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A visit to Samaria
May 19th, 2005

Samaria (Sebaste)

The Christian faith came into Sebaste, the ancient capital of Samaria, immediately after St. Stephen’s death, when the faithful, as St. Luke tells us, “scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). Christianity developed at a moderate rate until the Council of Nicaea in 325; later it flourished, despite the brief pagan reaction under Julian the Apostate in 362, up to the Arab conquest in 638. It gained new life with the Latin Kingdom in the twelfth century and then gradually became extinct in the eighteenth century.

From Sebaste

Philip’s Activity. “Philip,” St. Luke continues (Acts 8:5-8), “went down to a city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ. And the multitudes with one accord gave heed to what was said by Philip, when they heard him and saw the signs which he did. For unclean spirits came out of many that were possessed, crying with a loud voice; and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. So there was much joy in that city.” Among the people who asked for baptism was also Simon the Magician, attracted by the miracles.
The apostles who were in Jerusalem, having learned about Philip’s doings, sent Peter and John solidly to establish the church with the descent of the Holy Ghost. It was on this occasion that Simon the Magician offered Peter money to gain the power to work miracles.
The Angel of the Lord called Philip away to evangelize elsewhere, and the Apostles returned to Jerusalem. So who was left to direct the budding church? It is unimaginable that those in charge would have left it without leaders. The composition titled De septuaginta Discipulis, attributed to Dorotheus, bishop of Tyre, makes Nicholas, one of the seven deacons ordained by St. Peter, Philip’s successor and the first bishop of Sebaste. It is difficult to judge the historical value of this piece of news because the ancient sources are silent on the subject, as they are in regard to all local leaders until the peace of Constantine.

Ancient Sebaste
The West Gate
Hellenistic Tower
The theater

St. Eudocia the Martyr. In the Greek Menologium written on behalf of Emperor Basil in the tenth century, the martyr Eudocia, “native of the city of Samaria,” is commemorated on March 1 (PG 117, 332-333). Her martyrdom took place under Aurelian (270-275). She had been a sinner but was converted after hearing a sermon by a monk called Germanus, and seeing a vision of two angels: the good one who rejoiced with her and the evil one who reproached her for having done him wrong by her conversion. She gave away her riches to the poor and was condemned to death when her former lovers out of revenge accused her of being a Christian. The name Germanus brings to mind the well-known personage who at the time of the Council of Nicea (325) was bishop of the nearby city of Flavia Neapolis. Eudocia would have been baptized by a bishop called Theodotus.
St. Viventius. A legendary tenth-century Life (AASS Ianuarii II [Paris 1863], 85-96; cf. Bibl. Sanct. XII, 1318-1319) describes the deeds of St. Viventius and states that the saint was a native of Samaria. Born of a pagan family, he was converted by the preaching of Gregory of Antioch; then he brought to the faith his parents and relatives and became a priest. He left his mother country to preach the gospel, first in Greece, then in France, where he met St. Hilary in about 365. He led a hermitic life and died in Poitou.
Bishops of the Byzantine Period. The bishops who held the see of Sebaste are known through their participation in the councils of the fourth to sixth centuries. The first is Marinus who took part in the Council of Nicaea in 325. There follow: Eusebius who was at Seleucia in 359; Saturninus (or Nilus) at Constantinople in 381; Eleutherius who took part in the Council of Lydda in 415; Constantine who was at the Robbers’ Council of Ephesus in 449; Marcian, was consecrated by Elias, patriarch of Jerusalem between 494 and 516 (Cyril of Scythopolis, Life of St. Sabas, ch. 37), Pelagius who was at the Council of Jerusalem in 536, and Anatolius, who participated in the fifth ecumenical Council at Constantinople in 553 (see Fedalto, Hierarchia, 1030).
Another bishop, Stephen, is known for having dedicated a church to St. Elias, whose inscription was discovered in the ruins of el-Boberiye near Sebaste (see below). He is believed to have lived in the fifth or sixth century.

Ancient Sebaste
Temple of Augustus

The Cathedral. The presence of a bishop in the city from the early fourth century at least implies the existence of a rather large church, usually called a cathedral. Scholars are not in agreement about the location of the Sebaste cathedral. The archeologists of the Harvard Expedition uncovered a civil basilica in which they found two successive apses at different levels – a large one at a upper level, and a smaller one below. They defined both structures as Roman, the lower one being regarded as older. In order to obtain a clearer view of the latter, they destroyed the more recent apse. Thus nothing can be seen today of the upper level, all record of which is in the ground plans only (G.A. Reisner et al., Harvard Excavations at Samaria, II, Cambridge, Mass. 1924, Pls. 12, 16). In conducting new excavations in the city, Crowfoot re-examined the remains and became convinced that the larger apse could have belonged to a church. In this case it would have been the largest of all known churches of the Byzantine period. It was not oriented to the east – as, for that matter, is the case of the Holy Sepulchre – but Crowfoot observed that the ancient building could have been utilized only in this direction (J.W. Crowfoot et al., The Building at Samaria, London 1942, 37).
On the other hand, C.S. Fisher, who was a member of the Harvard Expedition (Harvard Excavations at Samaria, I, 219), maintained that the basilica remained profane in character throughout its two periods, and suggested that the cathedral may have been built over the tomb of St. John Baptist. However, neither he nor Crowfoot could find Byzantine ruins on that site. R.W. Hamilton, on the other hand, was able to identify some surviving early courses in the north wall near the east corner (Guide to Samaria-Sebaste, Jerusalem, 1944, 35). This discovery led him to believe that the Byzantine cathedral indeed lay beneath the Crusader church. Crowfoot had found two capitals from the Byzantine church near the northwest corner of the mosque, and another in a house nearby, made in Corinthian style with acanthus leaves like the capitals of the Theotokos Church on Mount Garizim; one had a Maltese cross on the abacus. He therefore concluded that the church had been built in the fifth century (The Building at Samaria, 38).

Ancient Sebaste
The basilica
The apse of the basilica
The basilica

The Tomb of St. John Baptist. The Baptist’s tomb in Samaria is first mentioned by Rufinus of Aquileia when he describes the pagan reaction against the Christians which took place in 361-362 under Julian the Apostate. At that time the pagans broke open the tomb, burnt the saint’s bones and scattered the ashes. However, some monks of the monastery of Abbot Philip in Jerusalem succeeded in rescuing some relics (Rufinus, Historia Ecclesiastica II, 28, PL 21, 536).
But was the tomb authentic? Several facts support this belief. First, when John’s disciples took away his body from Machaerus, where their master had been put to death by Herod Antipas, logically they left the territory of the tetrarch, where Herodias could still do them harm. Second, the body was not found following a vision, as was the case with many other holy relics: hence it can be presumed that it was always venerated; and third, the pagans of Sebaste would not have attacked the tomb with such fury if they had believed it was a recent invention.
But was it possible to bury John in the same tomb with prophets, as is attested by St. Jerome (Ench., nos. 299-300)? It seems so, because John himself was regarded as a prophet, and moreover, Jewish tombs were probably few in Sebaste, since the city had assumed a pagan character. Nor must we forget that in the first centuries of Christianity, the followers of John – called Baptists and opposed by the anonymous author of the pseudo-Clementine Recognitiones (chs. LII-LX; cf. D. Baldi – B. Bagatti, Saint Jean-Baptiste dans les souvenirs de sa Patrie, Jerusalem 1980, 70-71) – were spread throughout Samaria and certainly devoted great care to the proper maintenance of their master’s tomb.
But can the present tomb go back to such an early period? Nowadays it is covered with a vault, and the original layout is so changed because of the construction of the churches over it, that the primitive structure is unrecognizable (see ground plan and sections in SWP II, 214). A stone door like those of the Tombs of the Kings in Jerusalem lies to the left of the entrance and attests to a building stage earlier than the Byzantine period. Remains of the Byzantine stage are the pavement made of marble slabs, still in good condition, and seemingly an entrance in the east wall which made the tomb accessible from the cathedral. For other details, see Baldi – Bagatti, Saint Jean-Baptiste, 74-81.

The tomb of St. John the Baptist

St. Jerome and Paula went to venerate the tomb, and Jerome’s Epistle 108 (PL 22, 889; Ench., no. 300) describes the flow of pilgrims and the miracles which took place there, without referring at all to the profanation that had taken place. Later writers, such as the Monophysite John of Beth Rufina, relate the position of the tomb within the church: “The place was a particular chapel of the temple, protected by a grating because it had two reliquaries covered with gold and silver, before which two lamps burn constantly, one of St. John and the other of St. Elisha; there is also a rug-covered throne on which no one sits” (Ench., no. 301). The throne is a symbol of the Baptist’s power. According to these sources, Elisha and Obadiah would have been buried in the same underground cave at a much earlier period.

The tomb of St. John the Baptist

The Alleged Discovery of the Baptist’s Head. It is not known what happened to the head consigned to Herodias; but as early as the fourth century, stories begin to appear about the finding of the supposed relic. One such inventio took place in Sebaste in the place regarded as the Baptist’s prison. A church associated with this discovery was erected near the acropolis, while the large church containing the tomb was below to the east, in the cemetery area. The document known as the Commemoratorium de casis Dei, an official inventory of churches and clergy prepared about 808, records two churches in Sebaste, served by a bishop called Basil and 25 priests and monks (Tobler and Molinier eds., 304): the church of the tomb, then partly collapsed, and the one on the site of the prison. The latter had been built about three centuries earlier, as can be seen from the remains incorporated into the later medieval construction. The Byzantine builders themselves had utilized many architectural elements of earlier pagan buildings.

The Church of the Discovery of the Baptist’s Head

The Medieval Period. The churches were in shambles when the Crusaders arrived; they strove to rebuild both the church of the tomb and the church of the finding of St. John’s head. The former was so quickly rebuilt that Daniel, the Russian abbot who visited the city in 1106, could see “a beautiful church erected on the site (of the tomb of the Baptist), dedicated to the Precursor, with a most wealthy Frankish friary” (Ench., no. 307). Official documents mention three bishops who lived between 1128 and 1178, as well as some canons and priors.
The Moslem writer Usamah, who died in 1188, describes a religious ceremony which edified him: “I visited the tomb of John, son of Zacharias – peace be onto them both! – , in the village of Sebastia in the district of Nablus. The prayer over, I walked out into an enclosed courtyard in front of the place of the tomb. There was a door ajar; I opened it and entered a church where I saw about ten elderly men with uncovered heads and hair as white as carded cotton. They stood looking to the east, and had on their chests sticks ending with transverse bars, twisted like the front part of a saddle. On these sticks they swear; and one may receive hospitality from these men. Such a view as I saw would soften any heart, but at the same time it displeased and saddened me, not having ever seen among Moslems anyone with such devout zeal” (F. Gabrieli, Storici arabi delle Crociate, Torino 1969, 83-84). With those words the historian describes the Greek monks who stand during the office, leaning on their typical staff.
In 1145 the relics of St. John were recovered, perhaps when the church of the Finding of the Head was being remodeled; and the Patriarch of Jerusalem, William I, related the discovery and granted an indulgence of 40 days to whoever would contribute to the rebuilding of the church (Röhricht, Regesta, 59). The building was entrusted to the Greeks as we learn from the Greek pilgrim Phocas who visited it in 1177 and says: “Now in this place there is a monastery of the Greeks.” Phocas then describes the domed church with a small side chapel leading down into a crypt where the head of St. John had been buried (Ench., no. 312). In rebuilding the church, some ancient elements that were still useful were left in place, as the excavations have shown; for example, the old columns were enclosed in the pillars, exactly as was done in the same period in the church built over the well of the Samaritan woman and in the church of ‘Abud. The building was adorned with wall paintings, among them one in the crypt showing the scene of the discovery of the head. The Moslem workmen who excavated the church, in their Semitic aversion to images, immediately disfigured these pictures unknown to J.W. Crowfoot, director of the excavation. The excavator gave a detailed description of them, with the reproduction of a watercolor by M. Bentwich (Churches of Bosra and Samaria-Sebaste, London, 1937).
The Post-Crusader Period. With the departure of the Crusaders, only native Christians remained in the city. The large church built over the Baptist’s tomb was immediately confiscated by the Moslems who transformed it into a mosque; the other church was left to the faithful of the Greek rite. Thus the Dominican Burchard of Mount Sion, visiting the town in 1283, noted the “mahumeria,” i.e. the church transformed into a mosque, and the church on the acropolis, where he found Greek monks who received him kindly (“benigne:” Ench., no. 317).
Nothing changed for some centuries, as can be ascertained by leafing through the itineraries of pilgrims. Thus, for example, in 1347 Niccolò da Poggibonsi found in the upper part of the town “a monastery, in the hands of the Greek monks” (A Voyage, 62). In 1593 Bartholomaeus de Saligniaco relates that he was received by the Greek monks with “the greatest kindness” (Itinerarium Sacrae Scripturae, hoc est Sanctae Terrae… Magdeburgi 1593, Pars I, Cap. VII § 12). In 1616 Pietro della Valle noted: “I found there, among others, a few Arabic-speaking Christians of the Greek rite, who brought me to see the church of St. John’s tomb” (Ench., no. 328). The inhabitants were few and in the early sixteenth century, Father Suriano wrote: “There are perhaps ten houses inhabited” (Treatise, 156).

A lamp from Samaria

In 1647 Father Bernardinus Surius stopped at Sebaste on his way from Jerusalem to Nazareth. After having described the lower church of St. John held by the Moslems, he says: “The other church is build on the top of the mountain, in the place where once there was [Herod’s] royal palace, with a small cloister in charge of the Greeks, who say this is the place where St. John Baptist was held prisoner and beheaded, although this is not true because he was martyred at Machaerus, a place situated beyond the Jordan toward the Dead Sea. However, it is true that his disciples buried his body in this city” (Le pieux Pélerin ou Voyage de Jerusalem… Bruxelles 1666, 551).
In 1649 and in 1670-1671 the Moslem Evliya Chelebi visited Palestine on his way to Mecca. Speaking of Sebaste, he says: “It is a prosperous townlet on a slope. It has at present Moslem and Christian inhabitants. Over this slope raises a high monastery, the buildings of which bewilder the onlooker. It is built artistically and is well worth seeing. The inhabitants of both monastery and town were massacred on the occasion of the Caliph el-Ma‘mun halting at this city when he came up from Egypt on the way to Tarsus and Qara Görgis. Ever since that time no monks live in this monastery. It lies in ruins.” Evliya talks about the church on the acropolis; in fact, he continues, saying: “In the neighborhood of this monastery is the House of Yahya in Beit Sabastya,” showing how the village moved toward the tomb of St. John. Then he gives a garbled version of the circumstances of the Baptist’s death, and adds that “his noble body was kept by the Greeks in a marble sarcophagus,” and how Maltese pilgrims took the town by surprise and removed the body to Acre (St.H. Stephan, QDAP 6 [1937], 88-89).
Seemingly Evliya is talking of Muhammad Köprülü, once Pasha of Jerusalem, where he so tormented the Christians that the Greek and the Armenian bishops and the Custos of the Holy Land were forced to leave for Constantinople in order to survive (Mariano da Maleo, Terra Santa II, 344-354). Once he became Grand Vizier in 1656, “with ruthless severity extirpated the spirit of rebellion” (C. Brockelmann, History of the Islamic Peoples, London 1959, 333).
The pilgrims Gabriel Bremond, who visited Sebaste in 1666 (Viaggi, 227), and Domenico Laffi (Viaggio, 143), who was there in 1679, make no further mention of the monks but speak of Christians who hover around the mosque, keeping in veneration the apse of the church of St. John’s tomb. The former writes: “The tomb of St. John Baptist is distinguished from the others (the tombs of Elisha and Obadiah) because of the inscriptions there, although they are half erased. The poor Christians take great care of this chapel and of a site near the little hill called choniron. Even the Mohammedans hold this place in veneration, calling it Mar Zacharias, after St. John Baptist’s father.” The second pilgrim remarked about the “capitals of artful workmanship” of the church, and the “remains of a beautiful dome, under which probably was the main altar, likewise adorned with marble columns and mosaic pictures; at present it is divided in half, the Greeks officiating in one part, the Mohammedans in the other.”
In 1669 Father Morone (Terra Santa I, 337), having described the tomb of St. John, notes: “But seldom do pilgrims go there because of the insatiable greed of those few peasants who live there, the boldness of whom I myself experienced.”

The Roman road
Temple of Augustus
The Acropolis

Based on the registers and other documents in the archives of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate, Papadopulos in 1904 drew up a list of the villages existing in 1667 and indicated Sebaste as a bishopric with nine dependent villages, but no resident bishop. Among the bishops one named Nastri is known, who died in Rome in 1731 (M. Le Quien, Oriens Christianus III, Paris 1740, 653).
Gradually Sebaste became depopulated and also the Christians were forced to leave, although some remained in the area. In the middle of the last century, Father da Perinaldo (La Terra Santa III, 254) noticed “a few rustic Arab dwellings all inhabited by Moslems.” In the 1922 statistics only ten Christians were counted. Although the village has today grown, it is still wholly Moslem and, until a few years ago, rather uncourteous towards strangers. Despite this, the cult of the Baptist appears to be always practiced because, as Crowfoot notes, the peasants consider him one of them. The Greek Orthodox nominate the archbishop of Sebaste, but he resides in Jerusalem.

1. West gate
2. Roman road
3. Forum
4. The basilica
5. The Stadium
1. The theatre
2. Teple of Kore and of the Dioscuri
3. Citadel and Temple of Augustus
4. Church of the discovery of Baptist's head
5. Church of St. John the Baptist

Other links:

Sabastia (Gate of Palestine) (external links)
Samaria (Sebaste), big collection of links (external links)

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