Many visitors to Nazareth are not aware that only four miles away lies the ancient city of Zippori (pronounced Tsippori in Hebrew). This was the administrative and intellectual capital of Galilee, known as the "city of peace.'" Zippori features beautiful mosaics and an elaborate ancient reservoir (see separate article). It was described as "the ornament of all of Galilee," by Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian. While known primarily as a Jewish city, it became the seat of a Christian bishopric in the 5th century CE. And here, on a hilltop there is a church and a watchtower in memory of Anne and Joachim, the parents of Mary, Mother of Jesus.
The excavations at ancient Zippori also known as Sepphoris have proven to be one of the most exciting archaeological sites in the Galilee today. The modern dig, launched in the mid-1980s, has revealed the remains of a moderately sized city that served as the regional capital during Roman rule. Climbing to the summit of the acropolis, it is not hard to understand the strategic location of the city, overlooking the sweeping valley of Bet Netofa. In fact, it has been suggested that the town's name - Zippori - comes from the Hebrew word 'tsipor' (bird), because the spectacular view from the hill, which gives one the feeling of flying.
The city's demographic character was pluralistically varied over the centuries and the loyalistic sentiments of its residents changed frequently and colorfully. Alexander Janneus of the Hasmonean dynasty first founded the city in the 1st century BCE and it later came under King Herod's control in 37BCE when he captured it amidst a raging snowstorm after most of the residents had fled. When Herod died in 4 BCE the locals took up arms against his armies to prevent remaining under Herodian control but their rebellion was crushed and much damage done to the city. Herod's son Herod Antipas brushed off the dust, picked up the pieces and rebuilt Sepphoris, renaming it 'Autocratoris.'
The city's inhabitants gradually transferred their allegiances to the Romans, and when the Jewish revolt broke out in 66 CE the Sepphorians opened their gates and surrendered to Vespasian to save their city.
However, with the Temple destroyed and Jerusalem in ruins many Jews fled northwards to the Galilee. A significant number of them settled in Zippori so that the population of the city became very mixed. In fact, after the revolt Zippori became the foremost Jewish city in Galilee, even serving as the seat of the Jewish Supreme court, or Sanhedrin, in the early 3rd century.
Much of what has been uncovered in the excavations attests to the very pluralistic quality of Zippori over the centuries, including a Roman theater, a Jewish residential quarter, ritual baths, churches and many, many mosaics.
One of the things you should make a note to see at Zippori is located about a kilometer from the main site. It is an ancient water reservoir, from the Roman and Byzantine periods. This reservoir contained a valve that enabled the regulation of water flow and was apparently built in two phases, during the 2nd and 4th centuries CE. It was in use until the 7th century. It is currently easy to miss the reservoir, but in the near future the entrance to the park will be closer to it and then visitors will be less likely to miss it.
Tsvika Tsuk, Director Department of Archaeology and Heritage at the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority described the Zippori reservoir as "A technological wonder which was dug on a geological fault, almost 2000 years ago. Being inside this space causes us to both respect and admire whoever planned it." Tsuk noted that a similar reservoir, most likely planned by the same person, is located close to Irbid, in Jordan. According to Tsuk the Zippori reservoir was built because the springs here were so meager, water simply had to be collected.
The sheer size of the reservoir can only be felt by standing inside this wonder of ancient engineering. Today, visitors to the park can walk down roughly 40 steps into one of two reservoirs. Once at the bottom you can proceed through the tunnel that connects to the second reservoir and walk back up, using another stairway. The reservoir had an enormous capacity of 1,140,000 US gallons (4,300 cubic meters). One of these chambers is 850 feet (260 meters) long, 33 feet (10 meters) deep and 6-13 feet (2-4 meters) wide.
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Sources: Copyright Text © 2000 Gems in Israel All rights reserved. Reprinted with Permission. Photo courtesy of the University of South Florida Excavations at Sepphoris.