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