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Sebastya: John the Baptist, Almond Blossom, and Roman Columns

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 05.03.2007:

By Dr. Ali Qleibo

Myth and history interweave in a single magical moment in Sebastya. Perched on a mountaintop surrounded by a range of mountains of olives that cascade into the endless horizon, Sebastya is a typical Hellenistic/Roman/Byzantine and Crusader fortress. The spectacular panorama that the ancient capital of Samaria commands rolls up the mountain and into the acropolis. The expansive green fields of wheat, olive orchards and, at this season, the pale pink-white blossom of the almond and apricot trees swell between the columns of the Roman cardo, the collapsed apses of John the Baptist’s Crusader church, and the still remains of Hellenistic watchtowers.

The tragic figure of John the Baptist, known in the Quran as ‘Yayha’, dominates the sleepy town. Of equal importance is the seditious seductress Salome, the incestuous, adulterous Herodia, and the Roman king, Herod Antipas, tetrarch of Galilee. Sebastya provides the stage where Salome danced the notorious ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’ that culminated with her request that John the Baptist be beheaded. Though killed in Machaerus, on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea, the body was moved and is believed to be buried in the great cathedral in the lower town. Until the late-eighteenth century, it had five Greek Orthodox churches. From Byzantine times, a Greek Orthodox bishopric; now only one Christian family stays.

John the Baptist’s tomb is venerated in the Moslem tradition as prophet Yahya. The sanctuary may be visited in the eighteenth-century town mosque built within the precincts of the Crusader cathedral. In accordance with Moslem tradition, stipulating the exclusion of tombs from inside the mosque, Yahya’s sanctuary stands alone in what has become an open courtyard of what once constituted the huge Crusader church. The Crusader arches that once supported the ceiling soar to the open sky under the towering, elegant Ottoman minaret … An Ottoman dome over a square chamber in the shade of an orange tree marks the tomb. The Ottoman mosque stands in the eastern side of the cathedral.

Zachariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist, are important figures in the Quran. Two chapters, ‘Al-Imran’ and ‘Mariam’ describe the miraculous birth of John, Yahya, and stress the special relationship between the Virgin Mary and Elizabeth, who are identified as matrilineal cousins. Once the Virgin learns of her own pregnancy, she pays a visit to Elizabeth, now six months pregnant, who lived in Ein Karem. Giotto’s painting, the ‘Salutation’, immortalizes the tenderness of the cousins. In the Quran, the precursor of Jesus has a name specially coined for him, Yahya, the man who shall live again.

The sculptures illustrating the biblical narrative have been removed. In a military raid of Sebastya’s museum, the statues of John the Baptist, the Herodian Feast, and Salome carrying the head of John the Baptist were moved to an Israeli museum. The Gospel, the historian Josephus, the renaissance paintings of Giotto, Titian, and Caravaggio, Oscar Wilde’s play, ‘Salome’, and Strauss’ opera conjure the characters and the drama that haunts the forlorn city.

Once a thriving city, Sebastya was the site reputedly chosen by the Caliph Omar for the construction of the third mosque in Palestine. In search of the famed mosque, my host, Mr. Faisal Abed el-Raheem, a member of the municipal council and a school teacher, escorted me through the town’s picturesque alleys sprawling in the lower city around St. John’s Cathedral. The mosque has fallen into total disrepair, wild weeds have sprouted everywhere.

A walk in the town is quite rewarding. Vestiges of days of glory abound in the plethora of Mameluke and Ottoman family compounds. A generic Palestinian word, ‘qaser’ designates such compounds. Qaser may be loosely translated as ‘palace’, but it is more of a family fortress. Inside the abandoned el-Kayed family fort, a few metres from the main square with its charming café built by British archaeologists, I was surprised to find that the dwellings inside were not different from the traditional peasant home. Each extended family lived in the same traditional single-room-style peasant home in which the upper loft was kept for human use and the lower floor reserved for chicken, sheep, the cow, the donkey, and the mule. Unlike peasant villages, in the big city of Sebastya, all the houses of the families belonging to the same clan were built inside one single large edifice: al qaser. A few such clan fortresses give the city its special character and remind us of the raging Qays/Yaman local battles in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Smaller houses, single-family dwellings, do exist. On the southern wall of the cathedral/mosque, a house combining Arabic and Crusader architecture has been naively restored and is open to tourists. In the courtyard, you may examine the ‘taboon’ oven.

Strolling in the picturesque winding alleys, one passes by a twenty-metre deep pit. This is the site that marks the royal Roman cemetery. A few huge stone sarcophagi carved with lion heads and other mythological scenes remind us of the fact that the Arab/Crusader town is built on Byzantine, Roman, and Greek foundations.

Roman Sebastya is a big city composed of a lower and upper city. The lower city was used as the commercial and living quarters, and lies underneath the extant Arabic town. The acropolis-as was customary among the Greeks and Romans-was exclusively reserved for religious edifices. Preliminary archaeological research has focused on the top of the mountain. A path passes through well-tended fruit-bearing orchards and circulates past the church of St John the Baptist, past the remains of the temple of Augustus. The scattered stones and capitals of the Greco-Roman amphitheatre buttress the Hellenistic tower.

Remnants of the Roman living quarters lie underneath the modern houses that sprawl over the mountain. Except for the cardo that leads up the winding road from the west (faint traces of which survive in the olive orchards) and the orderly roman columns, stub-like, that delineate the general outline of the stadium lying in the northern slope of the mountain, little remains of the ancient capital of Samaria.

Sebastya is an ode that evokes the poetic allure of transience and immortality.

Like the almond blossom, civilization is a delicate moment of great beauty, exuding a faint fragrance. History ebbs and flows. One week it is in full bloom. The next week its petals drift, scattered by the ferocious, freezing cold, wet February storms. The Palestinian peasant, like the deep-rooted evergreen olive tree, survives the big dramas of history. Here, a small plot of land is planted with wheat. There, a small orchard of apricots and figs are well-pruned and tended. In between, wild almond trees spring up amidst the ruins. Moss-covered Roman columns stand; melancholic witnesses to the tribulations of history.

Dr. Ali Qleibo is an anthropologist, author, and artist. He can be reached at


This Week in Palestine

March 2007

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