Visit Sebastia!

By Miri - 

When we think of the abundance of historical and religious sites in Palestine/Israel, we usually think of the majestic cities of Jerusalem or Bethlehem, while other places, especially the smaller ones in the West Bank (not to mention those in the basically inaccessible Gaza region) are by and large ignored. The lack of attention that those smaller places receive are mainly a consequence of the lack of infrastructure, which in turn is inextricably linked to the long years of Israeli occupation and its manifold impacts on the Palestinian tourism industry among others.

Sebastia, a village of a few thousand people in the Nablus region is one of those places, although it seems to be a bit more successful in receiving the attention it deserves.

Roman Theatre, with Hellenistic Defensive Tower outside of Sebastia, Photo: KMB

The village and the numerous ancient sites in its immediate surrounding comprise of remains from six successive cultures, Canaanite, Israelite, Hellenistic, Herodian, Roman and Byzantine, dating altogether back as far as 10,000 years.
In the 9th and 8th century BCE Sebastia's lands belonged to the ancient city of Samaria, the capital of the Kingdom of Israel. Subsequently the site provided the scene for numerous invasions, wars and takeovers, by such prominent figures as Alexander the Great among others.

Forum columnade, Photo: KMB
In 27 BCE Augustus Caesar gave the city to Herod the Great, who, in honour of the Emperor, renamed it Sebaste, the feminine form of Augustus.

Also in the bible Sebastia is mentioned numerous times. Probably most prominent among those quotes is the reference to it being the site of the decapitation of John the Baptist. According to Mark 6:21-29, Herodias, the wife of Herod Antipas (son of Herod the Great, who gave Sebastia its current name), was angry at John for calling her marriage unlawful. She therefore encouraged Salome, her daughter, to demand the execution of John. On the occasion of Herod Antipas' birthday, Salome pleased her step-father by dancing in front of him, who subsequently promised with an oath to give her whatever she would ask of him.
But she being instructed before by her mother, said: Give me here in a dish the head of John the Baptist. And the king was struck sad: yet because of his oath, and for them that sat with him at table, he commanded it to be given. And he sent, and beheaded John in the prison.
And his head was brought in a dish: and it was given to the damsel, and she brought it to her mother. And his disciples came and took the body, and buried it, and came and told Jesus. 
Gospel of Matthew 14:6-11
Basilica/Mosque, Photo KMB
The remains of a basilica church on Sebastia's central square, probably founded in the 5th century, is believed to be where John the Baptist was incarcerated, decapitated and where his head was later buried. Today, it is the location of the villages main mosque, Nabi Yahya, named after the Prophet John. Many more buildings in the village's heart were recently excavated and beautifully restored, so don't spend all your time lingering around the archaeological sites, and make sure to also visit today's Sebastia. The village now even provides a nice guest house for people to stay overnight and to enjoy more of the beautiful scenery.

Sadly, tourism is not the only concern of the people of Sebastia. Just like in so many other villages in the West Bank, they are struggling with the increase and expansion of settlements on their land. In fact, one can claim that the settler movement celebrated one of its first major victories in Sebastia's surroundings, when in 1974 a group attempted to establish a settlement on the remains of the Ottoman Sebastia train station. After seven attempts and six removals from the site by the Israeli army, the Israeli government and the settlers reached an agreement by which it allowed 25 families to settle down in the Kadum army camp, which would later develop into the town of Kedumim, a settlement which by now counts more than 3,500 people. What has become known as the "Sebastia model" was subsequently successfully copied in numerous other settlements, among others in Shavei Shomron, a settlement by and large established on Sebastia's land. More recently farmers of Sebastia have been complaining about sewage water from Shavei Shomron, which is being pumped into and flooding the farmers' fields and damaging their crops.

Green Olive Tours offers you a tour to Nablus, Sebastia and Jenin, for more information see here

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1 comment:

  1. Great site... Sebastia is definitely worth a visit, and doing it with Geen Olive Tours is probably the very best way to get "behind the scenes" in Samaria on the West Bank.... thanks to their work and effort and enthusiasm yet another perspective to our visit in Israel became available.....

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