On News Year’s Day everything seems simple – what could be simpler than 01/01 – but in fact “it’s complicated.” Full disclosure. I have not seen the movie, and when I use the phrase I mean something more than rom-com tropes.
I mean that no slates have been wiped clean, no pages have been turned; what was true yesterday is true today. and what was true centuries ago is still true, driven home to me nearly a year ago.
Now, When Was I?
In my last post, I was in Nazareth if you recall; a place that is nothing like it was 2000 years ago and yet is a witness to that time and more. If ever there was a place where the saying “It’s Complicated” applies it is there. So let me tell you more about my brief stay:
I was told this is the largest Arab city in Israel, the population of which is 75,000. Arab usually means Muslim but also Christian. The oldest Christian communities are Arab, and by Arab I mean Palestinian, which signifies those who were, or trace themselves to, the non Jewish residents prior to Israeli independence.
Being in a place where Arabic is the language, where the culture is Arabic as well, I can begin to imagine how complicated, and how hard it is, to be the minority in a land where you and your ancestors have lived for centuries. I think of my New Mexican brother-in-law whose surname is Spanish and whose ancestry is Spanish and Navajo, whose ancestors lived here before it was US, or Mexican. “It’s Complicated.” Way complicated.
Faithful are the Wounds
Those words from Proverbs are enigmatic and prophetic. However much I believe Israel must exist, because its history is one long tale of tolerance turned to resentment turned to persecution turned to expulsion turned to extinction, I cannot then deny the pain and loss to those displaced by the war that was the price of Israeli existence. In my search for my supper the night before, I passed a wall painted to remind visitors (it was all in English, not Arabic or Hebrew) of the Nakba and further pains. Boy is it complicated.
The next morning, a young woman at the hostel desk, who has lived in several US locations but is native to Nazareth, gave me advice on where to explore today. My Fodor’s was not as complete. She was only shy when asked about life for her and her people in Israel.
It’s All Downhill from Here
Retracing my evening walk, I went to St. George’s Orthodox Church of the Annunciation, where those Xmas decorations were. Recalling other old churches in Istanbul and Italy, you step down not because that is the plan but because older buildings were literally lower than newer ones. Each is built over and around the previous one.
The stones around the entry door are carved with ‘kilroys’ dating back decades. A table with burning tapers is right inside, along with a sexton who is in charge of maintaining quiet and preventing indecent clothes from coming in. When I sat in a pew and crossed my legs he was cross at me and signaled to uncross.
A group of American Protestants occupied the lower vaulted level where Mary was visited by Garbriel. The group begins to chatter after the preacher concludes and the sexton all but bellows, “Silence.” And he got it. Once they left there was room to go down into the low vault with an iron fence protecting an illuminated grotto which I gather is ‘the spot.’
Forgive my scare quotes
All claims to know where ancient events took place need to be taken with a grain or two of salt. Most of those claims date from centuries after the event.
Our own ‘Plymouth Rock’ rests on the story conveyed by oral tradition, that began with a 94 year old man whose grandfather came on a subsequent voyage than the Mayflower, and was told that was where the Mayflower landed. Imagine similar reports in days before printing. Yep, complicated.
Another fellow, also waiting for the reverent crowd to leave, came into the vault when I did and all but washed himself in water from a large tin that I presumed was collected from the spring underneath. I rinsed my hands as well, a gesture of respect more than piety, and went back outside.
Mary, Mary Quite Contrary
I now headed to another site of the visitation (there are in fact three in town) this one having the best historic claim based mostly on location than records. That would be the Catholic one. The two are separated by no more than a quarter of a mile. However, they are widely separated in time.
But first I went past the site called Mary’s well. This is a public fountain, and at some point was a bathhouse. That turned out to be more accurate than they knew. Underneath this area, as recorded and reported elsewhere, are the ruins of a Roman era bathhouse. Today, it is a small town square, but the well has dried up apparently, because the taps are not running.
From here, I walked toward the Franciscan Basilica of the annunciation, which took me beside an old small Muslim cemetery.
I can never resist visiting a cemetery and spent a good 20 minutes wandering among the graves. In Islamic tradition the above ground part forms a flower bed. Being on a steep hill, the graves form terraces and warrens not unlike the houses. Plants spill out into the narrow concrete paths.
Back onto the street, I pass a spice merchant the desk woman noted. What would I want with spices, though, except to enjoy the heady aromas wafting out? Workshops are along the way: women’s clothing, hardware, metalware. This is not the tourist area.
Here’s the Church, there’s the Synagogue?
I detour again due to the recommendation of the woman at the hostel, to the “synagogue church” supposedly where Jesus read from Isaiah and pronounce that the prophet’s vision was fulfilled. That stirred things up a bit if you remember the story.
Is it the place? It’s complicated. Nothing of first century Nazareth exists today except claims and stones. I nonetheless went in and found a Melkite Catholic Church that was closed, but the ‘synagogue’ open. Plainer than the one I visited earlier, there was just an altar behind which was a mosaic of Jesus preaching in the synagogue.
I sat for a while in the quiet, appreciating all that I could not know, until a little American family of three came in and so let them have their moment.
Nazareth was Islamic for centuries, Christian before that. Before that it was Jewish. In 1948 Nazareth was a majority Christian town, but is now majority Islamic because so many Arabs in the Galilee were displaced and made their way to Nazareth, which is what made it a large city.
The narrow and crooked streets visually express the serpentine history that has wound through this town. Down on Paulus Hashishi Street, which I mentioned last time, Russian signs lure pilgrims to buy tchotchkes. Turkish invites people to eat humus and cimit, and always with Hebrew and often with English available. In Nazareth everything is complicated.