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The Sites

Israel and Palestine – In Jerusalem

Israel and Palestine – Outside Jerusalem





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.


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.


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.


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.


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).


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


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.


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




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)


Jacob’s Well

West Bank


Jacob’s Well, where Jesus asked a Samaritan woman for a drink and offered her “living water”, lies in the crypt of a modern Greek Orthodox church at Nablus in the West Bank.

Jacob's Well

Mouth of Jacob’s Well (Seetheholyland.net)

It is often considered the most authentic site in the Holy Land — since no one can move a well that was originally more than 40 metres deep.

Jewish, Samaritan, Christian and Muslim traditions all associate the well with Jacob.

The location, at the entrance to a mountain pass between Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, is 2km east of Nablus. It is near the archaeological site of Tell Balata — thought to be the biblical Shechem — and about 63km north of Jerusalem.

It was at Shechem that the patriarch Jacob bought “the land on which he had pitched his tent” (Genesis 33:19).

The Samaritan woman reminded Jesus that Jacob “gave us the well, and with his sons and his flocks drank from it”. He told her he was the promised Messiah, and she and many residents of her village believed in him. (John 4:5-42)


Samaritan woman venerated as martyr

Access to Jacob’s Well is by entering the Church of St Photina and descending stairs in front of the iconostasis to the crypt.

Photina (Svetlana in Russian) is the name Orthodox tradition has given to the Samaritan woman. She is venerated as a martyr who was flayed alive and thrown down a well in Rome by the emperor Nero.

Jacob's Well

Interior of Church of St Photina (Seetheholyland.net)

A masonry structure surrounds the mouth of the well. On it stands a metal-framed pulley with a coil of rope long enough to reach the water.

A neck section about 50cm across and 1.2 metres deep opens into a shaft about 2.5 metres in diameter, hewn through solid rock.

Though the Samaritan woman told Jesus “the well is deep” (John 4:11), measurements of the depth have varied over the years, due to accumulation of debris (and stones dropped by curious visitors).

A depth of more than 40 metres recorded in 1935 had reduced to something over 20 metres by the 21st century. In ancient times the well was sunk much deeper, probably twice as far.

At times Jacob’s Well has been dry in summer.


Samaria was a ‘no-go’ area

Because of friction between Jews and Samaritans, the territory of Samaria was usually a “no-go” area for Galileans travelling to or from Jerusalem.

Jacob's Well

Icon of Jesus and Samaritan woman, in Church of St Photina (Seetheholyland.net)

The Gospel of Luke (9:51-55) tells of a Samaritan village that refused to receive Jesus because he was going to Jerusalem (on that occasion two of his disciples wanted to bring fire from heaven down on the village).

Samaritans have their origins in Judaism but, as the woman at the well pointed out to Jesus (John 4:20), they worship on Mount Gerizim rather than in Jerusalem.

They also regard Moses as the only prophet and accept only the first five books of the Old Testament (the Books of Moses, or the Torah).

The Samaritans at one time numbered in the hundreds of thousands but by 2007 only 700 remained, living mostly at Mount Gerizim and near Tel Aviv.


Succession of churches on the site

Pilgrims’ writings refer to Christian veneration of Jacob’s Well from the 3rd century. The earliest source, the anonymous Pilgrim of Bordeaux, mentions a bath (presumed to be a baptistry) that took its water from the well.

Jacob's Well

Church of St Photina at Jacob’s Well (Tiamat / Wikimedia)

A cruciform church built around 380 was the first of a succession of churches erected over the well. One of them appears in the 6th-century Madaba mosaic map.

In 1860 the Greek Orthodox Church acquired the property and began restoring the crypt. Construction of a new church was hindered by the 1917 Russian Revolution, which halted Russian funding, and by an earthquake in 1927.

The present church, completed in 2007, is modelled on a basilica from the Crusader era. In an attractive setting of trees and pot plants, it is well-lit, spacious and airy — a contrast to older Orthodox churches in the Holy Land.

Framed icons in modern style and bright colours are fixed to walls and ceilings, rather than being rendered on to these surfaces.


Place of conflict and violence

Nablus was an arena of conflict between militant Palestinians and the Israel Defence Force during the Second Intifada, between 2000 and 2005, but has since rebuilt itself as an industrial and commercial centre.

Jacob’s Well has also been a site of contention and violence. In 1979 a Zionist group claimed it as a Jewish holy place and demanded that crosses and icons be removed. A week later the custodian, Archimandrite Philoumenos, was butchered to death in the crypt and the church was desecrated. No one was ever convicted of his murder.

Jacob's Well

Remains of Archimandrite Philoumenos in Church of St Photina (© vizAziz)

The remains of Archimandrite Philoumenos are venerated in the right-hand chapel of the Church of St Photina.

North of Jacob’s Well is a related site, Joseph’s Tomb. This white-domed tomb is believed to be where the bones of Jacob’s son Joseph were buried after being brought back from Egypt (Joshua 24:32).


In Scripture: Jesus and the woman at the well: John 4:5-42

Administered by: Greek Orthodox Church

Tel.: 972-2-2375123

Open: 9am-1pm, 2pm-5pm; ring the bell




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)
Walker, Peter: In the Steps of Jesus (Zondervan, 2006)
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)


External links

The Geographical, Historical & Spiritual Significance of Shechem (Biblical Studies Foundation)
Samaritans (Wikipedia)
The Samaritans (The Israelite Samaritan Community in Israel)



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