Sebastia (Samaria), Holy Land
The ancient royal city of Sebastia or Samaria located 12 km northwest of Nablus city housing the remains of the fine church or sanctuary of St. John the Baptist (pbuh).
12 km northwest of Nablus up on the scenic slopes of the Nablus hills stands the ancient royal city of Sebastia or Samaria overlooking the present village of Sebastia. The ruined site extends on a hill dominating the surroundings.
On top of the hill the remains of an Iron Age city were found. Visible remains include the forum with the Severan basilica, many columns of which are still standing; the Roman theater with the Hellenistic tower near it, and the Herodian gate towers at the entrance to a colonnaded street.
Sebaste as the city was known in ancient times, means Augustus in Greek. This name comes from the year 27 BC when Augustus bestowed the city to Herod the Great. Omri, the 6th king of Israel first built this city in 876 BC. Being located on a hill and completely isolated, it was easy to defend. King Omri transferred his residence from Terzah to Samaria and made it his capital.
The successors of Omri, Ahab and Jeroboam II, embellished and fortified the city. Ahab under the influence of his Phoenician wife Jezabel, built a temple there in honor of Baal, which was later destroyed by Jehu.
But it was Jeroboam II (784-748 BC) who gave Samaria its greatest days. His long reign saw the development of a powerful aristocracy who became symbols of decadent aristocracy for the prophets Hosea and Amos (pbut). Prophet Amos (pbuh) contrasts the miserable lives of the poor with the luxury of aristocratic houses with their couches of ivory. The prophets' predictions of Samaria were: "And I will make Samaria as a heap of stones in the field when a vineyard is planted, and I will bring down the stones thereof into the valley and will lay her foundations bare".
The instrument of the divine wrath was the Assyrians who having defeated Hosea, the last king of Israel, captured the city in 721 BC, after a 3 year siege. This brought the downfall of the kingdom of Israel; the Israelites were carried captures to Babylon and the land was peopled with Chaldaeans.
In 331 BC, Alexander the Great destroyed the city, which had risen out of its ruins; as did John Hyrcanus in 108 BC.
Pompey rebuilt the town in the year 63 BC, and in the year 27 Augustus bestowed it on Herod the great. Herod did his usual first-class building job and to honor his patron, renamed the new city Sebaste. At Sebaste, he celebrated one of his many marriages and executed two of his sons.
After the death of Christ (pbuh), Philip the Deacon was the first to preach there the gospel with such success that soon Peter and John joined him in the field.
During the troubles of 64, the soldiers maltreated the Jews, who revenged themselves by burning the city in 66.
In 196, Septimius Severus imported a new population; rebuilding the public buildings, but it lost out all its population to nearby Nablus.
In the 4th century, Sebaste had a Christian community that boasted the fact that it possessed the tombs of St. John the Baptist (pbuh) and the prophets Abdias and Elisha (pbut).
Julian the Apostate (361-363) scattered their ashes to the winds, but Christians continued to venerate the tombs, which were enclosed in a basilica destroyed by the Persians in 614, but rebuilt by the Crusaders, who placed a bishop.
In 1187 the Latin Cathedral was transformed into a mosque and to the venerated tombs was added that of the prophet Zachariah (pbuh).
At a distance, the site appears insignificant. Only the view from the great temple on the acropolis reveals its dominating position. The surrounding hills stand at a respectful distance, on a clear day; one can see the Mediterranean coast.
In the village of Sebastia, one can see the remains of the fine church or sanctuary of St. John the Baptist (pbuh), built by the Crusaders in 1165. The church was built on the ruins of a Byzantine basilica, in the crypt of which were the relics of the precursor and the relics of the prophets Abdias and Elisha (pbut). The only remains of the 12th century building are the Apse, a few large pieces of the wall, together with a considerable portion of the western façade and a few clusters of pillars. The presbytery and the Apse were transformed into a mosque called Nabi Yahya (Mosque of St. John the Baptist).
Among the superb vestiges of Roman civilization, the following stand out; the Forum, a vast area enclosed within a strong wall and an external colonnade, the civic Basilica, a large hall divided into three naves by two rows of columns, the Tribunal, the Stadium, the Theater, a long colonnaded street, and a monumental city gate flanked by two towers to the west of the city.
To the south of the temple of Augustus, spread the ruins of the palace of Omri which was enlarged by Ahab. Ostraca, Rhodian amphoras, pieces of pottery bearing Greek and Hebrew inscription have revealed the Persian and Hellenistic quarter, which covered the two aforesaid palaces.
75 ostraca were found in 1908 in the palace of Ahab, they are shreds of broken clay vessels with inscriptions in Archaic characters, traced in ink. Most of them served as labels for jars of wine or oil of the royal stores.
Here in 1932 was discovered a stratum with small ivory tablets decorated with delicate reliefs, which served probably to embellish the furniture of the ivory house of Ahab, mentioned in the Bible. On the summit, the remains of a church built on the site of the first finding of the Precursor were found. It seems to date from the 5th century, but later it underwent many transformations. In a crypt at the eastern end of the northern aisle, one can still notice some frescoes representing scenes of the beheading of St. John (pbuh). The ruins may not be imposing, but its strategic position is evident.