Basilica of the Annunciation
The Catholic Church of the Annunciation, also known as the Basilica of the Annunciation, is the most impressive and spectacular site in the city and is considered to be one of the most holy churches for Christianity. The church, an outstanding building in the center of town, is built where it’s believed the house the Virgin Mary was.
On the lower level is the most holy place – Mary’s cave, the cave in which, according to the Catholic-Christian tradition, Mary was visited by Archangel Gabriel and told her she is destined to carry Jesus in her womb.
The first church was built on the site in 427 A.D, and a few others have been built and destroyed since. In the current building which was established in 1969, there are still remains of the previous churches. It is one of the biggest, most impressive churches in the Middle East.
The breathtaking Basilica is 59.5 meters high and houses colorful mosaics depicting the Holy Family. The mosaics were made by Christian communities from all over the world, and every piece of art reflects the national character of the country that sent it.
The History and Architecture of the Church:
The first church was established during the Byzantine times, probably around the year 427. It was built by Jerusalem’s Deacon (one of the 3 positions in the Christian clergy, next to the priest and the bishop), who was called Conon, which can be seen from the writing “Conon” on the mosaic floor, close to the cave. The church was built as a large central hall, with a small monastery to the south. Some steps led to the holy cave which was almost completely separated from the church itself. In the year 670, Arculpus spoke of 2 churches in Nazareth: Church of Joseph and The Church of Annunciation. The church was in use for about 700 years, during which several repairs were made.
After Palestina-Israel was conquered by the Muslims in 638, Muslims demanded large payments from the Christians in order to permit the churches’ existence. However, the condition of the Church was worsening until it was almost completely derelict at the beginning of the Crusader’s Times around the 11th century.
When the Crusaders arrived to Nazareth, they found the church to be completely destroyed. Tancred, Prince of Galilee, rebuilt the church and established there a marvelous, impressively large Basilica. The remains of this Basilica are integrated now into the new church which was built over Tancred’s Church. During this time, the site of Annunciation was located inside the church where stairs were leading directly to it and a small altar was built above, the remains of which still exist today. It seems like the Crusader-era Church was never complete, especially when it comes to the artistic objects – five Romanic crowns found around the church can indicate on that. The remains of the Church show that it had at least 64 crowns. Several excavations exposed the church’s foundations: the Northern wall (integrated in the current church), as well as different artistic remains.
However, the Crusader-era church didn’t last for too long and was destroyed in 1263 by the Mamluk Sultan Baibers. The Christians’ source of pride became a symbol of disgrace. The place was deserted for many years in spite of the Franciscans’ efforts to settle down there, efforts that have failed. They encountered a hostile Muslim community and a government who refused to permit their presence in the area.
Eventually, around 1620, in the beginning of the Ottoman era, the Franciscans were allowed to return by the Druze Emir Fakr ad-Din. They have settled in Nazareth, close to the Church of Annunciation and were possession over the cave and the Basilicas’ remains, from which they have built a modest monastery. Ever since then, the vicinity has been under to authority of the Franciscan Order, although from time to time they have been forced to abandon the place by Muslim rulers. However, they have always returned. In 1935 Amir Fakhr al-Din was executed and the Damascus Basha avenged those who enjoyed his protection.
The Nazareth Franciscans were arrested for 6 weeks and released only after paying a large amount of money. In 1938 they had to leave again due to harassment by the Bedouins, but returned 3 years later. Pilgrims who visited Nazareth in 1644 indicated that the area of the Annunciation Cave was still destroyed.
The Franciscans managed to rebuild the Church only around 1730, after Daher al-Omar, govenor of the Galilee permitted them to do so. They were only given 6 months – the time period required for a Muslim to make a pilgrimage to Mecca and return.
As a result, the new Church was modest and meant to provide immediate needs only, not reflecting its true Christian meaning. The Church was small and consisted of a central hall and 2 secondary wings. The altar was built above the cave. Wide steps led down to the cave itself, with a hallway at the end called "The Angel’s Chapel" and 2 altars – one for Joachim and Anna and the other for Archangel Gabriel.
The room was used as a gateway for the Chapel. The Altar of Annunciation was in the center of the cave, with another Altar dedicated to St. Joseph in the back. In 1877 the church was renovated and expanded, and the façade was rebuilt. In 1955 the current Basilica of the Annunciation was built and the old one was destroyed. The monastery and Franciscan School were built next to it in 1930.
The Church Today
The Catholic Church of Annunciation the biggest, most magnificent church in the Middle East. It was designed by Italian architect Giovanni Muzio, built by Solel Boneh and established in 1969. The church has two stories which provide enough space for a large amount of worshipers as well as preservation of the holy cave and remains of the previous churches. The church is a powerful, monumental building inducing a sense of eternity.
The cave is located in the center of the lower floor. This area is slightly dark maintaining the mysterious atmosphere surrounding the wonder of the Annunciation. This level is also where the remains of previous churches are preserved. The stone wall along the church and behind the cave has remained from the Crusader-era church from the 12th century. Excavations have revealed some Crusader-era atrifacts - some of the most beautiful pieces of art from those times, which are presented in the museum located under the plaza outside of the higher level.
The lower level presents the architectural fortitude required for building this Church. Above, the marvelous lily dome is a symbol to Virgin Mary’s purity. On the marble floor you can find the names of the popes, and the large mosaic painting of the Italian painter Salvador Puma, describing Jesus, Virgin Mary and St. Peter, is located on front.
On the church walls, as well as in its yard, is presented an exhibition of mosaic paintings. Each painting was given by a different country and is reflecting the national motives of the country it was made at.
Source – Nazareth and its sites, Schieller, Eli (Editor), Ariel, 1982.
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