The Guardian – 15 December 2003
Through the dark nights of the intifada, the gigantic illuminated spire of the Basilica of the Annunciation has glowed brightly in the centre of Nazareth like a beacon of inextinguishable hope. The basilica, the biggest in the Middle East, is built over a grotto believed to have been the home of Joseph and Mary and the place where the Archangel Gabriel appeared to tell Mary she was bearing the son of God.
This Christmas the two cities associated with Jesus – Nazareth, in Israel, and Bethlehem, in what might one day become Palestine – will be shunned again by pilgrims. The nativity festivities will have to wait for another day, and a far-off peace. But the story of Nazareth, the town of Jesus’s childhood, is not just of interest to pilgrims. The hills and the valley in which we know it has nestled for the past 2,000 years are revealing an older, but sadly neglected, record of human history, of our species’ struggle to survive and its search for meaning.
A short stroll from the basilica, a disused road leads through a rocky valley under Jabal Qafzeh, a hill whose name the local Arab population translates into English as “Jumping Mountain” but might be better known to Christians as the Mount of Precipice. This is the site where, according to legend, Jesus was led by the citizens of Nazareth to be hurled down its cliff into the Jezreel valley.
The road ends abruptly close to an exposed, large dome-roofed cave whose only visitors nowadays – if the beer bottles and charred wood can be relied on – are teenagers seeking late-night thrills. But 100,000 years ago it was home to what scientists call the “first modern men”.
A dozen sets of bones, excavated by French archaeologists in the 1970s, are the oldest record we have of our ancestors. In one grave, the bones of an adolescent were found with deer antlers placed in his hands, suggesting that these early humans may have believed as strongly in an afterlife as the occasional pilgrims who still visit the basilica.
Though the cave’s treasures are probably not fully mined, funds for further excavations ran out long ago. Instead, money has been poured into a new road that will skirt overcrowded Arab Nazareth to improve drive times to the neighbouring Jewish town of Upper Nazareth. A few metres from the opening of the cave, contractors are tearing apart the base of the Mount of Precipice, plundering a valley slope potentially laden with the earliest secrets of our species and leaving the hillside scarred forever.
The Qafzeh cave is not the only site close to Nazareth that is shedding light on our distant past. A British archaeologist, Nigel Goring-Morris, of Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, is quietly unearthing a cult burial site from 10,000 years ago – the oldest ever discovered – on a hill at Kibbutz Hahoresh, close to the same valley. It, at least, has been saved from the relentless march of progress; the Israeli authorities abandoned plans to plant a forest there after relics started to be discovered.
Among the treasures found in what Goring-Morris describes as “the first mortuary” are human skulls that our ancestors carefully cleaned of flesh before modelling on them strange and bewitching faces out of a plaster painted with red dye.
Goring-Morris says several death rituals were carried out, including an extraordinary prehistoric work of art in which 50 human bones were laid out in the shape of an animal, possibly an ox or a wild boar. He believes such burial complexes may have been common during this period of history, even though no other examples have been found.
Nazareth’s prehistoric mortuary and its burial cave suggest, just as much as the Basilica of the Annunciation, that humankind was filled with a spiritual need from its very earliest days.