International Herald Tribune – 17 December 2002
Living in Nazareth it is easy to forget that this is the city where Jesus grew up. Visitors prepared to brave the intifada to reach northern Israel’s Galilee region can often be heard complaining about the city’s lack of “spirituality.” Nazareth’s air of overcrowded squalor is interrupted only by oases of bland modernity surrounding its few holy sights.
When Israel began in the mid-1990s to prepare for the pope’s millennium visit, officials realized that decades of underinvestment in the Arab city, and the congestion resulting from the confiscation of its lands, would be on show as John Paul II toured the holy places.
Hurried facelifts were given to the city’s two most important religious buildings, both of which, it is claimed, stand where the Archangel Gabriel told Mary of her miraculous conception. Roman Catholics are sure this happened where their church, the Basilica of the Annunciation, is situated; the Greek Orthodox argue that the revelation happened at Mary’s Well Church, a 10-minute walk away.
Since the Bible tells us that Gabriel descended as Mary drew water from a well, the centuries-old dispute centers on where Nazareth’s main water source, its spring, was to be found.
Until recently there was more conjecture than proof. But a few years ago a local shopkeeper, Elias Shama, stumbled across a potential piece of evidence.
In 1993 Elias and his Belgian wife, Martina, bought a gift shop close to Mary’s Well. They soon discovered a damp problem in a storage room at the back, which Shama tried to remedy by digging down through its earth floor. He dug several meters to an older stone floor but the damp persisted and led him to a space under his shop. Soon he was coming across old stones, tiles and eventually pillars.
Shama called in the Antiquities Authority whose officers told him he had found an Ottoman bathhouse, little more than a century old and of minimal interest. So Shama continued digging out the storage room and the cellar under his shop. After three years Shama had unearthed a beautiful high-vaulted room where he offered visitors coffee before guiding them through the hypocaust, the underfloor heating channels, to see the remains of a white marble floor supported by tile columns meeting in a complex array of arches.
The story might have ended there but for Shama’s unshakable conviction that his discovery was no legacy from the Turkish invaders. A deeply religious Christian Arab, he was plagued by dreams of Jesus sitting in his bathhouse. He visited neighboring ancient sites to make comparisons. The Antiquities Authority’s verdict seemed more and more implausible to him.
He found an ally in a senior archaeologist, Tzvi Shacham of Tel Aviv’s Antiquities Museum, who visited the shop and advised the authority that Shama had found a much rarer bathhouse, from the Crusader period and some 1,000 years old.
Slowly word spread and earlier this year archaeologists from the United States visited Shama. They told him the site looked older still, possibly classical Roman – from the time of Christ himself. They began lobbying Israel for licenses to excavate.
For the first time the Antiquities Authority took Shama’s story seriously. After inspecting the site last month senior officials now say it looks Roman and that more excavation is needed.
Shama believes that not only could the bathhouse be a major tourist attraction but that it may rewrite the history books. “In the time of Christ there must have been a big water source here to feed the bathhouse,” he said, “confirming the story that nearby was the site of Mary’s Well and therefore the Annunciation itself.”
He is more than a little cynical after his seven-year battle with the authorities, believing that much of the city’s Christian past is simply being overlooked: “I worked on the Nazareth 2000 project and know how rushed it was. For the first time we had the chance to dig down around the church and find out about Christ’s life. Instead we slapped concrete and pretty paving stones over everything. Who knows what secrets lie underneath?”