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Israel and Palestine – In Jerusalem

Israel and Palestine – Outside Jerusalem




Holy Family in Egypt


The Gospel account of the Holy Family seeking refuge in Egypt is unsupported by archaeological evidence, but to Coptic Christians it is affirmed by their oral tradition, a fifth-century patriarch’s vision, the locations of early desert monasteries — and the claimed confirmation of modern-day apparitions.

Only Matthew’s Gospel records that Joseph, Mary and Jesus fled to Egypt to escape King Herod’s massacre of young children. In a few short paragraphs, Joseph is warned in dreams to leave Bethlehem and later, when Herod dies, to return to Israel (2:13-23).

Holy Family arriving in Egypt, by Edwin Longsden Long (Wikimedia)

Holy Family arriving in Egypt, by Edwin Longsden Long (Wikimedia)

Egypt was a logical refuge. It was part of the Roman empire, but outside Herod’s domain, and some cities had significant Jewish communities. The well-trodden Via Maris (“way of the sea”) through Gaza and the northern Sinai coast made travel easy and relatively safe.

Biblical scholars W. F. Albright and C. S. Mann affirm that “there is no reason to doubt the historicity of the story of the family’s flight into Egypt. The Old Testament abounds in references to individuals and families taking refuge in Egypt, in flight either from persecution or revenge, or in the face of economic pressure.”

Major source inspired by vision

Outside of the New Testament, in the second century the anti-Christian Greek philosopher Celsus accused Jesus of “having worked for hire in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having experimented there with some magical powers, in which the Egyptians take great pride”.

Map of Holy Family's itinerary signed by Coptic Pope Shenouda III (Orthodox Wiki)

Map of Holy Family’s itinerary signed by Coptic Pope Shenouda III (Orthodox Wiki)

In the third century the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt was noted by the theologian Hippolytus of Rome, who even gave a time frame of three and a half years.

A major source for the Coptic Orthodox Church is a homily attributed to the fifth-century Coptic Pope Theophilus, 23rd Patriarch of Alexandria, and said to be inspired by a vision of the Virgin Mary. He described the Holy Family fleeing from the Milk Grotto in Bethlehem and detailed numerous miracles performed by Jesus in the towns of Lower and Upper Egypt.

Some accounts say that Salome, possibly a relative of Mary (and often mistakenly referred to as her midwife) accompanied the family.

Miracles or fantasies?

The Arabic Infancy Gospel, from the fifth or sixth centuries, narrates supposed incidents from the family’s travels in the land of the pharaohs — including several miracles, often fantastical, wrought by the child Jesus.

In this account, trees bowed before the infant, animals paid homage to him, pagan idols tumbled at his approach, spiders weaved a thick web to conceal Mary and Jesus in a tree, and there was even a chance encounter with the two criminals who would be crucified alongside Jesus.

List of locations keeps growing

How long the family was in Egypt, where they went or what they did there, is not reported in Matthew’s Gospel. But by the eighth century, building on local traditions, Bishop Zacharias of Sakha had already established a Holy Family path in the Nile Delta.

In the 12th century a scribe called John ibn Said al-Kulzumi drew up a geographical list of nine sites visited by the holy refugees. A century later, when the Coptic priest Abu l-Makarim referred to 14 locations, the outline of an itinerary had clearly been established.

The presence of early monasteries and churches was seen as confirming local traditions, which were also celebrated in Coptic liturgies and art.

Government mosaic commemorating Holy Family's visit (State Information Service of Egypt)

Government mosaic commemorating Holy Family’s visit (State Information Service of Egypt)

A patriarchal commission of hierarchs and scholars has published an “official” map of the route of the Holy Family, but the popular list of holy locations keeps growing, sometimes stirring rivalry between adjacent sites.

With an eye on boosting “spiritual tourism”, the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities for Egypt (a predominantly Sunni Muslim state) has launched the Holy Family Trail — a 3220-kilometre route for four-wheel drive adventurers.

Promoters of the trail display unexpected precision: “The Holy Family arrived in Egypt on the 24th day of the Coptic month of Pshnece, or on 2 June . . . . They stayed in Egypt for three years and 11 months,” according to former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs Zahi Hawass.

Nile was crossed and re-crossed

The popular list of locations suggests the Holy Family — travelling by foot, donkey or boat, and moving often — crossed and re-crossed the forks of the Nile Delta, then travelled south (upstream) as far as Gebel Qussqam, before returning by boat down the Nile to the Cairo area and retracing their steps overland to Israel.

Some of the best-attested sites, with their associated Coptic traditions, include:

Bubastis: After arriving through the customary entry point of El-Farama — following in the footsteps of Abraham and Jacob — the Holy Family came to the city of Bubastis in the eastern Nile delta, a centre of worship for the cat goddess Bastet.

Ruins of Bubastis (Einsamer Schütze / Wikimedia)

Ruins of Bubastis (Einsamer Schütze / Wikimedia)

Coptic tradition says the arrival of the infant Jesus caused a temple’s foundations to shake and all the idols to fall on their faces — echoing Isaiah’s prophecy that “the idols of Egypt will tremble at his presence” (19:1). A field of fallen idols remained in modern times in the ruins of Bubastis, now within the modern city of Zagazig.

Mostorod: In this city, now part of greater Cairo, Mary needed to bathe her son and wash his dusty clothes. Jesus extended his hand to bless the place and a spring of water arose where a well beside the Virgin Mary Church remains.

Granite bowl at Samunnud believed to have been used by Mary (© Blessedegypt.com)

Granite bowl at Samunnud believed to have been used by Mary (© Blessedegypt.com)

Belbeis: As they entered the town, the Holy Family met the funeral procession of a widow’s son. Foreshadowing the miracle at Nain in Luke 7:11-17, the infant Jesus raised the dead man to life.

Samannud: Backtracking north-west, the family crossed the Nile at Samannud. Here Mary baked bread and the Coptic community displays a large granite bowl she is said to have used.

Sakha: In this town near the centre of the Nile Delta, tradition says Jesus left a footprint on a rock. Rediscovered in 1984, the rock was authenticated by Coptic Pope Shenouda III and several miracles have been attributed to it.

Rock at Sakha on which Jesus is believed to have left a footprint (© Blessedegypt.com)

Rock at Sakha on which Jesus is believed to have left a footprint (© Blessedegypt.com)

Wadi El Natrun: Travelling through this long valley in the Western Desert, 24 metres below sea level, the family were approached by two lions. With a wave of his hand, Jesus told them to leave and, bowing their heads, they obeyed. The holy infant also caused a sweet-water well to open up among lakes saturated with natron salt. From the third century the Wadi El Natrun desert attracted thousands of hermits, and it remains the most important centre of Coptic monasticism.

El Matareya: Leaving the desert behind, the Holy Family crossed to the eastern bank of the Nile and headed for the ancient city of Heliopolis, now El Matareya — a name thought to have come from the Latin word “Mater” in recognition of Mary’s presence. On the way they would have passed the pyramids of Giza, built 2500 years earlier.

Heliopolis as envisaged by early 20th-century German landscape painter Carl Wuttke (Wikimedia)

Heliopolis as envisaged by early 20th-century German landscape painter Carl Wuttke (Wikimedia)

At Heliopolis they lived in the Ain Shams neighbourhood, where there was a large Jewish community. According to one tradition, two brigands pursued the family but a fig tree opened its trunk to conceal them.

Zeitoun: Coptic tradition says Mary was so exhausted from fleeing Herod’s soldiers that she had to stop at Zeitoun, in Old Cairo, for several hours to rest. Mary is also believed to have promised a farmer at nearby Klot Bey that her son would bless his farm so that melons sown on one day could be harvested the next day.


Photograph of an apparition taken on April 9, 1968, by architectural engineer Fawzi Mansour at St Mary’s Church, Zeitoun

Zeitoun attracted international attention when apparitions of Mary were seen on the roof of the Church of the Holy Virgin during a period of about three years from April 2, 1968.

The visions were pronounced authentic by the Coptic Orthodox Church and a statement from the Muslim government declared: “Official investigations have been carried out with the result that it has been considered an undeniable fact that the Blessed Virgin Mary has been appearing on Zeitoun Church in a clear and bright luminous body seen by all present in front of the church, whether Christians or Muslims.”

Babylon Fortress: Joseph is believed to have worked at this Roman fortress in Old Cairo to support his family, who lived in a cave that is now the crypt of the 11th-century Church of St Sergius and St Bacchus (known locally as the Abu Serga Church). The cave, within the walls of the fortress, floods when the level of the Nile are high. Tradition marks the area as the place where the baby Moses was discovered by the pharaoh’s daughter (Exodus 2:3-5). The church also has a well believed to have been used by the Holy Family.

Stone steps in Church of the Virgin, Maadi, believed to have been used by the Holy Family to descend to the Nile (John Sanidopoulos)

Stone steps in Church of the Virgin, Maadi, believed to have been used by the Holy Family to descend to the Nile (John Sanidopoulos)

Maadi: Moving south, the Holy Family reached Maadi, now a leafy suburb of Cairo but then home to a large Jewish community, and boarded a papyrus felucca sailboat to take them up the Nile towards southern Egypt. The stone steps they used to reach the river are still accessible to pilgrims through the Virgin Mary Church.

Ishnin al-Nasara: On reaching this village, the infant Jesus felt thirsty. There was a well but the water level was too low. His mother took his finger and held it over the well, which then rose to the top. (A rival tradition locates this event at nearby Al-Bahnasa.)

Deir Al-Garnous: Here, where the family rested for four days, Jesus is said to have left a well with water that not only cured every disease but foretold the height of the Nile’s annual inundation.

Gabal Al-Teir: The Holy Family crossed the Nile to use a cave at Gabal Al-Teir, a nesting place for thousands of birds. As their boat passed a cliff, a rock threatened to fall on them but Jesus held it back, leaving his handprint on the rock. (When Almeric, King of Jerusalem, invaded Upper Egypt in the 12th century he is reported to have had the rock chiselled out and taken with him.)

Crypt in Abu Serga Church (© Günther Simmermacher)

Crypt in Abu Serga Church, Cairo, where the Holy Family is believed to have lived (© Günther Simmermacher)

El Ashmunein: On arrival, according to the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, the family did not know anyone from whom they could seek hospitality, so they went into a temple with 355 idols. All the idols prostrated themselves on the ground. When the governor saw what had happened, he said: “Unless this were the God of our gods, our gods would not have fallen on their faces before him; nor would they be lying prostrate in his presence . . . .” and “all the people of that same city believed in the Lord God through Jesus Christ”. The fifth-century historian Sozomenos said there was a tree in the town that bowed to the ground to worship Jesus.

Deir Abū Hinnis: Just outside this Christian village is Kim Maria (“hill of Mary”) where Mary is believed to have rested. Sixth-century wall paintings by monks in a cave church nearby include perhaps the earliest illustrations of the flight into Egypt.

ElQusiya: This town (formerly called Cusae or Qesy) has the reputation of not only being visited by the Holy Family but also of being cursed by the infant Jesus. According to Theophilus, this happened after idols fell down when the family arrived, the pagan priests told the family to leave, and townspeople chased them away with rods and axes.

Gebel (Mount) Qussqam: Coptic tradition says the Holy Family’s longest stay in one place was in a cave at Mount Qussqam, 1942 kilometres south of Cairo — and precisely dates its duration on the Coptic calendar from the 7th of Barmoudah to the 6th of Babah, a period of 185 days. It was here that an angel revealed to Joseph that Herod was dead and it was safe to return to Israel, fulfilling Hosea’s prophecy “Out of Egypt I called my Son” (11:1). And it was here that Theophilus received his vision of the family’s travels. Around the cave spreads the fortress-like Monastery of the Holy Virgin of Al-Muharraq.

Monastery of the Virgin in Durunka (Landious Travel)

Monastery of the Virgin in Durunka (Landious Travel)

Durunka: A rival view maintains that the Holy Family travelled 50 kilometres further south to get on a sailboat for their return down the Nile. Here the massive Virgin Mary Monastery of Durunka stands 100 metres high on a mountain side above the Nile Valley. Though no ancient text suggests Durunka as a Holy Family site, Coptic studies expert Otto Meinardus explains that the local bishop began to promote it as such from the 1950s after the Al-Muharraq monastery was riven by internal disputes. Business interests backed the development of the site and it has became a major venue attracting a million pilgrims and tourists a year.

In Scripture:

Joseph is warned to flee to Egypt: Matthew 2:13-15

Joseph is told to return to Israel: Matthew 2:19-23



Albright, W. F., and Mann, C. S.: Matthew (The Anchor Bible Commentaries Series, 1971)
Curtin, D. P.: Vision of Theophilus: The Flight of the Holy Family into Egypt (Dalcassian Publishing Company, 2023)
Davies, Stevan: The Infancy Gospels of Jesus (Skylight Paths, 2009)
Gabra, Gawdat (ed.): Be Thou There: The Holy Family’s Journey in Egypt  (American University in Cairo Press, 2001)
Hawass, Zahi: “The Holy Family in Egypt” (Al-Ahram Weekly, January 3, 2023)
Meinardus, Otto F. A.: The Holy Family in Egypt (American University in Cairo Press, 1987)
Perry, Paul: Jesus in Egypt (Ballantine Books, 2003)


External links:

Apocrypha: First Infancy Gospel of Jesus (Interfaith Online)
Flight into Egypt (Wikipedia)
Holy Family Trail: A new path through Egypt’s holiest sites (BBC)
Holy Family Trail Unites Coptic Sites Where Jesus Once Traveled (Religion Unplugged)
Milk Grotto (Seetheholyland)
Nain (Seetheholyland)
The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (The Gnostic Society Library)
The Holy family in its Journey to Egypt (Egypt State Information Service)
The Journey of the Holy Family (Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities of Egypt)
The Journey of the Holy Family to Egypt (Egyptian Tourist Authority)
The Sources of Egypt’s Traditions Related to The Flight of the Holy Family (TourEgypt)





Sepphoris with Nazareth on hill in distance (Steve Peterson)

Sepphoris, a ruined city 6.5 kilometres northwest of Nazareth, was the capital of Galilee during the time of Jesus. Though it is not mentioned in the New Testament, it is of interest to Christian pilgrims for two main reasons:

•  The rebuilding of the city by Galilee’s ruler, Herod Antipas, may have attracted the building tradesman Joseph and his wife Mary to settle in Nazareth when they returned with Jesus from Egypt.

This major building site, 50 minutes’ walk from Nazareth, would have offered Joseph many years of employment. It may also be where Jesus gained insights into the building trade — such as the need to build with foundations on rock rather than on sand (Luke 6:48-49).

•  According to tradition, the original home of Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anne (or Anna), was at Sepphoris. During the 12th century the Crusaders built a huge Church of St Anna, possibly on the site of their home.

Sepphoris rose to prominence during the century before Christ because it overlooked two major highways. A mainly Jewish city, it was given its Hebrew name, Zippori, because it sits on a hilltop like a bird (zippor).

According to the historian Josephus, Herod Antipas made it “the ornament of Galilee”, a term also implying the military connotation of an impregnable city.


Pilgrims on Decumanus street at Sepphoris (Seetheholyland.net)

After the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, Sepphoris became a centre of Jewish learning and seat of the Sanhedrin supreme court. The Mishnah, the first authoritative collection of Jewish oral law, was compiled here.

A Christian community was present by the 4th century. By the 6th century it was sufficiently large to have its own bishop.

It was from Sepphoris that the Crusaders rode out in 1187 for their defeat by the Muslim sultan Saladin at the Horns of Hattin, overlooking the Sea of Galilee — a defeat that brought about the end of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.


Many changes of name

Sepphoris has worn many names during its history.

It was Zippori (or Tzippori) when Herod the Great captured it during a snowstorm in 37 BC. After Herod’s death in 4 BC the Roman army put down a rebellion of Jewish rebels by destroying the city and selling many of its people into slavery.

When Herod’s son Herod Antipas rebuilt the city, he renamed it Autocratoris.

Because the inhabitants chose not to join the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in AD 66-73, the city was spared the destruction suffered by other Jewish centres, including Jerusalem. Evidence of the city’s pacifist stance comes from coins inscribed “City of Peace” minted there during the revolt.

Before the Second Jewish Revolt in 132-135, the Romans changed the name to Diocaesarea. A massive earthquake in 363 devastated the city and it was only partly rebuilt.

The Muslim conquest in the 7th century saw another name change, to Saffuriya. Except for a period as La Sephorie under the Crusaders, this name remained for what became an Arab village until the population of about 4000 fled attacks by Israeli forces during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War.


Three apses of church still stand

Excavations at Sepphoris have uncovered streets, houses, public buildings, bathhouses, a market, two churches, a synagogue, a Roman theatre, aqueducts, a huge elongated water reservoir (260 metres long) and more than 40 mosaic floors.


Crusader fortress overlooking Sepphoris (© Ori~ / Wikimedia)

A Crusader fortress, built on the remains of an earlier structure, dominates the upper part of the site and provides a panoramic view from its roof. It now houses a museum.

To the west of the summit, on the northwestern perimeter of Sepphoris National Park, are the remains of the Crusader Church of St Anna. Inside a walled enclosure, the three apses are still standing, now incorporated into the western wall of a modern Monastery of the Sisters of St Anne (where the key to the enclosure is available).

Northeast of the fortress is the Roman theatre, its tiers of 4500 seats carved into the northern slope of the hill.


Remains of Church of St Anna at Sepphoris (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

Biblical scholars have conjured with the possibility that Jesus might have known this theatre and even taken from it the word “hypocrite” — Greek for one who is play-acting — which he frequently used (in Matthew 6, for example). But archaeologists are uncertain whether the theatre was in use when Jesus lived in Nazareth.

On the northern edge of the park are remains of a 6th-century synagogue with a mosaic floor depicting biblical scenes, Temple rituals and a zodiac wheel.


Mosaic portrait dubbed “Mona Lisa”

Just south of the Roman theatre stood a palatial mansion built in the 3rd century AD. Known as the Dionysus House, it was destroyed by the earthquake in 363, but the remarkable mosaic carpet in its stately dining room survived well-preserved under the debris.

The 15 centre panels depict scenes from the life of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry, bordered by medallions of acanthus leaves with hunting scenes.


“Mona Lisa of the Galilee” in Roman mansion at Sepphoris (Seetheholyland.net)

Each scene is labelled with a Greek word — a panel displaying a completely inebriated Hercules is labelled MEQH, meaning drunkenness.

But the most remarkable feature of the mosaic floor is an elegant portrait of an unknown woman at the centre of one end. The engaging tilt of her head and enigmatic expression have earned her the nickname “Mona Lisa of the Galilee”.

The unknown artist of this portrait used tiny stones, in a wide range of natural colours, and with an exquisite attention to detail and shading.


Elegant mosaics illustrate life on River Nile

An impressive network of well-planned streets has been exposed in the lower city. Two major intersecting streets, the north-south Cardo and the east-west Decumanus, had covered footpaths and shops on both sides.

East of the Cardo, a large building called the Nile House had some 20 rooms decorated with multi-coloured mosaic floors. The most elegant depict scenes associated with the River Nile in Egypt.


Nilometer and river scenes in Sepphoris mosaic (Seetheholyland.net)

In the most impressive mosaic, the river flows through the picture and wildlife such as fish and birds are seen along its banks. On the left a reclining female figure with a basket of harvest fruits personifies Egypt; on the right a male figure represents the Nile.

In the centre a man standing on a woman’s back records 17 cubits (about 8 metres) on a nilometer — a pillar with a scale to measure the height of the Nile during its seasonal flood.

The lower portion shows hunting scenes: A fierce lion pouncing on the back of a bull, a panther leaping on a gazelle, and a boar being attacked by a bear.

Other mosaics in the building include a depiction of Amazon warriors hunting from horseback.


Administered by: Israel National Parks Authority

Tel.: 04-656-8272

Open: 8am-5pm (4pm Oct-Mar) with last entry one hour earlier; closes at 3pm on Fridays and eves of Jewish holidays.




Bourbon, Fabio, and Lavagno, Enrico: The Holy Land Archaeological Guide to Israel, Sinai and Jordan (White Star, 2009)
Chancey, Mark, and Meyers, Eric M.: “Spotlight on Sepphoris: How Jewish was Sepphoris in Jesus’ Time?”, Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 2000
Charlesworth, James H.: The Millennium Guide for Pilgrims to the Holy Land (BIBAL Press, 2000)
Charlesworth, James H.: Jesus and Archaeology (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Kochav, Sarah: Israel: A Journey Through the Art and History of the Holy Land (Steimatzky, 2008)
Losch, Richard R.: The Uttermost Part of the Earth: A guide to places in the Bible (Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Shahin, Mariam, and Azar, George: Palestine: A guide (Chastleton Travel, 2005)
Walker, Peter: In the Steps of Jesus (Zondervan, 2006)
Weiss, Ze’ev. “The Sepphoris Synagogue Mosaic”, Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2000
Weiss, Ze’ev, and Tsuk, Tsvika: Zippori National Park (Israel Nature and Parks Authority leaflet)

External links

Sepphoris (BibleWalks)
Sepphoris (BiblePlaces)
Sepphoris (The Bible and Interpretation)
The USF Excavations at Sepphoris (CenturyOne Foundation)
Zippori — “The Ornament of All Galilee” (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)



Church of the Annunciation

Church of St Joseph

Mary’s Well and Church of St Gabriel

First-century houses

Nazareth Village

Church of the Synagogue

Church of the Nutrition

Mount Precipice

Franciscan Museum

Church of Jesus the Adolescent


Nazareth in Galilee is celebrated by Christians as the town where the Virgin Mary, aged around 14 years, agreed to become pregnant with the Son of God.


Modern Nazareth (© Israel Ministry of Tourism)

It also became the home town of Jesus, Mary and her husband Joseph after the Holy Family returned from fleeing to Egypt to escape Herod the Great’s soldiers.

Nazareth is not mentioned in the Old Testament and has the reputation of being an insignificant backwater — epitomised by Nathanael’s retort when told that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

But being hidden from the public eye, nestled in a hollow among the hills of Galilee, it provided an ideal setting for the years of preparation Jesus needed as he “increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favour” (Luke 2:52).

It was also a place from which a young boy could watch the world go by: South of the village, a vantage point overlooked the Plain of Jezreel, where traders and travellers passed along a great highway between Babylon and Cairo.


Church of the Annunciation


Grotto of the Annunciation (Seetheholyland.net)

Modern-day Nazareth is dominated by the towering cupola of the Church of the Annunciation. It is an Arab city, mainly Muslim, with an adjoining Jewish upper city of Nof HaGalil (formerly Nazareth Ilit), but a profusion of churches, monasteries and other religious institutions make it a major centre of Christian pilgrimage.

The massive two-storey Church of the Annunciation, in strikingly modern architectural style and colourfully decorated, is the largest Christian church in the Middle East.

Its cupola, surmounted by a lantern symbolising the Light of the World, stands directly over a cave in the crypt that is traditionally held to be the home of the Virgin Mary. Here, it is believed, the archangel Gabriel told Mary she would become the mother of the Son of God.

The grotto is flanked by remnants of earlier churches on the site. Its entrance is sometimes closed by a protective grille.

The entrance to the lower church is from the west, where above the triple doorway the façade of cream limestone carries a quotation in Latin: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

A spiral stairway at the main entrance leads to the upper church. This is the parish church for the Catholic community of Nazareth (which is why the inscriptions on the ceramic Stations of the Cross are in Arabic). The main entrance for the upper church is on the northern side.

Over a door on the southern side is a statue of Mary aged 14, the age she is believed to have been at the time of the Annunciation, welcoming all who come to visit her home.


Church of St Joseph

Next to the Church of the Annunciation, on the northern side, is the Church of St Joseph (also known as the Church of the Nutrition and Joseph’s Workshop).

This is a solid and unpretentious building, very much in the shadow of the imposing Annunciation basilica — just as St Joseph himself lived in the shadow of Jesus and Mary.

Stairs lead down to a crypt, where a 2-metre square basin cut into the rock, its floor decorated in a black-and-white mosaic, is believed to be a pre-Constantinian baptismal site.

Further steps and a narrow passage lead to an underground chamber. A pious tradition from the 17th century, with no foundation, holds that this chamber was Joseph’s carpentry workshop.

Even if the site was the home of the Holy Family, it is unlikely to have had a carpentry workshop in the modern sense. The Gospels use the Greek word tekton, meaning builder or artisan, to describe Joseph. He most likely worked with stone more than with wood, since stone was the common building material.

The apse of the church has three noteworthy paintings: The Holy Family, The Dream of Joseph, and The Death of Joseph in the Arms of Jesus and Mary.


Mary’s Well


Mary’s Well, Nazareth (Seetheholyland.net)

Some 400 metres north of the Church of the Annunciation, just off the main street, is Mary’s Well. Fed by the main freshwater spring in the little village, it would have been visited daily by Mary, often accompanied by her young son.

According to the Greek Orthodox, whose Church of St Gabriel is adjacent, this is the true site of the Annunciation. But both traditions can be accommodated by an account in the early Protoevangelium of James.

This apocryphal document says the archangel Gabriel first approached Mary as she went to draw water at the well. Frightened by the stranger’s approach, the young girl ran back to her home. There the archangel appeared again and this time delivered his message.

The present water-trough structure is a reconstruction carried out in 2000. Water is piped from the spring, about 200 metres to the north.

Water from the spring can be seen in St Gabriel’s Church, in a well-like structure in the crypt. The stonework dates from the time of the Crusaders, who also built a church on this site. St Gabriel’s, surrounded by a high wall, contains many interesting icons and frescoes.


First-century houses

In December 2009 the Israel Antiquities Authority announced the discovery of a house from the time of Christ in the centre of Nazareth. It said this was “the very first” residential building found from the old Jewish village.

Small and modest, the house consisted of two rooms and a courtyard with a cistern to collect rainwater.

The remains of the house were found during an excavation prior to construction of the now-closed Mary of Nazareth International Center, next to the Church of the Annunciation. The remains were conserved and displayed in that building.

In 2015 the remains of a first-century domestic building within the Sisters of Nazareth Convent, across the street from the Church of the Annunciation, was suggested as the house where Byzantine church builders believed Jesus spent his childhood. Byzantine and Crusader churches had been built on the site.

This house has been given the name of the Church of the Nutrition, meaning “the church of the upbringing of Christ”.


Additional sites in Nazareth

Nazareth has several other sites of interest to pilgrims:

Nazareth Village: Life in the time of Jesus has been authentically recreated on the site of a 1st-century working terrace farm, just 500 metres south-west of the Church of the Annunciation.

Visitors can see and hear the animals, smell and taste the food, see donkeys pull a plough and hear in-character villagers talk about daily life and their work at the wine and olive presses, on the threshing floor and in the weaving room.

Besides watchtowers, a spring-fed irrigation system and an ancient quarry, the village has an accurate replica of a 1st-century synagogue.

Synagogue Church: The dome and bell towers of this Melkite Greek Catholic church rise over the old market of Nazareth, up a street almost due east of St Joseph’s Church.


Synagogue Church, Nazareth (Seetheholyland.net)

The church incorporates a Crusader building believed to be on the site of the synagogue in which Jesus preached. This simple stone room with a plain altar evokes the Gospel account (Luke 4:16-30) in which Jesus read the Messianic passage in Isaiah 61 (“The spirit of the Lord is upon me”) and proclaimed that he was the fulfilment of this promise.

The initial response was favourable, but when Jesus indicated that the proclamation of the Good News was to include the gentiles, his hearers were enraged and tried to throw up off a high cliff.

Church of the Nutrition: Only around 100 metres from the Church of the Annunciation and 200 metres from the Church of St Joseph is a lesser-known site that may include the remains of Jesus’ childhood home.

Archaeological research in 2006-10 indicated that an underground complex beneath the convent of the Sisters of Nazareth in 6166 Street may be the location of the long-lost Byzantine-era Church of the Nutrition, believed to have been built over the house of Mary and Joseph, and where Jesus was nurtured.

Visits are by appointment (tel.: 972-4-6554304).

Mount Precipice: South of Nazareth, on Mt Kedumim, is the cliff on which it is supposed the attempt was made to throw Jesus to his death. A road leads to the site and the view over the Jezreel Valley and Mount Tabor is spectacular.

On the mountain is a ruined church called Our Lady of the Fright Chapel. It commemorates the tradition that Mary, the mother of Jesus, fainted with fear as the crowd led her son to the cliff. But the Gospel says Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (Luke 4:30).

Franciscan Museum: A courtyard on the northern side of the Church of the Annunciation provides access to a museum, on a lower level, displaying artefacts dating back to the 1st century. Of particular interest are five superbly carved capitals, discovered buried in a cave in 1908. Carved in France, they were to have crowned columns at the entrance of the Crusader church. They arrived after the Crusader kingdom had been defeated, so they were hidden.

Church of Jesus the Adolescent: This attractive French Gothic-style church, atop the western Nabi Sain ridge, offers a fine view over Nazareth’s rooftops and the Galilean hills. Above the altar is an impressive marble statue of Jesus as a boy of about 16.


In Scripture:

The Annunciation: Luke 1:26-38

The Holy Family settles in Nazareth: Matthew 2:23; Luke 2:39-40

Jesus preaches in the synagogue: Luke 4:16-30; Matthew 13:53-58; Mark 6:1-6;

“Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”: John 1:45-46



Church of the Annunciation: 8am-6pm

Church of St Joseph: 8am-6pm

St Gabriel’s Church: 8am-noon. 1-5pm; telephone first on Sunday

Synagogue Church: 8am-5pm (4pm Oct-Mar); closed Sunday

Nazareth Village: 9am-5pm (last tour begins 3.30pm); closed Sunday



Brownrigg, Ronald: Come, See the Place: A Pilgrim Guide to the Holy Land (Hodder and Stoughton, 1985)
Charlesworth, James H.: The Millennium Guide for Pilgrims to the Holy Land (BIBAL Press, 2000)
Dark, Ken: “Has Jesus’ Nazareth House Been Found?”, Biblical Archaeology Review, March-April 2015
Doyle, Stephen: The Pilgrim’s New Guide to the Holy Land (Liturgical Press, 1990)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Israel Antiquities Authority: “A Residential Building from the Time of Jesus was Exposed in the Heart of Nazareth”, media release, December 23, 2009
Joseph, Frederick: “Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth”, Holy Land, spring 2005
Kilgallen, John J.: A New Testament Guide to the Holy Land (Loyola Press, 1998)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Smith, David: “Where it happened”, The Jerusalem Post Christian Edition, December 2007
Walker, Peter: In the Steps of Jesus (Zondervan, 2006)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

External links

Nazareth (Custodia Terrae Sanctae)
Nazareth (Wikipedia)
Nazareth (Catholic Encyclopedia)
Nazareth (Nazareth Cultural & Tourism Association)
St Gabriel Church (BibleWalks)
Mount Precipice (BibleWalks)

Milk Grotto

West Bank

Milk Grotto

Inside the Milk Grotto church (© Custodia Terrae Sanctae)

A short distance south of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is a shrine called the Milk Grotto, on a street of the same name.

An irregular grotto hollowed out of soft white rock, the site is sacred to Christian and Muslim pilgrims alike. It is especially frequented by new mothers and women who are trying to conceive.

By mixing the soft white chalk with their food, and praying to Our Lady of the Milk, they believe it will increase the quantity of their milk or enable them to become pregnant.

Rows of framed letters and baby pictures sent from around the world to the Milk Grotto testify to the effectiveness of the “milk powder” and prayer. (The powder is available only at the shrine; it may not be ordered from overseas.)

Spilt milk turned stone white, tradition says

According to tradition, while Mary and Joseph were fleeing Herod’s soldiers on their way to Egypt, they stopped in this cave while Mary nursed the baby Jesus. A drop of Mary’s milk fell upon the stone and it turned white.

Milk Grotto

Milk Grotto church (Seetheholyland.net)

The grotto has been a site of veneration since the 4th century, the first structure being built over it around AD 385.

From as early as the 7th century, fragments from the cave were sent to churches in Europe. The site was recognised by a proclamation of Pope Gregory XI in 1375.

The Franciscans erected a church around the Milk Grotto in 1872. The people of Bethlehem and local artisans expressed their love for the site by decorating the shrine with mother-of-pearl carvings.

In 2007 a modern chapel dedicated to the Mother of God was opened. It is connected to the Milk Grotto church by a tunnel, which enabled the addition of a further chapel in the basement.

Other sites in the Bethlehem area:


Church of the Nativity

Grotto of the Nativity

St Jerome’s Cave

Church of St Catherine of Alexandria

Shepherds’ Field

Tomb of Rachel

Field of Boaz


In Scripture:

The escape to Egypt: Matthew 2:13-15


Administered by: Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land

Tel.: 972-2-2743867

Open: 8am-5pm (Sun closed noon-2pm)




Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)


External links

Bethlehem (Custodia Terrae Sanctae)
Chapel of the Milk Grotto (Wikipedia)
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