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Courtyard of a house in Bethlehem, 19th century photograph

Bethlehem Courtyard, 19th century photograph


This photograph is of an ancient courtyard was in Bethlehem, not Nazareth. But it gives the viewer some idea of building materials and design in ancient Israel.

Ancient 4-room houseThe house in the photograph above is almost certainly grander and larger than Mary and Joseph's house in Nazareth. Their house would have been more like the one shown at left: a mud brick house with a courtyard and two/four rooms - a front, public room with an awning, and a private room behind it, and possibly some storage rooms for food and animals.

Houses in Nazareth had a flat roof with exterior stairs at the side and an awning of woven goats' hair to protect against the sun. This was used by the women as a work-space, an extra room.

The inside of the house was quite comfortable, though minimalist by our standards. There were raised platforms at one end of the room, with cushions and mats - woven by the women and, like their clothing, embroidered.

A simple oil lampThe walls were covered with plaster, rubbed flat with a stone and painted with geometric patterns.

There was hardly any furniture as we know it. Niches were cut into the wall, and these provided storage for bedrolls and clothes.

Large amounts of food - jars of oil and olives, etc., were kept in separate storage areas, secure against mice. Archaeological excavations show there was a honeycomb of underground rooms under the houses, hollowed out of the rock. They were used for a variety of purposes - living quarters in the fierce heat of summer, cisterns for water, grain silos, and storage. Luke’s gospel situates Jesus’ birth in a room like this.

Woman preparing food inside an ancient house, photographThe inside rooms of the house were small and dark, so the courtyard and roof were important work areas, with better light for tasks like spinning and weaving.

The roof was also a cool place to sleep in hot weather. Rahab, the Jericho prostitute in Jesus' genealogy, hid Israelite spies under the heaps of drying flax stalks on the roof of her house.

Down in the courtyard was the cooking area, with an open fire, an oven and an array of cooking utensils. There was a mortar and pestle for grinding small amounts of grain and a covered area where people sat while they worked or talked.

A woman weaving at a loomSome household tasks needed good light, and the courtyard was ideal: spinning and weaving were done there. You would also find

  • a stone cooking area with a fire, cooling utensils and perhaps a bread oven
  • stone implements for grinding grain
  • a covered area for sitting
  • stalls for animals

This space served as a daily workplace - the weather was dry for most of the year. Here food was prepared, people met, and animals were kept.

It often contained a mikveh for ceremonial purification, and the family latrine as well, which was emptied every day into a communal manure pit.

This was the homely setting for the life of Mary and Joseph of Nazareth, and their son Jesus,





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