sebastia travel guide

At the intersection of two significant historical routes—the northern Nablus-Jenin road and the western route from the Jordan Valley to the Mediterranean coast—Sebastia (Sabastiya) is situated about ten kilometers northwest of Nablus. The location provides a stunning view of the nearby farms.

During the second Iron Age, Sebastia served as the region’s capital, and during the Hellenistic and Roman eras, it was a significant urban hub. One of Palestine’s oldest continually inhabited locations, it is still known by its original name, demonstrating a significant degree of cultural continuity. The grave of John the Baptist is located here according to Christian and Islamic beliefs.

The initial excavations at the location were done between 1908 and 1910 by Harvard University. Subsequent excavations followed. The most recent, conducted in 1994 by the Palestinian Department of Antiquities, revealed a portion of an Iron Age city, together with a royal palace complex and a central courtyard. An ivory collection from the eighth and ninth centuries BC was one of the significant finds.

As the center of the area, Sebastia prospered in the second Iron Age. In 722 BC, under the rule of Sargun II, it was taken over by the Assyrians and used as the administrative hub for their province in Palestine. The city continued to serve as the provincial capital of central Palestine later, throughout the Persian era.


Alexander the Great conquered the city in 332 BC. A large tower and other defenses were constructed to the area surrounding the acropolis. The city afterwards joined the Syrian province in 63 BC. Herod dubbed it Sebaste (in Greek, Sebastos is Augustus) in honor of Emperor Augustus after Herod received it from the emperor. In 299 AD, Severus gave it the name Colonia.

The construction of the city wall, a gate, a colonnaded roadway with 600 columns, the basilica, the forum, a theater, an Augustus temple, a stadium, an aqueduct, and cemeteries were all part of the extensive building program throughout the Roman era. Bishops had their offices at Sebastia throughout the Byzantine era.

City renamed by Herod the Great

In the ninth and eighth centuries before Christ, Omri, the sixth king of Israel’s northern kingdom, erected his city atop the rocky hill of Samaria.

His son Ahab strengthened the city and erected temples to the Phoenician gods Baal and Astarte under the influence of his wife Jezebel, a princess of that nation. Due of Ahab’s terrible conduct, the prophet Elijah foretold that both Ahab and Jezebel would die horribly.

To get to the site of the Temple of Augustus, use the Sebastiya Steps (ATS Pro Terra Sancta).

Samaria has had a turbulent history. In 722 BC, the Assyrians conquered it, putting an end to the northern kingdom of Israel. In 331 BC, Alexander the Great took it. In 108 BC, the Maccabean King John Hyrcanus destroyed it.

Around 25 BC, Herod the Great enlarged the city and changed its name to Sebaste in honor of his benefactor Caesar Augustus (Sebaste is Greek for Augustus). Herod even constructed a temple in honor of his benefactor, held one of his numerous weddings there, and had two of his sons beheaded there.

During the early Christian era, the pattern of devastation and reconstruction persisted. After being damaged by an earthquake in the sixth century, Sebaste temporarily thrived under the Crusaders in the 12th century, before regressing to the status of a hamlet.

Pagans desecrated John’s tomb

The remains of the prophets Elisha and Obadiah, as well as those of John the Baptist, were interred at Sebastiya, according to Christian traditions from the fourth century.

Sebastiya Crypt, home to what is said to be John the Baptist’s and other prophets’ tombs (ATS Pro Terra Sancta).

Samaria/Sebaste is referred to as “where the relics of John the Baptist are guarded” in the Onomasticon (directory of the holy sites) produced by Eusebius, which St. Jerome translated around 390.

By that time, pagans had desecrated the tomb throughout a persecution of Christians under emperor Julian the Apostate, according to a contemporaneous account by the historian Rufinus of Aquileia in the year 362. The bones of the Baptist were saved by passing monks after his remains were burned and the ashes scattered.

Tomb is under cathedral ruins

The grave that is connected to John the Baptist and other prophets is still visited by pilgrims. There are six burial niches carved into the wall of a tomb chamber that is located beneath a tiny domed structure in the cathedral ruins. The remains of John the Baptist are said to reside in the lowest row, between Elisha and Obadiah.

The public area in Sebastiya is dominated by the ruins of the cathedral’s enormous buttressed walls.

The finding of carved ivory referenced in the Bible allowed archaeologists to locate the remains of Ahab’s palace in the vast archaeological park at the top of the hill (1 Kings 22:39). The Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem is where the ivory objects are on exhibit.

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