The city of Zippori (Sepphoris) is located on a hill in the Lower Galilee, midway between
the Mediterranean and Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee).
The city dates to
the era of the Maccabees in the second century B.C.E.,
when it was founded by Alexander Janneus of the Hasmonean dynasty.
was described by the first century C.E. Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius,
as "the ornament of all Galilee." The city may get its name
from the Hebrew word "tsipor" (bird) because the view
from the town gives a sense of flying.
Zippori is mentioned in many Jewish sources of the first centuries of the common
era. Founded in the Hellenistic era by Alexander Janneus, it was captured by the Romans in 37 B.C.E. when
the inhabitants fled in the midst of a snowstorm. A rebellion against
Herod's control of Zippori was suppressed and the King's son, Herod Antipas rebuilt the city and
renamed it Autocratoris. The Roman governor, Gabinius, later made Zippori
the administrative capital of Galilee in the mid-first century B.C.E.
The Jews did not join the revolt
against Rome in 66 C.E.; instead, they opened the city gates to the
legions of the Roman Emperor Vespasian and surrendered. On coins minted in Zippori at that time, the city is named Eirenopolis, "city of peace."
Later, its name was changed to Diocaesarea in honor of Zeus and the
The Jewish community grew when thousands of refugees
from Judea moved to towns in the Galilee following the Bar-Kokhba revolt of 135 and Zippori became the center of Jewish religious and
spiritual life in the Land of Israel. Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, who compiled the Mishnah,
lived in the city for 17 years and relocated the Sanhedrin (the supreme Jewish religious and judicial body he headed) to Zippori in the third century. At least 18 synagogues were functioning in the city around this time and Jews constituted the
majority of the town's population.
Even after the seat of the Sanhedrin was moved to Tiberias, Zippori remained a center of Bible study and notable sages taught in its numerous
academies. Also, its location on or near major trade routes in the lower
Galilee, made Zippori a prime market for traders.
The discovery of rich, figurative mosaics during
excavations at Zippori provide evidence of the Roman character of the city's pagan population,
which coexisted in harmony with the Jews during the period of economic
prosperity in the late Roman
period. Zippori was destroyed in 363 by an earthquake, but was rebuilt soon thereafter,
retaining its social and spiritual centrality in Jewish life in the
The city is also the traditional birthplace of Mary and
just four miles of Nazareth,
the home of Jesus. During Byzantine times, the Christian community in Zippori grew considerably. This growth was accompanied by the construction of
many churches and by Christian involvement in municipal matters. It became
the seat of a Christian bishopric in the 5th century CE. Following the Arab conquest in
the mid-seventh century, the city declined.
Under Crusader rule during
the 12th century, a small watchtower and a church (dedicated to Anne and
Joachim, parents of Mary, mother of Jesus) were built on the city's
hilltop. The remains of the watchtower, partly renovated in later times,
still dominates the hilltop today.
Since 1990, large areas of Zippori have been excavated. The
finds have included public buildings and baths, residential areas, an
amphitheater, market building, industrial installations, mikvot,
cisterns, a complex drainage system and a great deal of glass.
Of particular interest are the ruins of a 4,500-seat Roman amphitheater and
a mosaic inside a villa that has the depiction of a beautiful young woman
that is referred to as the "Mona Lisa of the Galilee."
Archaeologists also discovered the narrowest ancient synagogue in Israel,
measuring only about 68 feet (20.7 m.) long and 27 feet (8 m.) wide, which
has a beautiful mosaic floor decorated with a zodiac and pictures of Temple
objects and Biblical scenes.