By Rivka Borochov
Until a few years ago, Christian pilgrims to Nazareth might not
have been able to find a hotel room in town. The largest Arab city in
Israel, with 85,000 people, wasn’t really set up for the busloads of
Christian tourists who would stop by the famous Basilica of the
Annunciation, do a quick walk around and then leave. There wasn’t much
in the way of accommodation for the Westerner, despite the famous Arab
But a young Jewish entrepreneur named Maoz Inon had big plans for
Nazareth, where Christians believe the young Jew named Jesus spent his
childhood under Roman occupation. As an Israeli, Inon loves the land,
and has hiked its trails from north to south. While on his travels he
stumbled through the Old City of Nazareth. Finding it in great ruin and
neglect, he became enchanted by the potential he saw.
The Fauzi Inn
As they chatted, the woman happened to mention that her late
grandfather Fauzi Azar had owned a large estate in the Old City. It had
been in the family for generations, but left crumbling under lock and
key after her grandmother died in 1989. Fauzi Azar had succumbed to a
house fire in the mansion nine years earlier.
“I grew up in that house,” says Shomar-Nasser, and she remembers
big family dinners with her siblings there on weekends. The house was in
the center of the Old City, an undesirable location at the time since
the streets were considered unsafe, and it was a long trek by foot to go
into town. “I have small kids, and with the stairs and the walk, it
would have been hard to live here,” says Shomar-Nasser, whose mother was
left in charge of the estate.
legacy in his name
Inon’s ears pricked up when he heard about the old estate. He was
sure this was just the right place to set up his own hotel. He asked
Shomar-Nasser for her mom’s number and, a few days later, Odette
Azar-Shomar took Inon to see the property.
Suraida Shomar-Nasser, granddaughter of the original
owner and today the inn’s day manager
Shomar-Nasser recalls her mother’s stories about how the Arab
neighbors and shopkeepers looked at them as she walked down the street
with a young Jew, an uncommon scene in a city where no Jewish Israelis
But after their meeting, Inon and Azar-Shomar worked out a deal. He
had no money so, in exchange for a short-term lease, he would renovate
the house into a hostel along with assistance from the Nazareth Cultural
and Tourism Association.
Since Fauzi Azar had five daughters and no sons to carry on his
name, his house was his lifeline to the future. For this reason, it was
decided that Inon’s inn would be named in Azar’s memory, with his
portrait hanging on the wall. It opened in 2005, and today it’s known as
the hotel that pioneered tourism in the Old City of Nazareth.
The Fauzi Azar Inn
gives travelers a real taste of life in the modern Galilean city. Its
charming facilities, preserved in such a way that undoubtedly would have
made Grandfather Azar proud, include three impeccably preserved
frescoed ceilings from the late 1800s and original arches, tiles and
wooden fixtures. The inn offers dormitory-style accommodations and also
private rooms with en-suite bathrooms. Large Arabian seating areas are
punctuated by arches and stone walls.
A painted fresco on the ceiling at the inn
And the inn’s day manager is Shomar-Nasser.
Her suspicions about the Jewish stranger who wanted to do business in
the Old City have long since dissipated.
In the steps of Jesus
An important aspect of the inn is its location on the Jesus Trail, a 40-mile route
that retraces the possible steps young Jesus took when he lived in the region.
Inon’s initiative, together with Christian hiking specialist David Landis in
partnership with Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, the trail meanders right through
the Old City up to the inn and through small Galilean villages.
Inon also started a free weekday tour for his guests to “secret” spots in
Nazareth, guided by a former American, Linda Hallel. She takes visitors to old,
famous spice markets (one has a 150-year-old spice mill that still works), and
shows them where to sample the best coffee and lemonade in town and where to
find, when in season, handpicked produce and wild herbs and plants. Or how about
an alarm clock that calls worshipers to prayer, Muslim style?
No doubt these tours, ongoing for the past two or three years, have boosted
business in Nazareth, as tourists and journalists from newspapers including the
New York Times have come to see the hidden gems of the Old City.
Before the tour, Shomar-Nasser gives guests a lecture about the history of
the home and the story of her partnership with Inon. There are tears in her eyes
despite the fact that she gives this same talk every day. “If it doesn’t come
from my heart, I will ask someone else to do it,” she says.
When her family agreed to let a Jewish man start a hotel in her grandfather’s
house, she had a bittersweet feeling about it. Bitter because she didn’t think
of the idea herself, and that it came from the perceived “other;” and sweet
because the grandfather who had no sons to carry his name now lives on in the
best budget hotel in Nazareth -- a hotel full of life, great local food and
people who get to know the story of Nazareth without a political or religious
Photos by Rivka Borochov