Israel travels

In bits and pieces: Mosaic splendor at Tzippori

From the Akeda to ‘Mona Lisa of the Galilee,’ the wine drinking contest of Heracles and Dionysus, and the angels telling Sarah and Abraham of their impending parenthod, Tzippori is a wealth of ancient art

Mona Lisa of the Galilee (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Mona Lisa of the Galilee (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

In the year 67 CE, residents of Tzippori watched in somber silence from across the valley as the town of Yodfat went up in smoke. Yodfat, the first Galilean city to seriously resist the Romans during the Great Revolt, had been soundly trounced. Tzippori, on the other hand, had stubbornly refused to participate. Her attitude was understandable, perhaps, for 63 years earlier when Tzippori residents had tried rebelling against Roman rule, their lovely city had been destroyed.

Following that early Tzippori revolt, King Herod’s son Antipas had restored the city to its former beauty. And, while he was at it, Antipas added a small theater and an intricate underground water system. Now, blessed with plenty of water, fertile fields flowing with milk and honey, and lovely homes, Tzippori hoped to remain at peace with the Romans. Or, perhaps, she was afraid to risk everything she had by joining the revolt. Whatever the reason, Tzippori remained untouched.

Tzippori rested on a hill 292 meters above sea level, towering over the Beit Netufa Valley below. Her climate was perfect, for even in summer the city remained cool, as sweet breezes blew softly through the trees. Her name reflected her situation: the Babylonian Talmud notes that she “sat at the top of the hill like a bird” (tzippor).

The most famous of Tzippori’s residents was Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, tall, handsome, and extremely well-connected. One of the greatest Jewish sages of all time, it is said that he was born on the day that Rabbi Akiva was flogged to death by the Romans for his part in the Bar Kochba Revolt of 132-135 (“the sun rises and the sun sets and hurries back to where it rises” (Jewish sources quoting Ecclesiastes 1:5).

Yehuda Hanasi, known simply as “Rebbi”, lived in Beit Shearim and reigned as president of the Sanhedrin (Jewish courts). When his health began to fail, the Roman Emperor Antoninus granted him land in Tzippori. Taking with him his fellow sages, Rebbi set up house in Tzippori, a lovely city where Jews and pagans lived together in peace.

Rebbi was friendly with the Roman aristocracy as well as all the contemporary Roman emperors. There is even a tale about his relationship with Emperor Septimius Severus, who ruled from 193 to 211 — according to this legend, Severus valued the rabbi so highly that he built a tunnel from Rome to Tzippori in order that they could study together.

Jewish neighborhood (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Jewish neighborhood (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

It was in Tzippori, at the end of the 3rd century, that the eminent rabbi edited a compilation of Jewish traditional literature and Oral Law known as the Mishna. Considered the second most important book in Judaism (after the Torah), the Mishna shaped, and continues to shape, all aspects of Jewish life everywhere in the world.

No wonder then, that on the day that Rebbi breathed his last, people thronged to the city to mourn and follow him to his grave. The Talmud tells us that many miracles occurred on that fateful day, a Sabbath eve. It seems that the sun stood still until every mourner returned home. And only after each one had cooked his fish, filled a jar with water, and lit his lamp did the sun sink in the Heavens and the Sabbath commence.

Despite its indisputable importance, there was little to see at the site of ancient Tzippori until the early 1980s. Although small-scale excavations were carried out during the British Mandate, and remains of a Roman theater were discovered, no effort was made to find the rest of the famous Jewish city. Indeed, the hill on which it stood was completely covered with dirt, brush, and fruit trees left from the hostile Arab village that stood nearby until 1948.

When serious digs were finally begun, archaeologists could hardly believe the result: not only did the ancient city sport a theater, but well-preserved, unique mosaics were uncovered along with entire neighborhoods, a market street, and the marvelous underground water system.

Synagogue: a mosaic depicts the Akeda -- the binding of Isaac (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Synagogue: a mosaic depicts the Akeda — the binding of Isaac (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Today, ancient Tzippori is one of the most exciting national parks in the country. Visitors follow a wide cardo (typical Roman central boulevard) to stunning 5th-century mosaics illustrating the Nile River Festival and featuring fabulously designed Amazon warriors. Easily visible are crevices made by chariot wheels and, carved into the stones, a menorah, along with games played by children here long ago.

At Tzippori, you will walk atop the very stones that Emperors used to tread on their way to the theater, and sit in the seats from which they watched their performances. The 4,500-seat Roman theater at Tzippori, built on the slopes, has been partially restored and affords a beautiful view of the Beit Netufa Valley.

Visitors can follow a little lane that leads to a Jewish neighborhood – with cobblestone streets — high upon the hill. Possibly, considering the unusual concentration of ritual baths (mikvaot) discovered here, these would be the homes of very orthodox residents — perhaps even the High Priests who left Jerusalem after the destruction of the Temple and moved to Tzippori.

The Crusaders, who believed that Mary’s parents had lived in the town they now called Le Saphorie, built a church whose remains can still be seen.

Citadel (photo credit: Naama Bar-Am)
Citadel (photo credit: Naama Bar-Am)

Their citadel was restored by Daher el Omer, the Bedouin leader who ruled the Galilee in the 18th century. Fortunately air conditioned in the summer months, it features an exquisite display of Tzippori artifacts. A climb up to the rooftop yields a fabulous view of the valley below — dotted with both Jewish and Arab villages.

One of the highlights at Tzippori is a fashionable villa featuring the breathtakingly beautiful mosaic dubbed the Mona Lisa of the Galilee. While it may not look much like the Mona Lisa that Leonardo da Vinci painted, it has that same ethereal quality and eyes that seem to follow you around. That portrait is part of an enormous mosaic floor in what could very well have been Rebbi’s home. It certainly belonged to someone very important; a rare find was the ancient toilet that sits right outside of the living room.

Much of the mosaic is a depiction of a wine-drinking contest between the mythological Greek Heracles and his half-brother Dionysus — god of wine and theater. Heracles drank too much, and collapsed on the floor, while Dionysus practiced moderation. Interestingly, the nudity common to this theme in other parts of the world — and that would have embarrassed Jewish visitors — is missing.

After the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, synagogues became the center of Jewish life – as they are today. During the period in which Rebbi resided in Tzippori there were 18 different synagogues in the city, but so far none of them has been discovered.

The 5th-century synagogue almost makes up for this, however, for the mosaic floor is absolutely magnificent. One portion of the elongated mosaic carpet boasts a zodiac in the middle, with the sun god Helios in his chariot and surrounded by zodiac signs and human figures. Another portion depicts ritual offerings, and scenes from the Bible including the akeda — the binding of Isaac — and the angels visiting Sarah and Abraham to tell them of their impending parenthood. More common Jewish symbols, like the Holy Ark and the Menorah, are also woven into the mosaics, which are scattered throughout with inscriptions in both Greek and Aramaic.

Summer visitors will find respite in Tzippori’s vast water system, dating back to the 1st and 2nd centuries and in use until the 7th or 8th. Water was brought by aqueducts running from the springs in the hills of Nazareth to Tzippori, which had greatly expanded in the Roman period. Tunnels atop the aqueducts were dug into the soft, chalky rock, and plaster still clings to the walls where it was used to seal the cracks. Unfortunately, after enjoying yourself down below….you still have to climb back up.


Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven guides to Israel.

Shmuel Bar-Am conducts private, customized tours of Israel.

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