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Samaria (Heb. Shomron, modern Sebaste) is a city established as the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of the Ephraimite ruler Omri c. 884 B.C.E. on a mountain ridge 12 miles northwest of Shechem on the central route from Jerusalem to Galilee. The territory controlled by the city was eventually named for it.

Prior to the Omride period the site appears to have been the center of an extensive wine and oil production area, which may have accounted for its choice as the new capital. Apparently the origin of the name of the site was from Shemer, the eponymous owner of the land that Omri purchased for two talents of silver (I Kings 16:23–24).

The city was captured by Sargon II of Assyria [722 BCE], who deported 27,000 inhabitants and replaced them with captives from five Babylonian cities. Given its strategic location, the city served as the provincial capital of the region for 600 years under Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Hellenistic empires.

It was made subject to Jerusalem after a year long siege by Johanan Hyrcanus [ca. 110 BCE] who destroyed its fortifications. After Roman occupation, the walls were restored by Gabinius. The city sided with Herod against the Hasmonean prince Antigonus, who controlled Jerusalem [38 BCE]. Thus, Herod made it part of his building campaign, enlarging it and rededicating it to the emperor Augustus [Sebastos in Greek]. Remains of the large [230' x 280'] Herodian temple to Augustus with part of a marble statue of the emperor were uncovered in the modern excavations. According to Acts 8, this thoroughly Romanized city was the center of the first successful expansion of the Jesus movement among non-Jews.

As a monument to Roman domination, Sebaste was captured and burned by Jews early in their war with Rome [66 CE]. Though Roman forces under Vespasian recaptured it [69 CE], it was not restored until the end of the 2nd century CE. Later Byzantine tradition claimed it was the site of the burial of Johanan the Baptizer.

Archaeological Findings

The site has been excavated by two archaeological expeditions. The first was the Harvard Expedition, initially directed by G. Schumacher in 1908 and then by G.A. Reisner in 1909 and 1910 with the assistance of architect C.S. Fisher and D.G. Lyon. The second expedition was known as the "Joint Expedition," a consortium of five institutions directed by J.W. Crowfoot between 1931 and 1935, with the assistance of K. Kenyon, E.L. Sukenik, and G.M. Crowfoot. The leading institutions were the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, the Palestine Exploration Fund, and the Hebrew University. In the 1960s small-scale excavations directed by F. Zayadine were carried out on behalf of the Department of Antiquities of Jordan.

The city is built on the summit of a rocky hill, and the foundations of the monumental buildings from later periods often plowed down through the earlier strata to the bedrock, which was never far below. In modern times the site has been used as farmland by the villagers of neighboring Sebaste; this meant that most of the excavated areas had to be back-filled and returned to agricultural use. These two developments hindered excavation and later analysis of the remains. The earliest remains consist of extensive rock-cut installations, initially thought to date to the Early Bronze Age by Kenyon. These were reevaluated, first by Stager and then by Franklin, and are now recognized to be the remains of an extensive early Iron Age oil and wine industry (designated Building Period 0).

Only the acropolis of Samaria has been extensively excavated down to the bedrock. The palace was excavated solely by the Harvard Expedition and recognized by it as the Palace of Omri (designated Building Period I). The Omride palace was located on an elevated 4-meter-high rock-cut platform that isolated it from its immediate surroundings. Immediately below the palace, cut into the face of the bedrock platform, there are two rock-cut tomb chambers that have only recently been recognized and attributed to Omri and Ahab.


 Plan of the site of Samaria. Based on Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land , Jerusalem, 1970.


West of the palace there are meager remains of other Building Period I buildings, but much of the rock surface has been severely damaged by later buildings. The Omride palace continued in use during the next building phase (designated Building Period II), but it was no longer isolated on an elevated platform. The acropolis area was extended in all directions by the addition of a massive perimeter wall built in the casemate style; the new enlarged rectangular acropolis measured c. 290 ft. (90 m.) from north to south and at least c. 585 ft. (180 m.) from west to east, and the surface was now raised to a uniform elevation by the addition of a massive fill. This phase (Building Period II) was traditionally attributed to Ahab due to the misallocation of Wall 161 that runs parallel to the northern casemates and the identification of a large rock-cut pool near the northern casemate wall as the biblical "Pool of Samaria"; the wall (Wall 161) is now recognized to belong to Building Period II and the "pool" is a rock-cut grape-treading area that originated in Building Period 0 and continued in a reduced form in Building Period I. Consequently the onset of Building Period II can only be relatively fixed. There is neither a biblical anchor nor securely dated pottery to establish the chronological affiliation of Building Period II. The Omride Palace was still in use and the royal tombs were still accessible (now via subterranean rooms) and there was an administrative building, the "Ostraca House" (named for the 63 ostraca retrieved from the floor's make-up) built west of the palace on the newly extended acropolis. The ostraca provide a wealth of data concerning oil and wine supplies, and can possibly be attributed to the period of Jeroboam II c. 785–749, thus providing a probable date for Building Period II.

North of the palace a rich cache of Phoenician ivories (furniture ornamentation) was retrieved. This was mixed with later debris, but it was presumed by the excavators (the Joint) that it was in this area that the "Ivory House" that Ahab built for Jezebel (I Kings 22:39) stood. Northeast and below the acropolis a number of Iron Age tombs were found and their location probably delimits the area of the city in that direction. In essence only the acropolis was excavated down to the Iron Age, but it is presumed by the excavators (the Joint) that the city extended down over the northern and southern slopes of the hill.

During the reign of the last king of the northern kingdom, Hosea (II Kings 10), the Assyrians invaded in 722/721 B.C.E. (initially under Shalmaneser V and finally under Sargon II), when they established complete control over the capital city and the remainder of the northern kingdom. The fragment of a stela with an Assyrian inscription attributed to Sargon II was found on the eastern slope of the acropolis testifying to their presence. In addition, according to inscriptions from Sargon's palace at Khorsabad, the inhabitants of Samaria were deported to Assyria. The remains of a wall relief in Room 5 of Sargon's palace are thought to depict Samaria and its defeated defenders. New inhabitants were brought in (from Arabia and the Syro-Mesopotamian area, II Kings 17:24) and, together with the remnant not deported, they formed a new Samaritan population. The city together with the neighboring highland area became known as Samerina and was ruled by an Assyrian governor.

There are only meager remains from the succeeding Babylonian period and it was only in the Persian period, in the mid-fifth century, that the city reemerged in importance. The tensions between the ruling family of Sanballat and Jerusalem under the governorship of Nehemiah are documented in the Bible (Ezra 4:10, Neh. 2:1–8). Samaria became a Hellenistic town in 332 B.C.E. and thousands of Macedonian soldiers were settled there following a revolt by the Samaritans. Three 13-m.-diameter round towers dating to that period have been excavated (the first two by Harvard, which attributed them to the Israelite period) and a later, massive, fortification wall with square towers. These fortifications were breached during the destruction of the city by John Hyrcanus in 108 B.C.E. Traces of the destruction wrought by Hyrcanus were found by the excavators, but the city was apparently resettled under Yannai.

In 63 B.C.E. Samaria was annexed to the Roman province of Syria. In 30 B.C.E. the emperor Augustus awarded the city to Herod , who renamed it Sebaste in honor of Augustus (Gr. Sebastos = Augustus). The outstanding remains from this period are: the Augusteum, consisting of a temple and a large forecourt built over the Omride palace at the summit of the acropolis; a city gate and an east-west colonnaded street; a theater on the northeast slope of the acropolis; a Temple to Kore on a terrace north of the acropolis; and a stadium to the northeast in the valley below. East of the acropolis and in an area that today links the ancient city with the modern village of Sebaste lies the forum, flanked on the west by a partially excavated basilica. Water for Roman Sebaste was provided by an underground aqueduct that led into the area of the forum from springs in the east. The city was encompassed by a city wall 2½ mi. (4 km.) long, with imposing towers that linked the gateways in the west and north. A number of mausoleums with ornate sarcophagi were excavated in the area of the modern village and adjoining fields.

The city was rebuilt without any major changes in the second century C.E. by Septimius Severus, when the city was established as a colony. Samaria has been associated with the burial place of John the Baptist and his tomb, reached by a steep flight of steps, is situated beneath the Crusader cathedral in the village. A small basilica church, first founded in the fifth century, was excavated on the southern slope of the acropolis. The church is traditionally the place of the invention of the head of John the Baptist. A monastery was added to it at a later date. In the 12th century C.E. a Latin cathedral dedicated to John the Baptist and marking the spot of his tomb, was built east of the Roman forum and combined elements of the Roman period city wall. It later became the Sebaste village mosque.


G.A. Reisner, C.S. Fisher, and D.G. Lyon, Harvard Excavations at Samaria (1908–1910), 1–2 (1924); J.W. Crowfoot and G.M. Crowfoot, Early Ivories from Samaria (Samaria-Sebaste 2) (1938); J.W. Crowfoot, K.M. Kenyon, and E.L. Sukenik, The Building at Samaria (Samaria-Sebaste 1) (1942); J.W. Crowfoot, K.M. Kenyon, and G.M. Crowfoot, The Objects of Samaria (Samaria-Sebaste 3) (1957); F. Zayadine, "Samaria-Sebaste: Clearance and Excavations (October 1965–June 1967)," in: ADAJ, 12:77–80 (1966); A.F. Rainey, "Toward a Precise Date for the Samaria Ostraca," in: BASOR, 272:69–74 (1988); L.E. Stager, "Shemer's Estate," in: Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 277/278:93–107 (1990); B. Becking, The Fall of Samaria: An Historical and Archaeological Study (1992); R. Tappy, The Archaeology of Israelite Samaria. Early Iron Age through the Ninth Century B.C.E., vol. 1, Harvard Semitic Studies 44 (1992); R. Tappy, The Archaeology of Israelite Samaria. The Eighth Century B.C., vol. 2, Harvard Semitic Studies 50 (2001); N. Franklin, "The Tombs of the Kings of Israel," in: ZDVP, 119 (2003), 1–11; idem, "Samaria: from the Bedrock to the Omride Palace," in: Levant, 36:189–202 (2004); S. Gibson, The Cave of John the Baptist (2004).

[Norma Franklin (2nd ed.)]

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
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