Hail, thou that art highly favoured... old-fashioned words from a millennia-old prayer, brought to life in this stunning basilica, commemorating the spot where the Angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce her conception. Many Christian churches (not the Orthodox) claim that the Annunciation took place by Mary's home, and this basilica is the shrine to that momentous event. Huge, simple, stunning, and showing in its very architecture the layers of Christian history it incorporates, the basilica stands proud in the heart of modern Nazareth. This short introduction hardly does it justice; it's a prayerful, magnificent place well worth visiting.
The courtyard alone is worth a visit. Countries of the world have put up mosiacs in honour of Mary, and round the sides of the courtyard is a colonnaded gallery. Some countries with strong Catholic traditions have installed more than one mosaic, and the whole lot, here and inside the basilica, give a wonderful feel for Marian devotion across the world.
To enter, you must first go through the Grotto of the Annunciation. This is also worth a visit in its own right, independently of the basilica itself. It is indeed open for private prayer until 9pm, later than the main church.
Layer upon layer of the history of worship is clearly evident. The architectural foundations are evident in fragments around the central shrine, with columns and blocks competing to show off the importance of the site. Byzantine and Crusader-era church remains encompass the site which tradition says was the childhood home of the Virgin Mary. An opening in the ceiling links this grotto with the church above.
Ascending to the main basilica, the staircase is punctuated by stained glass windows, and inscriptions of key texts, encouraging pilgrims on their way. Texts also adorn the front of the basilica, with reliefs of the evangelists as well as quotations inscribed on the building.
The basilica is much simpler, the walls adorned by more international mosaics. The present basilica was built in 1969, as a Roman Catholic church, although the original church on the site dates back to around AD 570 (destroyed in the 7th century), while the site was one of veneration even before that. The cupola dominates the skyline, taking the church to 55m, and it is decorated to represent a lily, supposedly symbolic in representing Mary's purity.
The front of the basilica, where the altar lies, is roped off, with entrance controlled, and groups seemingly booked in. This is a shame, given that England's Lady of Walsingham tribute is there, let alone the sanctuary. It is still a magnificent place to visit.
A first-century house has been discovered in the vicinity of the basilica, giving archaeological credibility to the idea that this might be a place linked to the Jewish community of Jesus' time.
Outside is a small shop selling religious souvenirs, including rosaries, books, and nativity scenes carved out of olive wood. Many of the items are shared with Bethlehem, as noted on the packaging, the conception and birth of our Lord given a modern commercial link!