The city of Zippori (Sepphoris), described by the first century CE Jewish
historian, Josephus Flavius, as "the ornament of all Galilee," is located
on a hill in the Lower Galilee, midway between the Mediterranean and Lake
Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), with abundant spring water and a fertile valley
Zippori is mentioned in many Jewish sources of the first centuries of the
common era. Founded in the Hellenistic era, it was named the
administrative capital of Galilee by Gabinius, the Roman governor, in the
mid-first century BCE. The city did not join the revolt against Rome in 66
CE; it opened its gates to the legions of the Roman Emperor Vespasian and
was thus saved. On coins minted in Zippori at that time, the city is named
Eirenopolis, "city of peace." Later, its name was changed to Diocaesarea
in honor of Zeus and the emperor.
By the second century, Zippori had become the
center of Jewish religious and spiritual life in the Land of Israel. The
Sanhedrin (supreme Jewish religious and judicial body), headed by Rabbi
Yehuda Hanasi, was located in Zippori at the beginning of the third
century; at this time Jews constituted the majority of the town's
population. Even after the seat of the Sanhedrin was moved to Tiberias,
Zippori remained a center of Bible study and notable sages taught in its
The discovery of rich, figurative mosaics during excavations at Zippori
provide evidence of the Roman character of the city's pagan population,
which coexisted in harmony with the Jews during the period of economic
prosperity in the late Roman period. Zippori was destroyed in 363 by an
earthquake, but was rebuilt soon thereafter, retaining its social and
spiritual centrality in Jewish life in the Galilee.
During Byzantine times, the Christian community in Zippori grew
considerably. This growth was accompanied by the construction of many
churches and by Christian involvement in municipal matters. Following the
Arab conquest in the mid-seventh century, the city declined.
Under Crusader rule during the 12th century, a small watchtower and a
church (dedicated to Anne and Joachim, parents of Mary, mother of Jesus)
were built on the city's hilltop. The remains of the watchtower, partly
renovated in later times, still dominates the hilltop today.
During the Roman and Byzantine periods an acropolis existed on the hilltop
and a sprawling lower city covered a cradle-shaped ridge east of the
Since 1990 large areas of Zippori have been excavated, illuminating the
written history of the city.
The original residential quarters of the city have been exposed on the
western side of the acropolis. The remains indicate that the earliest
occupation of Zippori dates back to the Hasmonean and Herodian periods
(from the end of the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE). The
buildings, one and two stories high, were built on both sides of a narrow
paved street. A characteristic feature are the many Jewish ritual baths
(mikva'ot) for domestic use, hewn in bedrock and plastered, with several
steps leading to the bottom.
A large theater, 74 m. in diameter and containing 4,500 seats, was built
on the northern slope of the acropolis in the Roman period. Its
semicircular auditorium was partly cut into the hillside, while its wings
and upper parts were supported by stone foundations and vaults. The
theater was badly damaged in antiquity.
The Roman Villa
A magnificent third century Roman villa was exposed on the western side of
the acropolis. This two-story residence contained many rooms, some paved
with colorful mosaics, surrounding a central, atrium-type courtyard;
columns supported its covered porticos.
The courtyard was connected by doors to a triclinium, the largest room in
the building, paved with a magnificent mosaic floor. The decorated part of
the floor formed the shape of the letter T, which enabled guests,
reclining on couches on three sides of the room, to enjoy the many panels
of the floor. They depict, in over twenty shades of colored tessarae, the
life of Dionysos, Greek god of wine, and scenes of daily life connected
with the rites of Dionysos.