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Archaeology in Israel: Zippori

The city of Zippori (Sepphoris), described by the first century CE Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius, as "the ornament of all Galilee," is located on a hill in the Lower Galilee, midway between the Mediterranean and Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), with abundant spring water and a fertile valley around it.

Zippori is mentioned in many Jewish sources of the first centuries of the common era. Founded in the Hellenistic era, it was named the administrative capital of Galilee by Gabinius, the Roman governor, in the mid-first century BCE. The city did not join the revolt against Rome in 66 CE; it opened its gates to the legions of the Roman Emperor Vespasian and was thus saved. 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 emperor.

By the second century, Zippori had become the center of Jewish religious and spiritual life in the Land of Israel. The Sanhedrin (supreme Jewish religious and judicial body), headed by Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, was located in Zippori at the beginning of the third century; at this time 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.

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 Galilee.

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. 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.

During the Roman and Byzantine periods an acropolis existed on the hilltop and a sprawling lower city covered a cradle-shaped ridge east of the acropolis.

Since 1990 large areas of Zippori have been excavated, illuminating the written history of the city.

The Acropolis

The original residential quarters of the city have been exposed on the western side of the acropolis. The remains indicate that the earliest occupation of Zippori dates back to the Hasmonean and Herodian periods (from the end of the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE). The buildings, one and two stories high, were built on both sides of a narrow paved street. A characteristic feature are the many Jewish ritual baths (mikva'ot) for domestic use, hewn in bedrock and plastered, with several steps leading to the bottom.

The Theater

A large theater, 74 m. in diameter and containing 4,500 seats, was built on the northern slope of the acropolis in the Roman period. Its semicircular auditorium was partly cut into the hillside, while its wings and upper parts were supported by stone foundations and vaults. The theater was badly damaged in antiquity.

The Roman Villa

A magnificent third century Roman villa was exposed on the western side of the acropolis. This two-story residence contained many rooms, some paved with colorful mosaics, surrounding a central, atrium-type courtyard; columns supported its covered porticos.

The courtyard was connected by doors to a triclinium, the largest room in the building, paved with a magnificent mosaic floor. The decorated part of the floor formed the shape of the letter T, which enabled guests, reclining on couches on three sides of the room, to enjoy the many panels of the floor. They depict, in over twenty shades of colored tessarae, the life of Dionysos, Greek god of wine, and scenes of daily life connected with the rites of Dionysos.

The Lower City

A large area of the lower city east of the acropolis has been exposed. First inhabited during the second century, it presents a well-planned network of streets and blocks (insulae) of buildings. Two colonnaded, paved streets with roofed sidewalks - the cardo, and the intersecting decumanus - had shops on both sides. The streets underwent many changes in the course of hundreds of years. One such change took place at the end of the Byzantine period, when the sidewalks were repaved with mosaics of geometric design. The accompanying Greek inscription reads: "Under our most saintly father Euthropius the Episcopus, the whole city, in the time of the fourteenth indiction."

The largest and most impressive building so far exposed is the 5th century "Nile Festival House," covering an area of 50 x 30 m. Some 20 rooms have beautiful, multi-colored mosaic floors; the most elegant, preserved almost intact, depicts scenes of the Nile Festival.

The Synagogue

Remains of a 6th century synagogue were exposed in the lower city. The synagogue was elongated in shape (16 m. x 6.5 m.) with a line of columns dividing it into a main hall and a narrow aisle. The mosaic in the main hall, partly damaged, has a zodiac in the center with the sun god Helios in his chariot, surrounded by human figures, the signs of the zodiac and the names of the months. The carpet is divided into strips, some depicting scenes from the Bible (Abraham and the angels, the binding of Isaac), others Temple rituals (a sacrifice, offering of first fruits and the table with the shewbread.)

Sources: Ministry of Foreign Affairs