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The Sites

Israel and Palestine – In Jerusalem

Israel and Palestine – Outside Jerusalem

Jordan

Egypt

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)

 

Mount Tabor

Israel

Mount Tabor, rising dome-like from the Plain of Jezreel, is the mountain where Christian tradition places the Transfiguration of Jesus.

Mount Tabor with Franciscan monastery on top (Seetheholyland.net)

Mount Tabor with Franciscan monastery on top (Seetheholyland.net)

Scholars disagree on whether Mount Tabor was the scene of that event (described in Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9: 2-8 and Luke 9:28-36). However, it has throughout history been a place of mystique and atmosphere, where humanity has sought contact with the divine.

Its unique contours — variously described as “breast-shaped”, “hump-backed” and “resembling an upside down tea cup” — captured the imagination of ancient peoples who attached to it supernatural qualities.

Mount Tabor stands some 420 metres above the plain in lower Galilee, 7km east of Nazareth. It held a strategic position at the junction of trade routes. Many battles have been fought at its foot.

In the Old Testament, Mount Tabor is described as a sacred mountain and a place for worship. It is not mentioned by name in the New Testament.

 

Location of Transfiguration is questioned

Mount Tabor

Church buildings on Mount Tabor (Wikimedia)

The Gospel accounts of the Transfiguration — a momentous event in which Peter, James and John were introduced to the divine incarnation of Christ, the God-Man — do not specify the place. They simply say it was a “high mountain” in Galilee.

Christian tradition in the early centuries named the mountain as Tabor. This location is cited in early apocryphal writings and was accepted by the Syriac and Byzantine churches.

Many biblical scholars now question this tradition. Mount Tabor’s location does not fit well into events before and after the Transfiguration. At the time, a Hasmonean fortress stood on the summit.

And would Tabor be considered a “high mountain”, especially compared to other mountains in the vicinity? (It’s actually more than 200 metres lower than Jerusalem.)

These scholars see the much higher Mount Hermon as a more likely location.

Nevertheless, a succession of churches and a monastery were built on Mount Tabor from the fourth century.

 

Hairpin bends take taxis to the top

Mount Tabor

Mosaic of Transfiguration in apse of Church of the Transfiguration (Seetheholyland.net)

After the Crusaders were defeated in the 12th century and the area was taken over by the Turks, the Mamluk sultan Baybars destroyed all the religious buildings on Mount Tabor in 1263. Tabor remained deserted for nearly 400 years until the Franciscans negotiated permission to settle there.

Early pilgrims used to climb 4300 steps cut into the rocky slope to reach the summit. These days taxis negotiate a succession of hairpin bends before they suddenly reach the summit.

The present Catholic and Greek Orthodox buildings (separated by a wall) were constructed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The prominent Catholic Church of the Transfiguration, designed by the Italian architect Antonio Barluzzi, stands among ruins of a Benedictine monastery. A bas-relief of the architect, who designed many of the Holy Land’s churches, is set into a wall on the right of the entrance.

Its entrance is flanked by chapels dedicated to Moses and Elijah, who were seen with Jesus during his Transfiguration. The event itself is depicted above the main altar in the central apse.

In the crypt under the church are the altar and fragments of walls of a Byzantine church. There is a tradition that the rock floor of the crypt is where Jesus stood during the Transfiguration.

The Greek Orthodox church, often not open to visitors, honours Elijah. It too is built on the ruins of Byzantine and Crusader churches.

 

‘Breadbasket’ scene of battles

Mount Tabor’s height affords uninterrupted panoramas. From the balcony of the Franciscan hospice, the view is of the plain of Jezreel, bounded by the Carmel range and the mountains of Samaria.

The fertile plain is called “the breadbasket of Israel”, a reminder that one of the meanings of Jezreel is “God sows”.

Mount Tabor

Jezreel Valley from Mount Tabor (Seetheholyland.net)

But this plain has often resounded to the clash of battle.

On the slopes of Mount Tabor, in the time of the Judges, the prophetess Deborah and her general Barak marshalled their warriors before sweeping down to rout the 900 chariots of Sisera and his Canaanites (Judges 4:4-16).

Armies of all the great generals who campaigned in the Middle East have tramped across the plain, from the pharaoh Thutmose III to General Edmund Allenby, and including Alexander the Great and Napoleon.

And in the Book of Revelation, it is named as the scene of the battle of Armageddon (also called Harmagedon or Har-Megiddo), in which good will triumph over evil.

 

In Scripture:

Deborah and Barak’s triumph: Judges 4:4-14

The Transfiguration: Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9: 2-8 and Luke 9:28-36

 

Administered by: Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land

Tel.: 972-4-6620720

Open: 8am-noon, 2-5pm

 

 

References

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)
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)
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Pixner, Bargil: With Jesus Through Galilee According to the Fifth Gospel (Corazin Publishing, 1992)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Mount Tabor (Franciscan Cyberspot)
Mount Tabor (BiblePlaces)
Mount Tabor (Christus Rex)

Capernaum

Israel

A fish-market and frontier post beside the Sea of Galilee, Capernaum became Jesus’ home town and the scene of many of his miracles.

Sign at entrance to Capernaum site (Seetheholyland.net)

Sign at entrance to Capernaum site (Seetheholyland.net)

It was also the home of the first disciples Jesus called — the fishermen Peter, Andrew, James and John, and the tax collector Matthew (who as Levi collected taxes in the customs office).

In this town:

• Jesus worshipped and taught in the synagogue — where his teaching made a deep impression on the local people because, unlike the scribes, he taught with authority. (Mark 1:21-22)

• In the same synagogue, Jesus promised the Eucharist in his “I am the bread of life” discourse: “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” (John 6:22-59)

• Jesus and healed many people of illness or possession by the devil, including Peter’s mother-in-law and the daughter of Jairus, the leader of the synagogue.

• Jesus pronounced a curse on the town, along with Bethsaida and Chorazin, because so many of its inhabitants refused to believe in him.

 

Church hovers over Peter’s house

Capernaum

Modern church over St Peter’s house at Capernaum (© Tom Callinan / Seetheholyland.net)

Capernaum later fell into ruin. A 3rd-century report called the town “despicable;  it numbers only seven houses of poor fishermen”. It was later resettled but again fell into disrepair. The ruins lay undiscovered until 1838, when a visiting scholar gave this description: “The whole place is desolate and mournful . . . .”

Today an ultra-modern Catholic church, perched on eight sturdy pillars, hovers protectively over an excavation site. It is believed to have been the site of Peter’s house, where Jesus would have lodged.

Archaeologists believe the house was in a small complex grouped around irregular courtyards. Drystone basalt walls would have supported a roof of tree branches covered with straw and earth — a fairly flimsy construction easily breached to lower a paralysed man on a mat, as described in Mark 2:1-12.

Excavations show that one room in this interlinked complex had been singled out since the middle of the 1st century. Graffiti scratched on its plaster walls referred to Jesus as Lord and Christ (in Greek). It is suggested that this room was venerated for religious gatherings as a house church. If so, it would have been the first such example in the Christian world.

In 5th century an octagonal church was built around this venerated room. The present church, dedicated in 1990, repeats the octagonal shape.

Ornate synagogue in white limestone

Capernaum

Inside the ancient synagogue at Capernaum (Seetheholyland.net)

Near the church, a partly reconstructed synagogue is believed to have been built on the foundations of the synagogue in which Jesus taught.

Erected in the 4th or 5th centuries, this impressive structure with ornately carved decorations is the largest synagogue discovered in Israel.

Its white limestone, carted from a distant quarry, contrasts with the local black basalt of the synagogue Christ knew. That original synagogue was built by a Roman centurion, the same centurion who had his servant healed after a declaration of faith that amazed Jesus (Luke 7:1-10).

A short distance away, by the Sea of Galilee, can be seen the red domes and white walls of a Greek Orthodox church, built in 1931 and dedicated to the Twelve Apostles.

Related site: Church of the Twelve Apostles

 

In Scripture:

Jesus makes his home in Capernaum: Matthew 4:12-17

Jesus teaches in the synagogue: Mark 1:21-28

Jesus cures Peter’s mother-in-law: Mark 1:29-31

Paying the temple tax: Matthew 17:24-27

Jesus calls Matthew: Matthew 9:9-12

Jesus condemns Capernaum: Matthew 11:20-24

Jesus heals a centurion’s servant: Luke 7:1-10

Jesus cures a paralysed man: Mark 2:1-12

“I am the bread of life”: John 6:22-59

 

Administered by: Franciscan Custody of the Holy Land

Tel.: 972-4-6721059

Open: 8am-4.50pm

 

 

References

Charlesworth, James H.: The Millennium Guide for Pilgrims to the Holy Land (BIBAL Press, 2000)
Gonen, Rivka: Biblical Holy Places: An illustrated guide (Collier Macmillan, 1987)
Loffreda, Stanislao: “Capharnaum”, Holy Land, summer and autumn, 2002
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Rainey, Anson F., and Notley, R. Steven: The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Carta, 2006)
Strange, James F., and Shanks, Hershel: “Synagogue Where Jesus Preached Found at Capernaum” and “Has the House Where Jesus Stayed in Capernaum Been Found?”, in The Galilee Jesus Knew (Biblical Archaeology Society, 2008)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Capernaum (Custodia Terrae Sanctae)
Capernaum (BiblePlaces)
Capharnaum — the Town of Jesus (Christus Rex)
Capernaum — City of Jesus and its Jewish Synagogue (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Capernaum (David Hadfield)
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