The 1977 mini-series Jesus of Nazareth directed by Franco Zeffirelli brought the story of Jesus’ life to television screens around the world. If you’re wondering where this iconic portrayal of Jesus’ life was filmed, read on for a comprehensive guide.
If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Jesus of Nazareth was filmed on location in Morocco, Tunisia and Israel.
Filming Locations in Morocco
The city of Ouarzazate in southern Morocco was a major filming location for Jesus of Nazareth. This area is known for its stunning desert landscapes and ancient kasbahs (fortified villages). Parts of Jesus of Nazareth were filmed at the Atlas Film Studios in Ouarzazate, which have also been used for many other biblical epics and Hollywood blockbusters.
According to the Locations Maroc website, the exterior of Herod’s palace was built at Atlas Studios for the miniseries. The remarkable red ksar (fortress) of Ait Benhaddou, just outside Ouarzazate, was used to represent Jerusalem.
Its winding alleys and ancient architecture provided an impressively authentic backdrop.
Additionally, the monolithic kasbah of Taourirt in Ouarzazate stands in for Herod’s fortress. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount scene was filmed with the stunning cliffs of the Atlas Mountains as a background.
According to CNTraveller Middle East, other Ouarzazate area filming sites included the kasbah of Tiffoultoute, the palm grove of Skoura, and the Dades Gorge.
The remarkable fortified village of Ait Benhaddou is one of Morocco’s most famous kasbahs and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its winding alleys and ancient clay architecture provided an ideal stand-in for Jerusalem in many scenes of Jesus of Nazareth.
According to World of Lucid Dreaming, the village’s main gate was used to represent the entrance to Jerusalem. The alleys and structures of the ksar portrayed Jerusalem streets and buildings. Even some interior scenes set in Jerusalem were filmed inside the kasbah’s structures.
Ait Benhaddou has been featured in many other major Hollywood productions, including Lawrence of Arabia, Gladiator, Game of Thrones, and more biblical epics like The Last Temptation of Christ. Its labyrinth of passageways transports visitors back centuries to Old Testament times.
Exploring Ait Benhaddou’s winding alleys certainly gives viewers a feel for what Jerusalem may have been like in Jesus’ time.
Filming Locations in Tunisia
The ancient Berber village of Matmata was used extensively as a filming location for Jesus of Nazareth, providing an authentic desert landscape and architecture. Its most notable feature is the underground dwellings carved into the soft sandstone, which have been inhabited for over 2,000 years.
According to the Matmata official tourism website, over 10 separate sites around the village were used during an intensive month of shooting scenes here.
Particularly memorable is the scene where Joseph leads Mary through the desert on a donkey to take part in the census at Bethlehem. The desert scenes around Matmata provided endless vistas of sand and scrub to represent 1st century Palestine.
Interestingly, a number of Star Wars movies have also been filmed amid the otherworldly Matmata landscape, including key scenes from the original 1977 movie with Luke Skywalker’s home being an actual hotel in Matmata.
The desert city of Tataouine (also the inspiration for the Star Wars planet Tatooine) provided another stretches of stark, arid landscape for key Jesus of Nazareth scenes. In particular, the barren rocky hills around Chenini and Douiret featured as the Judean wilderness where Jesus spent 40 days fasting and being tempted by Satan.
According to on-location reports in TV Guide from March 1977, a 6-mile square section of desert was cordoned off for filming the vital temptation sequence over 10 days. Local Tunisian extras were used for big crowd scenes filmed in the area, with Tataouine’s then-mayor Habib Ben Yahia Ben Youssef given a cameo role.
The fascinating Star Wars Wiki page has more background on the area’s Hollywood film history.
Filming Locations in Israel
The ancient city of Jerusalem served as a prominent filming location for Jesus of Nazareth. Scenes depicting Jesus entering the holy city were filmed at the iconic Jaffa Gate, with the Old City walls visible in the background.
Another key site was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built over the place where Jesus was crucified and buried. The film crew captured its ornate domes and crowds of pilgrims bringing the sacred site to life.
Other Jerusalem highlights seen in the miniseries include the picturesque Garden of Gethsemane with its gnarled olive trees and the Via Dolorosa where Jesus carried the cross. Director Franco Zeffirelli shot on location amidst the winding cobblestone alleys to authentically portray the Passion of Christ.
Sea of Galilee
The shimmering waters of the Sea of Galilee were where Jesus grew up and undertook much of his ministry. Jesus of Nazareth filmed several sequences along the lake to depict His encounters with fishermen and teachings to crowds on the shore.
Significant effort went into recreating a 1st century fishing vessel and obtaining live fish to fill surrounding nets.
A memorable scene of Jesus calling the disciples Peter and Andrew away from their trade required building a temporary wooden dock extending into the sea. And the Mount of Beatitudes provided a perfect natural backdrop for delivering the iconic Sermon on the Mount.
The rise overlooking the northern Galilee water has long attracted pilgrims commemorating where Jesus shared the blessings and set forth moral imperatives that would underpin His teachings.
Jesus of Nazareth brought the story of Jesus’ life to the screen through filming in evocative locations across North Africa and the Middle East. From the deserts of Tunisia to the streets of Jerusalem, the mini-series captured the world where Jesus lived and preached.
Understanding where it was filmed helps deepen our appreciation of this iconic production.