The Art and Architecture of Byzantine Zippori


Descriptions of Zippori during the Roman period are found, mainly, in Jewish sources. Through them, together with the archaeological remains that have be excavated over the past years, it is possible to reconstruct, to a certain extent, the city's appearance, as well as its spiritual, social and economic life. The number of sources which dating to the Byzantine period, mention the city are reduced dramatically. Moreover, the Byzantine remains unearthed in previous years on the summit, were unimpressive from the viewpoint of city planning and construction. Therefore, initially, it was assumed that the earthquake of 363 C.E. had damaged the city and led to a dwindling of its inhabitants. Recent work at the site clearly indicates that Zippori not only continued to exist, but was actually a large, thriving and splendid city during the Byzantine period. It is difficult to determine exactly how the city recovered from the earthquake which struck, in 363 CE. However, it is clear that soon thereafter Zippori experienced an extensive building spurt and a flourishing revival. The penetration of Christianity to Zippori brought a change in the composition of the city's population. However, the Jewish community still constituted a relative majority throughout the Byzantine period.

Significant changes took place in the plan of Roman Zippori during the course of the Byzantine period, mainly in the lower part of the city. To date, only modest structures most likely used as private homes have been found around the hill. Some water installations have been reveled in these buildings, including a stepped pool which probably served as a ritual bath. One building even contains a colorful mosaic floor with a geometrical design including flowers, fruits and various birds.

A storehouse was unearthed on the hill, south of the citadel. This complex was probably one of the most important structures in this area. The building had a large central hall with smaller rooms on either side, and a stable to its east. Many pithoi containing legume grains were found on the floor of the main hall. The room to its west, was used for the storage of liquids, while the one on the east was found to contain some jugs and a number of tools.

The Roman theater of Zippori continued to exist, at least up to the beginning of the Byzantine period. It is hard to verify exactly when the theater ceased to be used, but evidence indicates that this did not happen prior to the fifth century C.E. Afterwards, the theater was looted and some of its stones were burnt in a nearby kiln to produce lime.

The street network to the east of the hill continued to exist during the Byzantine period. Some new buildings were constructed, adjacent to the central colonnaded street and elsewhere. Others were built in a newly developed area which had not been built during the Roman period at all. Some of these buildings were excavated north of the decumanos, but for the moment it is hard to ascertain their architectural plan and original use.

The Roman bathhouse on the western side of this street continued to be used during the Byzantine period, but several changes were apparently introduced in the layout of its rooms. The 26 square meter structure is built around a paved stone courtyard. This courtyard is surrounded by bathing rooms. Colorful mosaic floors with typically Byzantine geometrical and floral designs have been uncovered in some of these rooms. Two rows of rooms are built on the southern side of the courtyard. Water installation were found in one row. The other row includes several hot rooms (caladarium), the westernmost of which is octagonal.

Private homes were built in this part of Byzantine Zippori, adjacent to various public buildings. Some structures were found east of the Nile building indicating the combination of living quarters with rooms for industrial use, evidently for the processing of agricultural produce. One house, more elaborate in terms of its art and architecture, was found next to the intersection of two streets at the southern part of the city. Its rooms were paved with mosaics, one of which is badly damaged but originally had figurative scenes.

As the Zippori excavations progress, an amazing reality emerges, regarding to connection between private and public building in the city. Private homes were built in lower Zippori, as well as on the hill top, beside large and important public buildings, a phenomenon mostly unknown in other cities in Byzantine Palestine. In addition to this, one cannot point out a clear and rigid division of the city, according to neighborhoods, characterized by social, religious or economic status. In fact, large and ornate residences, were built near simple homes, a reality which we note throughout the city in this period.

The Nile Festival Building is the largest, and one of the most impressive Byzantine structures excavated in Zippori. The building is located to the east of the cardo, opposite the bath house. It was constructed in the early Byzantine period, above the ruins of Roman buildings. The Nile Festival building which measures approximately 50 x 35 meters, was planned in a rather free fashion; it lacks symmetry, but in general, resembles an elongated rectangle. Most of the walls have been looted, but the robbers' trenches made it possible to trace them, enabling us to draw the lines of this structure. The building is divided into two main wings, linked by corridors. A hall of basilican plan is located in the center of the western wing. Attached to it were rooms of various sizes, the main one in the north, containing the "Nile Festival" mosaic, which we will see in detail later. The eastern wing included an open courtyard surrounded by rooms of different sizes.

It appears that the building had at least two entrances, one on the west, from the main colonaded street, and the other on the north, near the "Nile Festival Room." On the sidewalk, in front of the western entrance, a mosaic floor containing an eight-line inscription was laid. Two artists, Procopiuis and his son in-law Patricius, are mentioned in the inscription. They are, we presume, the craftsmen who made the mosaics, found in this building.

pic/centaur.jpgThe entire building was originally paved with colorful mosaics, some of which have been uncovered in fine state of preservation. Some rooms had geometrical mosaics. Figurative panels were incorporated within geometrical carpets, indicating, for instance, a change in direction, or emphasizing the entrance to an important space (centaur, hunters and amazones). Other rooms were decorated entirely with figurative designs, of which one is partly preserved and another is complete. Traces of similar floors, have been found in two other areas. The buildings' central location within the city layout, its artistic richness, its size and numerous rooms indicate that it was a public building, perhaps a municipal basilica. The basilica is mentioned in Byzantine sources as the place where municipal meetings, discussions, lectures and other public gatherings, were held. A basilica for the benefit of the public was built in Gaza, according to Choricius, in the sixth century C.E. Such structures are known to have existed in other towns in Palestine, and it is reasonable to assume, that Zippori also boasted a public basilica.

Additional changes took place during the course of the Byzantine period, around the intersection of the two main streets, the cardo and the decumanos. In the days of Bishop Eutropius, the sidewalks were renovated and repaved with mosaics featuring geometric designs. Three inscriptions blessing the work of Eutropius were incorporated into the mosaics, near to the intersection. One reads: "Under our most saintly father Eutropius the Episcopus, the whole work of the mosaic was done by the provision of the most learned Marianus, the chief physician and father of the city, in the time of the fourteenth indiction." Although we are unable to determine the exact dates for Eutropius' term of office, or when the stoas were renovated, the inscription does provide us with information about the administrative system of Zippori at the end of the Byzantine period, that is the role of the municipal episcopus and his activities for the welfare of the city's inhabitants.

The foundations of two churches, which replaced earlier buildings, were exposed south of the decumanos. One of them was situated to the west of the cardo; the other, to its east. The church west of the cardo was about 17 x 23 meters in size. Only its foundations and a number of water cisterns built at the same time have survived. The central hall was divided into a nave and two aisles; the apse, the focus of ritual in the building, was located on the eastern side, as was customary in the construction of churches. Additional rooms, perhaps chapels, were added to the building on the north and south. One may assume that the narthex and atrium are located in the as yet, unexcavated area, west of the building. An atrium measuring about 25 x 22 meters was exposed in front of the second church, east of the cardo. The courtyrd of this church was paved with stone slabs and was surrounded by colonnades paved with mosaics. Only the width of this church, 18 meters, is known, and only the foundtions have survived. Architecturally and stratigraphically, these two structures relate to the improvements carried out in the streets nearby, a fact that enables us to attribute the construction of both churches to Eutropius.

At the current stage of excavations, the reason for the relatively extensive destruction of these churches, when compared to the state of preservation of other structures in the city is unclear. The churches are almost totally demolished and possibly not accidently. Despite the poor preservation of the churches, these find in Zippori are especially important not only because they reflect the nature of Christian penetration to a Jewish city during this period, a complicated topic unto itself, but also because they provide important information on architecture of Byzantine Palestine. The two churches which have been uncovered stood opposite each other, on the two sides of a main road, in the center of the city. This urban portrayal is not known in many other cities in Palestine of this period, and sheds light on the integration of new structures within the unified formation of the Byzantine city.

The Jewish community, which, as mentioned above, retained its relative majority during the Byzantine period, built many synagogues in the city. One synagogue excavated at the site is located near the city's center. The synagogue was built adjacent to a street that runs parallel and west of the cardo. This is an elongated building facing away from Jerusalem with an entrance in its southern wall. A narrow narthex separated the entrance from the hall of the synagogue. The main hall had only one aisle on its northern side, thus differing from the majority of ancient synagogues. A number of rooms were attached to the synagogue building on the south, but it is still difficult to determine their function.

The most significant remnant of the synagogue is its mosaic floor which was designed as a single long carpet. The mosaic in the main hall has a figurative design, whereas in the aisle, it has geometrical designs which encompass several Aramaic inscriptions. The carpet in the main hall is divided into strips, some of which have internal subdivisions. The floor contains rich and varied depictions. Not only a zodiac and common Jewish symbols like the Holy Ark with a seven-branched Menorah on either of its sides, for example, but also biblical scenes, including tabernacle/temple depictions and the story of the binding of Isaac which is only partly preserved.

The various scenes comprising the main carpet, all face in the same direction, towards northwest -- along the halls' axis, which is significantly opposite Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the entire northwestern part of the building has been destroyed. However, some archaeological finds indicate that a bema was located at the end of the hall, in front of the elaborate mosaic. Chronologically, it appears that this synagogue was built in the first half of the fifth century C.E and destroyed at the end of the Byzantine period. Therefore it serves as important testimony to the existence of a Jewish community at Zippori, during that time.

The city retained its layout throughout the Byzantine period; however, it is not yet possible to determine when and how its magnificent buildings were destroyed, nor when its population declined. Signs of destruction accompanied by fire are evident in many of the Byzantine buildings uncovered at Zippori. Material finds revealed in the various excavated areas, indicate that the city was damaged and destroyed toward the end of the Byzantine period. This catastrophic event could possibly be linked with the Persian or Arab conquest. However, one cannot rule out the possibility that the structures were destroyed and burnt as the result of an earthquake, the exact date of which is difficult to determine. It is clear that there was a deterioration in the city's appearance during the Arab period, as demonstrated by the pillage of masonry and by later construction on top of earlier remains.

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Last update: 26.2.02