Modern day Nazareth is a busy, Arab city, and so it can be hard to imagine what Nazareth was like when Mary, Joseph, and Jesus lived there. Fortunately for us, Nazareth Village is built on a series of 1st century farm terraces, and brings 1st century practices to life for visitors to understand and enjoy. Located on a hillside in Nazareth, Nazareth Village’s mission is to help visitors understand the world of the New Testament better. After a few years of archaeological digs at the site, they restored the 1st century terraces and built buildings using 1st century building methods. Guided tours in many languages are given throughout the day, and there is an option to have a traditional 1st century meal before or after the tour.
To be honest, we completely missed the entrance to the village because I was expecting a large flat piece of land with some buildings on it and a large “touristy” sign. Instead the parking lot and buildings were off of the road, the sign was there, but small, and the bottom floor of the building was a YMCA! There were restrooms and the restaurant on the bottom floor beside the parking lot, and then we finally figured out we had to go upstairs to find the Nazareth Village ticket office. Austin called ahead and reserved our spot for the tour. Also located on the 2nd floor was a neat gift shop with many Christian souvenirs. One of their ministries involves selling embroidery done by Syrian refugees, and so I bought a little Christmas ornament embroidered with a shepherd and the saying “The Lord is My Shepherd” in Arabic.
There were so many tour groups that came up the stairs just as our tour was about to start that I think we missed the first few minutes of our tour! From the gift shop, we headed down the hall towards some cases with artifacts and items of interest that they found during excavations at the site, as well as explanations of some objects. Initially, we were just following Landon who was wandering around, but then we realized that the 3:30 English tour was already in the next room, so we stuck with them. Inside the building, we learned a little about the site and excavation process, as well as some common practices at the time. Something of note that I remember is that there were two types of executions: religious and political. Religious executions were done by the leaders of synagogues, and involved tossing the offender off of a hill (at least 9 feet tall) and then throwing rocks at them until they died. Crucifixion was the execution method of choice of the Romans for political offenders. After some great insights that gave context to some of the events of the New Testament, our inside guide ushered us outside into the village.
Disclaimer: This village is NOT real. The people who work there as the shepherd/craftsman/weaver are paid to do so. The purpose is to show what life was like at the time of Jesus, and help people understand the Bible better. Since Nazareth is an Arab city, they use local Arabs. They speak Arabic. That isn’t the language that Jesus spoke, but that’s OK. These were all questions asked by people in our group, who thought that the people in the village really lived like this (insert laughing/crying emoji here).
Our first stop on our tour of the village was an olive orchard. Olive trees can live for thousands of years, and are so twisted and ugly looking, but can still bear fruit! She also explained why all the roads in Israel are so windy and not straight. Many of the cities were built on mountains, and they would use donkeys to haul construction materials. In order to find the best route for the road, they would load up a donkey with the supplies they needed and then follow it up the hill. The donkey would find the easiest way up, and that became the road. Next, we then met the resident shepherd! He lifted a young goat out of the pen for Landon to pet, but Landon was not so sure until other people also pet the goat. Owen was thrilled to see so many animals, and once we let him out of the carrier, he ran straight back to the sheep yelling, “BAA! BAA!”
Next, we moved on to the reconstruction of a 1st century tomb. Our guide talked about how typically each family had a tomb, and so when a family member died, they laid them on a slab at the entrance of the tomb with spices and other things to make them not stink. After a period of time, when the flesh was completely gone and only bones were left, the family members would open up the tomb, pick up the bones and put them in a ossuary in the back of the tomb to make room for the next family member to die. Thus, it was remarkable that the tomb where Jesus was laid after his death was a new tomb, and had never been used before! Landon was enthralled with this whole tour, and couldn’t wait to check out the inside of this tomb.
Up on the hill was a recreation of a watch tower. Most of the cities in Israel were built on mountains, and there was a watch tower on the highest point so that townspeople could take turns watching for enemies. She cited when Jesus walked on the water, it was during the 4th watch, which was very early morning according to typical watching schedules of the day.
On the path weaving up between the terraces, our guide stopped us and explained some context behind Jesus’ teaching about the seeds in different kinds of ground. The seed that was sown on the road- did not have a chance to take root at all because the donkeys were grind it under hoof and ruin it, or the birds would eat it. The seeds in stony ground, she explained, landed in soil kind of like the ground pictured above. There were lots of little rocks and the ground was pretty dry, so the seed did not have a chance to grow very deep roots and could not withstand the sun. The seed in good ground refers to the terraced beds with good, cultivated soil where the plants would have a chance to grow. Our guide also pointed out a real wine press that archaeologists found while preparing the site, carved in solid rock. The grapes were placed in a big basin, and then people used their bare feet (to prevent crushing the bitter seeds) to press the grapes and the juice flowed out through a channel into a catch basin. I did not get a good picture of it, but it was cool to see something that was really used 2,000+ years ago.
The most poignant part off the tour for me was the room with the olive oil press set-up. Our lovely guide explained the whole process behind olive oil making. Olive oil was used for food, light, medicinal and religious purposes- so pretty much for everything. Many olive presses have been found all around Israel, and it seems that each village had at least one that everyone would use. The first step in making olive oil was to crush the olives using a millstone attached to a beam, that was attached to a donkey. After crushing, the olives were gathered into baskets and stacked on top of one another. Just the weight of the baskets would extract some oil, which flowed into a catch basin. This “first press” was virgin olive oil, the oil used in the temple for religious purposes. Next, the baskets were placed under a wooden plate weighed down with rocks, and pressed again with much more force. This oil was used for cooking and medicine. The 3rd press, when even more weight was added to the baskets, is actually a rusty red color, and that oil was used for fuel. She explained that Jesus performed the Atonement in the Garden of Gethsemane, where Gethsemane means “olive press.” Just like the olives undergo three presses, she said that Christ left Peter, James and John three times to pray by himself and perform the Atonement. With each instance growing more intense until, just like the third press produced rusty red oil, Jesus sweat drops of blood from every pore. The feeling in the room was palpable. Even though we were of different Christian religions, we all realized the significance- just a little bit more- of what Jesus Christ went through when He suffered for all mankind. How grateful I am, as we go into this Easter season, that He accomplished the Atonement for me and for everyone else on earth!
Next up, we headed into the section of the village with recreated houses. We visited a carpenter’s shop where he showed us 1st century carpentry and building methods, and discussed how carpenter in the Bible could really be translated as “craftsman,” so Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father could have also worked with stone. Pictured at left, our carpenter friend was demonstrating the drill. He was very sweet to Landon, who was so curious about all of the tools.
We also visited Hannah, the weaver, who taught us about how wool was processed into yarn, and eventually into cloth. Many of her creations were for sale in the gift shop, so she actually get things done while she’s doing demonstrations! During our tour, she was setting up her loom for a new project, but she still showed us how they hand spun the wool into yarn, and dyed it using natural products like onions. Our guide explained that blue and purple were the most costly dyes, which is why they were reserved for royalty, The purple dye actually came from a tiny snail, which apparently had to be harvested alive or milked to release the color. One garment required tens of thousands of snails!
The last stop on our tour was a reconstruction of a 1st century synagogue. One thing I appreciated about our guide is that she had her Bible with her, and would pull it out to read specific stories and passages. She read about when Jesus came back to Nazareth, got up and read from the scripture scroll regarding the Messiah, and then told his home crowd that the scripture was fulfilled. They were so angry with him that they tried to throw him off a nearby hill (she pointed it out!) Fortunately for us, he was able to escape their clutches and go somewhere else to teach. Ironically, the Bible does not record him going back to teach in Nazareth. They did not want to hear it, so he focused on other cities. She pointed out that the roof was constructed using mud and sticks, and this was most likely the type of roof on PEter’s house when the paralyzed man’s friends broke a hole int he roof and lowered him down. It would have been difficult to break the roof, but completely doable with the materials being straws, sticks and mud.
Although not necessarily geared for kids, Nazareth Village was pretty family friendly. Our guide invited Landon to participate in a few activities, and was very patient with Owen when he just wanted to run after all of the animals. I would recommend this activity for kids 4 and up (or babies who can be in carriers). I would not bring my stroller- between the stairs to the ticket office and the multiple sets of stairs in the tour, it was better for our family to use the baby carrier and encourage Landon to walk!
Our visit to Nazareth Village was much more informational than I thought it was going to be. Our guide gave me so many little insights- mostly geographical and agricultural context- for many stories in the scriptures. I was worried it was going to be a commercialized tourist trap, but instead I found a place that tried hard to convey to its visitors Biblical understanding and an immersive experience inside of a 1st century farm/village. Landon LOVED the whole tour, chatted up the tour guide, and was thrilled to receive his own small clay oil lamp as a parting gift. Our guide told us that the lamp should remind us to be lights to the world. I would highly recommend this place to any Christian traveling in the Holy Land!