At ancient Israel’s capital, politics and neglect squelch historical resonance
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At ancient Israel’s capital, politics and neglect squelch historical resonance

For half a century, while quibbling over whose heritage it is, Israel and the Palestinians have both ignored a historical gem at Sebastia

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel. He holds a Masters degree in Diplomacy from Tel Aviv University and an Honors Bachelors degree from the University of Toronto in Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, Jewish Studies, and English.

Church of St. John the Baptist at Sebastia in the West Bank, scrawled with "There is no God but Allah" in Arabic (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)
Church of St. John the Baptist at Sebastia in the West Bank, scrawled with "There is no God but Allah" in Arabic (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

SEBASTIA, West Bank — The manager of the Palestinian Authority’s Interpretation Center at the Sebastia archaeological site handed over a brochure; his colleague, roused from slumber, hastily pulled his pants on. Pointing to a small screening room where visitors would see a movie about the site, he contradicted himself with absolute confidence: “There’s a film — but there’s no film.”

The PA built the facility two years ago to inform visitors about the ancient city of Sebastia after Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority closed down its day-to-day operations at the site. But besides a pamphlet and some hard candies, the Interpretation Center has little to offer. The brand-new plush chairs in the 40-seat theater meant to show were still in their plastic covers. (The PA didn’t respond to inquiries about the cost of the center; the United Nations Millennium Development Fund, a co-funder, donated $132,000.)

“You can learn the history of the whole region (by) staying here because all the powers that crossed the region since the time of the Egyptians were passing through,” Carla Benelli, an art historian working in Sebastia, told AP a few years ago. Sebastia’s tel features remains from 10 different periods, from the Iron Age to modern times. “From this point of view, it’s really very important,”

The entire saga of preserving and showcasing ancient Sebastia unfolds like a comedy of errors which could only occur in the Wild West Bank. Israel controls the park containing the ancient finds, which is in Area C, but does nothing with it. The Palestinians say they want to control it, but lack the resources to develop it. And while both sides lay claim to the site as their exclusive cultural heritage, it lies neglected, underdeveloped, unexcavated.

Echoes of former glory

Sebastia is situated just a few kilometers northwest of Nablus in the northern West Bank. Known in Hebrew by its biblical name Shomron, the city was capital of the northern Israelite kingdom in the 9th and 8th centuries BCE, founded by the sixth Israelite king, Omri.

Fragments of houses, walls and a palace from the Iron Age remain. After its destruction by the Assyrians in 721 BCE, the city became the provincial capital of the conquered region. Under the Greeks it again flourished, but was destroyed by Hasmonean ruler John Hyrcanus. Then his son Alexander Jannaeaus rebuilt the city and repopulated it with Jews.

King Omri (Amri) (Wikipedia)
King Omri (Amri) (Wikipedia)

During the Roman era, King Herod renamed it after Augustus Caesar — Sebaste is Augustus in Greek. At its height, Sebastia was a major city and entrepôt; the remains of its Roman theater, temple, palaces, forum, hippodrome and marketplace are still visible today.

In the centuries of its long decline, Sebastia was a major Christian site, as underlined by the ruins of a Byzantine church dedicated to St. John the Baptist, where legend says he was executed and his head interred. A Crusader cathedral-turned-mosque still stands in the nearby modern Palestinian village, a vestige of the Crusader city’s former glory that shares the same name.

Remains of the Roman basilica at Sebastia in the West Bank (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)
Remains of the Roman basilica at Sebastia in the West Bank (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

Sebastia also features prominently in the history of archaeology. The first wholly American archaeological excavation in Ottoman Palestine was conducted at Sebastia by a team sponsored by Harvard in 1908. It was then that George Reisner developed a technique now standard in archaeology: study of the non-architectural material — the geological and man-made debris — that comprises the vast majority of a tel, through which scholars can decipher otherwise vanished aspects of a site’s history.

A Palestinian Authority Interpretation Center at Sebastia in the West Bank (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)
The Palestinian Authority Interpretation Center at Sebastia in the West Bank (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)

Differing perspectives

The PA’s Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities brochure avoids any mention of Israel or a Jewish connection to the site. It notes that Sebastia was “an important administrative and political regional capital during the Iron Age II and III” and was “a major urban center during the Hellenistic period,” but makes no reference to the Israelite Kingdom or the Hasmoneans.

A Palestinian description of Sebastia in a bid to have it listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site goes to even greater lengths to omit references to the city’s Jewish history, referring to it as the former “capital of the northern kingdom during the Iron Age II,” and alluding to Jewish figures such as Omri and John Hyrcanus without explanation.

On the other hand, the Nature and Parks Authority’s site makes no reference whatsoever to the village, home to 3,000 Palestinians, in which the church-turned-mosque is located, to the Church of St. John the Baptist located in the ruins, or to the former Crusader presence in Sebastia.

The last archaeological dig took place in 1967

Zeid, a 23-year-old Palestinian tour guide from the village, said that despite the PA’s official stance, locals have no issue with Sebastia’s Jewish heritage. “This is the history of the area,” he said.

Despite Sebastia’s historical significance, the site has barely been excavated. The last archaeological dig took place in 1967, when the West Bank was still under Jordanian control. Since then only salvage operations have taken place. The national park is dismally neglected. There’s no fence to protect its artifacts, weeds grow rampant throughout, and garbage is littered all over the ancient ruins.

Graffiti mars the Roman pillars of the once-grand basilica; a spray-painted Muslim proclamation of faith — “There is no God but Allah” — marks the lintel of the Eastern Orthodox Church of St. John the Baptist, and a Star of David is scrawled on the floor. The Roman forum is a parking lot for the few buses that still bring tourists.

Ruins of the Roman theater at Sebastia in the West Bank (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)
Ruins of the Roman theater at Sebastia in the West Bank (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)

Hananya Hizmi, the Civil Administration’s archaeology staff officer in the West Bank, contended that site excavations are ordinarily undertaken by academic institutions, not governmental authorities.

“Since ’67, the reason why there haven’t been excavations there is because there haven’t been requests by any academic institutions,” he said.

He dismissed the issue of antiquities theft at Sebastia as part of a regional and nationwide problem, and said the Civil Administration’s antiquities department was working to protect and maintain the site.

“As far as we’re concerned, we’re of course doing what we can concerning preserving sites,” Hizmi said. “In recent years we’ve really delved into and started work in preservation, restoration and paving trails, and also this year and next year we’re supposed to go in [and do it].”

Off-limits

Visits to the site by Israeli tourists are restricted — even though it’s located in Area C, the Israeli-controlled section of the West Bank. The abutting village of Sebastia is inside Palestinian-controlled Areas A and B.

The Nature and Parks Authority warns on its website: “Due to the security situation, the site is closed to visitors until further notice except by pre-arrangement during the interim days of Passover and Sukkot.” Buses carrying Israeli tourists are escorted by IDF jeeps. A Civil Administration spokesperson said that such extreme precautions are needed because Palestinian locals throw stones, and occasionally firebombs, at Israeli vehicles.

An engraved stone in the remains of the Roman basilica at Sebastia in the West Bank (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)
An engraved stone in the remains of the Roman basilica at Sebastia in the West Bank (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)

Sebastia residents said altercations with Israelis from the neighboring settlement of Shavei Shomron were infrequent. Nonetheless, Zeid, 23, said he didn’t want Israeli tourists at the site: “In two hours they could be my killer.”

Mohammad, a Palestinian shopkeeper at the archaeological site of Sebastia in the West Bank (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel staff)
Mohammad, a Palestinian shopkeeper at the archaeological site of Sebastia in the West Bank (Ilan Ben Zion/Times of Israel)

Mohammad, owner of the Holy Land Sun souvenir shop which abuts the archaeological site, however, said he misses the pre-Oslo Accords days, when Israeli tourists flocked to Sebastia, bringing business with them.

“Before the first intifada,” he said with a puff on his water pipe, “on a Saturday you couldn’t find a place to park your car.” Now in a given month 10 buses of visitors might come, mostly Christian pilgrims who come to pray at the ruined church, he said. As we spoke three buses of Palestinian children sat in the lot and an IDF jeep roared in, idled for a few moments, then zipped out again.

“Business was better before the PA,” Mohammad said, adding that he’d like Israeli tourists to return, albeit without the army escort. “We don’t have a problem with civil[ian] Israelis; we have a problem with settlers. Settlers we hate them from our heart as Palestinians, from the baby when he is born until he is dead, because they are taking our land, that is the problem,” he said.

Over a cup of tea in the village’s main square, around which a dozen young jobless men lounged in the shade, Zeid said development of the national park would help revive Sebastia village’s flagging economy by creating “more jobs, maybe a hotel, more guiding, more restaurants.”

For the time being, however, Sebastia the archaeological site remains largely off-limits, its resonant history at once disputed and neglected.

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