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Sites and Shrines in Palestine

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 24.11.2006:

By Hamdan Taha

The Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities is responsible for an area that contains over six thousand cultural heritage sites, including archaeological sites, religious sites, historical buildings, and villages and towns of significant vernacular architecture. These sites are distributed over the whole territory and range in date from the Palaeolithic period to modern times. The fact that no area in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is without such sites reflects the cultural wealth and diversity of the land. Each site and shrine conveys a special cultural and spiritual story that gives the respective place a special meaning and identity that has been valued throughout the history of Palestine from prehistoric times till today.

The Aqueducts of Jerusalem

A network of aqueducts between the Hebron hills and Jerusalem was built to maintain regular water supply for the cities of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Two aqueducts were constructed to bring water from Solomon’s pools to Jerusalem, the lower aqueduct from Ain Atan to Jerusalem and the upper aqueduct, some 30 metres higher. Two other aqueducts bring water to Solomon’s pools from Wadi Arrub and Wadi el-Biyyar. The waters from Solomon’s pools and the springs surrounding them are led to Jerusalem through the lower aqueduct, 21 kilometres long. In the Ottoman period, a ceramic pipe made of fitted segments was laid in the plastered channel, but it proved to be inefficient. The lower aqueduct tunnelled through two ridges, the first tunnel beneath the town of Bethlehem, and the second passed through Jebel el-Mukkabir and brought water to the Haram area. The upper aqueduct springs from Solomon’s pools and runs to Jerusalem along a line corresponding to the water-divide along the Bethlehem-Jerusalem road. The aqueduct was hewn in the rock or built of field stones and plaster; a segment passed through a huge pipe of well-made fitted-stone segments.

From Nablus to Jenin


Neapolis, the new city, was founded in 72 AD by the emperor Vespasian. The Roman city was built on the northern slope of Mount Gerzim. The modern name of Nablus comes from the Geek name, Neapolis. It was inscribed on the first city coins issued by Domitian and during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. The city developed as a major centre in the second century AD. Major building projects were launched, including the hippodrome, the theatre, and other public buildings. The Roman temple of Zeus was erected on Mount Gerzim during the reign of Antoninus Pius. During the reign of Philip the Arab, the city of Neapolis was raised to the status of a Roman colony: Colonia Flavia Iulia Sergia Neapolis.

The city of Neapolis flourished during the Byzantine and Umayyad periods and became the seat of a bishop. From the 10th century, it was known as little Damascus. Medieval Nablus still perseveres in the historic core. The Old City was extensively damaged by a series of earthquakes. The expansion of the city outside the wall occurred at the end of 18th century. The Old City, which consists of seven quarters, represents a distinctive example of traditional urban architecture in Palestine, but it has suffered considerably in recent years as a result of actions carried out by the occupying military power. During the Israeli incursions in 2002-2003, great damage was inflicted on the historic core of the city.

Jacob’s Well

Located at the eastern entrance to Nablus, Jacob’s Well is known, according to tradition, as the well dug by Jacob for himself and his flocks. It is linked with the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman who offered him a drink of water. It was restored during the Crusader period, and a church was built near the well. Today it stands within the walled complex of the Greek Orthodox monastery.


The site is located approximately 10 kilometres northwest of Nablus and occupies a strategic point on the main historical routes to the north. It commands the surrounding fertile agricultural area.

Sebastia, identified with ancient Samaria, was the capital of the northern kingdom in Palestine during the Iron Age II and a major urban centre during the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

Archaeological excavations uncovered the remains of the Iron Age city on the acropolis, including the royal quarter with the ivory collection. Under Persian rule, Samaria remained a provincial capital for central Palestine. In 332, Samaria was captured by Alexander the Great. The city was renamed by King Herod to “Sebastia,” in honour of Augustus. The city was completely rebuilt during the Roman period and gained the status of “colonia.” The Roman features are represented by the city wall, a monumental gate, a colonnaded street that consists of 600 columns, a basilica, a forum, a theatre, a stadium, various temples, an aqueduct, and cemeteries. During the Byzantine period, Sebastia was the seat of a bishop. The city was linked with the tradition of John the Baptist, whose shrine is located in the city, according to popular Christian and Islamic traditions. A Byzantine church was erected on the southern slope of the city, and a Crusader church was built in the centre of the present town. The Mamluke, Ottoman, and present town of Sebastia, still preserving the ancient name, is located in the eastern part of the Roman city, indicating an element of cultural continuity.

From Ramallah to Jericho


Al-Bireh is identified with ancient Beerot and was occupied during the Roman and Byzantine periods. The early medieval remains of Al-Bireh are identified with the village of Mahamoria. Remains from the Crusader and Ayyubid periods were found in the historic core of the town and include the Khan, a church, and a mosque. According to Christian tradition, Joseph and Mary rested in Al-Bireh on their way from Jerusalem to Galilee when they discovered that Jesus was missing. A crusader church, known as the church of the Holy Family, marks the spot where they stopped.

The Jordan River

The Jordan River, which lies below sea level, is the world’s lowest river; Jesus came to the Jordan River from Galilee to be baptized by John. Since then, the river has been important to all Christians, many of whom go there to be baptized.

Tell es-Sultan

Tell es-Sultan, the ancient city of Jericho, is the lowest (258m below sea level) and the oldest town on earth. It grew up around a perennial spring, Ain es-Sultan, in an area of fertile alluvial soil, which attracted hunter-gatherer groups to settle down and to start a process of plant and animal domestication. Archaeological excavations carried out in the mid-20th century evidenced 23 layers of ancient civilizations at the site. The earliest remains date back to the Natufian period, 10th-8th millennia BC. By the 8th millennium, before present Jericho witnessed the emergence of the first settled society, it became a fortified town surrounded by a stone wall and supported by a massive round tower. The Neolithic settlement represents the first agricultural community, based on domestication of plants and animal. During the Bronze Age, Tell es-Sultan was a fortified town and one of the most flourishing Canaanite city-states in Palestine. During the Greco-Roman period, the city centre moved to the site of Abu Alayeq. The Umayyad period is represented by the site of Hisham’s palace. Medieval remains were uncovered recently at the site of Tawaheen es-Sukkar.

Numerous historical and religious events and beliefs are associated with the site and area, including the stories of Joshua’s invasion, Elisha’s spring, Anthony and Cleopatra, the temptation of Jesus, Zacchaeus, and others. Jericho has flourished throughout history as a winter resort.

Hisham’s Palace

Built between 724 and 743 A.D, during the Umayyad dynasty, Hisham’s Palace is one of the most significant early Islamic monuments in Palestine. It is located approximately two kilometres north of Jericho, at Khirbet al-Mafjar. Excavations during the 1930s and 1940s exposed the luxury and lavishness of the palace. Without doubt, Hisham’s Palace shows considerable development of architectural and artistic talent during the early Islamic era.

The complex contains a palace, a bath, a mosque, and a public forecourt that reflects the Umayyads’ luxurious standard of living and political and tribal power. In decorative terms, the palace gathered the most exquisite forms of architectural décor, from polychrome mosaic floors, frescos, and marble to stucco-decorated walls and geometric and vegetal representations. Perhaps the most important of these are the six-lobed (pointed) rosettes and octagons that appear in different features throughout the complex. Hisham’s Palace represents a unique example of the depiction of humans and animals in Umayyad decorative art. Archaeological investigations indicate that the baths were the only part of the complex that had been completed and in use before the destruction of the site by an earthquake in 749 AD


The site, identified with Kh. Qumran, was occupied mainly during the Greco-Roman period (ca. 150 BC-68 AD). The community that inhabited Qumran is generally identified as the Essenes, a religious sect that lived in isolation in this region west of the Dead Sea.

Qumran became internationally known in 1947, when a Palestinian shepherd, Mohammad al-Deeb, discovered a series of scrolls in a cave. These scrolls later came to be known as the Dead Sea Scrolls. The site is composed of a large complex of buildings, including communal facilities, a sophisticated water system, a library, a large cemetery, and a series of caves along a cliff.

Deir Quruntal and the Monastery of Temptation

The site commands a magnificent view of the Jordan Valley. It is the site where Jesus spent forty days and nights fasting and meditating during the temptations of Satan. The monastery was built in the sixth century over the cave where Jesus is believed to have stayed.

Maqam al-Nabi Musa

The maqam is located 20 kilometres east of Jerusalem and is a splendid example of medieval Islamic architecture. The shrine, mosque, minaret, and some of the rooms were built in 1269 AD; other additions were made to the site in 1475, giving it its current shape. The maqam has been the site of an annual pilgrimage festival since the time of Salah ad-Din.

From Bethlehem to Hebron


The city of Bethlehem is holy to both Christians and Muslims. It is acknowledged worldwide as the birthplace of Jesus Christ, the Son of God in Christian belief, and the divinely inspired Issa to Muslims. The Church of the Nativity, a Byzantine basilica built by the emperor Constantine to commemorate the event, was first dedicated on 31 May, 339 AD, and is built on top of the cave where, according to a tradition first documented in the 2nd century AD, Jesus was born.

The Church forms the central feature of the town and is surrounded by other important sites related to the nativity. Among these are the Milk Grotto and the Shepherds’ Fields in Beit Sahour. The historic core of Bethlehem today, with its old buildings, represents a significant example of vernacular urban ensemble. The old town is the main place where a wide range of religious and traditional activities takes place. The Patriarch’s route, which runs through Star Street in the old town, is the route along which the religious procession passes each year during Christmas celebrations. Today Bethlehem still witnesses an annual special event when people from all over the world attend the traditional celebration of Christmas.


The site of Tell el-Fureidis, identified with ancient Herodion is located approximately 6 kilometres southeast of Bethlehem. During the early Roman period, the fortress was built by Herod the Great as a castle/palace complex. It dominates the landscape of el-Bariyah as well as overlooks the Wadi Khareitoun immediately to the south. The complex was built on a conical hill shaped and secured by the erection of massive retaining walls. This artificial mound was equipped with a sophisticated fortification system, including an elaborate water supply. Subsequently, Byzantine monks turned the fortress into a monastery during the fifth and sixth centuries AD, and built churches around its base.

The Old Town of Hebron, the Haram, and Tell Rumida

Ancient Hebron is identified with Jebel er-Rumeideh, located southwest of the current historic town. Archaeological investigations show several layers of occupation dating from the Chalcolithic period down to the present time. Hebron was always known as the burial place of the prophets Ibrahim/Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and their wives. During the Roman period, Herod the Great (73-74 BC) built a massive wall to enclose the cave of the prophets’ tombs.

After the Arab-Muslim conquest, al-Khalil, with Haram el-Ibrahemi, became one of the four sacred cities of Islam, after Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, which are visited by Muslim pilgrims from all over the world. The town and the Haram were honoured and sanctified by the rulers of the successive Muslim states during the Mamluk rule and Ottoman periods; al-Khalil increasingly flourished and became a famous Sufi centre. Hundreds of Islamic religious and historical monuments were built close to the Haram, including mosques, zawiyas, ribats, madrasas, bazaars, and sabils, etc.

Since 1996, the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee has been implementing a large programme for the rehabilitation of the old town to preserve its historic character, which is represented in its traditional architecture, its particular craftsmanship-pottery and glassware-and its traditional life. Hebron is the cultural and commercial centre of the southern part of the country. The fertile soil, abundant rainfall, and mild temperatures also make it one of the most flourishing vineyard cultures in Palestine.

From Gaza to Deir el-Balah

Khirbet Tell Umm Amer: Saint Hilarion

The site is located five miles south of Gaza city in Al Nusairat village on the coast, east of the shore rifts, and on the south bank of Wadi Gaza, on the main ancient route of Via Maris.

Khirbet Umm al-Tutt was built during the Roman period on Wadi Gaza, close to the seashore. It appears on the map of Madaba with the name of Tabatha and dates from the Byzantine to early-Islamic period.

The site contains the ruins of the monastery of Saint Hilarion, which consists of two churches, a burial site, a baptism hall, a public cemetery, an audience hall, and dining rooms. The monastery was provided with good infrastructure facilities, including water cisterns, clay-ovens and drainage channels. Its floors were partially paved with limestone, marble tiles, and coloured mosaics that are decorated with plant and animal scenes. The floors also include a Greek inscription decorated with circular motifs. In addition, the monastery was provided with baths, consisting of hot-water and cold-water halls.

Khirbet Umm al-Tutt (Tabatha) was the birthplace of Saint Hilarion, born in 291, who received his education in Alexandria. He founded the monastery in the 3rd century and is considered the founder of monastic life in Palestine.


The ancient harbour city of Anthedon is the first known seaport of Gaza, located along the Mediterranean Sea, near the Beach Refugee Camp. It is mentioned in Islamic literature with the names of Tida, apparently an abbreviation of Anthedon, or Blakhiyeh. The city was inhabited from 800 BC to 1100 AD. South of the seaport of Anthedon lies the ancient harbour of Maiumas, then identified with Gaza, which was also continuously populated and became, during the Roman period, a flourishing and well-developed coastal town. Maiumas is mentioned only in late classical sources, when the trading with Greece began.

The present site consists of a variety of elements which spread throughout the area from the seashore, including the underwater archaeology, to the inland: the ruins of a Roman temple and a section of a wall have been uncovered, as well as Roman artisan and living quarters, including a series of villas, which testify to the city of Anthedon. Mosaic floors, warehouses, and fortified structures are found in the area. The acropolis of Anthedon shows archaeological remains dating from the late Iron Age II to the Byzantine period. A massive tower and city wall of the old commercial centre have also been uncovered.

St. Porphyrus Church

Located in Gaza city, the church was built in the fifth century where St. Porphyrus died and was buried. The church is still in use by the Greek Orthodox community.

Deir al- Balah

It is located south of Gaza city. A monastery was built in Deir al Balah by St. Helena in 372 AD. Archaeological excavations uncovered a cemetery dating back to the late Bronze Age that contains a number of tombs, pottery coffins, pottery objects, bronze pots, and a mosaic floor.

Dr. Hamdan Taha is a Palestinian archaeologist and has been Director General of Antiquities since 1994. Currently, he is the Deputy Minister for the Sector of Antiquities and Cultural Heritage in the Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, director of renewed excavations, and author of several publications.


This Week in Palestine

November 2006

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