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Geography of Israel: Nazareth

Nazareth is the largest Arab city in Israel with a population of some 60,000, of whom an estimated 30-35 percent are Christians.

Nazareth is first mentioned in the Gospel narratives. Archeological evidence indicates it was an agricultural village of only a few dozen families. This may explain why there are no earlier references, and why it was not included among the 45 cities of the Galilee listed by Josephus, nor in the 63 cities of the Galilee mentioned in the Talmud. It would also explain the seeming astonishment of Nathanael of Cana, who asks the Apostle Philip if anything good can come from such an insignificant hamlet (John 1:46).

A number of Christian holy places in Nazareth are associated with the Annunciation, the childhood and the early ministry of Jesus. In addition to the imposing Basilica of the Annunciation, these sites include the Greek Orthodox Church of the Archangel Gabriel (built over the freshwater spring known as "Mary’s Well"), the Greek Catholic "Synagogue Church" (assumed site of the synagogue where the young Jesus was taught, and where he later read from Isaiah), and the Franciscan Church of St. Joseph (built over a cave identified since the 17th century as the "workshop" of Joseph).

Nazareth also contains a number of historical sites important to the Muslim community. As with the Christian churches in Nazareth, most of these buildings are of relatively recent construction. The el-Abyad Mosque, to the north of the Basilica of the Annunciation, was built in 1812, and is the oldest in the city.

The Tomb of Maqam Shihab el-Din, a Muslim leader and the nephew of Salah al-Din (Saladin), located 100 meters south of the Basilica of the Annunciation, has been the center of recent controversy between the Muslim and Christian communities in Nazareth. The cleared area between the church and the tomb is state-owned land that was intended to become a large public plaza. Muslim activists, however, demanded that at least a part of the site be used for the construction of a mosque. A government-initiated compromise has not fully satisfied either side in the dispute.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry