Jews and Romans coexist in Zippori

Zippori was the capital of the Galilee during the Roman period, and Jews and Romans coexisted here, although their lives and values would have been very different. Its ruins are in a 16-square kilometer national park in the Western Lower Galilee not far from Nazareth. Many of the buildings have been nicely restored to make your visit  a very meaningful one. The park brochure describes a 3 to 4-hour walking tour, but you may want to be more selective in what you see. Zippori is on the Jesus trail, as Christian tradition holds Zippori to be the birthplace of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

There was a Jewish city here during the Hasmonean period. It was conquered by the Roman general Pompey in 63 BCE and he made it the capital of the Galilee. The city was later conquered by Herod the Great. A Jewish revolt after Herod’s death was put down and its Jewish inhabitants sold into slavery. Josephus was the military commander of the Zealots and he attempted to conquer the city during the Great Revolt but failed. Following the Bar Kochba Revolt, many Jews from Judea settled here. By the beginning of the 3rd century, its leadership was again Jewish and it is mentioned frequently in the Talmud as a Jewish city. At that time, it had 18 synagogues and study houses.

After the Bar Kochba Revolt and Jewish migration to the Galilee, the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish religious court, moved from Usha to Beit She’arim and then to Zippori. Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi was the leader of the Jews, and he lived in Zippori for the last 12 years of his life. It is from here that he redacted the Mishna. The Mishna was the first written compendium of the Jewish Oral Law and it would become the basis of the discussions of the Talmud. The Sanhedrin remained in Zippori until the 3rd century when it moved to Tiberius under the leadership of Rabbi Yosef ben-Halaffa. You will see here a partially restored Jewish quarter from Mishnaic and Talmudic times. The synagogue is from the Byzantine period and has an exceptionally beautiful mosaic.

 

The Roman ruins of interest. These include an outdoor theater, and a Roman villa called the Dionysus House that contains the famous mosaic “the Mona Lisa of the Galilee.” This is considered by many to be the pinnacle of mosaic art in this country.

During the Byzantine period churches were built here, but the city nevertheless remained predominantly Jewish. It was conquered in the 7th century by the Muslims. It was occupied in the Crusader period and called Le Soupherie and a fortress was built here. In the Muslim period, it became an Arab village. The Arabs engaged in anti-Jewish military activity during the 1948 War of Independence, but abandoned the village when it was attacked by Jewish forces.

THE PARK

 

Directions: Enter “Zippori National Park” into Waze.

Admission: This is a site of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Park hours are 8.00 am to 5.00 pm on Sunday to Thursday and Saturday from April to September. The site closes one hour earlier on Fridays and holidays. Closing is 1 hour earlier in the winter. Last entry is one hour before closing. There is a gift shop, WC’s and picnic area at the beginning of the park. Their phone number is 04-656 8272. This is their website.

Mosaic in the Dionysus.jpeg

The mosaic from the Dionysus House (#10). This woman is often called “The Mona Lisa of Zippori” because of her beauty. Signs explain the features of the mosaic.

Jews and Romans in Zippori

The relationship between the Jews of Judea and Rome was not a happy one, and included two Jewish revolts, namely the Great Revolt and the Bar Kochba Revolt. The latter led to the death of hundreds of thousands of Jews and the final destruction of the country of Judea. The Jews of Zippori managed to stayed out of both these struggles. This was a Jewish majority city, although gentiles also lived here, and in the centuries following these revolts there was coexistence between them despite very different lifestyles. Roman life is typified by the mosaic in the Roman villa that depicts the god of wine and his worship. There was also a Roman theater. For the Jews, Zippori was the major center for the study and recording of Jewish law. The Zealots who initiated the Great Revolt and Rabbi Akiva who supported the Bar Kochba Revolt were messianic purists who believed that the Jews needed independence under the sovereignty of God, and not Rome. However, many of the sages, such as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakia who escaped from Jerusalem during the Great Revolt, and Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi, who was one of the leaders of the Jewish people after the Bar Kochba Revolt, adopted a path of realism and appreciated that for the preservation of Torah an accommodation had to be reached with Rome.

DISCOVERING ZIPPORI 

 

  • By the park entrance gate there is the first parking area from where one can view the ancient water system. This channeled and stored water from springs in the Nazareth Mountains. Water was brought from the reservoir into the city via a tunnel.

 

  • Park by the visitor’s center. A short movie about Zippori is worth watching.

 

  • Drive your car to the next parking area. One of the buildings that should not be missed is the Dionysus House, a Roman mansion from the beginning of the 3rd century (#10). The mosaic in the dining hall is deservedly famous.

 

  • For the Jewish angle on Zippori, two short movies are shown in the Crusader fortress. One relates to a discussion of people of the period about Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi. The other, shown a floor higher, tries to recreate the atmosphere in a Jewish study hall when discussing questions of ethics. Go also to the roof where there is a guided lookout with a spectacular view.

 

  • #12 are dwellings from the Second Temple and Mishnaic and Talmudic period.

 

  • Make sure also to go across the road to the synagogue (#16) to view its impressive mosaics. A movie is shown in the synagogue about the death of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi.

synagogue mosaic.jpeg
Theater.jpeg

The synagogue here (#16) would have been one of many in use during the 5th to 7th centuries, towards the end of the Byzantine period. The superb mosaic floor is divided into four parts: the Sacrifice of Isaac, the signs of the Zodiac, a description of the Tabernacle in the desert, and the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple in Jerusalem.

This semi-circular theater (#14) was built at the end of the 1st century or beginning of the 2nd century.  Although the entertainment shown was disapproved of by the Rabbis, it may have been attractive to some Jews. About those who resisted the temptation the Talmud says: “Happy is the man who did not go to theaters and to circuses of those who worship the stars” (TB Avoda Zara 18b).