excavations that have been done at the site.
To me, the most striking part of the basilica are the mosaics of the Virgin Mary and Christ Child that adorn its outside courtyard. Donated by Christian communities around the world, they show the many ways in which Mary and Jesus are pictured in different cultures.
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Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of the Near the Exit: Travels With the Not-So-Grim Reaper and Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.