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The Sites

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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)

 

Caesarea Philippi

Israel

Caesarea Philippi

Panorama from Caesarea Philippi (Francesco Gasparetti)

Near Caesarea Philippi, a city of Greek-Roman culture known for its worship of foreign gods, Jesus announced he would establish a church and gave authority over it to the apostle Simon — whom he renamed Peter.

When Christ asked, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” it was Simon Peter who was inspired to answer: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

In reply, Christ declared: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:13-20)

Situated 40km north of the Sea of Galilee, the region of Caesarea Philippi was the furthest north Jesus took his disciples.

 

Cult of Pan flourished

Caesarea Philippi

Shrines to Pan at Caesarea Philippi (Bill Rice)

The city had been known as Banias, an Arabic pronunciation of Panias (there is no p in Arabic). This name honoured the Greek god Pan — a half-man, half-goat deity often depicted playing a flute — who was worshipped here.

When Jesus passed this way, the area was ruled by Herod the Great’s son Philip, who had renamed the city Caesarea. To distinguish it from the coastal Caesarea Maritima, it became known as Caesarea Philippi.

The city had been built near the Banias spring, which gushes from a massive rock face and flows into one of the streams that form the Jordan River.

Here the cult of Pan flourished. East of a large cave are the remains of shrines to Pan and inscriptions, from the 2nd century, bearing his name.

Now a nature reserve

Caesarea Philippi

Remnants of the Temple of Pan with Pan’s cave in the background (Gugganij / Wikimedia)

Since Jesus liked to use local imagery for his metaphors and parables, it is easy to visualise him standing by the steep cliff of the Banias spring and telling Peter that he would become “this rock”.

Six days after this event, the Transfiguration took place on “a high mountain” (Matthew 17:1). Christian tradition places the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, near Nazareth, but some scholars believe Mount Hermon (16km north of Caesarea Philippi) to be a more likely site.

Banias, including the sanctuary of Pan and the remains of a Roman/Crusader town, is now a nature reserve.

The steep cliff of the cult area with the cave of Pan is located near the eastern entrance to the reserve, and is clearly visible from the parking area.

 

In Scripture:

Peter calls Jesus the Messiah: Matthew 16:13-20

Jesus foretells his death: Mark 8:31—9:1

 

Administered by: Israel Nature and Parks Authority

Tel.: 972-4-6902577 (spring), 972-4-6950272 (waterfall)

Open: Apr-Sep 8am-5pm; Oct-Mar 8am-4pm (last entry one hour before closing)

 

 

 

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)
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)

 

External links

Caesarea Philippi (BiblePlaces)

Caesarea Maritima

Israel

In the attractive Mediterranean seaport of Caesarea Maritima, the apostle Peter baptised the first recorded gentile convert to Christianity — Cornelius, a centurion in the Roman army.

When this Italian soldier and his household believed in Jesus they received the gift of the Holy Spirit and began speaking in tongues. This event astonished the Jewish Christians but validated the fact that salvation was for all people (Acts 10).

Caesarea

Harbour at Caesarea (© Deror Avi)

Caesarea Maritima (“by the sea”) was the scene of other significant events for Christians:

• It was the headquarters of Pontius Pilate. From here the Roman procurator set out for the Passover festival in Jerusalem, where he sentenced Jesus to death.

• Here the apostle Paul was imprisoned for two years and preached to the last of the Herods, King Agrippa II, who said that if he were to listen any longer to Paul’s persuasion he might become a Christian.

• The city was the home of Philip the evangelist and his four daughters, who were prophetesses. Paul stayed with them when he returned from his missionary journeys.

• At Philip’s home, a prophet named Agabus bound Paul’s hands and feet with his belt, foretelling how the apostle would be handed over to the Romans.

• After Jerusalem was destroyed, Caesarea became the centre of Christianity in Palestine. A Church council held here in AD 195 determined that Easter should be celebrated on a Sunday.

 

Founded by Herod the Great

Caesarea

Restored amphitheatre at Caesarea (Berthold Werner)

Caesarea — not to be confused with Caesarea Philippi in Galilee – was founded by Herod the Great on the site of an ancient fortified town. In 22 BC, with no expense spared, he began building a new city and harbour.

Massive breakwaters gave safe anchorage to 300 ships, a sewage system was flushed by the tide, and a vast hippodrome seated more than 20,000 people at chariot races. Later an amphitheatre was built to present chariot races, gladiatorial combats, animal performances and theatrical events. Little wonder that Caesarea has been dubbed “Vegas on the Med.”

During the Roman occupation, clashes between Jews and the majority Greco-Syrian population, who supported Rome, were frequent.

The desecration of Caesarea’s synagogue and the massacre of 20,000 Jews — in a single hour, according to the historian Josephus — culminated in the First Jewish Revolt, which ended with the AD 70 destruction of both Jerusalem and the Second Temple.

 

Bishop’s territory included Jerusalem

Christianity was accepted early in Caesarea. By the end of the 2nd century the city had a bishop, Theophilus of Caesarea, whose territory included Jerusalem.

Well-known Christian Fathers who were active in Caesarea included Origen and Pamphilius. The library they built up was second only to that of Alexandria (in the 7th century it held 30,000 works).

Eusebius, who became bishop in 314, was both the first Church historian and the first biblical geographer. Without his book of place names, the Onomasticon, many biblical sites would never have been identified.

 

Cathedral was never completed

Caesarea

Roman aquaduct that brought water from Mount Carmel to Caesarea (Seetheholyland.net)

Today’s visitors can see a restored Roman theatre built to accommodate 4000 and a Roman aqueduct that brought water from the foothills of Mount Carmel.

Just inside the theatre is a replica of an inscription carved in stone, bearing the name of Pontius Pilate.

The remains of a Crusader walled city, from the 13th century, include a cathedral which was never completed because the vaults below, from an earlier period, were unable to bear the weight.

A severe storm in December 2010 damaged several archaeological sites, including parts of the Crusader city wall and the Herodian wall. A breakwater built in the 1950s to protect the port was smashed into three pieces.

In Scripture:

Philip arrives in Caesarea: Acts 8:40

Agabus prophesies Paul’s death: Acts 21:8-11

Peter visits Cornelius: Acts 10

God strikes down Herod Agrippa I: Acts 12:21-23

Paul is imprisoned in Caesarea: Acts 23:23—26:32

 

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)
Joseph, Frederick: “Caesarea”, Holy Land, winter 2004
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome: The Holy Land: An Oxford Archaeological Guide from Earliest Times to 1700 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
Porath, Yosef: “Caesarea: Herod and Beyond: Vegas on the Med.”, Biblical Archaeology Review, September/October 2004
Wareham, Norman, and Gill, Jill: Every Pilgrim’s Guide to the Holy Land (Canterbury Press, 1996)

 

External links

Caesarea Maritima (BibArch)
Caesarea Maritima (BiblePlaces)
Caesarea (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)

Bethsaida

Israel

Jesus criticised the Galilean fishing village of Bethsaida for its inhabitants’ lack of faith. In contrast, at least three of its native sons — Peter, Andrew and Philip — responded to his call and gave up everything to follow him.

Bethsaida

Path among the ruins of et-Tell/Bethsaida (Seetheholyland.net)

Jesus had performed several “deeds of power” in the area before his condemnation: “Woe to you, Bethsaida!” (Luke 10:13-14):

He gave sight to a blind man and, not far away, he taught and fed a crowd of 5000. And from the Bethsaida shore he was seen walking on the Sea of Galilee.

Despite the locals’ spiritual blindness, Bethsaida is one of the most frequently mentioned towns in the New Testament.

“Indeed Bethsaida, Chorazin and Tabgha — with Capernaum as the base’s midpoint — constituted the ‘evangelical triangle’, on the northwestern end of the Sea of Galilee, within which approximately 80% of Jesus’ public ministry was exercised, according to the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke!” writes biblical scholar Daniel W. Casey.

A fishing village far from the water?

The first-century Roman writer Pliny the Elder called Bethsaida “one of four lovely cities on the Sea of Galilee”. Yet, like Capernaum and Chorazim, Bethsaida was abandoned and forgotten for many centuries.

In fact scholars are uncertain over whether there might have been two towns called Bethsaida, one on the west of where the River Jordan enters the Sea of Galilee, and the other on the east.

Bethsaida

Et-Tell/Bethsaida with the Sea of Galilee in the distance (Seetheholyland.net)

One site claimed by archaeologists to be Bethsaida is at et-Tell on the east of the Jordan, 2 kilometres north of the Sea of Galilee. Others favour the site of el-Araj, near the north-eastern shore of the lake.

The location of et-Tell — first suggested by the American scholar Edward Robinson in 1839 — presents a further puzzle:  How could a fishing village be so far from the water? The reason offered is that the landscape has changed since the time of Jesus.

The suggestion is that an earthquake has lifted et-Tell and the Sea of Galilee has shrunk in size. In Christ’s day, according to biblical archaeologist Bargil Pixner, the Jordan River did not sweep in a large loop as it does today, but flowed straight into a shallow lagoon before reaching the lake, so a small part of Bethsaida lay on the west bank of the river.

At el-Araj, archaeologists in 2017 discovered a Roman-era (first- to third-century AD) bathhouse, which they suggested was evidence for a significant urban settlement at the site.

In 2019 they reported finding the remains of a large Byzantine-era church which they believed to be the Church of the Apostles, built over the house of the apostles Peter and Andrew. This church was described by a visiting bishop in 725.

City destroyed and never rebuilt

In AD 30 — about the time Jesus was crucified — the local ruler, Herod the Great’s son Philip, raised the fishing village of Bethsaida to the status of a city and named it Bethsaida Julias (in honour of the wife of the Emperor Augustus).

Bethsaida

Ancient city gate at et-Tell/Bethsaida (© Israel Ministry of Tourism)

Bethsaida Julias contained both Gentile (Syrian) and Jewish populations, and it apparently continued to exist after the Jewish Revolt in AD 66-74, but declined in the 3rd century and was probably destroyed by the Assyrian invasion in the 8th century.

The excavation site of et-Tell is located in a public recreation area known as Jordan Park, close to the Yahudia Junction at the intersection of Routes 87 and 92.

Excavators say they have found a much older Iron Age site beneath a Hellenistic-Roman village. They believe this city was the ancient capital of the kingdom of Geshur, fortified with a massive city wall and a monumental gateway.

Their identifications include a house belonging to a fisherman and an apparent wine cellar. They also found a gold Roman coin from the 2nd century AD.

The excavators believe that the fishing village on the site was also an important centre of fish processing — drying and salting — in the time of Jesus and his disciples.

In Scripture:

Jesus curses Bethsaida: Luke 10:13-14, Matthew 11:20-22

Jesus cures a blind man: Mark 8:22-26

 

Administered by: Bethsaida Excavations Project (et-Tell)

 

 

References

Bechtel, F.: “Bethsaida”, The Catholic Encyclopedia (Robert Appleton Company, 1914)
Charlesworth, James H.: The Millennium Guide for Pilgrims to the Holy Land (BIBAL Press, 2000)
Daniel W. Casey, Jr, “House of the Fishers”, Holy Land, autumn 1997
Freeman-Grenville, G. S. P.: The Holy Land: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Israel, Jordan and the Sinai (Continuum Publishing, 1996)
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)
Rainey, Anson F., and Notley, R. Steven: The Sacred Bridge: Carta’s Atlas of the Biblical World (Carta, 2006)
Shpigel, Noa, and Schuster, Ruth: “The Lost Home of Jesus’ Apostles Has Just Been Found, Archaeologists Say”, Haaretz, August 8, 2017
Schuster, Ruth: “Archaeologists Claim to Have Found the Church of the Apostles by Sea of Galilee”, Haaretz, July 18, 2019

 

External links

Bethsaida (BiblePlaces)
Bethsaida (BibleWalks)
Bethsaida (Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
Bethsaida Excavations Project (University of Nebraska, Omaha)
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