Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land - 06/03/2000 info: firstname.lastname@example.org
During the Centuries
As the first christians kept alive the tradition and localisation of the "holy" sites of Nazareth, we cannot but register the literary sources that were handed over to us with a clear indication of the veneration with which they were kept during the centuries. The Lord's "brethren" (Acts 1,14; 1Cor 9,5) had a prominent place in the primitive palestinian church. James, the Lord's "brother" headed the Church in Jerusalem (Acts 21,18) as is witnessed also by the writings of Josephus Flavius (Jewish Antiquities 20, 197-203). Even the judeo-christian historian Egesippus (late second century) gives witness to these next-of-kin of the Lord when speaking about a persecution of the Christians by Emperor Domiziano (81-96 AD) and whose writings are quoted by Eusebius (IV cent. AD) in his History of the Church (III,19.20,1-6). Jiulius the African (250 AD) mentions how the descendents of Jesus were jealous in keeping alive the memory of their forefathers (a passage quoted by Eusebius in his History of the Church I,7,13-14).
It is because of Nazareth that "Christ is called the Nazarean and from which, we who today are called Christians, were called Nazareens" (Eusebius of Caesaria, early IV cent. AD).
In pilgrimage to the site came Paola and Eustochio accompanied by Jerome. This indicates that the town is already a pilgrimage site in the writings of St. Jerome (end of IV cent. AD) who writes to the roman matron Marcella "we will go to Nazareth and see the flower of Galilee, as its name implies".
In 570 the Anonymous pilgrim of Piacenza and later Arculf (after the arab occupation of 638 AD) visited the town. Arculf writes to Adamanno that at Nazareth he saw two churches, one of the Annunciation and the other of the Nutrition. In 724-26, when Wilhebald visited the town only the visitation church was vivible the same church which was seen by the Arab visitor Al Mas'udi in 943.
The arrival of the Crusaders meant an era of splendour for Nazareth. The english visitor Sewulf in 1102 writes that "the city of Nazareth s completely raised to the ground except the place of the annunciation wherer there is a nice monastery". The crusaders rebuilt a magnificent church in Roman style with 3 naves, from the northern one of which one descended to a small grotto in which was venerated the record of the Annunciation and the sojourn of the Holy Family. Nazareth became also a bishopric seat and Tancred made sure to adorn this churhc with magnificent gifts witnesses of which are found in the descriptions of the pilgrims of the era. On the 4 of July 1187, the day of the battle of Hattin, Nazareth was taken, its population killed or imprisoned, and the sanctuary "renowned in all the world" profaned. All this is recounted by the eyewitness Raul of Coggeshall. Later on permission was granted to pilgrims who wanted to visit the shrine and on the 24 of March 1251 St. Louis IX, king of France, partecipated in a mass which his chaplain celebrate for hi in the Annunciation Grotto. In 1263 the magnificent church of the Crusaders was sistematically destroyed on the explicit order of Baybars. Nazareth became a ghost town and adventerous pilgrims succeeded to arrive at the site give witness to a small chapel to protect the Annunciation grotto "in memory to the humility and poverty" as the dominican friar Ricoldo di Monte Croce writes in 1294. For four hundred years nothing changed at this site. The only notable change was the permission granted to the franciscans to go in pilgrimage to the shrine.
The site was acquired by the Franciscans in 1620 through the favour of druse emir Fakr ed-Din. A community was installed there to keep guard over the venerable ruins and it became a place of continuous struggle and heroic sacrifices. The turks saw it a source of income and made life for the friars miserable.
It was only in 1730 that the Friars were permitted to built a church over the Grotto. The decree that authorized the work also fixed a time limit for its completion, and the Friars built in 7 months a modest edifice. In 1877 it was enlarged and in 1954 it was completely demolished to open up the way for a complete archaeologicla examination of the site and the building of a monument worthy of the mystery.
In excavating the area around the Annunciation site the Franciscan archaeologists not only cleared the different monuments that were built atop the shrine but also had the privilege to examine attentively the uninterrupted veneration that christians treasured jealously.
Excavations in fact not only revealed the sanctity of the site but also the remains of the ancient village of Nazareth with its silos, cisterns and other cave-dwellings. No construction survived the impetus of time.
Around the Grotto the archaeologists could read backwards the history of the site. After removing the church which the Franciscans built in 1730 the archaeologists cleared completely the remains of the magnificent crusader's basilica.
The church of the Annunciation stands over the extreme southern end of the ancient village. Having examined the site occupied by the church of 1730, the outline of the Crusader church became clearer. In the northern nave the Crusaders had left the rocky elevation of the grotto and between two pilasters had made a stairway to the shrine.
The Church Synagogue
The remains found under the byzantine construction led the Franciscan Archaeologists to conclude that prior to this period the Christians had already constructed a place of worship at this site. Excavations revealed also a primitive baptisimal font a mosaiced floor, and a flight of seven steps that led down towards the grotto. Next to the shrine, to the West of it, another cave transformed into a devotional site came to light.
Furthermore, architectural elements and decorations suppose the construction of a "public" building, which the archaeologists identify with a church-synagogue. Among these architectural remains the archaeologists found various graffiti and among them one of special interest. Scratched on the base of a column appeared the greek characters XE MAPIA (read: Ch(air)e Maria). Translated as: "Hail Mary". Recalling the angel's greeting to the Virgin, this inscription is the oldest of its kind known to us. It was written before the Council of Ephesus (431) where devotion to Mary received its first universal impulse. Other graffiti, all jelously conserved at the adjacent museum, confirm the Marian nature of the shrine. One in armenian reads "beautiful girl" (referred to Mary) and another one in greek reads "on the holy site of M(ary) I have writen".
It might be interesting to see a design of the primitive structure (church-synagogue) built on the site and also, thanks to this design by E. Alliata ofm from the Studium Biblicum Franciscanum, understand how the devout pilgrim could have engraved this phrase on the base of the column.
The Byzantine Church
The byzantines built a church on the site on a west-east axis, with three aisles and a porch (atrium). To the south there was a small residence. The central aisle measured 19.60 metres (outside) and was 8 m. wide. This building remained in use from the 6th to the 12th century, though it was damaged and repaired several times. In other words, it finally disappeared only when the Crusaders replaced it with another structure, just as it in turn had displaced the earlier Judaeo-Christian structure.
The Crusader Basilica
The Russian abbot Daniel, who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1106-1107, found at Nazareth "a large, high church with three altars." This is the magnificent Crusader basilica erected by Tancred, prince of Galilee. He also endowed it with beautiful, costly vestments, as William of Tyre (1096-1184) had noted. This building followed the lines of the Byzantine structure but was of much more generous proportions. It was 76 m. Iong and 30 wide. In fact, it was bigger than the modern basilica, as is evident from the remains which have been incorporated into the latter or protrude therefrom.
It was to adorn this basilica that the magnificent capitals, already mentioned, were fashioned, together with other pieces of sculpture found within the town limits. The capitals, however, were never set in place. They were rediscovered in all their original freshness and beauty, perfectly preserved from the ravages of time and climate which have affected so many other medieval monuments.
The "New" Basilica
The architect conceived a plan of two churches, one above the other and interconnected: the lower or crypt on the level of the former churches, and the upper church The lower preserves the Holy Grottos and the remains of the Byzantine and Crusader churches, which bespeak an uninterrupted cult and authentic tradition. The roof opens in a starlike lantern in the centre of the upper church to which there is access by stairway. The upper Church is the Latin Parish Church of Nazareth. The central feature was to be the Grotto marked on high by the striking dome. The new project was approved in 1969 and, after much testing of the subsoil and preparatory work on the foundations, the contract for construction was signed on September 30, 1960, with the Israeli building firm of Solel Boneh.
The lower church follows the plan marked out by the walls and foundations of the Crusader basilica, except on the west side where the new walls are set back by five metres, to cut off the new building from the busy main road and to leave room for a suitable esplanade. The internal dimensions are 44.60 metres in length and 27 in width. The apses built by the Crusaders are separate, these being kept and partially reconstructed. The overall height of the nave and the apses is about 7 metres. The central nave is left free of all supports, these being incorporated in the outside walls. The floor level here drops to that of the archaeological work below, so that the full roof height is 9 metres. The middle of this church enshrines the most sacred spot of all, the Grotto, and here the roof of the lower church is pierced by a star-shaped oculus situated exactly under the dome of the upper church. The entrances to the church are from the portico on the west side, in line with the whole building, and from the south in the direction of the Grotto. The side entrances in the main facade give access to two spiral stairways leading to the upper church.
On all the perimiter walls of the upper Church, as well as in the atrium surrounding the Church paintings/sculptures/bass-reliefs represent the Marian Sanctuaries of the world.
As has been said, entrance to the upper church from the west is by means of two spiral stairways It is also connected with the lower church by a wide stairway on the south side. However, the real main entrance is to the North. Here, on a level with the upper church, is a large elevated square of 800 square metres. Thence, two doors open into the church proper while, in line with these, there is a small eight-sided shrine which is the baptistery. The great elavated square also serves another purpose: to protect the remains of ancient Nazareth's dwellings which have been excavated in the soil below. The square is 16 m. in length along its west side, 13 m. along the south. A portico graces the building on the west and south sides. It is 4 metres wide and runs for a total length of 105 m. On the south side it forms a graceful open arcate overlooking the valley of Nazareth and providing a welcome resting place for the visitor. The wide walls are made of dressed stone native to the area. They are impressive in size, but do not rival the immensity of the Crusader masonry. The roofing is in reinforced concrete.
The dome is all in reinforced concrete with stone dressing up to the level of the open loggia, 27 metres from the ground. The loggia and the lantern are in stone, while the pyramid is covered with copper. The cupola ends with a lantern, 66 metres high in all.