Two weeks ago I found myself in Netanya’s Central Bus Station and had a while to wait for my bus to Outpost 105, bordering Tul Karm, where I was to drive a Safaron. Not familiar with Netanya in the slightest, I glanced at a map and saw that some archaeological ruins were in walking distance. Trudging along, with my heavy backpack and gun, I walked over to what was labeled as “Umm Khalid”, passing an ancient sycamore tree (estimated to be around 1,000 years old). The ruins I came upon is the Crusader Castle of Roger the Lombard, located on top of a little hill looking out over the surrounding cityscape.
Catching the bus, I made it to Outpost 105 and began driving the Safaron with Kfir’s “Netzach Yehuda” Battalion (and later, Artillery’s “Sky Rider” Unit – which operates surveillance drones). Several days later I participated in an early morning educational and recreational drive with the battalion’s sergeant commanders in the Palestinian area southwest of Jenin. It was early morning when our armoured convoy reached our first destination, the ancient ruins of Sebastia, approaching from the Roman Colonnade with its remains of some 600 monolithic columns flanking us. A soldier in the command jeep in front of my Safaron took this photo and sent it to me:
Also known as the city of Shomron, or Samaria, the ruins are from an array of eras starting with the Kingdom of Israel some 2,900 years ago. Located just a few miles away from Shechem (Nablus), King Omri moved his capital from Tirzah (in the mountains of the Jordan River Valley) to a safer area inland, property which he purchased from a man named Shemer (the origins of the name Shomron). When we parked at the graveled expanse beside the Roman Forum and Basilica, we were introduced to our mustachioed tour guide Jabo and then we began morning prayers. After breakfast we all gathered around Jabo as he gave us an introduction of the site and opened up a Bible to read us passages about ancient Shomron.
We started with the Roman ruins directly before our eyes, noting the Forum, the Basilica and the Tribunal where court cases were held. Unfortunately, although Sebastia is an official national park, the land is mostly controlled by the Palestinians and thus maintenance is at a minimum – resulting in a ridiculous amount of litter including countless Alfa Cola bottles. Additionally, Israeli (and Jewish) visitors can only safely visit by making arrangements which are coordinated with the army, who accompany the scheduled tour. Thankfully, we are the army so we had no issues with scheduling visits, we just drove up.
To the southern end of the pillared area Jabo pointed out the excavated wall and gate from the original Kingdom of Israel. Stopping abruptly, Jabo called out greeting to an older Arab man opening up his shop. Their Arabic exchange was short and we continued on, passing over partially uncovered length of metal which Jabo explained was part of the old Hedjaz Railway (in fact, the local station is just down the hill). We walked along a bend in the short trail, taking in the views of the Samarian countryside.
We regrouped at the Byzantine Church built some 1,600 years ago and then restored in the Crusader era and dedicated to John the Baptist following his beheading. In the main room there is an underground crypt where relics were once stored. A much larger church built by the Crusaders at John the Baptist’s grave, located in the bordering village of Sebaste, was eventually partially destroyed and turned into a mosque.
Passing three semi-recent Christian graves, we reached the excavated ruins of the ancient palaces of the Israelite Kings Omri and Ahab. Seeing the mass of uncovered stone walls reminded me at once of Tel Dan, with its rich Canaanite and Israelite Kingdom history. Archaeologists found scores of ceramic pieces with ancient Hebrew writing on them, Phoenician ivory and other important artefacts which help tell the tale of the palace that once was.
We climbed the mound in the above picture’s background and looked down on the Temple of Augustus built by Herod in honour of the Roman Emperor Augustus. The Emperor, born Gaius Octavius, was the heir to Julius Caesar and was referred to as Augustus/Sebastos (Latin/Greek for the Roman imperial title meaning “majestic”, respectively). So, during the Roman era the name “Shomron” was changed to “Sebastia” in honour of the Roman Emperor. The temple was a grand building with a huge staircase and immense columns and statues, but it wasn’t enough so Herod built another temple at Banias and another at Caesarea.
Atop the mound we scoured the horizons as Jabo pointed out innumerable interesting features and sites. One that struck me as fascinating was the placement of the surrounding Arab villages. They are all at the same altitude, roughly, having been built partially up the hill. Jabo explained that this was due to the underground water tables and their placement, something I didn’t fully understand. However, just southeast of Sebastia there is a little village called al-Nakura which bears a strange similarity to Israel’s Rosh HaNikra with its soft white rock and grottos. This al-Nakura is home to an 85-metre (280-foot) deep tunnel which was dug by Herod to provide water for Sebastia, as the city had no fresh water source of its own. Also, there is a house visible on a hill to the east which was built by a Crusader named Stephan. Fascinating stuff, I say! Continuing on, we came across the mess of Israelite fortress walls and a Hellenistic tower, built in Macedonian fashion.
Below these walls, and slightly northwest, is the Roman theatre built some 1,800 years ago comprised of 24 rows and has an external circumference of 65-metres (215-feet). The sergeant commanders and their officers posed with Jabo as I took their photo seated in the theatre:
We hurried back to the armoured vehicles and took off in a convoy to our next destination, Joseph’s Pit, but there were complications along the way…