Samaria (Sebastia)

Destinations in Israel

Samaria was an ancient city in the Land of Israel. The capital of the Kingdom of Israel in the 9th and 8th centuries BCE. Today it is under Israeli control. But a visit to the site is only possible in a group after military coordination. According to the Book of Kings; the place was owned by Shemer and was bought from it by Omri, king of Israel

Ruins of Samaria
In This Photo: Ruins of Samaria (Sebastia) 1925

Then the son of Omri, King Ahab fortified the city and built magnificent buildings there. One of these buildings is the ‘Tooth House’; a magnificent building decorated with elephant tusks! Remains of this building were discovered in archeological excavations. The city was destroyed in 721 BCE during the conquest of the land by the Assyrian army. Moreover, in the annals from Sargon II palace (715 BC), “the distant Arabs who inhabit the desert” were exiled to Samaria. In other words, those were probably the Samaritans of today and the ones mentioned in the New Testament! 

Samaria lost its Samaritan character after Alexander the Great’s conquest and became a Hellenistic Greek city. The Greek inhabitants of the city changed its name to Samaria where it remained common in foreign languages ​​. The city was destroyed with its conquest by John Hyrcanus.

Samaria in Herod’s Time 

In King Herod‘s time, Samaria was rebuilt as a glorious Roman city named Sebastia after the emperor Augustus (“Sebasti” was the Greek nickname of Augustus). Moreover, it was one of Herod’s most impressive construction projects. Herod, who attached importance to the city’s location in the heart of his area of ​​rule; decided to develop it and even housed discharged soldiers who ensured the city’s loyalty to the king.

In This Photo: The Roman Theatre

To this end, Samaria was surrounded by a wall that was c. 3,500 meters long. And in its center was built for Augustus a magnificent temple dedicated to the emperor. In addition, buildings typical of a Roman city were erected on the site. For example a stadium; a forum; and a theater. The city is also associated with the travels of Jesus and his disciples. Since it was a major city on the main Hill road between Jerusalem and Nazareth. 

Archaeological Excavations

Several excavations were carried out in Samaria. The first was between 1908-1910 on behalf of Harvard University. The director of the excavation was George Andrew Reisner; who hired the services of Gottlieb Schumacher to assist him in the excavation. After he was dissatisfied with his work; he was fired! And was replaced by Clarence Fischer; who had previously excavated in Mesopotamia. So the excavation revealed the western wing of the Citadel of the Kings of Israel from the days of Omri and Jehu.

In This Photo: The Round Tower

The second excavation was carried out in the years 1931-1935; and involved researchers from five institutions: Harvard University; the Land of Israel Research Foundation; the British School of Archeology in Jerusalem; and the Hebrew University. Moreover, the excavations were conducted by John Winter Croft; director of the British School of Archeology, and assisted by his botanist wife Grace Croft.

So the excavation revealed that the city was destroyed many times. Each time it was rebuilt its buildings were dismantled, and their stones were used for the reconstruction. So this made it difficult to distinguish between the different strata. Between 1965 and 1967; limited excavations were conducted on behalf of the Jordanian Antiquities Division; headed by Z. Ziadin, mainly in the area of ​​the theater and the Temple of Augustus.

The Archaeological Remains From the Iron Age

From the Israelite period (Iron Age); it was found that there were upper (Acropolis) and lower cities. But there was some controversy about the dimensions of the city: While Croopot believed that they did not exceed 75 acres; Kathleen Canyon (who also participated in the Mandatory delegation) believed that they were close to the dimensions of the city in the Roman period which stood at about 640 acres. The construction was fine and was done in “dry construction” of combined stones without mortar.

In This Photo: Temple of Augustus

It seems to have been inspired by the Phoenicians and perhaps even with their help. In the warehouse; rooms were found Samaria Ostraca! In other words, pieces of broken pottery that on them Hebrew was written in black ink. In fact, they were certificates of delivery of oil and wine that had been raised as a tax. Also, unique ivory was found in Ahab’s palace and is considered one of the most important finds in the classification of tiny art from that period. Some of these ivory resembles ivory found in Arslan Tash in Syria. Dating to the 9th century BCE.

Samaria Reaches its Zenith 

The city reached its peak of glory in Roman times. During this period public buildings were erected in part by Herod who received the city from Augustus. Among the finds is the Temple of Augustus; the temple of the goddess Cora; built on the remains of the Hellenic temple of the goddess Isis; a stadium, a 65-meter-diameter theater; a forum; and a basilica; as well as various tomb systems; some rock-hewn mausoleum; and roofed mausoleum. The dome is supported by pendants and is the earliest example in the world of using this technique.

In This Photo: Entrance Hall of the Byzantine Church

On my guided tours of Samaria, I like to take my guests and show them all these ancient ruins. Man, they love it! But really! Touring in ancient Samaria is a rare chance to see so many ruins on the site! For example, you can actually see the platform that led to the Temple of Augustus. The theatre here is better than the one in Caesarea. Which by the way is almost entirely restored. 

Tomb of Ahab and His Father Omri

Archaeologist Norma Franklin, from Tel Aviv University; has speculated about the tombs’ location in the biblical Samaria excavations. In a lecture at the Judea and Samaria Research Conference at the Ariel University Center in Samaria in June 2007; she presented a description of two tombs hewn under the Palace of the Kings of Israel in the city of Samaria.

In This Photo: A Round Sitting Hall in the Forum

The graves were excavated more than 100 years ago by a delegation from Harvard University between 1908 and 1910 but were not identified as such. Franklin said that according to the delegation method since they were digging in the area worked by farmers, they were required by law to uncover one narrow strip of land at a time; and immediately cover it at the end of recording the findings. This is so as not to unduly impair agricultural activity.

Similarities to Royal Tombs of Gentiles

In the reports left by the delegation, they present a full drawing of the two elongated halls – rectangular in shape – with vaults, which may be the kings’ tombs. During a visit to the site, Franklin was able to penetrate the vaults and examine their shape. She first noticed in the drawings that two of the buildings under the palace were different from the others and were not cisterns, and a rock-hewn corridor led to them.

In This Photo: The Entrance to the Byzantine Church

Unlike the others, these two structures looked like rectangular burial caves. Their structure and location are similar to the royal tombs of the Assyrian kings in Khursabad (Which were the capital of Sargon II); including the tomb of Sargon II. There were tombs of kings and rulers hewn in the rock below the royal palace and in them were decorated gold jewelry; weapons of war and more. Franklin found support for the hypothesis in the Bible, in the words of the prophet Isaiah indicating the custom of the Gentile kings. So she estimates that one cave belongs to Omri and the other to Ahab.

Sebastia (Samaria) National Park 

The site of the archeological excavations was declared a national park and was managed by the Nature and National Parks Authority, and an admission fee is needed. Restaurants and souvenir shops were built by the residents of the nearby village of Sebastia. The garden area is about 218 dunams. Today, entry to the national park is free; but only possible as part of organized trips; by prior arrangement with the IDF, and is not allowed for individual visitors, except during special times such as Passover and Sukkot, where the IDF secures entry to private vehicles.

Remains from various periods can be seen at the site, especially the remains of public buildings and worship centers from the Herodian / Roman period; as well as sections of fortifications and Hellenistic towers. There are also remains today of a columnated Street (Cardo) that served as a commercial center. This street is late to the time of Herod but apparently, Herod also built a similar street. In fact, on the site, you can see the most complete theater from the Roman period among those that survived in the Middle East.

Why Touring Samaria?

So I know it is out of the way of the normal routes tourists take but still, it is worth it! I mean just imagine who might have visited these ancient ruins right? So much history in one place including a well-preserved Byzantine church that was excavated there. So I am telling you as a private tour guide in Israel Don’t think about it too much and let’s go tour Samaria!

How to Get to Ancient Samaria?


Hi! My name is Arik Haglili, an Israeli native who decided to dedicate his life to share my knowledge about the Holy Land to those that are interested to know more about this amazing piece of land. My career as a private tour guide started at the International School For the Studying of the Holocaust and the rest is history.

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