Zippori in the Roman Period


Even though the archaeological research has not included all parts of the city of Zippori dating from the Second Temple period (i.e.: from the Hellenistic to the early Roman period), there is ample evidence that initially the city centered around the top of the hill and on its slopes. The ancient city of Zippori occupied the southern slope, where much of the twentieth-century Arab village of Safuriyya was situated, but also extended over the remaining, somewhat less accessible, western, northern and eastern slopes. The initial Hellenistic core of the city presumably covered an area of ca. 2.5 hectares -- the so-called "acropolis" extending over the entire summit of the hill. The summit had the advantage of being relatively flat and surrounded by fairly steep slopes; it was therefore easy to defend. It was also exposed to pleasant breezes during the summer months.

It is difficult to summarize the urban structure of the acropolis at the end of the Hellenistic and the begining of the Roman period because important parts of it have not yet been exposed. The intensive construction revealed in the parts that have been excavated, however, indicate the continuity of settlement from the Hellenistic period up to the Early Arab period. The urban layout at the center of the acropolis and on its eastern side is very unclear. Several remains indicating private and public use were excavated here, some including water installations.The layout of houses and narrow streets on the western summit was maintained, without any significant changes, until the earthquake of 363 C.E. This densely built-up western area had a predominantly residential character. The average size of the houses here was 15 X 15 meters, including several rooms built around an inner courtyard which was not much larger than the rooms themselves. Access to the houses was via alleys that were apparently parallel and perpendicular to each other, their general direction being dictated by topography. One east-west street paved with stone slabs was built along the acropolis' northern edge. There are also signs in the form of a drainage channel that would have run under the road of a parallel street, running along the southern edge. Yet the general impression is that in the earliest stages of occupation the acropolis lacked a well-planned layout.

From the acropolis, the city expanded over the slopes of the hill in all directions. It appears that this process occurred first on the southern slope, which was more amenable to construction. Only limited areas on the hill's slopes have been exposed. The general character of the buildings, which includ many water cisterns and ritual baths, is reminiscent of that on the west of the acropolis. The remains of the buildings uncovered on the northern slope serve as the best example of how the residents of Zippori coped with the steep slopes of the hill. Future excavations may help to clarify the character of the areas of the city on the hill slopes. Presumably urban growth was gradual and lacked overall planning. The slopes were utilized mainly for residential purposes. However, some public buildings, such as synagogues, shops and perhaps even markets,may also have been constructed in these areas.

It is noteworthy that no fortifications have been found around the acropolis or anywhere else in Zippori to date. According to Josephus the city was fortified with walls during the first anti Roman revolt before it took a pro-Roman stand. From a topographic viewpoint it would have been easy to surround the acropolis with a defensive barrier - either a freestanding wall or a line of houses, raised on solid foundations, immediately adjacent to one another. The houses in the old Castra of Zippori (presumably the acropolis) were all lined up according to the Mishnah, and actually formed the city wall. This last type of fortification was implemented in medium sized cities throughout the Galilee during this period.

An important development in the layout of Zippori occurred during the first half of the second century C.E. It appears that by this time the hill and all of its slopes were completely built up; an increase in the population and the higher standard of living called for an extension of the city limits. The fairly level area (with a gentle slope towards the south) to the east of the hill was suited for this purpose. This expansion was well planned. An area of at least five hectares was marked out and a street grid was constructed, giving rise to a series of insulae, or organized blocks of space.

The new streets east of the acropolis were linked to both the existing streets on the hill itself and to those leading to the surrounding fields as well as the to nearby inter-city roads. The general direction of the new grid, about 30 degrees off north, was probably dictated by the topography as well as by the position of the above-mentiond streets on the hill. The initiative for the new, planned urban development was apparently taken by the city council, the Boule of Zippori, which had mainly Jewish members. Not only did the development of this area extend the city limits, but it also facilitated the building of a new civic center that catered to the needs of a rapidly growing city. Various buildings were constructed between the streets, within the insulae. These insulae were not equal in size, as in some Roman cities, but rather varied. The smaller ones measured ca. 70 X 40 m, and the larger ones ca. 90 X 70 m.

The new civic center featured two colonnaded streets: the decumanus running from east to west , and the cardo running from north to south. These two main streets were paved with hard rectangular limestone slabs laid in rows across their width, at a slight angle to the sidewalks. Noteworthy is the high quality of workmanship in the laying of these two streets. They were used continually, almost without repairs, for more than 500 years! Limestone stylobates (continuation of pavements supporting rows of columns), separated the streets proper from the sidewalks. Very few of the original columns that once stood on these stylobates have survived, and it is difficult to determine whether these few belong to the original stage of construction. However, it seems that the floors of the sidewalks were paved with mosaics from the outset. On both sides of these colonnaded streets, close to their intersection, are shops, evidence of the intensive commercial activity in this newly developed sector of Zippori.The overall width of both the decumanus and the cardo, including their colonnades (each of which was ca. 3.5 meters wide), reached 13 meters. No signs of a drainage system have yet been revealed under these streets.

Altogether, three north-south streets and three east-west streets have been exposed thus far in the area to the east of the hill. The westernmost street, on the flank of the hill ca. 65 meters to the west of the cardo, was at least partially paved with rectangular stone slabs. It probably continued beyond the city limits, toward the important road that led from Acre (Ptolemais) to Tiberias. (In the Byzantine period, a synagogue was built next to this street, north of the well-planned sector to the east of the hill). Unlike the latter street, the cardo did not extend northward beyond the limits of the above-mentioned sector; rather it ran southward into the extensive agricultural area that existed here. This is indicated both by an analysis of the topography and by the clearly visible ruts of wagon wheels on the paving stones. The easternmost street, ca. 75 meters to the east of the cardo, was probably paved from the outset with plaster. Over the years the level of this street was raised repeatedly, as indicated by several layers of plaster.

The northernmost street, ca. 50 meters north of the decumanus, was apparently also not paved with stones. It is situated on the northern side of the large public building that occupied a whole insula excavated by the South Florida expedition. It also flanked a second structure that can be tentatively identified as a public building that might have occupied the next insula to the east of the cardo. On the northern side of this last-mentioned insula, there is evidence that that shops with barrel-vaulted ceilings, faced the northernmost street. Based on the architectural evidence as well as on topography in this part of the building, it seems that these shops probably had a second floor, access to which was gained from within the insula. This street continued westward along the base of the hill's northern slope, passing the rear side of the theater; but there is no evidence of its extension eastward beyond the limits of the new sector'.

The decumanus was undoubtedly one of the most important streets of Zippori. It served as the principal link between the summit of the hill and the newly developed area. It linked up almost rectilinearly with the narrow street at the northern edge of the acropolis, and it bordered on the southern, rounded side of the theater, thereby serving as an important access to this large public edifice.

The southernmost street, revealed ca. 90 m south of the decumanus, was paved with stone slabs and, like the cardo, bears marks of wagon wheels. To the west this street apparently continued to the built-up, southern slope of the hill. On the east it must have continued beyond the built-up area into the agricultural fields in the nearby valleys. This street was apparently flanked mainly by residential buildings, many of which incorporated agricultural facilities.

The new urban framework apparently included a few other streets, one or two of which probably ran north-south on the eastern side of the newly developed area; possibly there was also one running east-west on the southern side. Topographic conditions discouraged the construction of another east-west street further to the north, but such a street might have been built at the end of the Roman period or, more probably, in the Byzantine period. There is no reason to assume that at this stage, or later, the extended city was surrounded by any sort of fortifications. Still, on its outskirts, along the main roads which led into the city, gates similar to the monumental ones found at Gerasa, Tiberias and Beth-Shean, might have been erected.

Two reasons can be offered for the eastward spread of the city: to increase the residential area in order to accommodate the growing population, and to erect an up-to-date civic center to serve a population that might have numbered around 10,000-12,000 by the second century C.E. The many shops lining the cardo and the decumanus indicate the new, bustling civic center, as do the public building at the intersection of these two streets and the building to the south of the decumanus of which only the foundations have survived. Despite the extensive excavations in this area, large parts of it have still not been exposed; information regarding the civic center is thus still incomplete.

The structure excavated by the South Florida University expedition near the main intersection is known as the basilical building.Its main entrance was apparently from the east, from the cardo, although there were possibly other entrances. This ca. 70 X 95 meter edifice features a high standard of architecture. It was probably built at the same time as the new streets. This building may have served as an agora (forum) or basilica, or it may have had some other function yet to be disclosed by further excavations.

The importance of the decumanus as a main thoroughfare is demonstrated by its location. On the one hand, it is aligned with the water system leading to the civic center from the east, and on the other it served as a major link with the hill. Other public buildings existed south of the decumanus and the two above-mentioned insulae. Foundations of a building measuring ca. 23 X 12 meters were found along the decumanus, ca. 45 meters from its intersection with the cardo. It was probably surrounded by a temenos (sacred place). This building may have been used as a pagan temple or even a synagogue. During the Byzantine period, there was building activity on both sides of the cardo, adjacent to the decumanus. To the south of the latter, foundations of buildings, probably churches, were found. However, it is still not possible to define the character of the Roman buildings that preceded them.

Two public bathhouses were exposed south of the decumanus, on either side of the cardo. The first (from the first or early second century C.E.) is to the east of the cardo; the second, which is larger, more elaborate, and dates from the third or fourth century C.E., is to its west. The smaller bathhouse included a long, narrow hot room (caldarium), flanked by rooms that are only partly preserved. Small sections of mosaic floors and a stepped pool were also revealed nearby. Many details of this bathhouse resemble those in bathhouses uncovered at other sites in the country, mostly from the Herodian period. Theoretically, this bathhouse preceded the system of well- planned streets and insulae; it is hoped that future excavations will clarify this question.

The later, larger bathhouse measured 27 X 26 meters (excluding service areas, furnaces, etc.). It was planned in the best Roman tradition, having two perpendicular axes of symmetry. The east-west axis, on the south side of the building, passed through three adjacent hot rooms (caldaria), the westernmost one of which was octagonal in shape. The second axis of symmetry bisected the central courtyard, the warm room (tepidarium) and the central hot room (caldarium). Two cold rooms (frigidaria) containing pools for bathing were exposed on either side of the tepidarium. The main entrance of this bathhouse was at its northeastern corner, directly from the cardo. Most of rooms were paved with mosaics, some having simple designs (such as alternating rows of white and black triangles) and others elaborate geometric ones.

The remains of a structure consisting of a group of elongated basements, possibly the foundations of a large building were found south of this bathhouse. Drums of columns were revealed in some of these basements. The building's proximity to the bathhouse and its architectural details suggest that it had a public function.

The city's theater was apparently built on the steep northern slope at the time when the new development to the east of the hill was underway. New theaters were built during this period throughout the Roman world, many of them as free-standing structures based on arches and vaults. However, for practical reasons, in Roman Palestine theaters were built mainly on natural slopes. The construction of this theater called for the demolition of some houses that already existed here. Thereafter, a large part of the auditorium was hewn out of the bedrock, and the rest of it was built with large fieldstones. On the basis of the historical background, some scholars attribute the construction of the theater to the reign of Herod Antipas (4 B.C.E. - 39 C.E.), who made Zippori his capital. However, the archaeologial evidence suggests that this large edifice was not erected prior to the end of the first century C.E.

The rapid development of the city necessitated a regular water supply. It was no longer possible to rely solely on the collection of rainwater in cisterns. A system of aqueducts was thus built, extending from the springs of the present-day village of er-Reina, to the east of Zippori. The most significant operation was the quarrying of a 200 meter long subterranean reservoir, 1.5 kilometer away from the city. This reservoir was connected to the aqueducts and was intended for water storage either overnight or for longer periods during the winter season. The aqueduct from the reservoir toward the city began as a tunnel and continued as a channel. This elaborate water installation was apparently built at the same time as the new civic center, east of the hill. How the water was distributed in the built-up area itself is not yet known. However, sections of channels and lead pipes found here from different periods indicate the presence of a supply system. At the time of construction of the central water system leading from the springs to the east, efforts were also made to improve the water supply to the hill. At this stage a large reservoir, measuring 13 X 8 meter, was quarried at the center of the acropolis. This cistern, which is located south of the Crusader citadel, probably provided water to the entire hill, or at least to its southern slope. This assumption is based on the discovery of a tunnel-conduit which led the water toward the southern slope. In theory this reservoir was supplied by the new water system. In this case, water was brought to the top of the hill either by pack-animals or by some other means.

Since the civic center of the Roman period has only been partially excavated and major changes were introduced here during the Byzantine period, not much is known about the associated residential structures that existed here. Some of the exposed ritual baths may have belonged to domiciles. There is scattered evidence of several residential buildings as in the remains of the triclinium of a luxurious building decorated with an elaborate mosaic floor west of the cardo. The floor displays three scenes from everyday life and one depicting Orpheus charming animals with his lute playing. On a street corner southeast of this building, a large section of another elaborate domicile was revealed. It dates to the end of the Roman period and to the beginning of the Byzantine period. During both periods its rooms were covered with decorative mosaic floors. A few other houses, some of which contained various agricultural installations, were exposed in this vicinity.

The close proximity of some of these private dwellings to the public buildings indicates the character of urban life in lower Zippori at that time. Some of the insulae probably contained both public buildings and private buildings.

One can assume that during the Middle and Late Roman periods (second century C.E. through the second half of the fourth century) the city continued to develop. Important evidence of this is to be found in the Dionysos building on the east of the acropolis, probably built at the beginning of the third century C.E. The Dionysos building, 48 meters long and 23 meters wide, spread across the entire width of the acropolis, between two streets, the one on the north being the continuation of the decumanus. This elaborate structure, erected around a peristyle courtyard, was apparently a two story building in addition to a basement under its southern part. This luxurious building is noted for its outstanding mosaic floors, the best preserved and most widely known of which depicts scenes from the life and cult of Dionysos. It is difficult to determine the ethnic background and occupation of the house's initial owner, but there is no doubt as to his financial resources and distinguished position in the community of Zippori.

It thus appears that in the late Roman period Zippori existed as well laid out and a well maintained city. Its boundaries are not clearly defined, but the city probably spread over an area of approximately 35 hectares and had 14,000 - 18,000 inhabitants. The extensive built-up area represents part of the growth that many cities underwent at this time in the land of Israel, however, Zippori is one of the most beautiful examples of this process.


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Last update: 26.2.02