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Monday, November 14, 2011

Sabras, spices, a Roman bathhouse, and Saraida's great great grandfather's house

I decided to go to Nazareth on the basis of two things, a description of its winding old streets and market, and, a brochure I saw at the Abraham Hostel, with a photo of the Fauzi Azar Inn. I am sure that neither of those is the same reason that brings most visitors to Nazareth, the town of Jesus’s childhood.

The Inn, it turns out, is owned by the same man who is one of the owners of the Abraham. The places, though, are rather different. The Abraham is new, modern, and bustling, with I believe close to 100 beds. The Fauzi Azar is located in an old Arab home from the late 18th century. The story of how it became an inn is intriguing.

About a decade ago, a young Israeli Jew, Maoz Inon, and his then girlfriend, now wife, were backpacking around the world. They decided that when they returned to Israel they would like to open a hostel. Once back, Maoz looked around the country for a location, and focused on Nazareth. He discovered a decaying, unoccupied house, found the owners, and made a proposal. What they agreed on was that the family would rent the house to Maoz, who would fix it up and operate it. They began with three rooms, eventually renovating enough of the building to open 14 rooms. It is a friendly and atmospheric place.

Saraida Nasser, the great great granddaughter of the original owner, is the manager. Her grandfather, Fauzi Azar, sadly died trying to put out a fire and save the house. It had been vacant since her grandmother's death in the 1980's.

Unfortunately, Saraida was not there during the two days that I was. But it was with good cause. She was attending a meeting in London for folks concerned with ecological tourism that supports the community. They present awards, and as it turns out, Fauzi Azar won first prize! So while I was there, we had a small celebration, wine all around. They are very hospitable in general, serve a massive breakfast complete with eggs, fruit, veggies, and the best dates I’ve ever had, always have tea available, and someone seems to bake a cake or two every day.

They also have volunteers, in addition to the regular staff, through GoEco, same organization I am volunteering with. There seemed to be a lot of volunteers there, including two, a couple perhaps in their seventies, from England and Scotland, who had just arrived, the same day I had. They were planning to be there for several months, past Christmas. I gathered that the woman, at least, had particularly wanted to be in Nazareth for Christmas.

Every morning at 9:15 the inn offers a free, two and a half hour tour of the city. They are led by an American woman, Linda, who has been volunteering there for over two years. Linda is warm, and wacky. I confess I was cringing at times as she barreled into a shop, loudly greeting everyone, in English, with an occasional word in Arabic. She seemed to know most everyone in town, not surprising as she does this tour six days a week. At one point, she admonished a small group of boys who were playing with guns in the street. Linda is not afraid to speak her mind. I certainly didn’t disagree with the sentiment, just the manner, a bit overbearing.

Linda took us into one interesting spot after another. One street was all carpenter shops, significant, of course, this being the childhood home of Jesus. Many places she seemed to have discovered and added to the tour on her own. We went into one amazing spice shop, although that description does not do it justice. There were spices, also grains, candies, herbs, of all kinds, in an immense multi- room shop that clearly had been there for a long time. The walls were decorated with all kinds of farming, sifting, and grinding implements, old jars, etc. I recognized some from the Memories exhibit back at the gallery. Linda said she used to do a 5 shekel ($1.35) tasting tour, where people could sample whatever they wanted, but it began to take too long. She encouraged us to go back on our own, which I did the following day.

At one point we stopped into a cafĂ©, where we were offered a choice of pomegranate lemonade or a hot spiced drink with cardomon. While we were sipping, Linda pointed out a stone staircase along a wall. It stopped about halfway down to the floor level, and was decorated with clay pots as well as a photo of the owner deejaying, which was his second job. Linda described that someone had recognized the staircase as Roman, and was incredulous that the owner had half torn it down. The owner responded that he hadn’t realized, thought it was ugly, and only left the half of it to decorate with the pots, etc.

Along the tour, we came across a vender with a cart and an interesting machine that scrolled a raw potato into a long spiral, which he then put on a stick, fried, and served with ketchup. Three of us shared one, courtesy of the man. The others in the group didn’t seem interested. Linda said she was going to add him to the tour. I asked him how many of the machines there were in the country. He said 17, and his was the first one in Nazareth.

We went into remains of old caves, places that are believed to have old tunnels that haven’t been explored, a mosque (she’d brought scarves for us to cover our heads) and more. One place she mentioned, but that we didn’t visit, was some well preserved ruins of a Roman bathhouse. The reason we didn’t go there is because they charge to visit, and this was a free tour. (not sure how the tasting thing had fit into that.) But she encouraged us to go later, which I did, with the British couple.

The story was pretty amazing. The couple that owned the store above, and, apparently, the ruins as well, had been doing some renovating when the incredibly well preserved ruins were discovered. The government, then told the couple that they had to excavate and had to pay for the excavations. So now, under their shop, are the ruins. For 100 shekels,($27) negotiated by Linda, the three of us got the tour.

The tour begins in the shop itself, where ancient clay pipes can be seen. A hole has been cut out of the floor, and replaced with plexiglass, through which one can see down into the bathhouse itself. (without having to go on the tour.) Next, we were brought into a lower room, where there were tables and a kind of bar. The tables were covered with marble slabs, which I later realized were sections of old flooring from the baths. There we were served tea and pastries. We were escorted to a lower level still. There were the most impressive of the incredibly preserved ruins, the caldarium (hot room) which extended up into what is now the shop, ancient arches, sections of marble flooring, and the furnace, with charred pieces of wood still intact. Aside from being a significant archeological find, located in and under what is now a gift shop, the find indicates that the concept of Nazareth being a small town in the time of Jesus may be entirely inaccurate. A small town would hardly merit a large bath complex. Additonally, the excavated ruins are close to Mary’s well, a significant Christian site, where the Annunciation is said to have taken place. It appears that the well fed the baths. Some speculate that Mary, and perhaps Jesus, may have bathed there.

The name of the shop is Cactus. They carry a number of fine items, including purses repurposed from sections of Palestinian embroidered clothing. I asked Elias Shama, co-owner with his wife, why they’d named the shop that. He explained that he is from a section of Nazareth called Sabra, which means prickly pear cactus, for the large number of the plants that grow there. Sabra, the same word in Arabic in Hebrew, is also the word for an Israeli born in Israel, referring to someone prickly on the outside, sweet inside. I wonder if Elias knew that. I believe that he is a Christian Arab. His wife, Martina, is originally from Belgium.

One of the reasons I enjoyed this visit, aside from talking to Martina at length after the tour ( Elias, although the one who conducted the tour, is more taciturn) is because it is so unexpected. The location, the fact that it seems to be a relatively unknown treasure, the contrast between the ancient ruins and the quality modern crafts, the tour coupled with the tea and sweets, all of it combined to make for an interesting hour or so. And, of course, I did buy an embroidered purse. My way of supporting Martina and Elias to recoup some of the fortune they have spent on the excavations.

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