Sebastia National park

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Sebastia is located in the midst of the mountainous region of Sebastia, approximately eight kilometers northwest of Nablus

 INTRODUCTION

This is a proclaimed National Park that covers an area of 714 hectares and is administered by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

Situated on a hill that is 463 meters above sea level, Sebastia is on the main road that traverses the length of the mountain crest, leading north from Nablus to Jenin. The city of Sebastia was discovered there. It served as the capital of Israel during the period of the First Temple, and Sebastiya, an outstanding Roman bastion, was built upon its ruins in 30 B.C.E. at Herod’s orders.

ORIGIN OF THE NAME

“In the thirty and first year of Asa King of Judah began Omri to reign over Israel, twelve years; six years reigned he in Tirzah. And he bought the hill Sebastia of Shemer for two talents of silver, and built on the hill, and called the name of the city which he built, after the name of Shemer, owner of the hill, Sebastia” ((I Kings XVI 23-25).



The forum and the Severan basilica in Sebaste, Smaria

Photo: Ron Peled

Sebastia was built in 879 BCE and served as the capital of Israel until its destruction by the Assyrian army in 722 BCE. During the Hellenistic era, it became home to a Macedonian community called Sebastia. During the period of the Second Temple, Herod altered the name of the city, as is related by Josephus Flavius: “And when he (Herod) went about building the wall of Sebastia, he contrived to bring thither many of those that had been assisting to him in his wars, and many of the people in that neighborhood also, whom he made fellow citizens with the rest. This he did out of an ambitious desire to build a temple, and out of a desire to make the city more eminent than it had been before; but principally because he contrived that it might at once be for his own security, and a monument to his magnificence. He also changed its name (Sebastia), and called it Sebaste…” (Antiquities of the Jews, 15).

Sebaste, the name given to that Roman city, is still used today to designate the Arab village located near Sebastye.

THE HISTORY OF THE SITE

Omri, king of Israel, built Sebastia as the capital of the kingdom of Israel in 879 BCE, after he had reigned in Tirzah for six years. His son and successor, Ahab, who reigned in Sebastia for 22 years, erected an altar to Baal and built a temple for him – “the house of Baal in Sebastia” (I Kings XV31-33). The worship of Baal in Sebastia was apparently the result of Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal, king of Sidon. The prophet Elijah, who destroyed Baal’s prophets on Mount Carmel, challenged Jezebel and the prophets of Baal (I Kings XVIII). A number of battles took place against the Aramaics during Ahab’s reign, during one of which Sebastia found itself under siege and starving. Ahab was mortally wounded during the decisive battle against the Aramaics – the battle of Gil’ad. His body was brought back to Sebastia, where he was buried, and his chariot washed in the pool of Sebastia (I Kings XXII 33-38). The remnants of a pool that cannot be seen today were found in the northwestern corner of the palace, near the retaining wall, raising the possibility that this is the pool in which Ahab’s chariot was “washed”.

Ahab’s son, Jehoram, was also forced to fight the Aramaics, and during his reign, Sebastia was under siege and suffered from starvation, to the point that, according to the description, mothers ate their sons, and even the dung of doves was very coveted (Kings II, 6:24-30). Sebastia withstood the siege despite the shortage of food. Sebastia rose to greatness once again in the days of Jeroboam, the son of Joash, who ruled Sebastia for 41 years and restored the borders of Israel from the approach to Hamath to the sea of the plain (Kings II, 14:23-26). Most of the remnants of the castle excavated close to the southern wall at the top of the hill apparently belonged to that period.



The Roman theater in Sebaste

Photo: Ron Peled

The castles in Sebastia were used by kings of Israel until the destruction of the city, and the prophets of Israel protested against the prosperity and pleasure seekers, among them the prophet Amos, who even prophesized the destruction of the city:

“Hear the word, ye kine of Bashan, that are in the mountains of Sebastia, which oppress the poor, which crush the needy, which say to their masters, Bring, and let us drink… I have overthrown you as God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah and ye were as a firebrand plucked out of the burning, yet ye have not returned unto me, sayeth the Lord” (Amos 4:1,11).

After several war campaigns waged by the Assyrians, King Sargon  besieged Sebastia. The city was destroyed in 722 BCE during the reign of King Hoshea, son of Elah.

Thousands of Sebastia’s inhabitants were exiled to lands conquered by the Assyrian Empire, while members of other nations, exiled to Sebastia by the Assyrians, were settled there, including peoples from Babylon, from Cuthah (Cuthim) and from other places throughout the Empire (Kings II, 17:24-26). Under Assyrian and Babylonian rule and later, under Persian rule, Sebastia came to be regarded as the capital of the province.



The Civic Basilica, the Tribunal and the Stadium in Sebastia

Photo: Ron Peled

During the Hellenistic period, Sebastia was populated by soldiers who had served under Alexander of Macedonia. The city became a Hellenistic center, alien to its surroundings, surrounded by walls with round towers, which were later exposed during excavations. The city was destroyed in 108 BCE by Jochanan Horkanos, the Hasmonean king.

The city was rebuilt during Pompey’s reign (57-63 BCE), and in 30 BCE, the city was presented to Kink Herod who changed its name to Sebaste. Herod rebuilt the Temple of Augustus at the crest of the hill, improved the city’s defenses and erected the stadium.

An aqueduct supplied the city with water, bringing water from the wells of Nablus through Ein-Harun in the southeast. This is Sabastye’s main source of water to this day. The city was destroyed during the first revolt against the Romans (66-70 CE).

The Roman city of Sebaste flourished once again during the period of the Emperor Septimus (2nd-3rd centuries CE), and even became a Roman colony. A theatre, a Forum, a Basilica, a temple dedicated to the goddess Kora and a colonnaded street with shops (Decomanus maximus) that formed the main avenue of the city, were built in the city.

During the Byzantine period, the city was the Bishop’s place of residence and a number of churches were built, commemorating the tradition of Sebastye as the burial place of John the Baptist. Another Christian tradition dating from this period even identifies the grave of the prophet Elisha.

The city’s greatness began to decline during the Byzantine period. After the Arab conquest in 636 CE, Sebastye became a small village with a Crusader church dedicated to John the Baptist. After the Crusaders were banished from the city, this church became a mosque.

SURVEY OF ARCHEOLOGICAL RESEARCH

The initial archeological activities on the site were carried out in 1908-1910 by a delegation from Harvard University, headed by G. Schumacher, and later by G.A. Reisner and K.S. Fisher. The main archeological excavations on the site were carried out between 1931-1935 by scholars from Harvard, The British Fund for Archeology in Israel, the British Academy, the British School of Archeology in Jerusalem and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The group was headed by Joe Crawfoot. His deputy was A.L. Sukenik. Limited excavations were carried out in 1965 and 1967, under the guidance of Z. Ziadin, of the Jordanian Department of Antiquities.

In 1968, a limited excavation was carried out on the west side of the Tel by G.H. Hennessy.



The Church of St. John the Baptist in Sebaste

Photo: Ron Peled

A VISIT TO THE SITE

1. The Main Square – the Forum and the Basilica

The parking lot is located in the main square (the Forum) – the commercial and communal center of the Roman city. The Forum was apparently surrounded by walls and it was very large: 73m. by 128m. At the western end of the Forum is the Basilica that served as a court and gathering venue for the distinguished inhabitants of the city.

The Basilica’s columns with their impressive bases and capitals have been preserved, as well as an altar, with a semi-circular niche and four rows of seats at its northernmost end.

2. The Israelite Wall

Part of the wall of the Israelite city was discovered near the southern end of the Basilica, where three strata of stones laid over the rock formation were preserved. This construction is characteristic of the period of Israelite rule – several of the stones’ margins were chiseled, but their center remained prominent. In some cases, the stones were set horizontally, while others were laid vertically.

3. View towards the Stadium

From the northernmost corner of the parking lot, we look in a northeastern direction, beyond the mouth of the valley that lies at our feet and which contains the remnants of the city’s stadium (200m. long and 70m. wide), whose foundations date back to the Herodian period.

The stadium’s grounds are cultivated today but one can still see a number of columns protruding from the ground. Its northern section was built on an artificially raised embankment whose northernmost end is adjacent to the northern wall of the city, dating back to Herod.

Various sport competitions took place in the stadium.

4. The Roman Theater

From the parking lot, we follow the path westward, towards the Roman Theater, that dates back to the 3rd century CE. Some of the seats have survived and others have been restored. The external circumference of the theater is 65m.

5. The Hellenistic Tower

From the Theater, we return to the path and climb up above the theater. There we observe remnants of a wall that encircled the fortress of the Israelite kings, upon whose foundations a round tower was erected in the Hellenistic period.

The round tower was built in a manner typical to Macedonians, where building blocks were laid along the width of the wall, so that their narrow facade faced outward. This tower is part of a wall that encircled the center of the city in the Hellenistic period.

6. The Temple of Augustus

We follow the path to the top of the hill, where we find vestiges of the temple built by Herod in honor of the Emperor Augustus. It is easy to distinguish the broad staircase that led to the temple’s raised courtyard, whose entrance was flanked by immense columns whose foundations have survived to this day. The western portion of the palace, dating from the time of the Israelite kings, was discovered beneath the temple’s foundations.

7. The Palace of the Israelite Kings

We circle the Temple from the West and continue in the direction of the southern most Israelite wall. Excavations carried out on the site revealed a fortress that had apparently been built at the top of the hill during Ahab’s reign, or possibly during that of Omri, his father. The fortress was designed to withstand a siege and was surrounded by an inner wall as well as a double external wall, called a retaining wall.

There are almost no traces left of Ahab’s palace, however, within the confines of the palace – “on the ground of the courtyard of Ahab’s palace” – were found unusual ivory engravings set out in Phoenician style (Sebastia-ivory), that, in part, relate to that period and were apparently used to decorate the throne – “the ivory house” built by Ahab (Kings I – 22:39).

Storerooms containing “Sebastian pottery” were found inside the palace, apparently dating from the period of the reign of Jeroboam the Second – shared with Hebrew writing in black ink (Ostrakons). The accepted theory is that these shards were documents recordings oil and wine shipments that had been brought from all parts of the kingdom to the storerooms in the king’s palace as payment of taxes.



The Entrance to Sebaste-Samaria

Photo: Ron Peled

8. The Byzantine Church

From the palace of the Israelite kings, we continue in the direction of the Byzantine Church. The Church was restored in the Middle Ages as part of a monastery erected to celebrate Christian belief that the head of John the Baptist had been hidden there after he was beheaded. Another church marking the site of John the Baptist’s grave can be found in the village of Sebastye and has been turned into a mosque.

9. The Colonnade (Decomanus Maximus)

From the Church, we continue eastward on the path that leads us back to the Forum – today, the parking lot. From there, we drive along the exterior of the site. On the way, we pass along the colonnaded street that was the central thoroughfare of the Roman City. The road is 12.5m. wide, and columns flank it on either sides. Both sides of the street have covered sidewalks that contained shops. Stairs that rose from the street to the Forum have been preserved on the eastern side of the street. The street was over 800m. long and contained more than 600 columns, some of which are still standing.

10. The Western Gate

We continue driving and exit through the Western Gate of the Roman city. Two round towers rise on either side of the Gate, with a well-built portion of the wall standing between them. The round towers, dating from Herodian period, stand upon square foundations that date from the Hellenistic period.

General Rules of Behavior in the Sebastia National Park:

Please obey all signs and instructions from park employees and inspectors!

Please stay on the marked paths!

Entry is permitted only to those locations prepared for the public!

Please do not disturb or alter antiquities or archaeological artifacts in any way!

It is expressly forbidden to climb walls marked dangerous!

Do not throw stones or cause rocks slides!

Do not collect mementos on the site!

Do not enter the village of Sebastye without the express permission of IDF authorities. All visits to the National Park are subject to security regulations for visitors in Judea-Samaria. 

 

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