Sepphoris and Nazareth

Ross Fairweather Wednesday, July 8, 2015 Rise and shine!  It’s another sunny day with temperatures in the high 80’s with little humidity…jealous yet?  It was an early start with breakfast at 6:45, and the bus departed at 7:30 for the 2 ½ hour drive to Lower Galilee where we focused on the land that Jesus called home and the environment in his day. In the 1st century CE, Sepphoris was the capital of Galilee. The nearby hill of Zippori (Hebrew for bird’s eye) is located in the western Lower Galilee at 289 meters above sea level, surrounded by limestone hills and fertile valleys that were easy to cultivate and traverse. As we approached the area, we could see planted fields, herds of cattle and irrigation holding ponds. We spent the morning at Zippori National Park. After a lot of uphill walking in the hot sun, we saw an outdoor Roman theater that dates back to the 1st century CE.   The theater seated 4,000 people. The lower six seating rows have been rebuilt from limestone, but the rows above them are ancient ruins. Course Director Rodney said that Biblical scholars believe there is a good chance that Joseph may have been on the construction crew of that theater. (We’ve been taught that Joseph was a carpenter, but a better translation of the Greek word tekton is laborer, and it is safe to assume that Joseph probably did some work in the city as it was the capital and only an hour’s walk from Nazareth…not a bad commute.) Sign for the Theater 2nd Chentury Roman Ampitheater The Stage of the TheaterAs we left the theater and continued walking north, we came upon the ancient ruins of what was once a fortress used to protect the region. It had an outbuilding with various rooms for the workers to use. This includes a mikvah, an ancient step-down bath used by Jews to perform a ritual cleansing. (Early roots of baptism??? Me thinks there may be a connection.) As we walked to the citadel, which is still standing, we had amazing view of the Lower Galilee region from the roof.  This is probably why it was called Zippori in Hebrew becasue it offered a strategic “bird’s eye” vantage point from which anyone who controlled the city and the hill could rule the region in relative safety.

The mikvah - notice the stairs leading down into the pool of water for ritual purification.

The mikvah – notice the stairs leading down into the pool of water for ritual purification.

Sign for the Citadel The Citadel

The view from the roof east...on the horizon are the tallest buildings of Haifa, which is on the coast!

The view from the roof east…on the horizon are the tallest buildings of Haifa, which is on the coast!

Not far from the fortress were the ruins of a wealthy residence, called the Dionysus House becasue of the numerous mosaics of Dionysus the Greek god of wine, which had existed in the 3rd century CE but was destroyed by the earthquake of 363 CE.  The rooms of the house were paved with colorful mosaics. We noticed the U-shaped outline on the left side of the mosaic, marking the placements of the couches used for lounging.  For those of us who heard the Rev. Cn. John Peterson preach during Holy Week at Saint James might remember his talk about tricliniums and how the three couches for reclining would be set up in that same U-shape.

Notice the U-shape around which were the reclining couches.

Notice the U-shape around which were the reclining couches.

A drawing of what the room would have looked like during its use.

A drawing of what the room would have looked like during its use.

This face was discovered on recently and has been called the Madonna (or Mona Lisa) of Sepphorus.

This face was discovered on recently and has been called the Madonna (or Mona Lisa) of Sepphoris.

As we continued walking down from the fortress and house we came upon an active excavation site where archeologists, interns and volunteers were protected from the hot sun as they carefully dug away rock and soil, inches at a time.  They were working on sections of the lower city and have so far uncovered two main intersecting roads and many different houses/buildings. We continued on to the Nile House, an ancient public house damaged in the 363 CE earthquake. It has room after room floored with colorful mosaics of animals, birds and geometric shapes.  It is called the Nile House because many of the mosaics depicts scenes from the Nile River in Egypt.

The main road through the capital.

The main road through the capital.

The Cardo

Notice the chariot ruts in the road.

Notice the chariot ruts in the road.

One of the mosaics in the Nile House.

One of the mosaics in the Nile House.

Having rested a bit, we resumed walking (downhill this time) to visit a restored synagogue from the 5th Century, one of many believed to be in the region but the only one found to date. The archeologists were able to uncover the magnificent mosaic floors that had spectacular mosaic that had inscriptions in Greek and Aramaic. The central space was richly decorated with Jewish motifs and depictions of stories from the Torah.  What was seemed slightly out of place were the zodiac symbols that were mixed in with the other traditional mosaics.

The large mosaics covering the floor of the ancient synagogue in Sepphoris.

The large mosaics covering the floor of the ancient synagogue in Sepphoris.

The Zodiac Calendar on the floor of the synagogue.

The Zodiac Calendar on the floor of the synagogue.

The zodiac symbol Libra.

The zodiac symbol Libra.

The mosaic depicts the first fruits which are given to God as an offering of thanksgiving.

The mosaic depicts the first fruits which are given to God as an offering of thanksgiving.

From the synagogue, we boarded the bus and rested our weary bodies en route to a local restaurant in Nazareth. We were the only ones in the dining room and were given an abundance of typical local food. The meal started with plates after plate of different dips, salads, and humus. The next course was a green salad, presented on self-serve serving plates to every four persons. Then they gave us serving platters of a lamb, veal and beef mixture rolled up in bite-size pieces, served with cut fried potatoes, and raw onion with parsley. That was then followed by chicken kabobs … and cold watermelon. And the last surprise was demitasse cups of strong coffee with cardamom; what a treat!  We left with full bellies and ready for what awaited us in Nazareth.

  Outside the Restaurant in Nazareth The Lunch Table

Adequately nourished and rested, we boarded the bus and drove up to the top of the hill of Nazareth. In Jesus’s day, the town only had 10 or 12 extended families, about 100 people total. But today, it is sprawling. Nazareth is the only city in Israel where the the majority are Arab, with only about 25% Christian. Rodney said the Arabs and Christians work well together on many different civic projects.  We were about to head to the main attraction for the day when Rodney received a call from the priest at the local Anglican church who had a few minutes to meet us.  We veered off of our path and headed up a steep road to the Christ Church Anglican and met with the rector, Rev. Nael Abu Rahmoun.  We listened to him talk about his church and his experiences of being an Anglican Christian in Nazareth.  After about thirty minutes together we headed back down the hill to the Church of the Annunciation, the shrine to Mary, the mother of Jesus. This beautiful and unpretentious building was constructed in the 1960s, replacing a much smaller structure, but sitting on top of and around the house traditions says she grew up in and was visited by the angel Gabriel. It is now the largest church in the Holy Land, in terms of floorspace. The south side of the church has double entrance doors which engravings depicting key events in Mary’s life, such as the conciliation with the angel, her visit with cousin Elizabeth, walking hand-in-hand with Jesus, and other events. (These doors are spectacular!) Upon entering the west doors, you walk down a long empty space (no pews) as you approach the grotto on the lower level, adjoining a small sanctuary used for daily services. The upper level of the church is the large wrap-around sanctuary in which a choir was singing when we were there. I loved this church; grand yet respectful of Mary’s simple life.

Road Leading to Christ Church Nazareth Entrance to Christ Church Nazareth Inside Christ Church Nazareth Rev. Neal, Rector Christ Church Nazareth

A children's banner hanging in the sanctuary.

A children’s banner hanging in the sanctuary.

The front facade of the church.

The front facade of the church.

The western doors of the church.

The western doors of the church.

A statue of Mary set in the heart of a labyrinth.

A statue of Mary set in the heart of a labyrinth.

The front doors of the church.

The front doors of the church.

Stained glass windows leading to the larger upper sanctuary of the church.

Stained glass windows leading to the larger upper sanctuary of the church.

A view of the dome over Mary's Grotto.

A view of the dome over Mary’s Grotto.

We walked back downhill to the bus, and departed for the two+ hour drive to Jerusalem. As I was dozing in and out of sleep, I reflected on what Mary’s life must have been like … how she seemed a bit reluctant to say “yes” to the angel and what a miracle it was that a pregnant unmarried woman was not punished in that day and age. We had another fabulous meal from Chef Joseph .. chicken and vegetables on tabbouleh (and other assorted goodies like humus). I sat next to a new face, Greg from Australia, who is a biblical scholar who’s involved in archeology and meets frequently with the St. George’s staff. He will be heading to the Bethsaida on Saturday for a new dig! You could hear the passion in his voice when he talked about ancient ruins in the Holy Land! I returned to my lovely room to start writing this for all of you to read tomorrow. Good night!

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