Samaria Tourist Attractions
West BankSituation and characteristicsThe extensive remains of Samaria (Hebrew Shomron), capital of the kingdom of Israel from 880 to 721 B.C., lie above the Arab village of Sebastiya (11km/7mi northwest of Nablus, 29km/18mi east of Netanya) in the green hills of the land of Samaria, which is bounded by the Sharon plain on the west, the Jezreel plain on the north, the Jordan valley on the east and Judaea to the south.
HistoryAfter the division of the kingdom on Solomon's death in 928 B.C. the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel was at first Shechem, later Pnuel, on the east bank of the Jordan, and then Tirzah. After a series of short-lived rulers the fifth king of the northern kingdom, Omri (882-871 B.C.), founded a new capital "and called the name of the city which he built after the name of Shemer, owner of the hill, Samaria" (1 Kings 16,24). Omri and his son Ahab, who also did much building at Hazor and Megiddo, erected palaces and temples within a ring of walls. Under the influence of Ahab's wife Jezebel, who came from Sidon, the worship of Baal and Astarte, together with the refined culture of the Phoenicians, came to Israel. These developments were bitterly opposed by the prophet Elijah, who brought down the judgment of God on the pagan priests on Mount Carmel.In 732 B.C. the kingdom of Israel fell under Persian control, and the authority of its last kings (Pekahiah, Pekah and Hoshea) was restricted to the capital and its immediate surroundings. With the conquest of Samaria by the Assyrian king Shalmaneser in 722 B.C. and the taking of the acropolis by Sargon II in the following year the kingdom ceased to exist. Many members of the upper classes were deported and replaced by "men from Babylon and from Cuthah" (2 Kings 17,24), and thereafter intermarriage between the incomers and the remaining Jews produced the people known as Samaritans.Subsequently Samaria was used as a military base by Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians. At the end of the fourth century it was occupied by Macedonians and was Hellenised. When the Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus I took the town in 107 B.C. he had all non-Jews put to death. Herod brought new splendor to Samaria, in which he married the Hasmonean princess Mariamne in 38 B.C. He rebuilt the town and renamed it Sebaste in honor of Augustus (in Greek Sebastos). Here too he had his wife Mariamne and her two sons put to death. Sebaste's prosperity was short-lived. Jewish rebels set fire to the temple of Augustus, and soon afterwards, in A.D. 69, Vespasian razed the fortress to the ground. The foundation of Neapolis (Nablus) by Vespasian's son Titus in 72 set the seal on Sebaste's downfall.The three disciples - Philip, Peter and John - who came to Samaria between A.D. 30 and 35 saw the town when it was still at the height of its splendor. Here they encountered Simon the sorcerer, who offered them money for the power to give the Holy Ghost (Acts 8,4-24). (Hence the term simony, the buying or selling of spiritual or church benefits).Around 200 the Emperor Septimius Severus tried, unsuccessfully, to give new life to the town. Later a Christian community grew up in the town under their bishop, and when in the fifth century relics of St John the Baptist were found here (though he had not been beheaded here but in Machaerus on the east bank of the Jordan) pilgrims began to come to the town. The cult of the saint's relics has continued down the centuries, and they are still revered in the mosque in the village of Sebastiya, which perpetuates the name of ancient Sebaste.
There are two approaches to Samaria: either on a road which turns off at a white signpost and runs through the village of Sebastiya (cars only), or on a road (suitable also for buses) which goes off farther north at a yellow signpost pointing to the site and runs up the colonnaded street of the ancient town.
The route through Samaria runs past the mosque. As can be seen from a number of pillars and sections of wall, this was built on the remains of a Crusader church of 1160, which in turn was preceded by a Byzantine church of the fourth century. In a crypt under a domed roof are recesses in which the tombs of the prophets Elisha and Obadiah and the head of John the Baptist have been venerated since the fourth century. (Other relics of the Baptist have been preserved since the fourth century in the Omayyad mosque in Damascus.)
From the mosque in Samaria the narrow lanes of the village lead up to the large rectangular area of the ancient forum, where the two approach roads to the site meet (parking lot; restaurant, in which small antiquities are sold). From the long north side of the forum, which measures 128m/140yds by 72m/80yds, there is a view of a depression in the ground marking the site of the ancient stadium. At the west end of the forum stood a three-aisled market basilica built about 200, during the reign of Septimius Severus; a few columns still stand erect, and the foundations and an exedra at the north end can be seen.
Through an area in Samaria laid out as a garden to the forum and turning right at the far end, we come into an ancient street, flanked by columns, of about A.D. 200 (also visible from the acropolis), which leads to the well preserved West Gate. This was originally built by Omri but dates in its present form from a later period. The round tower on the north side of the gate is Roman, but stands on square foundations of Hellenistic date.
From the northwest corner of the forum in Samaria a path runs up to the acropolis, partly excavated in 1908-11 and 1931-35. We come first to an Israelite wall (ninth-eighth century B.C.), in front of which are a Hellenistic reinforcing wall with a massive round tower (third century) and a Roman theater. Continuing up to the left of the tower, we come to a monumental flight of steps, originally leading up to the Herodian temple of Augustus (c. 30 B.C.), of which no trace remains. The temple stood on the site of an earlier palace, begun by King Omri (882-871 B.C.) and extended in magnificent style by Omri's son Ahab (871-852 B.C.) and his Phoenician wife Jezebel. In the palace were a cult effigy of Astarte and a temple of Baal (1 Kings 16,32-33). The excavators of the palace found a number of pieces of ivory - confirming the reference by the prophet Amos (6,1-4) to "them that are at ease in Zion, and trust in the mountain of Samaria" who "lie upon beds of ivory" - and 75 pottery jars containing tax rolls dating from the time of King Jeroboam II (787-747 B.C.).
From the Acropolis in an anti-clockwise direction round the walls enclosing the site of Samaria, we come on the south side of the hill to a well preserved little Byzantine church, built on the spot where, according to tradition, John the Baptist's head was found.
Map of Samaria Attractions