About two-thirds of the 3.45 million tourists in Israel last year were Christian, and 2,000-year-old Nazareth, the cradle of the faith, is a must-see on the Christian itinerary. It has about 30 churches and monasteries in addition to ancient synagogues and newer mosques.
The official symbol of Nazareth is Mary's Well, the centerpiece of Spring Plaza along with a more recently discovered elaborate Roman bathhouse. According to Christian tradition, this is where Mary used to bathe Jesus and wash his clothes, and where Jesus fetched water. Muslims and Christians consider the well and its water to contain unusual healing properties.
When the entire plaza area was renovated as part of millennium celebrations in 2000, archeologists discovered the remains of tunnels and pools from different periods, which are now described in an exhibition at City Hall. The well's current shape is based on pictures taken by 19th century pilgrims.
The Mary of Nazareth International Center was opened in 2010 by the Chemin Neuf Community, offering an audiovisual journey (in several different languages) into the life of the Virgin Mary and the Marian roots of Christianity. Complete with meeting rooms, prayer spaces, a cafeteria and gift shop, "Mary's Center is an awesome place," says Aburass.
About 100 feet south of Spring Plaza, above the actual spring supplying the well, is St. Gabriel Church of the Annunciation. Greek Orthodox tradition maintains that this is where the angel Gabriel revealed to Mary that she would give birth to Jesus.
The nearby Basilica of the Annunciation sits above the grotto where Roman Catholics believe Joseph and Mary lived and where Mary received the angel's announcement.
The present building was constructed on the ruins of churches dating back to Byzantine (324-634 CE) and Crusader (1095-1291) times, some of which are still visible. A $24 million commercial complex under construction is planned to include a 186-room hotel with a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Basilica.
Nazareth Sisters Convent next door offers subterranean tours of ancient tombs, columns and houses possibly dating back to the Roman period in the Holy Land, which started around 37 BCE and continued until the Byzantine conquest. There's a small museum exhibiting old coins and pottery, and an enclosed courtyard and guest rooms.
Other sites of Christian interest are the Church of St. Joseph, built on the ruins of agricultural buildings where Joseph's carpentry shop is believed to have been located, and the Crusader-era Synagogue Church, next to the Greek Catholic Church in the middle of the old market. The odd name of this house of worship comes from a tradition that this was once the synagogue where Jesus prayed and preached.
The Mount of the Precipice (officially Mount Kedumim), at the entrance to the city from the direction of Afula, is traditionally where Nazareth's citizens took Jesus after he declared himself the Messiah. You can still see the remains of a Byzantine convent later established there. It's easier to explore the rocky terrain since the Jewish National Fund built a parking lot at the top and a wheelchair-accessible paved lane leading to an observation point overlooking the Jezreel Valley, Carmel Mountains, Gilad Mountains and Mount Tabor.