Crusaders Era (1099-1260)
Christian rulers returned to the area in the shape of the Crusaders. These warriors from Western Europe came on a mission from the Pope to “release” Christian holy places from Islamic rule. They conquered the land and established local Christian kingdoms. Nazareth thrived again during this period.
In order to cater to the needs of the many Christian pilgrims who came to the city, an impressive Crusader Church of the Annunciation was built and craftsmen from France were encouraged to take part in decorating it. Control of the church switched from the Orthodox to the Roman Catholics, who made it the domicile of the local Archbishop. Around this time, a second annunciation church, St. Gabriel’s, was established next to Mary’s Well.
Background to The Crusaders Era
In 1095, Pope Urban denounced the Muslim rulers of the Middle East as “infidels” who had invaded the Holy Land and called on noblemen to free Jerusalem and its Christian residents. This launched the Crusades, in which European Christians occupied the Holy Land for the next 160 years, until Muslim rule returned to the area.
Several small Christian states were established in the Middle East, including the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Kingdom of the Galilee, to which Nazareth belonged. These kingdoms were administered like Europe’s feudal monarchies, with a hierarchy of warriors, churchmen, city dwellers and farmers. Christian rule was imposed by a powerful Christian minority.
Nazareth during the Crusade
In 1100 the Galilee was conquered by the Crusaders and the kingdom of the Galilee was established with Prince Tancred as its monarch. This period brought many important changes to Nazareth. Tancred appointed several priests to the city and made large donations to the Church of the Annunciation.
There followed, however, a power struggle for control of Nazareth, chiefly between the monks of the nearby Mount Tabor monastery and the leaders of the Crusader Church in Jerusalem. Each wanted the city affiliated to their community. According to Byzantine tradition, no one held the title of Archbishop in the city and, as a consequence, the abbots of the monastery – the archimandrite – benefited directly from Nazareth’s income. By contrast, Church leaders in Jerusalem demanded the establishment of a new bishopric in the city. While the argument raged, the Princes of Galilee ruled the city.
In 1108 the disagreement was settled by King Baldwin I. He established a new Catholic bishopric in Nazareth and turned the city into a county town (civitas). The abbot of the Mount Tabor monastery received half of the income from Nazareth’s lands as compensation. This land included the town, all its income, and those of 10 surrounding villages, including Saffuriya and Kafr Kana. The Archbishop was given many of the area’s vineyards that supplied wine both for ritual purposes and for trading. The Church of the Annunciation became the Archbishop’s cathedral, and all Orthodox priests and monks were replaced by a French Catholic clergy. Catholic priests and monks settled around the Cathedral and built an ecclesiastical neighborhood.
Throughout these years, the Christian Quarter expanded eastwards towards Mary’s Well, where St. Gabriel’s Church was built. The Greek Orthodox and the Eastern Christians from Syria were concentrated around the Old Synagogue building (in today’s old market), which had been converted into a church by the end of Byzantine rule.
Every year, on 15 August, the Assumption of the Virgin Mary (marking her passage into heaven) was celebrated in Nazareth, attracting many pilgrims. The growing number of visitors brought Nazareth great wealth from Europe. A visit to Nazareth made an impression on many of the pilgrims. Below is the description of one, a German named Johan from Wurzburg, who visited around 1160:
“This town, distant about 10 Miles from Tiberius, is the Capitol of Galilee and the City of the Savior, where the secret of humanity is, where he grew up and was educated. Therefore he is called “Notzri” (The Christian). The name “Nazareth” (as pronounced in Latin) means a “wreath of flowers” or a “bush garden”: this meaning is not lacking a reason or a meaning, why here was rising the Wreath of Flower whom grace has saved the world. This Wreath is Virgin Mary, to whom Archangel Gabriel announced in the city of Nazareth itself, that she is bound to carry the most transcendent son of all… In Nazareth is also located the spring which water Jesus used to draw as a child, while assisting his mother".
Building the Crusader Church of Annunciation
The building of a new Church of the Annunciation was the crowning moment of the Crusaders’ time in Nazareth, a project in which they invested all their energy and resources. The old Byzantine Church of Annunciation was insufficient to cope with the ritual needs of pilgrims and believers, and had long been neglected. In the second half of the 12th century, the Crusaders started work on a new Church of the Annunciation over the Holy Cave, a cathedral built in Roman style using artists from eastern France.
The cathedral had an extravagant library, of which the catalogue survives to this day. The library mainly contained Holy Scripts, liturgies and theological essays of the Catholic Church. Some of these books were decorated in the workshop of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, which was at the time the center for the art of book decoration.
The new Church of the Annunciation became the ecclesiastical church of pilgrims for the entire area. Pilgrims described the church as picturesque and were impressed by its luxury. In 1908, five well-preserved and decorated crowns from this time were discovered in Nazareth, including descriptions of the lives of St. Peter, St. Jacob, St. Matthew and St. Thomas. Today they can be viewed in the southern long hall of the Basilica of the Annunciation, not far from the Cave of the Annunciation.
Life in Nazareth
Despite the impressive buildings and many pilgrims who visited, Nazareth remained a small town with no walls. The only fortifications belonged to the new cathedral. No noblemen were among its residents. The townsfolk, subjects of the Archbishop, were organized as a Crusader community.
The town had a law court for property owners, which had judicial authority over all non-clerical people in Nazareth and the surrounding villages. The Archbishop was obligated to supply only 150 soldiers to the Crusader Army, further proof that Nazareth remained a marginal town.
The Archbishop lived outside Nazareth through much of the year, preferring to stay in Tiberias, capital of the Galilee Kingdom, or attend the king’s court. During his absence, his position was filled by the Church of the Annunciation’s prior, who was appointed by the local clergy.
The End of Crusader Nazareth
The Crusader kingdom started to weaken from 1183, under pressure from the Muslim commander Salah al-Din (Saladin). That year he invaded the Galilee and reached close by Nazareth, causing panic among the residents who fled into the walled compound of the Church of the Annunciation.
Nazareth became the political center of the Galilee Kingdom and neighboring Saffuriya the gathering place for the Crusader army whenever a Muslim invasion loomed. In 1184, King Baldwin IV gathered his courtiers in Nazareth to tell them that, due to illness, he was transferring the treasury to his brother-in-law, Guy of Lusignan.
By 1187 Guy, now king of Jerusalem, had fallen out with Raymond III of Tripoli, Prince of the Galilee, and the disagreement led to a split in the Crusader armies. In June 1187, Salah al-Din’s army invaded the Galilee once again, confronting a Crusader army of the Templar Order at the Battle of Hittin, west of Tiberias. The battle was hopeless for the Crusaders and ended with the destruction of the Order’s members and the slaughter of the Crusaders in Nazareth.
Nazareth fell to Salah al-Din without resistance. Because of the importance of Jesus in both Christian and Muslim tradition, Salah al-Din ordered sacred Christian sites in the town preserved, though all the Catholic priests and monks were expelled. The banishment was a short one, however: in 1192, a peace agreement was signed between Salah al-Din and Richard the Lionheart that led to the return of Catholic priests to the town. Later, Sultan al-Malik el-Aadel, Salah al-Din’s successor, permitted pilgrims too.
In 1229 Nazareth was handed back to the Crusaders as part of a peace agreement between Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor and Crusader King of Jerusalem, and al-Malik al-Kamel, Sultan of Egypt. According to the agreement, the Crusaders would retain no army in Nazareth but the clergy would be allowed to return. The Archbishop, who ruled Nazareth again and collected its income, remained in Acre. The town’s main citizens were Eastern Christians, whose church was in the building identified as Jesus’ Synagogue.
The most significant development in this later period was the emergence of ceremonial pilgrimage. It included prayers, and all participants were granted indulgence of their sins. A parade began at the Church of the Annunciation, passed through the Synagogue Church, continued to St. Gabriel’s and Mary’s Well and finished at the Mount of Precipice. Pilgrims arrived for the Assumption of the Virgin Mary on 15 August.
Source: Nazareth and sites, Eli Schieler Editor, published by “Ariel”, 1982.