Church of the Annunciation

| October 17, 2012 | 0 Comments
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אוסאמה דאמוני  CC BY 2.5 View of Nazareth With Basilica

אוסאמה דאמוני  CC BY 2.5
View of Nazareth With Basilica

The Church of the Annunciation and the History of Nazareth

The Basilica of the Annunciation played a major role in the history of Nazareth. Today it is a thoroughly modern, 20th century house of worship, but the earliest remains of a church at the site of the Nazareth basilica date back to Byzantine times. That earlier church is believed to have existed until the late 9th century CE, based on a document known as the Commemoratorium.

Predating the Commemoratorium of 808 CE is the account of Lady Egeria, a Spanish pilgrim who toured Nazareth in 383 CE. She was shown “a big and very splendid cave in which Mary lived,” and mentions an altar at the site.

Annunciation Church History

Commemoratorium of 808 CE, however, talks about 12 monks who were affiliated with a church, as opposed to a mere altar, and the remains of that church are still in evidence. The next time we find this early church mentioned is in 1106-1108 CE, when Abbot Daniel writes of the leveling of the structure  – either before or during the Crusader period – and the subsequent rebuilding of the church by the Norman knight Tancred, Prince of Galilee, and the Franks.


The new Crusader edifice was grander than the earlier Byzantine structure atop which it was built. In fact, this was the largest Crusader church to date. An Anglo-Saxon pilgrim, Saewulf, documented his visit to the church in 1102 CE. He described the church as a “very noble monastery.”

The replacement church had three separate aisles and six bays. It is probable that there was a covered crossing of three apses contained under a single large dome. An edicule located in the northern aisle served as cover for Mary’s house on the lower level.

Beny Shlevich  CC BY 3.0 Entrance to Basilica

Beny Shlevich  CC BY 3.0
Entrance to Basilica

Clearly, a great deal of fiscal and physical effort was put forth toward the décor of the Crusader structure. French craftsmen were enlisted to carve scenes from the Apostles’ lives upon the capitals of the church columns. Monastery buildings were situated to the south of the church, while a bishop’s palace was found to the northern end of the church.

The Crusader church sustained earthquake damage in 1170 CE. No sooner had repairs begun than the Crusaders were defeated at the Battle of the Horns of Hattin in 1187. The Christian townspeople of Nazareth sought refuge in the church during the battle, to no avail. All were slaughtered. As a result of this tragedy, the church was profaned, though it remained standing.

Saladin allowed a small number of clergy to return to the site in 1192 CE. In addition, he allowed for Christian pilgrimage to the shrine contained there. Saint Louis was known to have made a pilgrimage to the site in 1251 CE.

But in 1263 CE, the Mamluk sultan Baybars raided the city and leveled the church down to the bedrock. Since Muslims, too, venerated the grotto, Christian pilgrims were still permitted to visit the site, but an edict was issued in 1283 CE forbidding the rebuilding of the church. Pilgrimage came to an end as Acre (Acco) fell in 1291, and the Crusaders were expelled forever from the Holy Land.

Otter  CC BY-SA 3.0 Grotto From Above

Otter  CC BY-SA 3.0
Grotto From Above

Christian Pilgrims

In the 14th century, Muslim guards at the grotto began to allow Christian pilgrims to visit the site for a fee.  Around this time, Franciscans moved into the town, establishing a monastery there. They were able to acquire the grotto during the middle of the 16th century. The bishop’s palace was restored and repairs to the church began in 1620 CE after permission was granted by the Druze emir Fakhr-a-Din. Several times during the 1600s the Franciscans were expelled, each time returning. At last, in 1730, the Franciscans completed the building of the new church, after receiving a “firman,” or decree, from the Ottoman sultan, which allowed for the church to be built.

The rebuilt church was subsequently enlarged in 1871 but then demolished in 1955 to make way for the construction of the current structure, the Church of the Annunciation, which serves 7,000 local Catholic parishioners.

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Category: Christianity

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