October 2018

Sabastiya: the Crusaders room is back to its splendor

At first glance, the small village nestled between hills of olive groves and almond trees does not seem to differentiate itself from the many villages of the Palestinian countryside. However, Sebastia, a small village in the heart of Samaria, hides among the houses and fields the remains of columns, capitals, structures of ancient buildings that allow glimpses of the flourishing past of this city that since the times of the biblical story had a prominent role in the area. Inhabited with certainty since the Iron Age, Sebastia was the capital of the kingdom of Omri and saw a series of dominations over the centuries: Assyrian, Greek, Asmonean and Roman. It was dedicated to Octavianus Augustus, from which it took its name (Sebaste in Greek means Augusta), by Herod the Great, who initiated the construction of numerous new buildings. With Herod before and Septimius Severus later, the Roman colony reached its maximum splendor: the Augusteum, the Theater the Temple in Kore and the Stadium whose remains are still visible today, belong to this era.

With the arrival of Christianity it is known from the sources as the place where St. John the Baptist was buried. The Byzantine sanctuary dedicated to the Baptist, built over the tomb, was later renovated and expanded during the Crusader kingdom. The Crusaders built a monumental basilica, second in size only to the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem, while Saladin’s nephew, after having conquered the city, turned it into a mosque still used today.

The grandiose past of Sebastia and its precious artistic heritage were brought to light by numerous excavation campaigns conducted over the years by English and Americans, but it is certainly in more recent years, from 2005 onwards, thanks to the contribution of the Italian Cooperation, the Mosaic Center Jericho, of ATS pro Terra Sancta in collaboration with Al Quds University and the Municipality of Sabastia that the ancient city has taken new life.

An example of this fundamental work of redevelopment is the discovery of “The Great Crusader Room”. After a year and a half of excavation campaign, from 2011 to 2012, with more than 25 local people employed in the work, from the rubble and debris accumulated over the centuries has emerged a room of the crusader period of 7 meters in height and 7 in length , but that originally had to be more than 60 meters. According to archaeologists, the hall, which is located in the south-eastern part of the country, was the lowest of three structures placed one above the other, probably used for the conservation and storage of agricultural products. During the excavations, moreover, remains of previous periods have emerged: part of what was probably the Roman aqueduct and an older wall dating back to the Byzantine city walls.

The renovated building was designed as a multi-purpose center available to the local community, but the management of the Municipality for a long time did not enhance it in all its functions. Last August Mosaic Center and ATS pro Terra Sancta reached an agreement with the municipality: the room has returned to the hands of those who gave it life; on the occasion of the September Festival of Sebastia, the garden of Al Badd (the press) and the entire hall have been cleaned up and made accessible to the public. The cultural space of “the great Crusader hall” will be used for workshops, exhibitions, multimedia projections of films and documentaries. Together with Sebastia and Nisf Jubeil’s Guest Houses, Nisf Jubeil’s pottery and cooking workshop, this place becomes part of a wider tourist itinerary around Nablus. “Taking care of the past is a way to help the inhabitants of these lands to know the value of their tradition, drawing work and benefit from them”, says the architect responsible for the project and promoter of the agreement with the municipality, Osama Hamdan. “This redevelopment action is part of the wider project of conservation and protection of the Palestinian archaeological, historical, cultural and social heritage”.

Find out more about our projects in Sebastia!

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