With ancient hype billing it as “the ornament of all Galilee” (the Jewish historian Josephus), and “perched on a mountain like a bird” – i.e., a bird’s eye view (the Talmud) and “a land flowing with milk and honey for 16 miles around,” (ditto) even in ruin, the city of Zippori has a lot to live up to. And it does.
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Zippori National Park provides a glimpse into hundreds of years of ancient history. The liveliness of Jewish life in the city is indicated by the 18 synagogues the Talmud said the city had. Or, they could just have been exaggerating – another ancient source says the city had 180,000 pudding dealers.
Indeed, only one synagogue, built at the beginning of the fifth century CE, has so far been discovered. Its prayer hall features a spectacular mosaic replete with Bible stories and Jewish symbols. Scholars have even detected a message of optimism in the symbolism of the floor, built in the day when Jews were not allowed into Jerusalem by that city's Christian overlords at the time. Detailed explanatory panels and drawings bring the synagogue alive.
The touring route will take you through the ancient 4,500-seat theater, past what might have been the Jewish quarter (many ritual baths were found there), established after the Sanhedrin moved to the city under the famed Rabbi Judah Hanasi who, around the year 200 CE, redacted the Mishnah there.
The route also provides a lookout of the Tomb of Rabbi Yudan Nesiah, grandson of Judah Hanasi, and the Crusader Church of St. Anne (grandmother of Jesus, who was born at Zippori according to legend), the early Medieval tower with its archaeological display and, from the roof, the promised birds-eye view.
You’ll find another fabulous mosaic floor – the one for which the park is best known –at your next stop. That one has been dubbed the “Mona Lisa of the Galilee.” It was situated in the dining room of a wealthy late-Roman era home that was destroyed in a mid-third century earthquake. It bears the image of a beautiful woman whose eyes, like the work of art she was named for, seem to follow you everywhere. Scholars say they can’t know who lived in the house, but a hint could be that the rest of the floor is full of images of Dionysus and his various drunken doings.
From here, you’ll continue down the ancient main street to the Nile House, where some of Zippori’s inhabitants may have celebrated the annual flooding of the Nile River. There, you’ll find a brilliant mosaic depicting animals - some of them imaginary - from Africa and other scenes.
Beyond the archaeology, Zippori is filled with historical tales. There’s the story of Herod the Great, who according to Josephus conquered the city in a snowstorm (you’ll find that hard to believe once you’ve been in this temperate Lower Galilee locale) from his rivals, the last of the Hasmonean rulers.
In Roman times, the city was ruled by Herod Antipas. As such, Zippori may have been the home of one of the wealthy female disciples of Jesus, Joanna, the wife of Cuza, mentioned in Luke 8:3. Notably, the people of Zippori escaped the turbulence of the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans in 66 CE by opening their gates to the conqueror. After the second-century Bar Kokhba Revolt, Zippori’s Jewish leaders were replaced by pagans.
To truly do the site justice, consider budgeting as much as three hours for a visit especially if you also want to explore fascinating rock-cut ancient aqueduct and its gigantic reservoir.
Hours: April-September: 8 A.M.-5 P.M.; October-March: 8 A.M.-4 P.M. Site closes one hour earlier on Fridays and holidays; last entry one hour before above closing hour. Phone: (04) 656-8272.