In Search of Kings

I had the rare opportunity this week to visit the ancient city of Samaria (Shomron), the capital of the Kingdom of Israel during the 9th and 8th centuries b.c.e, and the place where King Herod built his city of  Sebaste at the end of the 1st century b.c.e.   This ancient site is located in the West Bank, a few kilometers from the city of Nablus  and usually requires an organized group visit and  special permits.

However, in honor of Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey, the new exhibit at the Israel Museum, the archaeological sites related to King Herod were open to all visitors for two days this week, no permits required.  Naturally, I jumped at the chance to see ancient Israelite palaces, walls, Herodian temples and many upturned stones.

I was not disappointed.

It is in a place like Samaria that one can begin to ‘walk the land with a Bible in the hand’, for it is in the 9th century b.c.e. that many events mentioned in the Bible begin to match up with historical and archaeological evidence.

(I Kings 16:23) In the thirty-first year of King Asa of Judah, Omri became king over Israel — for twelve years.  He reigned in Tirzah six years.  24 Then he bought the hill of Samaria from Shemer for two talents of silver; he built a town on the hill and named the town which he built Samaria, after Shemer, the owner of the hill.

King Omri built his new capital city from scratch and named it himself.  At Samaria, one can walk through the ruins of Omri’s palace, dating back almost 3,000 years.

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King Omri and King Ahab’s palace in Samaria
9th and 8th centuries b.c.e.

Omri’s son, King Ahab, also ruled from Samaria and also lived in the palace.

(I Kings 20:1)  King Ben-hadad of Aram gathered his whole army; thirty-two kings accompanied him with horses and chariots. He advanced against Samaria, laid siege to it, and attacked it.  2 And he sent messengers to Ahab inside the city 3 to say to him, “Thus said Ben-hadad: Your silver and gold are mine, and your beautiful wives and children are mine.”

Long story short, King Ahab (with the help of God), defeated the nasty Ben-hadad and the Arameans.

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King Omri and King Ahab’s palace

One of the most important finds in Samaria were the Ostraca of Samaria, 64 legible clay potsherds with early Hebrew characters written on them with ink.  These ostraca were found in the treasury of Ahab’s  palace and date back to around 850 b.c.e.

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One of the Ostraca of Samaria dated
to King Ahab’s times

Samaria is mentioned over and over again in the book of Kings, as the Israelites battle the Arameans.  And then, the Assyrians arrive in 722 b.c.e and destroy the city. They exile much of the royalty of the Kingdom of Israel to the Assyrian capital, while many of the Israelites scatter, some to other places in the Assyrian empire, others southwards towards Judah and Egypt and Africa.

According to inscriptions from Sargon II’s palace at Khorsabad, the inhabitants of Samaria were deported to Assyria.

[the Samar]ians [who had agreed with a hostile king]…I fought with them and decisively defeated them]….carried off as spoil. 50 chariots for my royal force …[the rest of them I settled in the midst of Assyria]….The Tamudi, Ibadidi, Marsimani and Hayappa, who live in distant Arabia, in the desert, who knew neither overseer nor commander, who never brought tribute to any king–with the help of Ashshur my lord, I defeated them. I deported the rest of them. I settled them in Samaria/Samerina. (Sargon II Inscriptions, COS 2.118A, p. 293)

The Assyrians kept peace in their kingdom by transferring whole populations around, placing them wherever they felt they would do the most good and the least harm.  In this way, the Israelites were transferred eastward to Assyria and a new population was brought in to rebuild the city of Samaria.

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Hellenistic tower

When Alexander the Great came by on his conquest of the world, he placed hundreds of Macedonian soldier-veterans here and thereby Samaria became a Hellenistic town.  They built huge, massive, round towers around the city for protection.

In the year 108 b.c.e. the Hasmonean king John Hyrkanus ordered the destruction of the city of Samaria, however, his successor Alexander Yanai seems to have rebuilt it.

And this is how we finally get to King Herod…

Herod built some fabulous palaces and fortifications in Samaria in the year 30 b.c.e.  He chose to dedicate the newly refurbished city to his mentor, Emperor Augustus and named it Sebaste (the feminine form of the Greek Sebastos, which means Augustus).

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The colonnaded east-west street led from the Herodian gates to the marketplace

The city eventually became  a Roman town, complete with a cardo (north-south colonnaded street), decomanus maximus (east-west colonnaded street) and a large forum (marketplace) at the junction where these both met.

The many columns at Sebaste still stand as testament of the city’s grandeur.  It had a large basilica, a theater, an underground aqueduct providing water,  4 kilometers long city walls which encompassed the town, with large  gates and towers.

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The columns marking the forum, marketplace, center of commerce and trade

And, of course, Sebaste had a hippodrome, a stadium for one of Rome’s favorite pastimes, horse racing.

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The Roman hippodrome is outlined by still standing columns in the middle of the agricultural fields

But what impressed me the most, was the Augusteum, a temple to Emperor Augustus, which Herod built at the very top of the city, in the acropolis. This Roman temple was built over  the ruins of the palace of Kings Omri and Ahab.  It was 25 meters high, with huge round columns, large  steps leading to the inner sanctum and a courtyard which surrounded the building.

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This is what the Augusteum looked like

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The massive columns of the Augusteum fell over in the earthquake of 363

The overturned, massive columns that lay silent today were witness to an imperial cult,  an extraordinary Roman city in the heart of the land of Israel, built by a Jewish king who wanted to please a higher Roman power, over the ruins of palaces of  previous Israelite kings…

This land is such a crossroads of history…

Would YOU throw your children down the precipice?

Yes, I know, its quite a bombastic title, and yes, sometimes we do want to throw our children down the precipice… however, kidding aside, would you be able to, under certain unimaginable circumstances,  kill your children?

There have been such times in Jewish history, during times of oppression, violence, pogroms and most recently the Holocaust, when parents have had to take desperate measures, sometimes throwing children from moving trains destined to slaughter, handing over their children to strangers with no assurance of ever seeing them again, suffocating crying babies in order to save Jews in hiding from detection, or killing children to avoid their being raped, enslaved or killed by approaching enemy soldiers…

I cannot imagine being in such circumstances, however, to stand on the hallowed ground where parents took such measures is deeply moving.  Let me take you to one such place…

We are in northern Israel, on the Golan Heights and this amazing site is Gamla.  The year is 67 c.e. and the Jewish revolt against the Romans is in full swing.  Since not all the towns in the Galilee and the Golan are rebelling, Gamla has filled with refugees from other battles and towns, and with zealots who in their blind rage against the Romans  have decided to take on the most powerful army in the world.  Rebel towns are falling one by one, but Gamla refuses to surrender.

Flavius Josephus, who originally led the Jewish rebel forces in the North and fortified the town, describes Gamla in his book The Jewish War:

Sloping down from a towering peak is a spur like a long shaggy neck, behind which rides a symmetrical hump, so that the outline resembles that of a camel; hence the name, the exact form of the word being obscured by the local pronunciation. On the face and both sides it is cut off by impassable ravines. Near the tail it is  rather more accessible, where it is detached from the hill; but here too, by digging a trench across, the inhabitants made access very difficult.  Built against the almost vertical flank the houses were piled on top of one another, and the town seemed to be hung in air and on the point of tumbling on top of itself from its very steepness. It faced south and its southern crest, which rose to an immense height, served as citadel, resting on an unwalled precipice that went straight down into the deepest ravine…

It is clear how Gamla, from the Hebrew ‘gamal’ (camel), received its name

Agrippa II, the local governor,  lays siege on the town for seven months with no luck; the town is still holding out, hunger and desperation prevail.

Vespasian, the Roman general, and his son Titus arrive from Rome to quell the rebellion and make their way to the Golan.  After several attempts at breaching the walls of Gamla, the Roman soldiers break through and the killing begins… rebels, soldiers, women, children, all hell breaks loose in the tight confines of an overcrowded, walled  hilltop town.

Josephus describes the scene:

Despairing of escape and hemmed in every way, they (the Jews) flung their wives and children and themselves too into the immensely deep artificial ravine that yawned under the citadel.  In fact the fury of the victors seemed less destructive than the suicidal frenzy of the trapped men; 4,000 fell by Roman swords, but those who plunged to destruction proved to be over 5,000.

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The precipice into which children were flung to their death

Never fails to take my breath away.

A walk around Ancient Gamla is a fascinating study of the lives of Jews during Second Temple times.  It includes one of the few Second Temple era synagogues ever found and several mikvehs (ritual baths).  Archaeological digs here also uncovered a treasure trove of Roman arrowheads, Judean coins, armor pieces, pottery, Roman sandals, ballistic projectiles, battering ram pieces, etc.  Some of these finds are beautifully exhibited in the Hecht Museum in Haifa and are certainly worth the visit.

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The ancient synagogue at Gamla, one of the oldest in the world.

Today Gamla is a Nature Reserve which combines  history and archaeology, great hikes, gorgeous ravines, waterfalls, gorges and a walk through a cluster of Neolithic dolmens.

It is also home to dozens of pairs of Griffon vultures who nest in Gamla’s cliffs, and can be viewed from the cliff-edge observation point and visitors’ center.