Monday, 6 September 2010


It was my last day in Nablus, and although I'm not much for Roman ruins, I really had a desire to see Sabastiya, an ancient city about 15 minutes away from Nablus. My roommates and I climb into an old service which will get us to the steps of the ruins for four shekels. The service driver warns us that it may be difficult to find a way out of this city, but we take our chances anyways knowing full well this is Palestine - a taxi, service or a good samaritan is not far from where you are.
A restaurant and a gift shop that reminds me of the one used frequently by Elia Suleiman in his films is on the right hand side. We begin walking and taking photos of the ruins, like tourists do. Once we reach the amphitheatre, a young boy begins to follow us. Our "no thanks" and "leave us alone" does not work on him, he's persistent. He begins giving us a tour and showing us things we may have missed. He tells us about the new discoveries, how much of the ruins have been stolen and sold to Israelis, how the park is closed when settlers come and visit (it is a national park for settlers - their settlement is visible from Sabastiya). The boy isn't much for the history of the place, just the history of what happened recently. The ancient city seems abandoned again, until you arrive to the "downtown" of the village of Sabastiya. The kid tells me many tourists come by, just not today.
The Basilica and Forum

I have not heard much about this city, it's not advertised as much as other places with Roman ruins, nor am I familiar with its history, but after my visit, I read up on it, so I'll give you a briefing.
The theatre

Sabastiya is a city built on a hill on the ancient site of Samaria. It has been conquered, destroyed and rebuilt numerous times (sounds like Palestine to me). The early settlements date to the Early Bronze Age and the rocky summit of the hill was the centre of an extensive wine and oil production area since the Iron Age.
The Church of the Discovery

Under the rule of King Omri, a citadel on the acropolis was built. King Omri bought the hill from Shemer and moved his capital there, calling it Samaria. The city expanded its commercial and social relations with the Phoenicians when Omri's son, King Ahab, married the Phoenician Princess Jezebel.
The region has seen many conquerors including the Assyrian empire where the city was rebuilt by King Sargon II and re-populated. The town was transformed into a Hellenistic one by Alexander the Great when thousands of Macedonian soldiers settled there. The city was destroyed by the Maccabaean King John Hyrcanus in 108 BC. When Pompey conquered Jerusalem, the city was annexed to the Roman province of Syria and rebuilt in 57-55BC by Gabinius.
The columned street
In 30BC, the Roman Emperor Augustus awarded the city to Herod the Great who named it "Sebaste" in honour of Augustus (Sebaste is Augusta in Greek). The city grew to feature a temple dedicated to Augustus, a stadium, theatre and refortified the city with a larger wall.
The mosque

After Herod's death, his son Archelaus ruled the city until he was sent into exile by Augustus in AD 6. Roman Emperor Septimius Severus rebuilt the city at the end of the 2nd century when it was established as the colony of Lucia Septimia Sebaste. The current remains of present Sabastiya date from this period.
They told me this is John the Baptist's jail cell
Christianity soon spread all over the region of Samaria (in the first centuries AD), following that, an invasion by the Muslim army led to the city's submission to the army of Amr ibn al'As in 634AD. Upon the arrival of the crusades, the Byzantine church where John the Baptist's tomb lies, which was in ruins during this period, was rebuilt to be more magnificent then ever. In 1187, Sabastiya submitted to Saladin's nephew, Husam ed-Din Muhammad who transformed the cathedral into a mosque and dedicated it to Prophet Yahia (John the Baptist in Islam).
The ancient city was abandoned for many centuries and many of its monuments were never recovered.
I was disappointed to see the state in which the ruins lie. Graffiti filled the walls, garbage lined the floor of the mosque, and there was no proper lighting at night (it's no Baalbek temple). The owners of the gift shop tell me that despite this being a Palestinian town, the park is not under Palestinian control. It is run by the Israelis, and they do not maintain it. It's as if this park has been ignored, even though settlers come here all the time. It's strange...the whole time I thought this park must have been operated by the Palestinians because it is poorly maintained (the unfortunate reality that many historical places lack maintenance in the West Bank), but here these residents are telling me that because it is in Palestinian territory, it is ignored and Palestinians are forbidden for cleaning or maintaining it. Scapegoating.
As we get ready to leave, our "tour guide" invites us to his family's store. We buy water, I give him a tip, and then we are invited to a big party they are preparing for. "People from Jaffa are coming, you must join us!" The man tells us. We politely decline because we have plans for dinner, and I hesitantly leave Sabastiya. The truth is, I want to stay for the party. Maybe another time.

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