Sabastiya, located in the northern West Bank, is a small Palestinian village with a charming old town consisting predominantly of Mamluk and Ottomoan style architecture. However, the complex history of the village traces its roots back thousands of years earlier, with significant archaeological remains in and surrounding the village.
According to Biblical accounts, Omri (882-871 BC), the sixth king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, bought the strategically located hill of Semeron. There he decided to build his new capital, which was transferred from Terzah. He named the city Samaria, after the hill’s previous owner, Shemron. (1 Kings 16:21-24)
Ahab and Jeroboam II, the successors of Omri, strenghtened Samaria by surrounding it with a fortification. Ahab, who had a Phoenician wife, built a temple there to worship Baal (1 Kings 16:32), which was later destroyed by Jehu. (2 Kings 10:28)
The Northern Kingdom of Israel together with its capital, Samaria, faced destruction, as foretold by Prophet Micah: “I will make Samaria a pile of ruins in the open country, a place for planting grapevines.” (Micah 1:6) The Assyrians, after defeating King Hosea, captured the city in 721/2 B.C. As the result, the Israelites were exiled to Mesopotamia and the conquered land was populated with the Akkadians.
Garnison of Alexander the Great
In 331 BC, Samaria became Hellenistic village, after Alexander the Great brought thousands of his Macedonian soldiers to the town. Excavations revealed three round towers (13 m in diameter) and later-period massive fortifications with square towers, as well as plenty of artifacts dating to the period of Alexander the Great.
Sebaste of Herod
The Macedonian fortifications were destroyed by Maccabee King John Hyrcanus, who took the city in 108 BC. However, after the Roman conquest in 63 BC and the subsequent fall of the Hashmonean Kingdom, Roman governor Gabinus rebuilt Samaria around 55 BC. In 27 BC, Cesar Augustus awarded Samaria, among many other sites, to Herod the Great. Herod wanted to honor the Emperor, so he gave a new name to the city – Sebaste, which in Greek means Augustus.
Soon after Herod initiated construction of a great temple, which he also dedicated to Cesar. Renowned for his imposing monuments, Herod built there a theatre, stadium and many other public edifices at Sebaste.
However, most of the Herod’s buildings were later rebuilt in the 2nd century AD under the rule of the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus. Sebaste was also expanded and many new structures were constructed. Even today we can still view the ruins of the basilica and the forum colonnade from that earlier time period.
Soon after the death and resurrection of Christ, Philip, who was one of the seven deacons, started to preach the Gospel in the principal city of Samaria – Sebaste. His mission was so successful that Peter and John soon joined him there. Many citizens of Sebaste were baptized and they received the Holy Spirit. (Acts 8)
Tomb of John the Baptist
From the earliest days of the Christian faith, tradition held that the body of St. John the Baptist was entombed alongside prophets Abdias and Eliseus in the town of Sebaste. The earliest written account about the tomb was mentioned in the documents of priest Rufinus of Aquileila (378 – 397 AD). There he writes that the body of John the Baptist was removed from the tomb and burnt by pagans who were against Christians. It is said that, fortunately, the monks from the Jerusalem monastery of deacon Philip rescued some of the relics. The identified site of the tomb is located in the middle of present day Sabastiya.
The site also contains ruins of a Byzantine church from the 5th century, said to be built over the traditional place of John’s beheading – Church of the Head (Kniset el-Ras). This belief, however, contradicts, the writings of the ancient historian Josephus Flavius, who wrote that John the Baptist was beheaded by Herod Antipas in Machaerus, located on the eastern side of the Jordan river.
The ruins of Kniset el-Ras are still visited – many pilgrims pray there while visiting Sabastiya. A small Christian cemetery can be seen at the side of the basilica.
Islam and Crusaders
In 634, Sabastiya peacefully surrendered to the Islamic army.
With the arrival of the Crusaders to the Holy Land, a splendid Cathedral of St. John was built at the site of John the Baptist’s tomb. In 1187, The church was however turned into a mosque by Saladin’s nephew Husam ed-Din Muhammad. Since then the mosque of Prophet Yahia (the name of John the Baptist according to the Quran) underwent multiple renovations and changes, but the Crusader structure is clearly visible.
So let’s come back to our question: Was the body of John the Baptist buried in Sabastiya? Try to find the answer by visiting the place on your own!
If you go:
How to get there? Sabastiya is situated around 10 km north-west from Nablus on the road #60. If you are planning to travel by public transportation take bus #18 to Ramallah from the bus station situated in front of the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. After reaching Ramallah, take a collective taxi (orange vans) to Nablus and from there take another collective taxi to Sabastiya. Traveling there on public transportation can be complicated and might take up to 2:30 hours. The approximate cost for one way travel would be 30 NIS. For those interested in driving themselves, you can rent a rental car from one of the East Jerusalem car rental companies that is insured for travel in the Palestinian Territories. Alternatively, one can travel there with a private tour guide as well, arranged through Travelujah.
Info: Sabastiya’s Information Centeris located within the Sabastiya Cultural Center project and can be contacted at email@example.com or by calling on 09-2532545 or 0569789631. Tours in English are possible as well.
Accommodations: Sabastiya Guest House is a charming place situated in the center of the village. It offers two double and two single rooms. The rate for B&B per person per night is 120 NIS ($35 per person). To contact the guest house email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 09-2532545.
Beata Andonia works for the Bethlehem tourist bureau and blogs regularly about Bethlehem for Travelujah-Holy Land Tours. She is originally from Poland and moved to Bethlehem in 2010.
*For more information about booking an individual or group pilgrimage please contact us.