Al-Ahram Weekly – 19 December 2002
The three cities most closely associated with Jesus — his birthplace in Bethlehem, the town of his boyhood in Nazareth and the place of his death in Jerusalem — are all resigned to another year without tourists or much seasonal joy this Christmas.
Even the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat will not be able to make his way to Bethlehem to lead the Christmas service in the Church of the Nativity. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has banned him for the second year running from attending. Instead he will remain cooped up in the remains of his Ramallah compound.
Jerusalem is feeling the loss of visitors acutely. Once it had a thriving tourist industry, full of coach parties staying in luxury hotels, eating in the city’s expensive restaurants and buying gifts and religious icons at hugely inflated prices.
Decades of lack of investment by Israel in Bethlehem and Nazareth, on the other hand, kept the two Arab cities deprived of much of the benefits of religious tourism. Daytrippers swept in and out in a few hours, visiting the main churches and then heading back to Jerusalem.
But in the late 1990s Israel’s stranglehold over the Arab towns finally started to ease. The Palestinian Authority gained control of Bethlehem and was investing millions of dollars in developing it as a base for pilgrims, as well as encouraging local industries such as olive-wood carving.
And Nazareth, inside Israel, benefited from a belated injection of cash from the more liberal government of Yitzhak Rabin, which was worried that the city’s overcrowded squalor would be on show when the Pope visited for the millennium.
It gave a hurried and unsympathetic facelift to the old city and the areas around the two main holy places, the Basilica of the Annunciation and Mary’s Well Church.
But the improvements did little to address the oft-heard complaints that Nazareth lacks “spirituality”. Nor did it try to repair the damage inflicted on the city by the political upheavals of 1948 (when the Palestinians were dispossessed of 80 per cent of their homeland to make way for the state of Israel): the mass influx of refugees into Nazareth, swelling it almost overnight from a village into the capital of the Arab minority in Israel, and the subsequent decades of government policies of land confiscation, economic discrimination and general neglect.
Noam Shoval, an urban geographer from Hebrew University in Jerusalem who has made a study of world historic cities, says Nazareth bears the legacy of years of state policies of bias, particularly in tourism.
“One only has to look at nearby Tiberias to see that the government effectively favoured the Jewish town over the Arab city. It gave investors large discounts for building hotels in Tiberias so of course that’s where they all moved,” he said. “The tourists passed through Nazareth but they stayed and spent their money in Tiberias.”
He believes the Nazareth 2000 project, though well- intentioned, failed to address the city’s main problems. It did not develop its historic core and new hotels were built outside the city limits, including the Marriott which was placed in neighbouring Jewish Nazareth Illit.
Tariq Shihada, director of the city’s tourist board, also says there has been a lack of government interest in publicising and promoting Nazareth as a tourist destination. Itineraries given to tour operators abroad schedule only a brief visit to Nazareth.
Other Nazarenes, however, go further, accusing the authorities of concealing the city’s true historic interest. They say Nazareth is the victim of the politicisation of archaeology, of Israel’s attempt to control historic sites and the narratives surrounding them so that the Jewish state can reinforce its claim to ownership of the Holy Land.
A case increasingly being cited is that of Elias Shama, owner of the Cactus gift shop, located across the bleak modern plaza in front of Mary’s Well Church, the place where the Greek Orthodox say the Archangel Gabriel revealed to Mary her miraculous conception.
The claim has not gone unchallenged. The Roman Catholics say Gabriel appeared to Mary on the other side of town, where their church, the Basilica of the Annunciation, stands.
The centuries-old dispute centres on both sects’ differing view of where Nazareth’s original spring was located. The Bible tells us only that Mary was drawing water when Gabriel descended.
But Shama and his Belgian wife Martina may have stumbled on a hugely significant piece of forensic evidence in Jesus’s life that may help settle the argument.
When the couple opened the shop in 1993, they found a damp problem in the storage room at the rear. Elias tried to remedy it by digging down through the earth floor. He dug down several metres to an older stone floor but the problem persisted and led him into a space under his shop. Soon he was coming across old stones, tiles and eventually pillars.
Elias stopped and called in the Antiquities Authority whose local officers examined the site and told him he had found an Ottoman bathhouse little more than a century old and of minimal interest. So Elias continued digging.
After three years he had dug out all of the storage room and under the shop. He had a beautiful high-vaulted room where he offered visitors coffee before guiding them under the shop through the narrow avenues of 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 Elias’s unshakeable conviction that what he had found was no legacy from the Turkish invaders. He visited neighbouring ancient sites, including a famous Roman bathhouse in the Jewish town of Beit Shean, to compare notes. The Antiquities Authority’s verdict looked more and more implausible.
He found an ally in a senior archaeologist, Tzvi Shacham, of Tel Aviv’s Antiquities Museum, who advised the Authority that Elias had found a much rarer bathhouse, from the Crusader period and some 1,000 years old. Shacham said further excavation was needed and advised that the bathhouse was large, extending under neighbouring shops.
Word spread and slowly foreign archaeologists started visiting. They told Elias the site was older still, possibly classical Roman — from the time of Christ himself. They lobbied Israel for licenses to excavate the site, prompting the Antiquities Authority to take Elias’s story seriously for the first time. Last month a large delegation arrived to look at the site anew and admitted that they had got it wrong. They now say the site 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. “If it’s that old, it shows that there must have been a huge water source to feed the bathhouse at the time of Christ, confirming the story that nearby was the site of Mary’s Well and therefore the Annunciation itself.”
He says the significance of the bathhouse has only come to light because of his seven-year battle with the authorities and the intervention of foreign archaeologists. Much of the rest of the city’s Christian past is simply being overlooked, he says.
“I worked as a builder on the Nazareth 2000 project and know how rushed it was. For the first time the authorities had the chance to dig down around the church and find out about Christ’s life. Instead they slapped concrete and pretty paving stones over everything. Who knows what secrets lie underneath?”