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Sebastiya

West Bank

In the Palestinian village of Sebastiya, Christians and Muslims alike honour a connection to John the Baptist at a location earlier known for the worship of Phoenician gods and a Roman emperor.

Sebastiya

Cathedral of St John the Baptist, with tomb crypt under dome in centre (© ATS Pro Terra Sancta)

Sebastiya (with various spellings including Sebaste and Sebastia) is about 12 kilometres northwest of Nablus, to the east of the road to Jenin.

An early Christian tradition, from the first half of the 4th century, says John the Baptist’s disciples buried his body here after he was beheaded by Herod Antipas during the infamous banquet at which Salome’s dance enthralled the governor (Mark 6:21-29).

An Orthodox Christian tradition holds that Sebastiya was also the venue for the governor’s birthday banquet, though the historian Josephus says it was in Herod’s fortress at Machaerus, in modern-day Jordan.

Sebastiya

Village of Sebastiya (Shuki / Wikipedia)

Overlooking the present village of Sebastiya are the hilltop ruins of the royal city of Samaria. The city is mentioned more than 100 times in the Bible. Excavations have uncovered evidence of six successive cultures: Canaanite, Israelite, Hellenistic, Herodian, Roman and Byzantine.

The surrounding hill-country, its slopes etched by ancient terracing, has changed little in thousands of years.

When the early Christian community dispersed during the persecution that followed the martyrdom of St Stephen, the deacon Philip preached the Gospel in Samaria and was joined there by the apostles Peter and John.

 

City renamed by Herod the Great

Omri, the sixth king of the northern kingdom of Israel, built his capital on the rocky hill of Samaria in the ninth and eighth centuries before Christ.

His son Ahab fortified the city and, influenced by his wife Jezebel, a Phoenician princess, built temples to the Phoenician gods Baal and Astarte. Ahab’s evil deeds incurred the wrath of the prophet Elijah, who prophesied bloody deaths for both Ahab and Jezebel.

Sebastiya

Steps to where the Temple of Augustus stood (© ATS Pro Terra Sancta)

During its eventful history, Samaria was destroyed by Assyrians in 722 BC (ending the northern kingdom of Israel), captured by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, destroyed by the Maccabean King John Hyrcanus in 108 BC, and rebuilt by the Roman general Pompey in 63 BC.

Herod the Great expanded the city around 25 BC, renaming it Sebaste in honour of his patron Caesar Augustus (Sebaste is Greek for Augustus). Herod even built a temple dedicated to his patron, celebrated one of his many marriages in the city, and had two of his sons strangled there.

The pattern of destruction and rebuilding continued during the early Christian era. Sebaste became the seat of a bishop in the 4th century, was destroyed by an earthquake in the 6th century, flourished briefly under the Crusaders in the 12th century, then declined to the status of a village.

 

Pagans desecrated John’s tomb

Christian sources dating back to the 4th century place John the Baptist’s burial at Sebastiya, along with the remains of the prophets Elisha and Obadiah.

Sebastiya

Crypt of the reputed tomb of John the Baptist (bottom centre) and other prophets (© ATS Pro Terra Sancta)

Around 390, while translating the Onomasticon (directory) of the holy places compiled by Eusebius, St Jerome describes Samaria/Sebaste as “where the remains of John the Baptist are guarded”.

By then, according to a contemporary account by the historian Rufinus of Aquileia around 362, pagans had desecrated the tomb during a persecution of Christians under emperor Julian the Apostate. The Baptist’s remains were burnt and the ashes dispersed, but passing monks saved some bones.

In the 6th century two urns covered in gold and silver were venerated by pilgrims. One was said to contain relics of John the Baptist, the other relics of Elisha.

Two churches were built during the Byzantine period. One was on the southern side of the Roman acropolis (on the site the Orthodox Church believes John was beheaded).

Sebastiya

Greek Orthodox church, with apse at right and entrance to underground cave in centre (© Sebastiya Municipality)

The other church, a cathedral built over the Baptist’s reputed tomb, was just east of the old city walls and within the present village. Rebuilt by the Crusaders, it became the second biggest church in the Holy Land (after the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem).

But after the Islamic conquest of 1187 the cathedral was transformed into a mosque dedicated to the prophet Yahya, the Muslim name for John the Baptist. The mosque, rebuilt in 1892 within the ruins of the cathedral, is still in use.

Tomb is under cathedral ruins

Sebastiya

Walls of Cathedral of St John the Baptist (© ATS Pro Terra Sancta)

Pilgrims still visit the tomb associated with John the Baptist and other prophets. Under a small domed building in the cathedral ruins, a narrow flight of 21 steps leads down to a tomb chamber with six burial niches set in the wall. Tradition places John the Baptist’s relics in the lower row, between those of Elisha and Obadiah.

The remains of the cathedral’s huge buttressed walls dominate Sebastiya’s public square.

In the extensive archaeological park at the top of the hill are remnants of Ahab’s palace, identified by the discovery of carved ivory that was mentioned in the Bible (1 Kings 22:39). The ivory pieces are displayed in the Rockefeller Museum, Jerusalem.

Sebastiya

Visitors and residents during Sebastiya’s first Heritage Day in 2010 (© ATS Pro Terra Sancta)

Also to be seen are the stone steps leading to Herod the Great’s temple of Augustus, an 800-metre colonnaded street, a Roman theatre and forum, and a city gate flanked by two watchtowers.

Interest in Sebastiya’s heritage and community — now entirely Muslim except for one Christian family — has been revived in the early 21st century by a project involving the Franciscan non-profit organisation ATS Pro Terra Sancta, funded by Italian aid.

 

In Scripture

King Omri moves his capital to Samaria: 1 Kings 16:23-24

Ahab erects an altar for Baal: 1 Kings 16:32

Ahab’s ivory house: 1 Kings 22:39

John the Baptist is beheaded: Mark 6:21-29

Philip preaches in Samaria: Acts 8:5

Peter and John go to Samaria: Acts 8:14

 

 

References

Blaiklock, E. M.: Eight Days in Israel (Ark Publishing, 1980)
Brisco, Thomas: Holman Bible Atlas (Broadman and Holman, 1998)
Dyer, Charles H., and Hatteberg, Gregory A.: The New Christian Traveler’s Guide to the Holy Land (Moody, 2006)
Eber, Shirley, and O’Sullivan, Kevin: Israel and the Occupied Territories: The Rough Guide (Harrap-Columbus, 1989)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Prag, Kay: Israel & the Palestinian Territories: Blue Guide (A. & C. Black, 2002)
Saltini, Tommaso (ed.): Sabastiya — The fruits of history and the memory of John the Baptist (ATS Pro Terra Sancta exhibition catalogue, 2011)
Walker, Peter: In the Steps of Jesus (Zondervan, 2006)

 

External links

Sebastia in the news (ATS Pro Terra Sancta)

 

Megiddo

Israel

 

Megiddo, named in the Book of Revelation as the setting for a future battle between the forces of good and evil, is for archaeologists perhaps the most important site in Israel dating from biblical times.

Megiddo

Temple complex, with plain of Jezreel seen through archaeologists’ trench (Seetheholyland.net)

Its much-excavated tel, a mound rising 60 metres above its surroundings, has revealed the remains of at least 20 cities built one on top of the other.

The 6-hectare site has yielded temples, lavish palaces, massive fortifications, private houses, a grain silo and an elaborately-engineered water system.

Megiddo is 35 kilometres southeast of Haifa, at the southern end of the fertile Jezreel Valley. Destroyed and rebuilt many times during its turbulent history, it was occupied almost continuously from around 6000 BC until about 500 years before Jesus Christ was born.

From its strategic position, overlooking the key pass through the Carmel Mountains, it dominated the crossroads of ancient trade and military routes that linked Egypt with Mesopotamia and Asia Minor.

Megiddo

Canaanite city gate from the 15th century BC (Golf Bravo / Wikimedia)

Armies of all the great generals who campaigned in the Middle East tramped across the plain of Jezreel, from the Egyptian pharaoh Thutmose III to General Edmund Allenby, including Alexander the Great and Napoleon. As Thutmose III claimed in the 15th century BC, “Capturing Megiddo is as good as capturing 1000 cities”.

In 2005 the remains of an ancient Christian prayer hall were uncovered in the grounds of a nearby prison. Dated to the middle of the 3rd century, this may be the oldest church discovered in Israel. A mosaic inscription with the words “God Jesus Christ” may be the earliest ever found that mentions Jesus Christ.

Site of epic battles

Megiddo has been the site of epic and decisive battles down the ages. The Battle of Megiddo in the 15th century BC, when Egyptians under Thutmose III conquered Canaan, is the first reliably recorded battle in history.

Megiddo

Model of Megiddo tel (Seetheholyland.net)

Battles around Megiddo are mentioned in the Old Testament. The “king of Megiddo” was among those Joshua defeated after the Israelites entered Canaan in the 14th century BC (Joshua 12:21).

A century later the Israelite prophetess Deborah routed the Canaanites “by the waters of Megiddo” (Judges 5:19-21). Two kings of Judah, Ahaziah and Josiah, were battle casualties at Megiddo (2 Kings 9:27; 23:29-30).

In later times Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Mamlukes, Mongols, Persians, French, Ottomans, British, Germans, Arabs and Israelis all fought in this blood-soaked sector of the Holy Land.

The 1918 Battle of Megiddo, in which General Allenby led British, Indian, Australian and New Zealand troops against the Ottoman Turks, was decisive in the Allied conquest of Palestine. When Allenby was made a viscount, he took the title “Lord of Megiddo”.

Because Revelation 16:16 identifies Armageddon (from the ancient Greek Harmagedon, or Mountain of Megiddo) as the scene of an apocalyptic battle between good and evil, the name has become a dramatic byword for the end of the world.

Megiddo

Round altar in temple complex at Megiddo (Steve Peterson)

According to an archaeology guide, K. Kris Hirst, “The archaeological site of Megiddo, known as Tell el-Mutesellim, has had more rubbish written about it in science fiction and horror movies and books than any other single archaeological site on the planet.”

But, contrary to the beliefs of fiction writers, Armageddon is not described as the final battle. The final encounter, at Jerusalem 1000 years later, is to be the battle against Gog and Magog. The ultimate triumph of good over evil, it will precede “the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God” (Revelation 20:7-10; 21:2).

 

Many archaeological remains to see

Visitors to the World Heritage Site of Megiddo have much to see, beginning with a model in the reception centre depicting the tel during the 10th-century BC reign of King Solomon — who used forced labour to fortify the city (1 Kings 9:15).

Megiddo

Remains of what may have been stables (Hanay / Wikimedia)

Other highlights along the path around the mound include:

• A flight of well-preserved stone steps from around the 7th century BC, leading from the city gates down to a plastered pool.

• The Canaanite city gate from 1550-1200 BC. Flanked by four chambers, it led to the palace complex of Megiddo’s rulers.

• A massive stone wall, 2 metres thick, marking the site of the Canaanite palace destroyed in the 12th century BC. A treasure trove of 382 carved ivory artifacts, including ornaments and combs, discovered in one of its rooms testifies to ancient Megiddo’s wealth and sophistication.

Megiddo

Stone trough from the 9th century BC (Seetheholyland.net)

• Two elongated complexes often called Solomon’s stables, though now attributed to King Omri or King Ahab in the 9th century BC. Archaeologists also debate whether they were stables, some arguing they were too small for horses and were more likely storehouses, markets or even barracks for troops. Stone troughs indicate that horses were fed in the area.

• A “high place” with remains of several Canaanite temples and a circular altar of unhewn stones, 8 metres in diameter and 1.5 metres high, with seven steps leading to its top, where animal sacrifices took place. This sacred area, uncovered when archaeologists cut a deep channel through the tel prior to the First World War, was in use for 2000 years from about 3000 BC.

• A huge circular silo, dug 7 metres into the ground and 11 metres in diameter, capable of storing 1000 tons of grain. Two staircases around the sides lead to the bottom and a domed roof probably covered the structure, which dates from 700 BC.

 

Monumental project brought water into city

Megiddo

Descent into the Megiddo water tunnel (Seetheholyland.net)

The most impressive construction at Megiddo is underground.

To ensure access to the spring at the bottom of the tel’s southwestern slope, engineers in the much-besieged city dug a 25-metre vertical shaft down to bedrock, then a 70-metre tunnel sloping up to the spring.

The tunnel was cut from both ends and the two gangs of workers had to make only a small correction before they met.

Then the outside entrance to the spring was sealed with a massive stone wall and concealed with earth so a besieging enemy could not discover it.

This monumental project was apparently undertaken during the reign of King Ahab, about 150 years before King Hezekiah quarried his water tunnel in Jerusalem.

When it was completed, residents standing at the top of the shaft could lower buckets to draw water without entering the tunnel or leaving the city.

Modern stairways — 187 steps down and 77 steps up — allow hardy visitors to view this engineering feat from the inside.

 

Unique inscription in ancient church

What may be the oldest church remains in Israel were also among the most inaccessible when they were discovered in 2005 — in the grounds of a military prison near Megiddo.

Megiddo

Megiddo prison where ancient church was found (James Emery)

Work on detention cells to replace a prisoners’ tent encampment was under way when an inmate worker discovered ancient remains.

A prayer hall measuring about 10 metres by 5 metres was found in the southwest corner of a large building that also functioned as a Roman military administrative centre.

Believed to be from the middle of the 3rd century — before Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire — it evidently served Christian soldiers in the two Roman legions based there, as well as the local Christian community.

In the superbly preserved mosaic floor, an inscription records that a woman named Akeptous offered the eucharistic table “to God Jesus Christ as a memorial”. No earlier inscription mentioning Jesus Christ has been found in the Holy Land.

Other inscriptions name a Roman centurion, Gaianus, who paid for the mosaic floor; an artisan, Brutius, who made it; and four women — Primilla, Cyriaca, Dorothea and Chreste. Images of fish — an early Christian symbol — are also found.

The Israel Antiquities Authority has recommended moving the prison to a new location so the discoveries can be displayed. In the meantime, the church has been covered with dirt and tarpaulins.

 

In Scripture:

Joshua defeats the king of Megiddo: Joshua 12:7,21

Deborah defeats Sisera’s Canaanites: Judges 5:19-20

Solomon fortifies Megiddo: 1 Kings 9:15

King Ahaziah dies at Megiddo: 2 Kings 9:27

Josiah killed at Megiddo: 2 Kings 23:29; 2 Chronicles 35:20-24

The battle of Harmagedon: Revelation 16-18

 

 

Administered by: Israel Nature and Parks Authority

Tel.: 972-4-6590316

Open: Apr–Sep 8am–5pm, Oct–Mar 8am–4pm (last entry one hour before closing time)

 

 

References

Bourbon, Fabio, and Lavagno, Enrico: The Holy Land Archaeological Guide to Israel, Sinai and Jordan (White Star, 2009)
Bowker, John: The Complete Bible Handbook (Dorling Kindersley, 1998)
Brownrigg, Ronald: Come, See the Place: A Pilgrim Guide to the Holy Land (Hodder and Stoughton, 1985)
Charlesworth, James H.: The Millennium Guide for Pilgrims to the Holy Land (BIBAL Press, 2000)
Finkelstein, Israel, and Ussishkin, David: “Back to Megiddo” (Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 1994)
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Kochav, Sarah: Israel: A Journey Through the Art and History of the Holy Land (Steimatzky, 2008)
Metzger, Bruce M., and Coogan, Michael D.: The Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford University Press, 1993)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Samet, Inbal: Megiddo National Park (Israel Nature and Parks Authority leaflet)
Tzaferis, Vassilios. “Inscribed ‘To God Jesus Christ’ ” (Biblical Archaeology Review, March/April 2007)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

External links

The Megiddo Expedition (Tel Aviv University)
Tell Megiddo (BibleWalks)
Tel Megiddo (Wikipedia)
Megiddo — the Solomonic Chariot City (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

 

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