Przekroj magazine (Warsaw) – February 2004
In the centre of Nazareth, a stone’s throw from Mary’s Well, the place where the mother of Jesus is believed to have drawn the family’s water each day, is to be found a small souvenir shop called Cactus.
Its owners, a local Christian Arab, Elias Shama, and his Belgian wife Martina, welcome inside the trickle of tourists still prepared to brave the suicide bombings of the intifada for a surprise tour of the premises – beyond the shelves stuffed with religious icons and olive-wood statuettes.
A short flight of steps at the rear of the shop leads down to a much older room, built from large slabs of sandstone, and topped by a high-vaulted ceiling. There Elias serves visitors small cups of strong Arabic coffee and pastries before leading them off, half-crouched, into a subterranean world of ancient tunnels he excavated under the shop over several years.
Last summer Elias offered the same tour to a team of distinguished American archeologists working on two of the most important digs in the Holy Land, at the Biblical city of Bethsaida, near Tiberias, and the Qumran cemetery in the Jordan Valley. Word of the amazing underground tunnels – what was left of an ancient bathhouse – had reached them.
After Elias’s tour, Professor Richard Freund, head of the Maurice Greenberg Centre for Judaic Studies at Hartford University in Connecticut, decided to redirect his energies at the Nazareth site and away from his existing projects. He brought in the latest technology to settle once and for all the mystery of what was under Cactus.
His conclusions are earth-shattering. Freund believes that Elias has revealed a Roman bathhouse from 2,000 years ago – from the time of Jesus in the town in which Jesus was raised.
“I am sure that what we have here is a bathhouse from the time of Jesus,” he says, “and the consequences of that for archeology, and for our knowledge of the life of Jesus, are enormous.”
Elias has taken the news with surprising nonchalance. He has been claiming ownership of the “Bathhouse of Jesus” for several years after he turned amateur archeological sleuth, comparing the layout of his own bathhouse with other famous Roman baths in the Middle East.
More rattled has been the Israel Antiquities Authority, the body charged in Israel with caring for ancient sites. When Elias showed them his early underground excavations in the mid-1990s, they concluded that the bathhouse was Turkish and only 150 years old. He was given permission to do what he liked with it, including concreting it over.
This winter they finally admitted they had got it wrong.
Freund praises Elias for his dedication to the site, adding that its destruction would have been a loss of the most tragic proportions.
He says there are plenty of visual clues as to the age of the bathhouse, part of which lies under neighbouring shops and has yet to be excavated.
The network of neatly stacked 4ft-high brick columns are evidence of an extensive and complicated system of underground heating channels – the hypocaust – that were favoured by the Romans but are rarely found in later baths. Shama’s bathhouse also boasts a large cold room, a frigidarium, typical of Roman design.
Another impressive feature is a giant stone furnace, one of the largest ever discovered in the Middle East, which was used to heat the bathhouse.
Freund points out, despite his confidence in the age of the site, that archeological claims are always open to dispute. In this case, Elias’s unsupervised dig will make accurate carbon-dating – the final proof – a tricky enterprise as much of the remains have been contaminated.
In the meantime, he adds enthusiastically, radar and ground-penetrating surveys his team carried out have revealed an even older bathhouse under the one unearthed by Elias. Freund’s belief is that this is will be an equally stunning find: a Greek bath, one of the earliest ever discovered. But in the unlikely event that Elias’s bath is shown not to be Roman, he says, then excavations of the lower bathhouse will hold out the same exciting promises as the upper bathhouse.
Freund believes that more extensive excavations in the area will throw light on life in Nazareth at the time of Jesus and open up the possibility of discovering a treasure trove of artifacts from the period.
“We are talking about relics lying untouched, buried under the ground, for 2,000 years at the place where Jesus lived, and from the time when he was living here. It doesn’t get much more exciting than that.”
Shama hopes that his find will increase the pressure on the Israeli government to agree to more archeological digs inside Nazareth, the overcrowded capital of Israel’s one million Palestinian citizens.
Surprisingly, given its central place in Christian heritage, Nazareth has been little mined for archeological evidence in recent times. Israeli officials have mostly sealed up and forgotten its subterranean secret passages and tombs.
The Mary’s Well area, which includes the Cactus shop, has never been properly excavated, even during extensive renovation work done in time for the Pope’s visit in 2000 for the millennium. Although antiquities officials have privately told Freund that lots of Roman pottery was unearthed during the facelift in the area around the shop, several years later no official report has ever been compiled explaining the significance of the finds.
This makes Shama’s bathhouse all the more intriguing, particularly as there is a dearth of archeological material linked directly to Jesus. Generations of charlatans have exploited pilgrims by offering them “certified” pieces of the cross, but in practice archeologists have nothing from Jesus’s life, or from Mary’s.
Cactus is next door to the Mary’s Well Church, which the Greek Orthodox believe marks the spot where the Archangel Gabriel visited Mary while she was drawing water from the well to tell her the news that she was bearing the son of God. The Roman Catholics believe the revelation occurred a short distance away at their own church, the Basilica of the Annunciation, built over a grotto which it is claimed was Mary and Jesus’s home.
The Orthodox, who rely on an alternative second-century gospel, the Book of James, for their description of the annunciation, have always struggled to prove that Nazareth’s original water source was to be found by their church. Elias’s huge bathhouse, which would have needed vast amounts of water, lends credence to their account.
Elias is convinced that Jesus and Mary both used the bathhouse. He observes: “If we dig deeper there will be coins and trinkets and pottery. Who knows, maybe Mary or Jesus dropped such things while in the bathhouse.”
Freund is more circumspect, though in support of Shama’s hopes he produces a document written nearly 500 years ago by Rabbi Moshe Bassola of Ancona after he made a pilgrimage to the area. In his account the rabbi writes: “We came from Kfar Kana, arriving the next day in Nazareth, where the Christian Jesus lived. The citizens told me that there existed a hot bathhouse where the Mother of Jesus immersed herself.”
In the longer run, Elias’s bathhouse looks certain to rewrite the history books. Freund says the discovery means that historians will have to rethink the place and significance of Nazareth in the Roman empire and consequently the formative experiences of Jesus. It is usually assumed that the Nazareth of 2,000 years ago was a poor Jewish village on the periphery of the empire, where local families inhabited caves on the hillside that today contains the modern Israeli-Arab city.
On this view, the young Jesus would have had little contact with the Romans until he left Nazareth as an adult; his father, Joseph, one of many craftsmen in the town, may have worked on a Roman palace at nearby Sephori.
But the huge scale of Shama’s bathhouse suggests that Nazareth, rather than Sephori, was the local hub of military control from Rome. The giant bath could only have been built for a Roman city or to service a significant garrison town.
That would mean Joseph and Mary, and their son Jesus, were living in the very heart of the occupying power. This is likely to have huge significance for New Testament scholars in their understanding of Jesus’s later teachings.
So far, however, there is no happy ending to this tale. Shama and his wife Martina, who ploughed their life savings into excavating and preserving the bathhouse, are close to financial ruin. They have received no help from the state.
And the public announcement that the bathhouse is Roman has not yet been made by either the Antiquities Authority or the American archeologists. Shama suspects foul play. “Now it’s about politics not about history,” he says. “The Antiquities Authority is the official body for reinforcing Jewish claims to this land – not Arab claims like mine.”
There is no doubt that archeology has become a hugely politicised field in Israel, with both Israelis and Palestinians hoping to justify their territorial stake in the Holy Land through historic claims.
It is also true that the American archeologists behind the bathhouse investigation are dependent on the Antiquities Authority for renewal of their licences to dig in Israel and the Palestinian occupied territories.
Many in Nazareth, including Shama, believe that Israel has no interest in transforming Nazareth from a tourist sideshow into the number one destination for Christian pilgrims, supplanting Jerusalem. The Jewish state, they say, has little interest in encouraging tourism to Nazareth, and thereby diverting foreign money to an Arab city, when it can promote its own sites.