Tzippori, also known by several other names & spellings including "Sepphoris," is one of the oldest Jewish settlements to be uncovered by archaeologists, and one of the richest in what has been found there. It is located in the central Galilee, and features not only Jewish homes and one of the oldest synagogues in the country, but also a Roman theater and a Crusader fortress.
The site is designated a national park, and is a popular destination among Jewish tourist groups. Today's modern town of Tzippori sits a few miles from the archaeological site.
The city was established sometime around the year 100 BC, on a hill, giving it some degree of strategic advantage against the Hasmonean tribes which had taken over much of the region. The founder is said to be Alexander Jannaeus, and it was named after the Hebrew word for 'bird,' tsippor, perhaps because of the birds-eye-view the hilltop provides.
In the year 37 BCE, the city was taken by the Romans, when, according to contemporary historians, the inhabitants fled during a snowstorm. The inhabitants of Tzippori organized a revolt and fought back, but were ultimately defeated and sold into slavery. Sepphoris, as the Romans now called the city, became the capital of the Galilee, of which Herod's son Herod Antipas was made Tetrarch, or governor. The Jews of Sepphoris did not join in the revolts of 66 CE, instead surrendering peacefully to the Roman general Vespasian. They were rewarded by having their city, like Tiberias, spared from the destruction that many other Jewish cities, including Jerusalem suffered.
Tzippori grew in the next few centuries, both in terms of size and importance. Following the Bar Kokhba's revolt in 132-135, many Jewish refugees moved to Tzippori, making it the center of religious and spiritual life in Israel. Within the next few centuries, Tzippori also saw Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, one of the writers of the Mishnah, a commentary on the Torah, join its community, and the moving, temporarily, of the Sanhedrin, the chief Jewish religious court, there. Jewish academies became based there, and Sepphoris, now called 'Diocaeserea' in honor of Zeus and the Roman Emperor, became not only a center of spiritual and religious study, but also a busy trade route town.
In 363, Tzippori was destroyed by an earthquake, but rebuilt soon afterwards, retaining its importance in the greater Jewish community of the Galilee, both socially and spiritually. Jews and pagan Romans lived peacefully alongside one another during the Byzantine period, and the city soon gained a number of Christians, as well. It was only after the Arab conquest in the late 7th century that the city declined.
The early 12th century brought the Crusaders to Israel. They built a fortress and watchtower atop the hill, overlooking Tzippori, and dedicated it to Anne and Joachim, the parents of the Virgin Mary. This became one of their local bases, and in 1187, the Crusaders were dispatched from Sepphoris to fight the Battle of Hattin, against Saladin. They were defeated at Hattin, and the Third Crusade ultimately failed as a whole. The fortress in Tzippori therefore, presumably, went unused from then on.
Under Saladin's rule, and the various Arab empires that would follow, including that of the Ottomans, Tzippori declined, losing its centrality and importance, and probably nearly all of its Jewish population. The Jewish and Roman buildings gradually became covered in dirt and rubble, lost and forgotten, as Arabs established a small village a short distance away, calling it Saffuriyya. They converted parts of the Crusader fortress into a girls' school, but left the remainder of the Jewish/Roman town unused.
Tzippori, and the nearby Arab village of Saffuriyya came under Israeli control once more following the Israel War of Independence in 1948. Archaeological research began in force there in 1990, and much of the town has now been excavated.
Archaelogical Sights & Finds
The Crusader fortress sits high atop the hill, overlooking both the Roman theater and the majority of the Jewish city. It was built in the 12th century, using Roman elements, and was rebuilt by the Ottomans in the 18th century, and then converted into a girls' school, and used for this purpose until 1948. Today the fortress houses a small museum, and provides a beautiful view of the surrounding area from its rooftop.