Most Christian visitors’ travel itineraries in the central hill country of Lower Galilee are limited to Nazareth, Cana of Galilee and Mount Tabor. While all these places are central to the Gospel narrative, a visit to the Zippori National Park will give you new insight into the Galilee of Jesus’ youth.
In the first century CE, Nazareth was only a tiny insignificant village off the beaten path. But when we travel just a few miles to the northwest, we come to an entirely different world. Zippori was the “New York City” of late Roman and Byzantine period Galilee.
Just at the time that Jesus was growing to manhood in Nazareth, a great building project was taking place in Zippori. In fact, many scholars claim that, although Zippori is not mentioned in the Bible, its building projects may have even employed the artisan Joseph, husband of Mary. Given that Zippori was the major Jewish metropolis in Jesus’ time, it’s very likely that he visited the city and may have even worked there.
From the Second Temple period to the Byzantine era, Zippori was a large and prosperous city with a Jewish majority. It reached its peak in the late Roman and Byzantine periods.
We have evidence of the wealth of its residents in the luxurious villa known as Dionysus House. Its prominent position at the top of the hill in the city and near the theatre indicates to us that the owner of this villa must surely have been one of Zippori’s VIPs.
The focal point in the villa is its formal dining room. Such a room was a standard element in wealthy Roman period homes. This is where the owner would entertain guests.
The mosaic floor in this room is one of the loveliest late Roman period mosaics to be found in the Holy Land.
Roman mosaic floor uncovered at Zippori National Park
Panels in the floor depict scenes from Greek mythology related to Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry.
We don’t know who owned this home, whether Jews or pagans, but given the luxurious nature of this villa, some scholars hypothesize that it may have belonged to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi who took up residence in Zippori around 200 CE. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was the leader of the Sanhedrin when it directed Jewish affairs in nearby Beit Shea’rim. He continued in that role when the Sanhedrin moved to Zippori. If there ever were a VIP in Zippori, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi would have definitely fit that description and an aristocratic home such as this-with a dining room for entertaining guests-would have been fitting for such a man.
Don’t be put off by the pagan elements in the floor. The Jewish community here in Galilee during the late Roman/Byzantine period viewed these kinds of scenes only as decorative art that was in fashion at the time. If Jews did own this villa, the imagery here in this dining room would have had no religious significance for them.
You’ll notice a U-shaped undecorated area at the bottom of the mosaic floor. This was the area used for placement of the three sofas that gives the room its Latin name-triclinium. If you look closely, you’ll even see markings on the floor that were used for the placement of the furniture.
The wealthy of Roman society took their meals reclining on sofas. And for this reason, in the Passover festive meal, Jews to this very day are told to recline at certain points during their Seder celebration as a symbol of wealth and freedom.
No matter how impressive the Dionysus scenes may be, in my opinion, the face of the beautiful woman at the bottom of the floor really steals the show. She’s known as the “Mona Lisa of Galilee”. She was located directly in front of the place where the host would have reclined. The Mona Lisa of Galilee is considered one of the greatest examples of ancient mosaic portraiture ever discovered.
Mona Lisa of the Galilee – mosaic floor uncovered at Zippori National Park
Zippori National Park provides us with insight into the lifestyle of the cosmopolitan community that once existed in Galilee’s metropolis during the time of Jesus and beyond. The Dionysus House shows us how the wealthy elite of that once great city actually lived.
I’m a licensed Israeli tour guide, yet born and raised in the USA. My Travelujah blog provides a review of religious, historic and off-the-beaten path sites in this fascinating country I call home. I offer a wide range of options for private tours including Holy Land Tours, Jewish Heritage Tours, and Day Tours. Please visit my website at www.davidsland.com for more.