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Shechem -Mamurta -Mabartha -Neapolis

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 05.03.2007:

By Dr. Ibrahim El-Fanni


Neapolis is surrounded on all sides by extensive, fertile agricultural lands and copiously watered by several sources within the city limits. These circumstances, highly favourable for human habitation, coupled with the location of the city at the foot of the sacred Mount Gerzim and at one of the central crossroads in Samaria, have made it the capital of Samaria to this day.

The Roman city of Neapolis was built on the northern slope of Mount Gerzim, not around the ancient nucleus of Canaanite•Shechem. The beginning of Neapolis probably date to the Hellenistic period, but it did not develop and become a city in the full sense until the Roman period. The Arabic name, Nablus, is a corruption of the Greek, Neapolis (new city). According to Josephus, the local inhabitants used to call Neapolis Mabartha (War1v, 8, 1{449}), Pliny calls it Mamurta (NHV, 13).


Neapolis was founded in 72•73 CE by the Flavian emperors shortly after the destruction of Jerusalem. The evidence for this comes from the first city coins, issued during the reign of Domitian (81•96 CE), which bear such dates as ‘year 11’ and ‘year 15’ from the city’s establishment. Similar conclusions follow from the coins of Marcus Aurelius, who ascended the imperial throne in 161 CE (a typical date is the 89th year since the foundation of Neapolis). The full name of the city on the coins is Flavia Neapolis, which indicates that it was founded by the Flavians, probably in the aftermath of certain events during the first Revolt, the Samaritans’ repeated attempts to resettle on Mount Gerzim (Josephus, Antiq.XV111,85,-89, War 111 ,4, 32), and the fear of another revolt.

After its foundation, the city was granted extensive lands, mostly inhabited by Samar-itans. The territory of Neapolis bordered on the territories of Sebaste, Scythopolis (Beth Shean), Pella, and Perea (Transjordan) in the east, Jerusalem in the south, and Lydda (Lod), Antipatris, and Caesarea in the west. After the destruction of the Second Temple, the formerly Jewish toparchy of Acra-batene was annexed to Neapolis.

At the beginning of the second century CE, work began on several large building projects in Neapolis, among them a hippodrome and a theatre, as well as on streets and other public edifices. An inscription from this period (found at Ephesus in Asia Minor) that was carved in stone in honour of Pompeius Falco, Roman procurator of Judea from 105•107 CE, reports that several natives of Neapolis (whose names are Roman) erected a statue in his honour at Ephesus in 123•124 CE. Another inscription, found at Aphrodisias in Caria, also in Asia Minor and dated to the reign of Marcus Aurelius (165 CE), mentions a person who had won athletic contests in various cities, including Neapolis. There is also evidence from that time of a person who held athletic contests in various cities of Zeus on Mount Gerzim (q.v.), and the event was commemorated with the issue of a coin bearing an illustration of the temple.

An inscription on the base of a marble tripod found at Shechem refers to its dedication to the temple of Zeus. It also mentions an Athenian member of the city council who was a Roman citizen.

At the end of the second century CE, Neapolis was drawn into the dispute between Pescennius Niger and Septimius Severus. Neapolis supported Niger, and after the latter was defeated by Severus, the city was punished: its civic privileges and the right to mint its own coinage were revoked.

Eventually, the emperor pardoned the city, perhaps on the recommendation of his son, Caracalla. During Caracalla’s reign, the second stage of the Roman temple on Mount Gerzim was built.

In 244 CE, Philip the Arab became emperor and raised Neapolis’ status to that of a Roman colony: Colonia Flavia Iulia Sergia Neapolis.

During his reign, coins were minted and inscribed in Latin and feature all of the hallmarks of a colony, including a depiction of the colony’s foundation ceremony at Neapolis. City coins from the second half of the third century CE indicate that units of the Roman army were stationed there at the time. The amphitheatre and tombstones of Roman soldiers discovered at Neapolis may well date to this period.

There is little information about Neapolis during the third and fourth centuries CE.

The historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, who lived in the fourth century, refers to Neapolis as one of the major Roman cities in Palestine. It is known that the Roman temple on Mount Gerzim was in use even later•until the beginning of the fourth century. It was during that century that Christianity gained rapid acceptance in Neapolis and on Mount Gerzim. In 484 CE, the church of Mary, Mother of God was built on Mount Gerzim, apparently on the site of the Samaritans and the Byzantine authorities, from Zeno’s reign to Justinian’s.

Exploration and Excavations

Although various finds had come to light in the area beginning in the twentieth century and various studies of the city were made in the ten years following the 1967 Six-Day War, vigorous investigations and systematic excavations of Roman Neapolis only began in 1970, under the direction of Dr. Ibrahim el-Fanni. Excavations that continued until the end of 1988 revealed a theatre, a hippodrome, an amphitheatre, the city’s main street, water systems, parts of a wall, and burial grounds.

City Plan and Building

The city of Neapolis is depicted in detail on the Madaba map. F.M. Able was the first scholar to examine the modern plan of the city and compare it with the one on the map. More modern studies, however, have shown that the area of the Roman city was different and larger than he envisaged. Neapolis was built on the northern slope of Mount Gerzim. Its estimated length was 1,500 metres, its breadth 700 metres, and its area approximately 250 acres. Its northern border ran along the present-day Faisal Street. Outside the city limits was the main east-west road linking the eastern and western approaches to Neapolis. North of this road was the main cemetery, which extended over the slopes of Mount Ebal. South of the road, a stretch of the city wall and tombstones belonging to Roman soldiers were discovered. A hippodrome and amphitheatre were found in the west. They were apparently built outside the city but very close to the walls. North of the hippodrome was a magnificent tomb. The road seems to have run between it and the hippodrome. The city’s southern border is also identifiable. Outside the city limits, a clearly discernible line of quarries extends almost the length of the city, the ‘Ayin’. From that point, the city wall ran eastward, up to the Roman theatre at its southern end. Both the theatre and the wall are depicted in the Madaba map.

The wall ran eastward to a gate erected on the site of the propylaeum, or colonnade, at the beginning of the ascent to Mount Gerzim. From this gate, the wall continued to the main city gate and was situated, in the excavator’s opinion, on the site presently occupied by the military government headquarters. Here, too, was the city s major spring, Ein Dafna. The western border of the city is unclear, particularly as this feature is missing on the Madaba map. The excavator postulates the existence of another gate at the western exit of the city. Judging from the positions of the burial sites in the area, the Roman city extended right up to the edge of the present-day new Samaritan neighbourhood and the Muslim cemetery in south-western Shechem.

The illustration on the Madaba map shows a central street that bisects the city from east to west. Another street runs south from the middle of the main street, leading to a semicircular structure, which Able interpreted as a nymphaeum. Excavations at this site, as stated previously, uncovered the Roman theatre.

Excavations north of the theatre revealed the main street, which indeed cut across the city from east to west. It was approximately 11 metres wide and paved with fitted flagstones. One column was found in situ on the northern side of the street. Beneath the street ran an aqueduct that probably brought water from Ein Dafna within the city walls. It could be reached by a flight of 56 steps, descending to a depth of 12 metres.

This main street was in use during the Roman-Byzantine and Mameluke periods. During the latter, it was made narrower. Found south of the street were the remains of another street, along which columns stood on bases. The excavator believes that these were parts of the forum, or palaestra.

At the south-western edge of the city was a large water system, known today as Ras el-Ain. It was a large Roman structure that supplied water to the city through a stone channel. In addition, there are several springs in the city that include, in particular, Ain Qaryun, in the town centre, and Ein Dafna, at its eastern edge. Some of these, however, are not real springs but outlets of water channels. At the north-western end of the city, the hippodrome was built on an east-west alignment, parallel to the main cross-town street. In the third century CE, an amphitheatre was built in the circular part of the hippodrome. A coloured mosaic, featuring flora, fauna, and human figures, was found in the centre of the city and dates to the third century CE.

The Theatre

The theatre was built in the second century CE on the northern slope of Mount Gerzim, on the outskirts of the Roman city. It is surrounded by a massive ashlar masonry wall (2.6 metres thick) pierced by the entrances to the theatre. The diameter of the theatre (c.110 metres) makes it one of the largest Roman theatres discovered in the country to date.

Most of its masonry was plundered in the Mameluke period and reused to build the city of Nablus. Examination of the remains brought the excavators to the conclusion that it originally had three sections of seats (cavea); the lower cavea (which was built directly on bedrock ) and the middle one were the same size•each contained eighteen tiers of seats•but the upper cavea contained only about twelve tiers. The upper and middle cavea are not preserved. Of the lower cavea, one tier of seats, with inscriptions, remains. A concentric gangway ran around the theatre in front of the first row. It was bordered by a lattice-work partition. The orchestra was paved with marble flagstones of varying hues. The stage and scene fronts have not survived. The theatre was divided into six sections of seats by seven stairways. The orchestra and the lower gangway contained dozens of seats, with their backs carved into the shape of dolphins. These seats were installed at the upper end of the lower cavea separating it from the upper gangway. Among the many finds from the theatre were architectural elements•marble capitals, columns, and fragments of marble slabs that originally adorned the front of the stage, parts of friezes, doorposts, and decorated lintels. Two marble statues of female figures and a statue made of soft limestone were also discovered, along with pottery and hundreds of coins. Eleven inscriptions were found incised in the first row of seats, specifying the names of eleven phylae, or tribes. Eight of the phylae were named for gods, from Zeus to Dionysus. The central phyle, to which twenty-one central seats were assigned, was named for Hercules.

The last three phylae preserved such names as Phlious, the name of a city in the Peloponnese, the phyle of the antiochs, and another phyle whose name has not been preserved. The theatre remained in use until the Byzantine period, when the orchestra was turned into a pool, and the theatre was used for nautical games•a common phenomenon in the Roman world.

The Hippodrome

The hippodrome was built at the western approach to the city, on the slope of Mount Ebal, aligned east-west. The excavator believes it originally stood outside the city limits. Its estimated dimensions were 79 by 380 metres. The circular section faced east, and the horses’ entrances were in the west. The arena was found covered with stone chips. The remains of the nave•the avenue separating the two parts of the arena•were found at the eastern end. The seats were built on a vaulted substructure (13.65 metres wide), made up of a row of rooms (8.35 metres long), and an inner lateral aisle (3.5 metres wide) separated from the arena by a massive wall. Numbers in Greek letters were incised on some of the seats. There were eleven entrances for horses•five in the south and six in the north. The centre of the hippodrome was marked by a pillar. A great number of cells were hewn into the southern side of the blocks of seats; some of these accommodated horses. The hippodrome was built of well-dressed, but relatively small ashlar blocks that were cut from the soft stone of Mount Ebal. The walls rested on foundations of carefully laid field stones. The entrances to the sections of seats were through the cells, by way of staircases, some of which climbed to the upper section. The inner lateral aisle may also have admitted spectators. The cells in the seat’s substructure produced numerous finds•mainly coins, some of which were found on the floors. On the basis of these coins, the construction of the hippodrome is to be dated to the second century CE; it continued in use until the first half of the third century CE.

The Amphitheatre

The amphitheatre was superimposed on the circular end of the hippodrome in the third century CE. Its size is estimated at 95 by 76 metres. The substructure supporting the seats consisted of rectangular cells and the inner aisle on the side facing the arena. The central entrance to the amphitheatre was built like a corridor, 12.5 metres long and 4.5 metres wide. The cells adjoining this corridor were used as cages for the animals participating in the events. The cages were entered from the central corridor. Other openings led from the cells to the inner concentric corridor, which opened into the arena. The cells beyond the cages provided access to the spectators’ seats. Two cells provided access to the lowest level of seats through a broad staircase; between them was a cell through which the upper seats could be reached.

The amphitheatre was built of reused stones, probably obtained by dismantling various buildings around the city. The excavations in fact uncovered many inscriptions in secondary use, some of them incorporated in the amphitheatre’s walls. Considerable use was made of stones from the hippodrome, particularly from the seats, as the amphitheatre was superimposed on part of the now-disused hippodrome. In the interests of economy, the builders took advantage of the semicircular section of the hippodrome and simply added on another semicircular structure. A comparison of the pottery and numismatic finds from the hippodrome and the amphitheatre indicates that the former went out of use in the middle of the third century CE. The amphitheatre was built on the same site not long afterward, when Neapolis was elevated to the status of a Roman colony. The construction of the amphitheatre was associated with the Roman army units then stationed at Neapolis.

The Mosaic

One of the most beautiful Roman mosaics discovered in this country was uncovered in the centre of Shechem, not far from the Roman hippodrome. It comprises three nested designs and a fourth part adjoining the frame on the outside. The border of the mosaic is formed by two dark strips with a continuous spiral pattern between them. The various figures in the mosaic are placed in a system of circles made of acanthus leaves; in each corner of the mosaic, a bearded figure looks out of the design, and in the centre of each side is the face of a youth. The remaining space is taken up by depiction of various animals. The mosaic’s colours and shades are rich, and careful attention was given to the uniformity of the size and shape of the designs. It is dated to the third century CE, the time of Emperor Philip the Arab, but it could have been made earlier.


Neapolis’ main cemetery lay on the southern and eastern slops of Mount Ebal, stretching from the western approaches of the city to the road leading to Wadi Far’ah (today the Arab village of ’Askar). Mount Ebal had been used for burial since Shechem’s earliest days (the Chalcoithic period), and the cemetery continued in use until the Arab period. As the rock of the mountain is quite soft, it was not possible to carve tomb facades, so most of the more imposing tombs had ashlar-built facades or were mausolea built of stone.

During the Roman period, a new site, on the north-western slope of Mount Gerzim, came into use for burials. This cemetery stretched from the spring of Ras el-Ayin, along the Muslim cemetery and Samaritan quarter, up to the present-day Rafidyye neighbourhood, not far from the east-west road that ran west from the western gate of the city. More than thirty graves, mostly with sarcophagi, have been discovered. Also found here was the tombstone of a Roman soldier who had been buried in the city•most of the important tombs were discovered on Mount Ebal. A Roman tomb with two stages of burial was uncovered on the upper slope of the mountain across from Tell Balatah.

Other tombs from the Roman period were found to the northeast of Tell Balatah, near the village of ’Askar. A mausoleum, built of fine ashlar blocks, was found sealed by a stone door. Its face is magnificent and fashioned in the likeness of a Hellenistic•Roman temple. It contained ten sarcophagi.

From the fourth century, Neapolis became the seat of a bishop, but the early

Christians had to struggle constantly against the Samaritans. In 636, the Arabs captured the town for Islam. The famous tenth-century geographer, al-Muqaddasi, wrote that the town abounded in olives, had a very extensive marketplace, and was named ‘the Little Damascus’. In 1099, when the Crusaders took possession of the Holy Land, Tancred received the submission of the town called by them (Nables). The town was badly damaged in 1187 when Saladin recaptured it for Islam. The damage done then was compounded by the effects of an earthquake in 1202. The town was again sacked in 1260, this time by invading Mongols and in 1280 by marauding nomad tribesmen. Nonetheless, the period of Mameluke rule (1260•1516) was generally a prosperous one. Following the arrival of Ottoman power in Palestine, Nablus became capital of a district (sanjak) under the control of a local governor in the province of Damascus. Its beauty can hardly be exaggerated•clusters of white- roofed houses nestling in the bosom of a mass of trees (olive, palm, orange, apricot, and many others) created a carpet with every shade of green, everything fresh and picturesque, with shade and water everywhere. There is a softness in the colouring, a rich blue haze from the many springs and streamlets, which mellows every hard outline. It is impossible now to recapture the charms of that bygone age, but much could be done to restore the old city of Nablus to some of its former glory.


This Week in Palestine

March 2007

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