Is this where Jesus went to bathe? This is the kind of claim made by the owners for the ancient baths discovered in the centre of Nazareth. When shop owners Elias and Martina Shame-Sostar started to renovate their shop in 1993, they discovered the remains of some baths. Not unusual in this part of the world, they were originally written off by the government as a nineteenth-century hammam, so not of significant historical interest.
In the 2000s, however, new attention was paid to the ruins, and these ruins were amazingly redated as ancient. They're now marketed as the Ancient Bathhouse. The big giveaway was the terracotta pipes running through the walls, at floor level in the shop. They accidentally broke through one, which helped them to realise what they were. Samples have been taken, and architectural and artistic studies made, and they're confident that this bathhouse was in use in Jesus' time.
There is evidence of their use dating from well before the birth of Christ, until well into the Byzantine empire. Exact dates are a little unsure, but various kinds of evidence point to constant usage for hundreds of years. The motifs carved around the pipes for example, are paralleled with others found across the ancient world.
Romans are famous for heating their baths with underfloor systems known as hypocausts. Here, the network of underground channels runs beneath not only the shop, but also the surrounding restaurants. The owners claim it is the biggest hypocaust presently known about, with unusually large bricks and wide gaps.
Looking through it is mesmerising, with tunnel upon tunnel, arch upon arch. Elias points out how unusual the arches are, in fact, compared with the more usual architectural form in these. The excavations are behind a bespoke blind, and you're also shown the caldarium or hot room.
After you've had a look around the bits you can get to, you're offered a chance to sit down for a coffee in one of the excavated rooms, with light refreshments included in the price. Amazing rich coffee made simply, with cardamom and sugar, it's the best I drank in Israel. Because you can't get through the whole complex, they've made a seven-minute film giving you a full virtual tour. It's a magical watch. The room itself was where wood and ashes were kept, and you can see the different furness areas if you look carefully.
The room itself is fascinating. A cross on the wall marks it out as a Christian area, like much of Nazareth. Newspaper articles about the site are mounted on the wall, along with some tourist wares. There is, however, something satisfying about the simple, colourful area.
A private tour isn't cheap but is well worth paying for. Both Elias and Martina speak good English, and could not be more hospitable. They're prepared to host up to forty people in a group if booked specially, with menu items made available by prior agreement. There are no facilities at this site, and there are steps down to the excavations. A standard tour takes around half an hour.