So, did she or didn’t she? Some locals maintain that Salome’s legendary erotic dance with the head of John the Baptist took place in Sebastiya, in Palestine. Whether it did or didn’t is besides the point, because today’s Sebastiya is one of those little jewels of history that you feel privileged to discover. Where else can you sip coffee in a garden café, using a Roman capital as a table, and look across at a Crusader cathedral converted into a mosque? Or roam through extensive Greek and Roman ruins with not another tourist in sight?
OK, it’s not quite of the scale or quality of Leptis Magna, that extraordinary archaeological site that is now struck off the tourism radar in Libya. But Sebastiya is a living, breathing town, with a seductive intimacy, friendliness and enough services to keep you happy for a day or two. The old quarter crowns a hilltop about 12km northeast of Nablus, a burgeoning city of the West Bank, north of Ramallah and Jerusalem. So it took me little more than 20 mins. in a share-taxi from Nablus to be dropped on the attractive main square.
I’d booked into the Al-Kayed guesthouse (above), a beautiful old Ottoman mansion built in the honey-coloured stone of the area, now slickly revamped with German designer help. Abu Yasser, the welcoming owner and manager, immediately sat me down on the terrace with a cup of tea for a brief though convoluted resumé of Sebastiya’s history – and an account of its present troubles with nearby Israeli settlements. Where there’s a settlement there is strife, in this case it’s Shavi Shamron (meaning “we’re back to Shamron”, the original Canaanite name of Sebastiya).
For Sebastiya is an incredibly powerful symbol for Israel, as it (aka Shamron) was the capital of Samaria around the 9th c BCE. But with John the Baptist’s tomb beneath the Crusader cathedral, Sebastiya holds equal significance for Christians, and of course today it is a typical Palestinian farming village – though the elegant young Muslim women in my share-taxi seemed pretty ace on their ipad apps.
Rewind…After the Greek period of Alexander the Great in 331BCE, in 64BCE, came the Romans. In stepped the dreaded Herod who renamed the flourishing city Sebaste. Here’s the forum and basilica, now part car-park and part football pitch.
Politics is never far in the Middle East, and in Sebastiya, it peaked six months ago when Israeli authorities fenced off the main site and sent in a bulldozer “to clean” the Roman theatre. Uproar ensued, not surprisingly, not helped by the fact that the archaeological site sits on the cusp of Area C (Israeli control) and Area B (Palestinian Authority) – in fact the notional border runs between the Roman forum and the basilica ruins! Here it is, somewhere between the stones –
I was lucky enough to be led on a magnificent circular walk around the ruins by Suheib (above), an informative local guide and archaeologist, who explained the intricacies of thousands of years, as well as more telling recent events, from the tragic shooting of a young cousin of his to the fact that young Palestinian girls play blackjack with Roman mosaics, and Israeli settlers hold parties in the 3rd c AD Roman theatre. For the moment it seems a kind wobbly of truce reigns in Sebastiya, but no doubt Israeli authorities will continue their attempts to fence the area and charge admission.
Beyond the Roman theatre, at the very top of the hill, is the striking Temple of Augustus (above) dating from Herod’s time (c. 30 BCE) – which stands beside olive groves blanketing an Iron Age settlement. As the darkening skies unleashed their fury, our visit to the ruins of a Byzantine church was rapidly curtailed. This is said to be where John the Baptist’s head was discovered – though Muslims maintain that it’s in the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus (I actually saw the venerable marble tomb inside the Ummayad prayer hall some years ago, before Syria’s horrendous civil war started).
More myths, more legends, more hearsay – who knows. What I did spot in the church ruins was far more modern: graffiti in the form of a Star of David and (apparently) a pro-Hamas slogan.
At the base of the hill is a spectacular road lined with 600 Roman columns (above), some still standing, others supine in the groves. The colonnade ends at the western gateway where a Hellenistic square tower stands guard (below). Beyond unfold low, undulating hills dotted with cypress trees, figs, a few pine-trees and of course olive groves. Suheib told me that on a clear day you can see to Galilee. If only life here could be as idyllic as it looks from the outside.
Back in the welcoming garden café, built in 1936 by the British well before Balfour made his disastrous declaration, I studied the extraordinarily varied, stunning structure in front of me. Massive Crusader walls, a dome, arches and a towering minaret somehow came together harmoniously – that limestone again. A cat slunk along the top of the wall, bougainvillea tumbled beside it, the muezzin called and the rain slowly dried out.
Later that evening, I went in search of John the Baptist. It was dark, again wet, deserted and the door to the tomb was locked. When I asked at the mosque, a helpful man told me to return for Isha (evening prayers) which I did, to track down the caretaker with the key. After unlocking the door, he waited outside as I descended into the shadowy vaulted crypt (above). A few holes in a stone wall indicated the site of the tombs (John allegedly lies beside two other prophets, Elijah and Obadiah). It felt eery, ancient and desolate. I took a very 21st c snap on my iPhone, shivered, and left. Sometimes I distinctly prefer the living present.
Suheib Houareh Archaeologist guide, also leads hikes through the hills. email: [email protected]
Al-Kayed Guesthouse http://kayedpalace.wordpress.com/ tel: 00 972 59 947 3646
Holy Land Sun Restaurant tel: 00 970 59 921 2252 / 00 970 9 253 2420 [email protected] Excellent Palestinian restaurant close to site – delicious homemade mezze, chicken soup with freekeh, other local specialities, plus red welcome wine from Bethlehem.