Beit Shearim and Zippori

Today’s tour was another catch-up from when I was taken ill back in February, as we headed north to explore the national parks at Beit Shearim and Zippori.

Although the majority of the day was to be focused on the late Roman period, we took advantage of our location near the Beit Shearim park to hear the story of the Israeli hero Alexander Zaid.

Zaid was born in Siberia, as his family had been exiled there by the Russian government. On making aliyah in the early 19th century he identified the fact that many of the new Jewish villages that were being established had security problems, particularly in the north of the country.

He founded the Bar Giora Jewish self-defence organisation, which later evolved into the Shomer [guard] organisation. The Shomer itself later evolved into the Haganah [defence] which was the precursor to the Israeli Defence Forces. So it could be said that Zaid was one of the founders of the modern Israeli army.

Grave of Alexander Zaid
Grave of Alexander Zaid

He spent the end of his life in the area close to Beit Shearim where he helped manage the protection of Jewish villages in the Jezreel Valley and was on good terms with the local Arabs. In 1938, during the Arab Revolt, he rode out to answer a call for help from a nearby settlement and never returned – he was ambushed on route and shot dead. We visited the site where his body was discovered, and then his grave in the Shomrim [guards] cemetery – the shomrim being a sub-group he founded of the Shomer, to operate in this area.

At the top of the nearby hill stands a memorial statue of Alexander Zaid riding his horse, his eyes gazing out over the landscape that he used to patrol.

Heading down the hill, we visited the first part of the Beit Shearim site, the living area of the town. This area is actually free to visit and it is possible to see the remains of a synagogue, homes, ritual baths and a grand basilica structure.

According to the Talmud, Beit Shearim was one of the seats of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish leadership body, and indeed at one point the seat of one of the greatest leaders of the Jewish people, Rabbi Yehuda (or Judah) HaNasi, also known just as Rabbi, such was the extent of his greatness. Perhaps the Sanhedrin met in one of these structures? Perhaps Rabbi sat here?

Decorated sarcophagus at Beit Shearim
Decorated sarcophagus at Beit Shearim

We continued down to the area of the Beit Shearim national park, which is outside of the ancient city. It is however much more interesting, as this is the area of the huge necropolis. It is recorded in Jewish sources that Rabbi requested to be buried in Beit Shearim, even after moving away from the city to Zippori for his final years. As many people wanted to be buried near such a great sage, a vast necropolis developed here, with Jews being brought from around the world to be interred at the site.

Tomb of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (Judah the Prince), Beit Shearim
Tomb of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (Judah the Prince), Beit Shearim

We visited the tomb considered to be the final resting place of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi and then explored other tombs, dug in vast catacombs in the soft chalk rock, filled with beautifully decorated sarcophagi. It was a bit eerie, but a remarkable site nonetheless.

Leaving Beit Shearim, we journeyed a short distance in the footsteps of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, and the Sanhedrin, to Zippori. I think Zippori is a fantastic site; a great mixture of antiquity, lovely views and ancient art.

Scholars believe that around 20 000 – 30 000 people, the vast majority Jews, lived in Zippori at its peak in the late Roman and Byzantine periods. We discussed here the migration of the Jewish community from the region of Judea to the Galil following the destruction of the temple and the failure of the Bar Kochba revolt. Sitting in the 5th century synagogue with its stunning mosaic floor, we learned about the development of Judaism around the synagogue as an institution in the absence of the temple.

View from the top of the Zippori Fortress
View from the top of the Zippori Fortress

Ascending the hill, we explored the ruins of an ancient Jewish neighbourhood and then climbed up to the top of the ruined fortress, an amazing structure in that it is made up of stones and construction from the Iron Age to the Ottoman period with almost everything in between – the view at the top was the reward and you can understand why it was of strategic interest throughout history to have a lookout up here.

Mosaic at the grand villa at Zippori. At the bottom, note the highlighted 'Mona Lisa of the Galilee'
Mosaic at the grand villa at Zippori. At the bottom, note the highlighted ‘Mona Lisa of the Galilee’

After visiting the remains of a grand Roman villa (containing a floor mosaic with the famous ‘Mona Lisa of the Galilee’ image, we descended to the lower town, and strolled along the Roman cardo. The most interesting building on this street contains a huge amount of different mosaics, including a grand depiction of the Festival of the Nile. Our guide suggested that it may have been a mosaic showroom.

Roman reservoir at Zippori
Roman reservoir at Zippori

On our way out, we popped into the ancient reservoir of the city. We learned how the Roman engineers ingeniously managed to bring large amounts of water to the city from nearby springs. In order to prevent waste, a certain amount of the water was diverted from the city into this huge reservoir for times of greater need (for example, in the summer).

This acts as a nice precursor for my (final!) catch-up trip next week – the grand Roman capital of Caesarea. Looking forward!

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