The Talmud asks, "Why is she (the city) called Tzippori? Because she sits on top of the mountain, like a bird (tsippor)" (Talmud Megillah 6a).
Tzippori - Sepphoris in Greek - is located in the heart of the Lower Galilee about 6.5 KM. northwest of Nazareth, on a hill 285 meters above sea level. Excavations uncovered a rich legacy from the Judean, Roman and Byzantine periods; about 40 mosaics were found from very different character, some in a remarkable stage of preservation.
Only minor archaeological evidence confirms the existence of a settlement at the end of the First Temple period. However because of the fertile Beit Netofa valley to the North, the numerous springs in the area, and its central strategic location on the road connecting Acre with the Jordan Valley, future excavations may still discover further and older remains in this area.
The first historical evidence we find is in Josephus' "Antiquities" (13, 338), where Sepphoris is mentioned in connection with the unsuccessful attempt by Ptolemy Lathyrus son of Cleopatra the ruler of Egypt, to capture the city during the reign of the Hasmonean King, Alexander Jannaeus (103-70 B.C.E.).
Gabinius, the Roman Proconsul, divided the former Hasmonean Kingdom into five districts and declared Sepphoris the capital of Galilee, perhaps because it was already the most important city in the area.
According to Josephus' "Jewish War" (I, 304), Herod the Great captured the city without resistance from Mattathias Antigonus, at the height of a severe snowstorm, as one of his first acts after gaining power in 37 B.C.E.. During the Herodian reign, Sepphoris remained the capital of Galilee.
After Herod's death (4 B.C.E.), the Jewish townspeople rioted in protest at Roman rule. However the uprising was short-lived, and soon suppressed by the Roman army under the command of Varus, Governor of Syria. Varus destroyed the city, razed it to the ground' set it ablaze and sold many of its inhabitants into slavery.
The Galilee became part of the tetrarchate of Herod Antipater, who rebuilt and fortified the city and initially restored it to its former status of district capital. A few years later, he transfered the capital of his tetrachy to Tiberias, a city he founded himself.
The role of Sepphoris during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome is rather confused; the people of the town refused to join the rebels and signed a pact with the Roman army, opening the gates of the city to Vespasian in 67 C.E., thus averting the destruction of their city. After the destruction of the Second Temple, many Jews from Jerusalem moved there. Josephus noted that the inhabitants of Sepphoris were "the only people in Galilee who desired peace" ("Jewish War" III, 33). Coins of a Jewish character were minted in Sepphoris in honor of the Roman Emperor Trajanus (98-117).
The role played by Tzippori in the Bar Kochba revolt is not clear: there is no documentation of actual events, but during that time the name of the town was changed to Diocaesarea - in honor of Zeus and the emperor; the Jewish leadership was ousted and a Gentile administration appointed.
At the beginning of the 3rd century, when the Town Council (boule) was returned to Jewish hands, Rabbi Judah Hanasi moved from Beit Sha'arim to Tzippori accompnied by the Sanhedrin, the highest judical and ecclesiastical council of the ancient Jewish nation.
Rabbi Judah lived in Tzippori for 17 years, until his death; during that time he compiled the Mishnah. The town is mentioned many times in Talmudic literature as a Jewish city having 18 synagogues, some named according to the origin of a particular community, such as "Kenista deBabela'e" (The Synagogue of the Babylonians - Genesis Rabba 52,4 (not in each version but found in: MS. VAT. EBR. 30 and in VAT.EBR. 60),) or according to the professions of its members, for example, "Beit Knesset shel Hatarsiyim" (The Synagogue of the weavers). Others were named after a Rabbi, for example, the Synagogue of Rabbi Banihu, or named for a place, such as "Kenista deGofna deZiporin" (the synagogue of the vineyard of Sepphoris - Jer. Talmud Sanhed. VII:25d); further academies (Batei Midrash) were mentioned.
During the Mishnaic and Talmudic period, many Sages sat and met in the city, among them Rabbi Halafta, Rabbi El'azar ben 'Azaria (mentioned in the Pesach Hagaddah), and Rabbi Yosi ben Halafta, Rabbi Yohanan, Resh Lakish, Rabbi Yona and Rabbi Mana.
The Sanhedrin sat in Tzippori until the middle of the third century, when it was transferred to Tiberias in the time of Rabbi Yohanan, greatest of the Amoraim (Jewish scholars of 200 - 500 C.E).
In 324 C.E., Constantine the Great declared Christianity the official state religion, which marked the beginning of the Byzantine period.
A Jewish convert, Joseph Comes, formerly a member of the Patriarchate in Tiberias, was permitted to built a church in Tzippori, but never actually did so due to the fact that Tzippori retained its Jewish character.
In 351 C.E., a revolt broke out in Tzippori against Gallus Caesar, Governor of the Syrian Province. Ursicinus, the Chief of Cavalry, put down the uprising. Christian sources of later years describing this episode, mention that the city was put to flames and completely destroyed, but this is a gross exaggeration. Archaeological excavations have not furnished any evidence of extensive damage, destruction, or conflagration resulting from the suppression of the revolt, as claimed in Christian sources.
Only a dozen years later, the land of Israel was rocked by an extremely violent earthquake, and Tzippori was completely laid waste - although it was quickly renovated and rebuilt.
The Christian community in Tzippori became an important element in the city's population, and a bishopric was created. A church was built there, nevertheless, the Jews remained the majority of Tzippori's inhabitants. Tzippori fell from grace during the Islamic period.
The Jewish community ceased to exist in the early Crusader period. Known as Le Saphorie, the city and its citadel were part of the Crusader Principality of the Galilee. From here, in 1187, the Crusader knights and their army marched out to fight the battle of Hittin, where they suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Saladdin, the first Ayyubid sultan. The Arabic geographer Yaqut (d. 1229) mentions Saffuriya in only nine words, as a village in the area of the Jordan river in Syria (which included Palestine), not far from Tiberias. To describe Tiberias, however, he dedicated several pages in his book Mu'gam alBuldan (Dictionary of Places).
In the 18th century, the Arab village of Saffuriya was one of the strongholds of Dhahir el-'Amar, the Beduin Governor of the Galilee. He fortified it and renovated the citadel.
During the Arab uprising of 1936-39, and again in the 1948 War of Independence, the village was the 'hideout' of Arab squads operating against Jewish settlements in the region under the command of Mahmud Safuri.
On the night of 15th-16th July 1948, the small town was captured by the Israel Defense Forces during the second stage of a military maneuver known as "Operation Palm Tree", under the command of Hayim Laskow and the village was abandoned by its population. In 1949, a cooperative farming village called Tzippori was founded near the ruins of the Arabic village.
Some archaeological remains
Archaeological excavations began in 1930 by an American team from Michigan University, who discovered a amphitheater, but exposed only a part of it. Most of the area was cleared in 1986 by the Hebrew University team.
The theater was built at the end of the first century C.E., or beginning of the second century, and was in use until the Byzantine period. It is about 74 meters in diameter, with over 4500 stone seats, partly cut in the bedrock and partly constructed.
The existence of the theater, a symbol of paganism, in a Jewish city aroused grievance among the rabbis. This was expressed in the Talmud:
"Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi demanded: What is that is said? Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful (Psalms 1:1) - meaning blessed is the man who does not go to the theaters and circuses of idolaters" (Avoda Zara 18b).
Nevertheless, the theater in Tzippori is not an exception; there is evidence of construction of theaters in various cities in Palestine since King Herod, especially in the second century; and by the third century, almost every important city in Palestine had at least one theater.
The Jewish residential area
On the West side of the hill summit rock quarries (apparently from the early Hellenistic period) were the earliest evidence of urban settlement in Tzippori. The first buildings, partly hewn into bedrock, may be attributed to the Hasmonean and Herodean period (the second and first century B.C.E.).
The houses in this area were close-set and fronted onto a paved street 2.20 meters wide. Many cisterns and subterranean store rooms were found, some possibly used for storage of agricultural products. The existence of numerous ritual baths attests to the Jewish character of life in Tzippori.
The residential area continued to exist throughout the Mishnaic and part of the Talmudic period with modifications, expansions and additions to the original buildings, until the earthquake of 363 C.E., which destroyed the entire city.
In the Byzantine period the area was rebuilt, but in inferior quality to the buildings from the Roman period.
The citadel was erected during the Crusader period on the remains of an ancient building and served as a small stronghold or watch tower. Stones from earlier structures and even Roman sacrophages, some decorated with reliefs, were found in secondary use inside the structure.
After the defeat at the battle of Karnei Hittin in 1187, the citadel was destroyed by the army of Saladdin. It was rebuilt only in the mid-eighteenth century during the Beduin government of Dhahir el 'Amr, and remained in use throughout his reign, until 1775. The ornaments and the arch above the entrance, including lintels and floral design, were executed according to the Mamluk and Ottoman building tradition, as found at some other sites in the region. On top of the arch is a star, the symbol of Turkey.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, in the days of the Turkish Sultan Abdel el-Hamid, the citadel was again renovated and a second story was added. The building served as a girls' school until the War of Independence, at which time the village was abandoned by its inhabitants. During the War, the citadel served as headquarters for terrorists gangs operating against the Jewish settlements in the surrounding area.
The Cardo and the Streets
A network of streets from the Roman period was discovered on the East side of the Tzippori hill, most likely from in the second century C.E. In the center is the Cardo along the North-South axis. The rootbed was paved with particularly hard limestone, while the colonnaded walkways had mosaic floors along their verges. The small streetside shops were part of the lower market mentioned in the Talmud:
"It was said of Rabbi Eleazar that he sat and studied Torah in the lower market of Sepphoris, while his linen cloak lay in the upper market of the town."(Eruvin 54b)
Ruts in the paving stones of the Cardo, made by the wheels of myriad wagons passing by over many years, testify to the intensive use of the street. On one such stone was engraved a seven-branched candelabrum.
On the sides of the streets, various buildings were also found. Discoveries from the Roman period include spacious buildings and bathhouses. Remains of homes with ritual baths testify that Jews lived in this part of the town.
The "Nile Mosaic" Building
This building is located on a street corner East of the Cardo and extends over an area of 50 by 30 meters. The building was erected at the beginning of the 5th century over the ruins of buildings from the Roman period and was in use until the end of the Byzantine period.
In the summer of 1991, a team from the Hebrew University exposed a large room, 6.7 by 6.2 meters, with an almost intact mosaic floor depicting the celebrations for the rise of the Nile River water to its peak, alongside various hunting scenes - a most unusual combination. On the picture is a hunting Amazon.
The building has three main wings connected by corridors. All of the floors are paved with colored mosaics, depicting symbols and scenes, but remarkably there are no symbols from Jewish or Christian tradition in this large and imposing building:all are of pagan character, so the origin of the owner remains an enigma.
Ancient literary sources mention several synagogues in Tzippori. One of them was recently unearthed in the northern sector of the site: it is a elongated building, in the center of which is a rectangular hall measuring 8 by 20.7 meters, with several rooms adjoining it to the south.
This is the narrowest ancient synagogue found in the Land of Israel. The "bima" (platform) is located on the western wall of the building, not oriented toward Jerusalem, as in other synagogues. The central hall has a mosaic floor divided into seven rectangular frames, with the zodiac at its center. The zodiac became a familiar theme in many ancient synagogues and can also be found in Hammath Tiberias and Beit Alpha. The zodiac of the Tzippori synagogue contains some features not found in the others: human figures accompanying the twelve signs, and the name of the month next to the relevant sign. Only the chariot of Helios (the sun god) is depicted in the center of the Zodiac, while Helios is represented only by the sun itself, with the moon and a star next to it (in the synagogues of Hammath Tiberias and Beit Alpha, the image of sun god Helios riding his chariot is fully depicted). Another interesting feature is the division into four seasons of the year, with each season represented by a female figure dressed in clothes appropriate to the weather for that season. Illustrations in the frames above the Zodiac are related to sacrifices offered in the Temple. More than 20 inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic are incorporated into the mosaic, among the various scenes.
The synagogue was excavated by the Hebrew University team in 1993; it dates from the 5th century or the early 6th century.
On the picture to the right is a dedicatory inscription in Aramaic, possible dedicated to the donor of the floor. The translation is as follows:
There are two such dedicatory inscriptions in Aramaic; the others are in Greek.
The ancient water system
The spring Ein Zippiri is located 2.5 KM. south of the mount, and under the level of the town thus prevented the channeling to Zippori. Water was carried by donkeys to the town, and therefore unsuitable as clean water for religious baths; in the beginning of the city's existance, the inhabitants therefore relied on rainwater collected in cisterns hewn in the bedrockfor this purpose.
In the Roman period, the town expanded eastward and the need for drinking water and other purposes increased; the main water supply to the town was a 13.5 long system of two aquaducts, bringing water from the hill of Nazareth which was built in the first and second century.
One aquaduct was from a spring located in the village of Ein Raineh; the other originated at the springs on the slopes of Mount Jonah.
The water from these springs flowed at the rate of approxamatly 40 cubic meters per hour into an impressive reservoir 250 meters long and 10 meters high, which was hewn in the soft chalk rock and plastered in places up to several layers thick to prevent seepage. This reservoir had a storage capacity of 10,000 cubic meters. From there the water ran through a fixed lead pipe and channels to the courtyards of homes and public buildings.
The system of aquaducts was in use in Zippori during the Roman and Byzantine periods through the early Arabic period (7th - 8th century).
The water supply system is mentioned in the Mishnah (Eruvin 8:7):
If a water channel passed through the courtyard they may not drawn therefrom on the Shabbath, unless they had made for it a partition ten handbreadths high at the entry and at its exit. Rabbi Judah says: The wall above it is deemed the partition.
Composed and pictures by: Pinhas Baraq