I went to Nazareth twice: The first time, it was mid-December, I had to spend a night there to catch a bus to Jordan early in the morning. I hated it because it was raining and my hostel freezing cold. Nevertheless, I decided to give the Galilee city another chance in early February. I picked a different hostel and made sure there were plenty of options to hop on a bus back to the warmth of Tiberias or the South.
Nazareth is first and foremost known as the hometown of Jesus’ mother Mary. Her sights are therefore mainly of a Christian religious nature and clustered in the Old Town. While I visited the best-known sites in town, the Basilica of the Annunciation, the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation (the different branches of Christianity don’t agree where exactly it happened), and Mary’s (Mariam’s) Well, and did my usual early morning walk up to the hill above town for panoramic views, my favorite part of visiting Nazareth was a free walking tour around the old town the Fauzi Azar Hostel offers to its guests. It is given by local shopkeepers and starts most mornings at 10 at the hostel.
Our guide was jewelry designer Mona and she greeted us in the salon on the first floor.
The Fauzi Azar Inn is located inside a 200-year old mansion. It is spread over two floors with a partially covered courtyard with a water fountain. Its dorms and privates are tucked away in different parts of the house. The mansion is owned by five sisters. After their parents died in the 1980s, they didn’t know what to do with the large building and it stood empty for years until in 2005 a former yuppie from Tel-Aviv decided to open the city’s first hostel right in the old city of Nazareth.
Mona begins by telling us that Nazareth was once a thriving Arab city and is still the largest Arab city in Israel. BTW: Arabs in Israel can be Muslim or Christian or be part of several lesser known religious groups such as the Druze in the North of the Golan Heights or the Baha’i, whose religious center is in Haifa and Acre (Akko) at the coast.
So Mona begins by telling us the story of the late Mr. Azar and his family’s house. His family was once part of the wealthy Christian community in Nazareth. They owned fields and olive groves outside the city and a lot of the shops in the old town as well. His ancestors had the house built and the ceilings were finely decorated by hand by a painter from Lebanon. Those hand-painted ceilings are still in place today.
As it was the custom in his community, every year at the family would donate some of their wealth — in their case one of the shops in town — to their church. So in fact, many of the small shops outside the hostel belong to the church and are rented to anyone looking to open a business.
Mr. Azar died when oil for the heating caught fire, and he — a man of over 80 years — tried to rescue the house. He succeeded but was injured so badly he eventually died.
In the salon, there are black and white photographs of Fauzi Azar and his family along with some vintage radios and other memorabilia from his lifetime.
After this brief introduction, we get the chance to explore some of the rooms at the Inn that we aren’t staying in.
Then it’s time to go outside.
Mona is a Greek Orthodox Christian. So it comes as no surprise that her favorite spot in town and our first stop is on the premises of the Greek Orthodox Monastery next to Ha-Bishop square. Here, visitors can access part of a cave system that once ran underneath all of Nazareth, allowing the Jews and Christians to hide and escape from persecution 2,000 years ago. Some say that even the Virgin Mary was once down here. The gate to the catacombs isn’t always unlocked. So it’s worth to try a few times in the morning if you want to see the caves (entrance is free, donations requested).
Next, we walk down to Mary’s Well on the edge of the Old City. An upset Mona explains that the well has stopped working. The council had tried to fix it and route the water until they had broken the supply and the freshwater stopped flowing altogether from the ground. There is, however, still a small working spring inside the Orthodox Church of Annunciation.
We turn back to the center of Old Town and stop in front of a very low, unassuming green door. It is locked but after Mona knocks a few times the owner opens and invites us with open arms.
We go down a staircase and discover into a huge cellar full baskets full of spices and sweets and things I don’t know. This is the Elbabour Spice Mill. For more than 120 years, people have been coming here to mill their spices. Today, locals still come and have their Za’atar and other herbs milled in old machines in the back of the shop.
From the spice mill, we walk along through the carpenter alley into the narrower streets of the old city.
It is noticeable that many of the shops are closed. In other streets, the old shops have been freshly painted and the street newly cobbled. Here, new shops, obviously geared towards tourists with windows full of local craftsmanship or handmade modern jewelry, have just opened.
We learn that you can tell the age of the Nazareth buildings not by the style but by the usage of iron: pre-Ottoman buildings didn’t incorporate any iron. We also learn that traditionally every one of the houses in the old city had a “Grape tree”: a large vine which gave shade, grapes, wine, and the basis for dolmar (filled vine leaves).
We stop by one of the oldest houses in the city, at a square with a produce market, across from Abu Ashraf’s eatery. The large vault shaped lower floor also houses a big reservoir: The first owner many centuries ago didn’t want his wife to have to go to the well each day. So he devised a system to collect rainwater and fill a cistern for water all year round. Now, the lady of the house makes soaps. Outside a young woman has set up her first business: She sells saghlab, a milky desert drink flavored with rose water, cinnamon, and coconut flakes.
A few steps down, we enter Fahoum, the oldest coffee (and spice) roastery in Nazareth. The air is heavy with the mix of cardamom and strong coffee that is typical for the “Arab coffee” in the region. We go to the back room and get to watch the roaster at work. We learn that the traditional mix is 3 parts coffee to 1 part cardamom. It is strong and not to everyone’s taste.
At Fahoum, we can only get the dry stuff; I buy a small package of coffee as a gift for my sister. But now we’re thirsty and it’s time for a warming drink.
We head straight for the oldest coffee shop in town, Abu Salem (founded in 1914). In the back, men are playing cards. We learn that in the olden days this café served as a job market where employers would drink coffee, tea, or cinnamon, and play backgammon or cards, and anybody who was looking for a job could come and enquire about positions.
After the strong impressions Fahoum left behind, I don’t quite fancy a coffee or tea. So I order a cinnamon. Big sticks of actual cinnamon rind are cooked for hours and then served with walnuts in Turkish tea glasses, both the cinnamon and the drinking vessels being remnants of Ottoman rule.
Thinking that the tour is over, most of the walking tour participants are taking off to explore the city on their own. But Mona has one more place to show us and begs us to stay on. She promises that this will tie the whole tour together.
We turn right and right again in the maze of old city alleys and stop in front of a corner store. Mona points to the left at Khazem’s Falafel. “That’s where I gained my extra pounds.” One of the staff from the Fauzi Azar is sitting on the benched outside the eatery and expands: “The best falafel in town!”
We’ve come to Mona’s jewelry shop. But she hasn’t taken us here to sell us something. She wants to make a point about the situation the old city of Nazareth is in.
You see, when the former yuppie from Tel-Aviv decided to open the Fauzi Azar Inn, even the locals wouldn’t enter the old city. It had been taken over by drug dealers and crime. And a failed renovation project left many of the streets unwalkable. So the shops closed or moved outside the walls into the wide, well-lit streets of the new town.
But Moaz believed in the potential of a city that is important in the spiritual life of so many people and that is in such close vicinity to the many historical and natural sights of the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights, not to mention the coast. So he started something and found locals who also believed in the hometown’s potential. Like Mona, Elbabour, Fahoum, and the owners of the other shops we’ve visited today.
And now a new mayor has managed to get a grip of the drug and crime, renovations have been undertaken, there are street lights. Today, there are not only a handful of hostels, but also a few boutique hotels/BnBs in other old mansions around the old city; the shops are slowly repopulated by artists and other former yuppies from around Israels wanting to be part of something new.