Jewish and Roman coexistence in Tzipori
Sipphoris, or Tzipori as it is called in Hebrew, was the capital of the Galilee during the Roman period, and Jews and Romans lived together here. However, as is very apparent from the archeological ruins, their lifestyles were very different. A number of the ancient buildings in Tzipori National Park have been restored. Four short movies are also shown. All this combines to make a visit here very vivid.
THE NATIONAL PARK
Directions: Enter “Tzipori 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. 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. At the beginning of the park is an entrance pavilion with a parking area, gift shop, WCs, and a partially shaded picnic area by the gift shop. Their phone number is 04-656 8272. This is their website.
Public transport: Enter "Tzipori National Park" into Moovit. The park is a 3.7 Km/46-minute walk from the closest bus stop at Tzipori Interchange. There are several bus lines that stop at this location.
Overlooking the Beit Netofa Valley from Tzipori.
The history of Tzipori
Tzipori overlooks the Beit Netofa Valley to the north. According to the Talmud, it was called this name because the city was perched on top of the mountain like a bird (tzipor).
A small Jewish town existed here from the Persian period. It was conquered by the Roman general Pompey in 63 BCE and he made it the capital of the Roman Galilee. The city was subsequently conquered by Herod the Great and he built a palace here. After his death, the inhabitants attempted to break loose from Herodian rule, but this revolt was crushed. Josephus tried to take over the city during the Great Revolt but failed and the inhabitants surrendered to Vespasian thereby saving their lives and saving the city from destruction. Perhaps because of this, Tzipori attained the status of a Roman polis after the Great Revolt and government institutions and public buildings were built here. Following the Bar Kochba Revolt, many Jews from Judea settled in Tzipori. It is mentioned frequently in the Talmud as a Jewish city, although pagans were also living here. At one time, it had 18 synagogues and study houses.
After the Bar Kochba Revolt and the subsequent Jewish migration to the Lower Galilee, the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish religious court, moved from Usha to Beit She’arim and then to Tzipori when Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi moved to the city for the last 12 years of his life. He was head of the Sanhedrin and an administrative leader of the Jews. It was in Tzipori that he completed the redaction of his Mishnah. The Sanhedrin remained in Tzipori until the 3rd century CE when it moved to Tiberias under the leadership of Rabbi Yohanan.
The restored synagogue is from the Byzantine period and has an exceptionally beautiful mosaic. A movie is shown in the synagogue about the death of Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi.
Roman ruins 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. A movie is shown here and also in the Crusader fortress. The mosaics in the Byzantine Nile House in the residential area are also exceptionally beautiful and worth viewing.
Churches were built here during the Byzantine period, although the city nevertheless remained predominantly Jewish. There was a major earthquake in 363 CE, but the place was quickly rebuilt. It was conquered in the 7th century by the Muslims and went into decline. It was captured by the Crusaders during the Crusader period, renamed Le Soupherie, and a fortress was built. It is from this fortress that the Crusaders left for the Battle of Hattin and were defeated by Saladin (see the webpage Karnei Hittin National Park). There were no Jews living in the city during this period. In the Muslim period, it became an Arab village. The Arabs engaged in anti-Jewish military activity during the 1948 War of Independence and abandoned their village when it was attacked by Jewish forces.
Jewish and Roman coexistence in Tzipori
Romans and Jews fought two bitter wars against each other - the Great Revolt followed by the Bar Kochba Revolt. The latter led to the death of hundreds of thousands of Jews and the destruction of the country of Judea. Nevertheless, these two people coexisted together in Tzipori throughout this period and later. One of the main reasons for this was that the Jews of Tzipori stayed out of both these struggles. They also maintained good relationships with non-Jewish neighbors during this time and later.
The Zealots who initiated the Great Revolt and Rabbi Akiva who supported the Bar Kochba Revolt had messianic ideas and believed that the Jewish people could achieve independence from Rome and rebuild the Temple. Both revolts led to disaster. However, there were other sages, such as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai who escaped from Jerusalem during the Great Revolt, and Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi, who became the religious and administrative leader of the Jews some time after the Bar Kochba Revolt, who adopted a path of realism and realized that for the preservation of Judaism a positive relationship had to be maintained with Rome.
For much of the time Tzipori had a Jewish majority, although gentiles also lived here. Roman life is typified by the mosaic in the Roman villa depicting the adoration of the god of wine. There was also a Roman theater. Jewish life is typified by its synagogues and study halls where Jewish law was studied and developed.
“The Mona Lisa of Tzipori" in the mosaic at the Dionysos House (#10).
TOURING TZIPORI NATIONAL PARK:
The park brochure describes a 3- to 4-hour walking tour, but most people will go by car to the different areas.
Just past the park entrance gate and on the left as you approach this national park is a parking area and from here you can visit the impressive Roman water delivery system for the city
Like all Roman cities, Tzipori had running water for its public baths and sewage. Water was channeled from springs in the Nazareth Mountains and delivered to the city by two systems. There was a reservoir from which water was delivered to most of the city by means of a large tunnel. This was dug into a fault line between chalk and limestone and had 6 shafts. You can descend into this reservoir and the beginning of the 235-meter-long tunnel. There was also an aqueduct system that delivered water to a reservoir east of the city.
Park by the entrance pavilion. A short movie about Tzipori is shown in a room adjoining the gift shop. You can request for it to be shown in English. From the entrance pavilion you can either begin the circular walk around the park or drive to the next area of interest.
If you are driving, park at the next parking area. For the Jewish angle on this city, descend via the steps to the reconstructed synagogue.
According to sources, Tzipori had many synagogues, but this is the only one so far located. Outside the synagogue is a mikva. The building is a narrow one and had only one row of columns, probably because it was constructed between buildings and there was insufficient room for a broader building. Lack of space is also a reason proposed that the synagogue faced to the west and not towards Jerusalem as do most (although not all) synagogues in the Galilee. This synagogue was in use during the late Byzantine period between the 5th to 7th centuries.
Look at the details of its beautiful mosaic floor which is in seven sections. The section closest to the synagogue entrance shows two scenes from the story of Abraham, namely the three angels visiting Sarah to inform her that she will become pregnant in her old age (although this part is very damaged), and the binding of Isaac story with the two servants waiting for father and son to return from the sacrifice. Moving away from the entrance in the direction towards where the ark would have been is the Zodiac with a representation of the sun rather than the god Helios as in many other synagogues. Surrounding this are the Talmud's twelve constellations, corresponding to the 12 months of the year. The months of the year are written in Hebrew. The rest of the mosaic depicts aspects of the former Temple in Jerusalem. Hence, the next panel shows offerings in the Temple - the daily tamid animal sacrifice, the showbread on its table and a basket of first fruits. Next is a representation of Aaron offering various sacrifices in the Tabernacle. To his far right is a water-filled basin, although this panel is damaged. The next panel shows two 7-branched menorahs on either side of the Temple building and flanking this an incense shovel and the Temple symbols of a lulav and shofer. Finally, a panel of two lions with each of their front paws resting on the head of an ox. It will be recalled that the Messiah will come from the tribe of Judah whose symbol was a lion.
A movie is shown in the synagogue about the death of Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi. The sages and students were praying for the recovery of their Rabbi and this was preventing ascent of his soul. However, his virtuous housemaid realized that it was time for him to go and she broke a jug. This led to a momentary break in the prayers, at which time Rebbe passed away.
Ascend to the acropolis. To your left is the Dionysus House and Crusader Fortress and to your right the theater. Dionysos House is a reconstructed Roman mansion from the beginning of the 3rd century (#10 in the brochure). I
This building was damaged by the earthquake of 363 CE. One enters into the courtyard. This was at the center of the building and was surrounded on three sides by rows of columns. To the north it led to the dining hall or triclinium. This room is deservedly famous because of its mosaic, which shows 15 scenes from the life of the Roman drinking god Dionysos and his cult. Staring at you is the bust of an attractive lady, often called "The Mona Lisa of Tzipori." The blank areas in the mosaic are where couches would have been situated. A movie is also shown in this room.
It is often held that Leonardo Da Vinci discovered the technique that creates the impression that a painted figure is staring at you. In actuality, this technique for the eyes was already known by the artist who created this mosaic. Also of interest is how Romans ate reclining on couches. The rabbis wished to create a feeling of freedom on the eve of the Passover. They had no better example than how Romans dined and this is how leaning was initiated during the Passover seder service. Other rooms were arranged around the courtyard and triclinium, including a bathroom, which probably had running water.
Walk to the Crusader fortress. This was built in the Crusader period on an earlier structure.
The building was later refurbished and used as a school for children of the Arab village. Two short movies are shown here. One is about people of that time gossiping about Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi. The other, shown a floor higher, attempts to recreate the atmosphere of a Jewish study hall discussing a question of ethics. Also, go to the roof where there is a lookout with a spectacular view and a sign identifying what you are viewing.
It is also worthwhile visiting the Roman theater.
A theater was an integral part of a Roman city. It provided entertainment and was also used for public functions. The stage and its backdrop no longer exist, but their location is indicated. This form of entertainment shown was disapproved of by the Rabbis, but was probably attractive to some Jews (otherwise the Rabbis would not have complained about it). 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).
From the acropolis descend to the Roman part of the city which dates from the early second century. The grid arrangement of the streets and the two main paved streets, the Decumanus and the Cardo, are typical for a Roman city. Both these main streets had colonnades. Visit especially the covered Nile House, which has spectacular mosaic floors. Explanations are provided in the building.
Places of nearby interest:
Tzipori is on the Jesus trail, as Christian tradition holds it to be the birthplace of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
Mosaic from the synagogue showing two lads waiting for Abraham and Isaac to return from the Sacrifice of Isaac.
This panel shows the daily sacrifice, showbread and first fruit offering, and above this Aaron offering sacrifices in the Sanctuary.
This semi-circular theater (#14) was built at the end of the 1st century or beginning of the 2nd century.