City of Peace: The Pearl of the Galilee

We visited Israel for the first time in 2011, when I was still a homeschooling mom. Because we used a modified Classical curriculum, my children and I immersed ourselves in history, literature, art, philosophy, ancient languages (Hebrew and Latin), and culture. Israel, a land steeped in Biblical, Hellenistic, Jewish, Roman, early Christian, Byzantine, Muslim and Crusader history was a place where my young son and I could actually walk out much of what we had learned in books. For us, it was truly exiting, and I knew we had to somehow be a part of this fantastic place. We first stumbled upon Tzippori in 2011, and wound up moving to a town just 20 minutes to the north. Last winter, my husband, John, and I decided to visit once again. Come with us to one of the most phenomenal archaeological discoveries in the 20th century (right in our back yard!!).

Perched like a bird on top of a high hill in the middle of the Lower Galilee is the city of Tzippori (which means bird in Hebrew). It was first built by Hellenistic (Greek) Jews around 125 BCE, and was chosen for its prime location on the main trade route between Egypt and Damascus, the Via Maris. It was also on the route from Akko on the Mediterranean to the Sea of Galilee. On several occasions, the city was attacked by marauding bands, and finally Herod Antipas, the great builder, undertook its reconstruction in 37 BCE. He employed many different tradesmen from stonemasons to carpenters and the top artisans of the day to create what the historian Josephus would call “the pearl of the Galilee.” As it is only 3.5 miles (a 45 minute walk) from Nazareth, it is more than probable that Joseph the carpenter and foster-father of Jesus was employed here, as was Jesus himself.

Lower Tzippori, a sprawling city adjacent to modern-day Nazareth, in background

By 4 BCE, the Romans were fully entrenched in the Holy Land. Many times they were fought off by zealots, but Tzippori was different. The newly remodeled city was full of Roman sympathizers, often times at odds with the local Galileans. Because Sephoris (as it was called by the Romans) was a “City of Peace,” it was spared destruction from Vespasian and Titus like most of the other towns and cities that were razed by the Legion between 66 and 73 AD. In fact, at one time, Vespasian had over 7500 troops quartered here. For its time, Tzippori was a very wealthy city as evidenced by the many magnificent buildings and especially the mosaics…some of the best in the world! Craftsmen were not only locals, but employed from Egypt, Greece, Rome, experts in the latest styles of carving, fresco painting and tile work. Let’s visit, shall we?

The archeological ruins in the lower part of the city included a colonnaded cardo, the Roman term for the large main thoroughfare. On either side of the cardo, merchants’ shops stood. From the excavation, we get a wonderful picture of daily life in the first century. Glass bottles with remnants of exotic perfumes were discovered; ceramics and stoneware vessels containing grains and pulses; exquisitely crafted jewelry (a gold earring with gemstones, bracelets, an olive leaf head wreath of gold) have been uncovered in situ. Historians note that farming in the rich Jezreel Valley soil and shepherding was done outside the city walls. Fish were brought in fresh from the Mediterranean and Sea of Galilee. In the center of the city were government buildings, a synagogue, and a bank or treasury. Most citizens in this mixed Jewish and Roman city worked for the government under Herod Antipas. There were scribes, tax collectors, judges, lawyers and merchants.

A large villa was unearthed in 1987. The many rooms contained floors of magnificent mosaics. It is called “The Nile House” because the floor in the main hall has a large mosaic depicting the celebration of the Nile River, with a number of separate scenes of different events. In one corner, the river flows from the mouth of an animal on whose back sits a Nile god. In another a reclining female holds a basket of fruit. There are papyrus and lilies in the stream, and the center figure is a picture of a man on a column with a rod called a Nilometer, which measured the height of the river. Surrounding are mosaics showing wild animals in hunting mode. In the room adjacent, the mosaic floor depicts Amazons hunting. The Amazons were a mythical race of female warriors originating from the Caucasus, they settled in Cappodocia (Turkey) and mated with the neighboring Gargarensians, keeping only the girls that were born. The word Amazon comes from the Greek ‘a’ meaning without and ‘mazos “ meaning breast. Legend has it that these women cut off their right breast in order to be better archers…. Anyway, you can see the Greek (Hellenistic) as well as the Egyptian influences in this ancient metropolis (The Greeks invaded Israel in about 150 BCE influencing many Jewish people in Israel to adopt their culture. Centuries before, the Jews were scattered throughout the ancient world in the First Diaspora, hence Hellenized Jews).

One of my favorite places is the tile merchant’s/ mosaic artist’s showroom. Just as we would go to a carpet warehouse or flooring store today, people in the first century could visit the tile showroom and see samples of floor designs. It’s absolutely great!! The ‘warehouse’ had sample designs in little cubicles, offering a variety of geometric shapes, borders, floral and figurative designs. Plus a sample board to choose the colors and sizes of the tesserae!! I don’t think you can find this anywhere else in the world!

Close up of tesserae samples… 68 varying shades in all

For those of you who are interested in feats of engineering, one of the first considerations when building a city is water. How does a team of engineers get water to a city without digging wells? Israel is situated in a desert/sub-Saharan zone. It only rains in the winter: the rest of the year is bone dry. Especially in ancient times, cities were built atop hills and mountains for obvious defensive reasons. So getting water uphill was quite the engineering problem. In the Nazareth mountains nearby flowed underground springs. These springs were channeled in six separate aqueducts which converged outside Tzippori into an enormous hand-hewn cistern or reservoir. This huge underground storage chamber is 260 meters long and 12 meters deep with a volume of 4300 cubic meters. It was in use from the first through the seventh centuries. From the reservoir, the water then ran into a sedimentation chamber, and filtered into another reservoir or holding tank. Enormous amounts of water then exited via a large lead pipe with a filtering sluice at one end. It is truly a marvel to see this sophisticated system! From the reservoir the fresh water was carried by aqueduct into Tzippori. The tremendous build up of water pressure from the reservoir to the small viaducts propelled the water uphill. The remarkable engineering feat actually carried running water through the town and into each house, providing fresh water for drinking, cooking, washing, sanitation, and the ritual Jewish purification baths called mikvaot as well as to the Roman bathhouse in the lower city.


There are just so many interesting things to see here. Let’s head back to the cardo: we were smitten with the actual tracks made by the heavy wagon wheels on the stone streets. A representation of an ancient cart built upon wheels and axels found there is on display. Seeing this really brings the place to life as we could envision a bustling city teaming with life and wagons laden with building materials.

Back in 2011, Max and I got most excited over our tremendous ‘discovery.’ As soon as we saw this graffiti etched into the paving stones on the wide city street, we knew exactly what they were. We had read about this in our Rome studies, so to see it up close for reals: WOW!!! Before I explain, I’ll let you look at the photos and you can try to guess what they were-

So what are all these odd markings? They are street games. During times of boredom, children, merchants, and soldiers alike used to throw knucklebones. Small bones or cubiyot, like dice would be rolled into a designated area etched into the street and points would be racked up. For the adults (and street punks?) it was a game of great skill and often involved placing bets. Sometimes, as in the photo uppermost right, the grids would be stacked in a line and the game resembled cribbage or backgammon as the player would move their pieces from grid to grid. Is this super cool or what???

Now we make our way up the mountain to the upper part of Tzippori. Again, we can see the influence of Rome. Every metropolis needs entertainment, and as one would expect, there is a nice sized amphitheater carved into the north side of the mountain. It was built in the late first or second century AD and had seating for 4000. On ground level in front was the orchestra (the place for the chorus during the Greek period, reserved for honored guests during Roman times. The elevated stage or scena was made of marble and wood. Behind would be large scaffolding for the backdrops with costuming below and balconies for soliloquies above. At this particular site, metal scaffolding has been added so one can get a general idea of the design. Rows of seating were hewn out of the bedrock and covered with marble slabs. Most have been raided and repurposed for building by other civilizations, a very common occurrence. The bottom rows remain intact.

The remains of a spectacular Roman residence built at the beginning of the third century AD were found towards the mountain’s plateau. This villa, along with most of the other structures in Tzippori, was destroyed in the great earthquake of 363 AD. The villa would have had most spectacular views, and because of its proximity to the theatre, indicates a high status of the owner. It has now been enclosed to preserve what is left including Israel’s finest mosaic, the Mona Lisa of the Middle East. The mansion was built according to a popular Roman floor plan. The main room of the sprawling villa was the triclinium, or dining room walled on three sides open to spectacular views and a colonnaded portico facing the Mount Carmel Ridge of Haifa. Cubiculum, or bedrooms, were located off the main hall. Also, just off the dining room, was an indoor bathroom (picture below) with running water below the latrine hole. The walls of the villa were once covered in beautiful frescoes as evidenced by the remains of paint on the existing walls. Many of the rooms had mosaic floors with colorful patterns, the most ornate in the dining salon contains scenes from the life of Dionysus, god of wine. The mosaic is comprised of 1.5 million stones in 23 colors.

Now for a bit of interesting history. The Romans finally decided to subjugate these living in Israel. Why after so many years? The Jews paid taxes at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The taxes exacted by the Romans were exorbitant and bleeding them dry (hence the “render unto Caesar…” speech). Many refused or just could not pay, which oftentimes led to enslavement. The Romans worked seven days a week except for State/religious festivals. The Jewish people insisted on keeping the Sabbath: every Saturday was a day of complete rest in which no work at all was done. When in the early 30s-70 AD, this new cult of Jewish believers in Yeshua (Jesus) as their promised Messiah started springing up, not only was Shabbat kept, but now Sunday was held by these nascent Christians as the Lord’s Day. The Romans were losing a day’s labor from the Jews and two days labor from the Messianics. It was going too far! Plus bands of Jewish zealots were springing up trying to shake off their hoke of bondage to Rome.

In 66-68 AD, the Roman legions led by Vespasian and his son, Titus, landed on the shores of Akko in Israel. They spent the next two years routing out all the Jewish people living in the towns and countryside of the Galilee region. It was during this time the Jewish general Mattityahu Ben Joseph was captured (later becoming Josephus Flavius, the historian to Rome). Many Jews were expelled. Many were taken as slaves. Many killed. Many traveled south towards Jerusalem. By 70 AD, the Romans captured their prize jewel, the eternal capital of the Jewish people: the city of Jerusalem. The walls were breached after a long siege and after a bloodbath, the Roman army seized the city and razed the holy Temple (see Arch of Titus in Rome). This marked the beginning of the great diaspora in which most of the Jewish people were either taken into captivity or were dispersed throughout the world.

Jerusalem, the Holy City since King David, had always been the spiritual or religious center for the Jewish people. It was where the Sanhedrin (the main body of the court of law) assembled. Home to the great priests, rabbis and Torah scholars of the day. it was a major center of learning in the ancient world. Many of these great sages of old (khazal) escaped Jerusalem and went south to Yavne (south of modern day Tel Aviv) or north toward Tzippori. For the first part of the new millennium, the Oral Law or Mishnah (companion to the Torah), which had been handed down from generation to generation, was codified, much of it in Tzippori. Great sages of Judaism, Yehuda haNasi and Rebbe Eliezer lived in this city arguing, discussing and writing the heart of the Talmud. The remains of a large synagogue from the first century are here, but the structure was mostly destroyed in the great earthquake.

Early Christianity/Catholicism also had their own Oral Traditions that had been handed down from generation to generation (Dormition and Assumption of Mary; home of the Holy Family; sites of miracles). One of these traditions states that Mary’s parents (grandparents of Jesus), Joaquin and Anna, were originally from the city of Tzippori. During the times of the Crusaders, a large church and monastery were erected at the site of their purported home. It was called Deir Anna or the Monastery of St Anna.

There is a Crusader fortress at the very top of the mountain. It was destroyed by the Mamaluks under Baybars, then rebuilt in the 18th century by Daher Al Omar, the Bedouin ruler of the Galilee. During this time period, Tzippori, called Sephoris by the Romans, was now renamed Safouriyeh thus Arabizing the Hebrew.

Last, are the ruins of a large synagogue from the second century. It was a center of activity for the sprawling city, and reflected not only its Jewish heritage and connection (commemoration of) the destroyed Second Temple, but also has Greek, Roman and Eastern influence as seen in the mosaics. There is a large central medallion of the zodiac with both Hebrew and Greek writing. Side panels depict the accoutrements of the Temple worship: shofarim (trumpets), menorah (lamp stand), incense table, showbread table, bulls for sacrifice, jars of olive oil, baskets of fruit containing the seven species of plants native to Israel. At the other end of the synagogue floor are mosaic representations of the Biblical story of Abraham: Abraham feeding the angels, Abraham and Sarah, and Father Abraham’s ascent up Mt Moriah with his son, Isaac on the donkey. A side band in Hebrew reads that the floor was “donated with generous funds by ….. in memory of their son, …. “ So it keeps the tradition of a memorial plaque. The geometric design is more Eastern than Western. Even though the synagogue is now a museum, pre-arranged weddings and Bar Mitzvahs can take place on the site. When we were there, a group was gathering for a Bar Mitzvah. A portable ark with Torah was being wheeled onto the main floor and a bima was being set up. It’s another example of living connection to the past.

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