Jewish and gentile coexistence in Tzipori 

Sipphoris, or Tzipori as it is called in Hebrew, is in the Western Lower Galilee not far from Nazareth. The ruins of Tzipori are in a 16-square kilometer national park.  It was the capital of the Galilee during the Roman period.  Although administered for much of the time by Jews, Jews and Romans lived here together. However, as is very apparent from the archeological ruins, their lives and values were very different. A number of Jewish sages resided in Tzipori. Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi was here for the last 12 years of his life and from here he finished his Mishnah.

 

A number of the buildings have been completely restored. Four movies are also shown, some of these in these buildings. All this combines to make a visit here very worthwhile. The park brochure describes a 3- to 4-hour walking tour, but you may wish to go by car from one area to the next. The highlights of this site are described below. Tzipori is also on the Jesus trail, as Christian tradition holds it to be the birthplace of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

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. At the beginning of the park is an entrance pavilion with a parking area, gift shop, WC’s, and a partially shaded picnic area by the gift shop. Their phone number is 04-656 8272. This is their website.

View from Zippori.jpeg

Overlooking the Beit Netofa Valley from Tzipori.

According to the Talmud, this city was called Tzipori because it 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 Roman Galilee. The city was subsequently conquered by Herod the Great and he built a palace here. After his death the people attempted to break loose from Herodian rule, but their revolt was crushed. Josephus attempted to conquer the city during the Great Revolt but failed, and the inhabitants surrendered to Vespasian to save their lives and the destruction of the city. Perhaps as a result 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 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, although pagans would still have been living here. At that time, it had 18 synagogues and study houses.

 

After the Bar Kochba Revolt and the subsequent Jewish migration to the Galilee, the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish religious court, moved from Usha to Beit She’arim and then to Tzipori. Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi was the religious and administrative leader of the Jews in the country, and he lived in Tzipori for the last 12 years of his life. From here he completed the redaction of his Mishnah. The Sanhedrin remained in Tzipori until the 3rd century when it moved to Tiberius under the leadership of Rabbi Yohanan.

 

​The Jewish quarter here is from Mishnaic and Talmudic times and has been partially restored. The synagogue is from the Byzantine period and has an exceptionally beautiful mosaic. A movie is shown here. The Roman ruins are also 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.  A movie is shown here and also in the fortress. The mosaics in the Byzantine Nile House are also exceptionally beautiful.

Churches were built here during the Byzantine period, but the city nevertheless remained predominantly Jewish. There was a major earthquake in the country in 363 CE, but the city was quickly rebuilt. It was conquered in the 7th century by the Muslims, and went into decline in this period. The Crusaders captured it during the Crusader period and called it Le Soupherie and a fortress was built here. No Jews lived here during this period. It is from this fortress that the Crusaders left for the Battle of Hattin  when they were defeated by Saladin (see our webpage Karnei Hittin National Park). 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.

Jewish and Roman coexistence in Tzipori 

 

Rome and the Jews fought two bitter wars against each other -  the Great Revolt and 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 peoples subsequently managed to coexist together. The main reason for this was that the Jews of Tzipori managed to stayed out of both these struggles. Nevertheless, both sides managed to adjust their relationship to each other. This was very much due to the leadership of rabbis such as Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi  and the attitude of the Caesars ruling at that time. 

 

The Zealots who initiated the Great Revolt and Rabbi Akiva who supported the Bar Kochba Revolt had messianic beliefs and believed that the Jews could achieve independence from Rome and rebuild the Temple. This approach led to disaster. However, there were other sages, such as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakia who escaped from Jerusalem during the Great Revolt, and Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi, who became the leader of the Jewish people some time after the Bar Kochba Revolt, who adopted a path of realism and realized that for the preservation of Torah an accommodation had to be reached with Rome.

For much of the time Tzipori was a Jewish majority city, although gentiles also lived here. 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. Jewish life is typified by its synagogues and its study and recording of Jewish law.

The mosaic from the Dionysos House (#10). This woman is often called “The Mona Lisa of Tzipori.” 

DISCOVERING TZIPORI NATIONAL PARK

 

  • Just past the park entrance gate, on the left, is a parking area and from here you can visit the impressive Roman water 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. From a reservoir, water was brought into the city by means of a large tunnel dug into a fault line between chalk and limestone using 6 shafts. This delivered water to most of the city. You can descend into this reservoir and the beginning of the 235-meter-long tunnel. An aqueduct system delivered water to a giant 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 take the circular walk around the park or drive to the next areas 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, with only one column, probably because it was constructed between buildings and there was insufficient room for a broader construction. Lack of space is also a reason proposed that the synagogue faces to the west and not towards Jerusalem, as do most other synagogues in the Galilee (although not all). This synagogue was in use during the late Byzantine period between the 5th to 7th centuries.

Do look at the details of its beautiful mosaic floor. It is in seven sections. The section closest to the synagogue entrance consists of two scenes from the story of Abraham - 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  towards where the ark would have been is the Zodiac with a representation of the sun rather than the god Helios as in 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. 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, but his virtuous housemaid realized that it was time for him to go. She therefore broke a jug. This led to a temporary break in the prayers, at which time Rebbe passed away.

 

​​

  • Now ascend to the acropolis. To your left is the Dionysus House and Crusader Fortress and to your right the theater.

  • Dionysos House should not be missed. This is a reconstructed Roman mansion from the beginning of the 3rd century (#10) which was destroyed in the earthquake of 363 CE. You enter into its courtyard which was surrounded on three sides by rows of columns. This courtyard was at the center of the building and to the north it led to the dining hall or triclinium. This room is deservedly famous because of its mosaic. The mosaic 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 the dining room.

It is often thought that Leonardo Da Vinci discovered the painting technique of creating the impression that a figure is staring at you. In fact, 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 and there was no better example to them than how the Romans dined. This is what they meant by leaning during the Passover seder service.  Other rooms were arranged around the courtyard and triclinium, including a bathroom, which probably had running water.  

 

​​

  • Now walk to the Crusader fortress. It was built in the Crusader period on an earlier structure. The building was formerly refurbished and used as a school for the children of the Arab village. Two movies are shown here. One relates to a discussion of people of that period about Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi. The other, shown a floor higher, tries to recreate the atmosphere in a Jewish study hall discussing a question of ethics. Also, go to the roof of the building where there is a lookout with a spectacular view and a sign identifying what you are seeing.

 

  • It is also worth visiting the theater. A theater was an integral part of a Roman city. It provided entertainment and was used for public functions. The stage and its backdrop are no longer in existence, but its location is shown. The entertainment shown was disapproved of by the Rabbis, but 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).

 

 

  • From the acropolis descend to the Roman part of the city, which is from the early second century. The grid arrangement of the streets, and the two main paved streets, the Decumanus and the Cardo, are typical of a Roman city. Both these main streets had colonnades. Visit especially the Nile House, which is covered, and has spectacular mosaic floors. Explanations are provided in the building.

 

synagogue mosaic.jpeg

The Sacrifice of Isaac is shown in this part of the Mosaic, specifically the two lads waiting for father and son to return from their sacrifice.

synagogue mosaic copy.jpeg

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. 

Mosaic in the Dionysus.jpeg
Theater.jpeg