A visit to Nablus

In this week’s podcast episode you can hear a virtual tour to Nablus. We a visit the Jacob’s well church and the archaeological site at Sebastia.

The tour was organized by several local tour guides who studied at the Bethlehem Bible College. They all shared in explaining the historical importance of the sites.

Jacob’s well church in Nablus

Our first stop is at the Jacob’s well. According to the tradition this is the well that was dug during the bronze age time by Jacob, the grandson of Abraham. At that time there was a city called Shechem between the two mountains, Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. Jacob needed water for his people and his flock and he did not want to use the existing springs. The local people would maybe not be happy if he used their water. So he dug a deep well with a long shaft until he reached the groundwater level. The depth of the original well is estimated at 40 meters, but over time the well filled up with small stones that pilgrims used to throw down the well to hear the water level. The well is still about 20 meters deep today. Pilgrims have the habit of pouring some water to hear how long it takes until it reaches the water level down in the well.

Exterior of the Jacob’s well church in Nablus

Four churches at Jacob’s well since Byzantine times

The current church building is new, it was built in 1998, on the same location as four previous churches. The first church was built in the 4th century by Saint Helen, the mother of emperor Constantine. This church was demolished in the 5th century by the leaders of the Samaritan rebellion in Nablus. The second church was built under Justinian but destroyed in 614 by the invading Persians. The Crusaders built a third church but that one was destroyed after the defeat of the Crusaders by Saladin in 1187. The fourth church was built in 1908 but it was destroyed during the 1927 earthquake. The church remained in use, though unfinished, until the current Greek Father Ioustinos completed the building in 1998.

Entrance of the Jacob’s well church in Nablus

Jesus and the Samaritan woman

Inside the church three important stories are commemorated. The oldest story is that of the digging of the well by Jacob in the bronze age time. There is also the story of Jesus meeting the Samaritan woman at the well. She gave him water to drink and they had an important conversation about the location of the Temple. Samaritans like her, believed that the Temple was on Mount Gerizim, while the Jews prayed in Jerusalem. Jesus revealed his true nature to her and she became the first female evangelist to spread the news.

Painting of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well

The brutal killing of Archimandrite Philomeno

A third event that is commemorated in the church is a more recent event. In 1979 a group of terrorist settlers broke into the church and killed Archimandrite Philomeno who was a Greek monk serving in the church. He was canonized in 2009 and his relics are in the southern apse of the church. The man who killed him was not labelled as a terrorist but as a mentally ill Jew from Tel Aviv.

Interior of the Saint Jacob’s well church in Nablus

The archaeological site of Sebastia

About 12 kilometers north west of Nablus is the Palestinian village of Sebastia. On the hill top is an archaeological site that has ruins dating back to the bronze age time (Canaanite), iron age time (Israelite), the Hellenistic, Herodian, Roman and Byzantine times.

Sebastia from Sebastos

The name Sebastia derives from the Greek word Sebastos, an honorable title for the emperor. Just like Augustus was the honorable title in Latin. It was King Herod who started massive building projects here and who named the place Sebaste, to honor the Roman emperor.

For King Herod this city, with its pagan inhabitants, was the place where he could withdraw from the control of the religious Jews and their religious court in Jerusalem. It was here that he had his own two sons Aristobulus and Alexander killed after a trial that found them guilty of treason.

This Hellenistic tower dates back from 3rd century BC

Hellenistic tower Sebastia

One of the most beautiful circled towers from the Hellenstic time can be found on this site. When Alexander the Great conquered Palestine in 331 BC he decided to reinforce the city and a new wall and towers were built. The city was destroyed again in 108 BC by John Hyrcanus, of the Hasmonean dynasty. When the Romans took control over the area in 63 BC the city was rebuilt and then expanded and renovated under King Herod the Great.

The Basilica and the Roman Theater of Sebastia

When you visit Sebastia the first thing you see from the parking lot are the columns that remain from the Basilica and the forum. The Basilica was the tribunal, the building where court cases were held. The forum was an important square of gathering in the city. Just around the corner are the remains of a Roman outdoor theater that could host around 400 people. Unless the emperor and his family wanted to see a theater play, then he would use it privately. The Roman theater is in a quite good condition and if you climb up to the top you have a great view over the Palestinian country side with its many olive trees.

The Roman Theater in Sebastia for 400 spectators

The stairs to the Temple and the Palace complex

When you climb up to the top of the hill, passing by the Hellenistic tower, you reach the location of the Temple stairs. These stairs survived the many earthquakes and the assaults on Sebastia. They used to lead up to the Temple that Herod the Great built to honor the emperor Augustus. On the other side of the Temple platform are the ruins of a big complex. Most guides will tell you that this was the Palace of King Ahab, the son of Omri, an Israelite King who married a Phoenician princess, called Jezebel. In the Bible his palace is described as being inlaid with ivory. When archaeologists found a lot of ivory during excavations they immediately assumed they found Ahab’s palace. But other archaeologists, such as British Kathleen Kenyon, date the the ivory from much later time, from the Hellenistic and Roman period.

Ibrahim explaining the stairs to the platform and Temple for Augustus
The Palace at Sebastia that some scholars attribute to King Omri and Ahab

The Byzantine church with the crypt to John the Baptist burial place

According to the tradition, John the Baptist’s head was served on a plate to Herodias, the lover of king Herod Antipas. She hated John because he had criticized her relationship with the brother of her husband. The disciples of Jesus are said to have taken the rest of John’s body and buried it. Byzantine pilgrims pointed to this location and they built a church. The ruins of this church still show the size and shape of the original church. Several of the columns are preserved. There is an entrance that leads to a stairs down into the crypt.

Ruins of the Byzantine church built on the burial place of John the Baptist

In the town of Sebastia itself, so not on the archaeological site, there is another church, dating from the Crusader time, that is said to be built on the site of John’s body. After the Crusader church was taken over by Saladin and his Muslim army, the Muslims built a mosque, that is in use until today. In the mosque there is a shrine for the prophet Yahya, the Arabic name for John the Baptist.

Tentative list UNESCO World Heritage

UNESCO and the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities in Palestine, in cooperation with the Municipality of Sebastia, developed a Conservation and Management Plan for Sebastia. Sebastia is already listed as a site on the Tentative List of Palestine for Natural and Cultural Heritage Sites.

Palestinian tour guides at the Forum and Basilica ruins in Sebastia