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The Sites

Israel and Palestine – In Jerusalem

Israel and Palestine – Outside Jerusalem

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Extras

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)

 

Elijah’s Cave

Israel

 

The caves of Mount Carmel were well known to Elijah, the Old Testament prophet. Here he sometimes lived — and sometimes had to hide.

Elijah's Cave

Statue of Elijah at Mukhraka (© Biblicalisraeltours.com)

On the northern slope of Mount Carmel, near the Haifa beach, is a cave where the prophet is believed to have meditated before his fateful encounter with the priests of Baal.

In this encounter, described in 1 Kings 18:1-40, Elijah issued a challenge to 450 pagan priests. Before an assembly on the summit of Mount Carmel, he called on the priests to seek fire from their god Baal to light a sacrifice.

When Baal failed to respond to their pleading, Elijah rebuilt the ruined altar of the Lord and offered his own sacrifice. Immediately fire from heaven consumed the offering, even though it had been soaked in water.

 

Venerated by four faiths

Elijah’s Cave can be approached by stairs from Allenby Road, near Haifa’s cable car. It is also accessible down a steep path from the Carmelite church on Stella Maris Road.

Elijah's Cave

Entry to Elijah’s Cave, males to the right, females to the left (© BibleWalks.com)

The cave, about 14 metres long, is situated in a residential dwelling. It is open to the public, with separate areas for males and females. Adjacent buildings served as a hostel from the late 19th century.

Elijah is venerated by Jews, Christians, Muslims and Druze, all of whom come as pilgrims. Writings left by pilgrims in past centuries can be seen on the cave walls.

Curative properties have been ascribed to the cave over the years, including the curing of mental illnesses.

Possible site of ‘school of prophets’

Among the traditions associated with the cave is that Elijah hid here from the wrath of Jezebel, who had introduced worship of her Phoenician god Baal to the land.

Elijah's Cave

Women’s section of Elijah’s Cave (Daniel Ventura)

It is also thought that Elijah established a “school of prophets” here on his return from exile at Mount Sinai. If so, this would be where his successor Elisha, among others, studied.

No Old Testament prophet is referred to as frequently in the New Testament as Elijah. Both Jesus and John the Baptist were on occasions thought to be reincarnations of Elijah.

A small cave under Stella Maris Monastery, at the western edge of Mount Carmel, is held by a Christian tradition to be a place where Elijah also occasionally lived.

Other sites in the area:

Mount Carmel

Stella Maris Monastery

Baha’i Shrine

 

In Scripture:

Elijah triumphs over the priests of Baal: 1 Kings 18:1-40

 

Administered by: Israel Ministry of Religious Affairs

Open: Sun-Thur 8am-5pm, Fri 8am-1pm

References

 

Blaiklock, E. M.: Eight Days in Israel (Ark Publishing, 1980)
Brownrigg, Ronald: Come, See the Place: A Pilgrim Guide to the Holy Land (Hodder and Stoughton, 1985)
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)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)

 

External links

Elijah’s Cave, Carmel (BibleWalks)
Elijah’s Cave, Haifa (Sacred Destinations)

 

Jordan River

Israel/Jordan

Jordan River

Jordan River near Chorazin (Seetheholyland.net)

The Jordan River runs through the land and history of the Bible, giving its waters a spiritual significance that sets it aside from other rivers.

The Jordan is significant for Jews because the tribes of Israel under Joshua crossed the river on dry ground to enter the Promised Land after years of wandering in the desert.

It is significant for Christians because John the Baptist baptised Jesus in the waters of the Jordan.

The prophets Elijah and Elisha also crossed the river dry-shod; and the Syrian general Naaman was healed of leprosy after washing in the Jordan at Elisha’s direction.

 

River flows below sea level

Jordan River

Excavated baptismal site at Bethany Beyond the Jordan (Seetheholyland.net)

Flowing southward from its sources in the mountainous area where Israel, Syria and Lebanon meet, the Jordan River passes through the Sea of Galilee and ends in the Dead Sea. A large part of its 320-kilometre length forms the border between Israel and Jordan in the north and the West Bank and Jordan in the south.

The river falls 950 metres from its source to the Dead Sea. For most of its course down the Jordan Rift Valley, it flows well below sea level. Its name means “Dan [one of its tributaries] flows down”.

Though an old song says the River Jordan is “deep and wide”, the modern river is neither. In places it is more like a creek than a river — less than 10 metres across and 2 metres deep.

From Jesus’ time until the mid 20th century, seasonal flooding in winter and spring expanded its width to 1.5km. Dams in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel now preclude flooding.

 

Site identified in former military zone

Jordan River

Yardenit baptism site (Seetheholyland.net)

The place where Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist is believed to be in Jordan, on the east bank of a large loop in the river opposite Jericho.

A site less than 2km east of the river’s present course, at Wadi Al-Kharrar, has been identified as Bethany Beyond the Jordan. This is where John lived and baptised, and where Jesus fled for safety after being threatened with stoning in Jerusalem.

Until the 1994 peace treaty between Jordan and Israel, the area was a Jordanian military zone. After clearing nearby minefields, the Jordanian government has made the place accessible to archaeologists, pilgrims and tourists.

Jordan’s new Baptism Archaeological Park contains the remains of a Byzantine-era monastery featuring at least four churches, one of which is built around a cave believed to be the one that ancient pilgrims called “the cave of John the Baptist”.

While the Jordanian location was inaccessible, a modern site commemorating Christ’s baptism was established at Yardenit in Israel, at the southern end of the Sea of Galilee.

Maintained by a kibbutz, it is a popular place for Christian pilgrims to renew their baptismal promises — or for new Christians to be baptised, often in white robes and undergoing total immersion in the mild waters of the Jordan.

 

Various

The course of the Jordan River (Wikimedia)

Jordan is diverted and polluted

Because its waters are a vital resource for the dry lands of the region, the Jordan has been a source of contention among Israel, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians.

In modern times more than 90 per cent of its natural flow has been diverted for domestic and agricultural use. The lower Jordan is heavily polluted by sewage and industrial run-off.

In 2007 the World Monuments Fund listed the lower Jordan in the top 100 most “endangered cultural heritage sites”. In support, a regional environmental organisation, Friends of the Earth Middle East, said: “The region’s current policies treat the river as a backyard dumping ground.”

Related site:

Bethany Beyond the Jordan

 

In Scripture:

The Israelites cross the Jordan on dry ground: Joshua 3:14-17

Elijah crosses the Jordan on dry ground: 2 Kings 2:8

John baptises Jesus: Matthew 3:13-17; Mark 1:9-11; Luke 3:21-22; John 1:29-34

Naaman’s leprosy is cured in the Jordan: 2 Kings 5:1-14

 

 

References

McCormick, James R.: Jerusalem and the Holy Land (Rhodes & Eaton, 1997)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)
Khouri, Rami: “Where John Baptized: Bethany Beyond the Jordan”, Exploring Jordan: The Other Biblical Land (Biblical Archaeology Society, 2008)
Waldocks, Ehud Zion: “Jordan River to run dry by next year”, Jerusalem Post, May 3, 2010

 

External links

The Baptism Site of Jesus Christ (official site)
Jordan, the Land and River of the Baptism (Franciscan Cyberspot)
Yardenit Baptismal (BibleWalks)
Yardenit Baptismal Site

Jericho

West Bank

Jericho

Sign for world’s oldest city (© Visitpalestine.ps)

It’s reputed to be the oldest town on earth, with stories to match. The Israelites supposedly brought down its walls with a great shout and trumpet blasts. Here Jesus healed Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, and dined with Zacchaeus, the rich tax collector. And both Cleopatra and Herod the Great coveted this lush oasis.

Jericho (the name means “City of palms”) is mentioned 70 times in the Old Testament.

In perhaps the most famous battle in the Bible, it was the first town captured by the Israelites when they entered the Promised Land. But did “the walls come tumbling down”, as the song says? Archaeologists are divided on whether Joshua’s Israelites did in fact demolish a walled city.

Water from Jericho’s powerful perennial spring provides irrigation for abundant fruit, flowers and spices. “When the orange and lemon trees are in bloom, in the spring, the air is so heavy with their perfume that the visitor is sure he could bottle some of it and take it home with him,” writes archaeologist Godfrey Kloetzli.

The spring is associated with the prophet Elisha, who purified its waters by throwing salt into it.

Mound rose as towns were destroyed

Jericho

Ancient tower at Tell es-Sultan (Seetheholyland.net)

The first hunter-gatherers settled here around 9000 BC. Archaeologists have unearthed the remains of more than 20 successive settlements at Tell es-Sultan (or Sultan’s Hill), a sun-baked earthen mound two kilometres north of the present city.

The 15-metre mound was formed over the centuries as towns were destroyed and new ones built on their rubble. The most striking discovery unearthed is a thick-walled stone tower, 7 metres high and 7.6 metres across, dating back to 7000 BC.

Besides being the oldest town on earth, Jericho is also the lowest (more than 250 metres below sea level).

City of priests and Levites

Since Jericho was on the normal route from Galilee to Jerusalem, Jesus passed through it several times.

Jericho

Sycamore described as Zaccheus’ tree (Seetheholyland.net)

Near the centre of the city, a centuries-old sycamore tree recalls the incident in which the tax collector Zacchaeus, too short to see over the crowd, climbed a sycamore’s branches in order to see Jesus. (The African sycamore fig should not be confused with the sycamore of Europe and North America, which is a different species.)

At a nearby Greek Orthodox monastery, the trunk of a dead sycamore behind a glass frame is also described as the tax collector’s tree.

Jesus chose the steep, rocky road from Jerusalem down to Jericho as the setting for the parable of the Good Samaritan.

In this parable, Jesus describes the compassion of an alien (the Samaritan) towards a man who had been beaten and robbed, contrasting it with the pitiless attitude of a priest and a Levite who had “passed by on the other side” of the road.

At that time, Jericho was one of the cities designated for the residence of priests and Levites rostered for duty in the Temple, about 28 kilometres away. About 12,000 priests and Levites are believed to have lived there, and they were a familiar sight on the road.

 

Cleopatra wanted a perfume

In 35 BC the Roman politician Mark Antony made a gift of Jericho to his lover Cleopatra of Egypt. Cleopatra had coveted the oasis because she wanted to control the plantations of persimmon (now extinct), which produced a perfume that reputedly “drove men wild”.

Later Cleopatra leased Jericho to Herod the Great at an exorbitant fee that cost him almost half Judea’s income. After Mark Antony and Cleopatra died, Herod gained ownership of the city. He built a palatial residence and died there in 4 BC.

 

In Scripture:

Joshua captures Jericho: Joshua 6:1-21

Elisha purifies the spring: 2 Kings:19-22

Zacchaeus meets Jesus: Luke 19:1-10

Jesus heals Bartimaeus: Mark 10:46-52

The Good Samaritan: Luke 10:25-37

 

Administered by: Palestinian National Authority.

 

 

References

Charlesworth, James H.: The Millennium Guide for Pilgrims to the Holy Land (BIBAL Press, 2000)
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)
Inman, Nick, and McDonald, Ferdie (eds): Jerusalem & the Holy Land (Eyewitness Travel Guide, Dorling Kindersley, 2007)
Kloetzli, Godfrey: “Jericho”, Holy Land, summer 2004.
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Jericho (BiblePlaces)
Historical Sites (Jericho Municipality)
Jericho — The Winter Palace of King Herod (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
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