The words of Nathanel of Cana, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ (John 1:47) characterise the town’s insignificance in its early years around the time of Jesus. It’s thought that Nazareth was home to a Christian community until the 3rd century, when interest in the town dwindled. It was rekindled late in the 6th century, due to reports that the town had been the site of a number of miracles, and that a local synagogue had kept the book in which Jesus learnt to write, and the bench he sat on. It can’t have done Nazareth’s reputation any harm, either, that it was rumoured to have the region’s most beautiful women, a result, it was said, of them all being related to the Holy Virgin Mary. Despite being predominantly Jewish at the time, the town experienced a boom in church construction.
The Crusaders, who’d made Nazareth their Galilean capital, dedicated a church to the Annunciation, and another to the Angel Gabriel. After the Christian knights’ defeat at the Horns of Hittin in 1187, pilgrims were still able to visit Nazareth owing to a series of truces, but by the 13th century the danger from Muslim attack was too great.
In the 17th century the Franciscans were able to buy back the ruins of the Church of the Annunciation and a Christian presence was re-established, albeit under difficult and often hostile conditions. In 1730 they built a new church, which was demolished in 1955 to be replaced by the modern basilica that you see today.
During the British Mandate, Nazareth was the administration’s headquarters in the Galilee. When the British pulled out in 1948, Israeli forces seized the town. Modern-day Nazareth (known to Arabs as An-Nasra) has a population that’s part Christian, part Muslim. Since the 1950s it has also grown to include Jewish Nasrat Illit, or Upper Nazareth, a new industrial town.