Sebastiya: Village Meets Archaeological Site
Our first stop is Sebastiya, just next to Nablus, an archaeological site and Palestinian village.
We choose to visit here because Nablus is clearly Palestinian in many minds today, and clearly Israeli in the historical memory of Israelis, as it was the capital of ancient Israel.
This piece of history matters so much to Israelis that they maintain a national park, while the totally Palestinian Sebastiya village is a mere stones-throw away.
We noticed that our local Palestinian guide also cared so much about this key piece of historical information that he actually avoided any explicit mention of it, repeatedly.
What we heard was that King Herod made this city great 2000 years ago. Herod named Sebastiya after Augustus Caesar, as Augustus and Sebastus both mean magnificent. What we didn’t hear was the name of the people over whom Herod was King, or even Herod’s bloodline.
The cities Sebastiya and Caesarea were both built in Roman times, under Roman influence, and named after the same Roman Caesar. But, Israelis would argue that Herod himself was a Jewish king ruling over the Jewish people. Our Palestinian guides and participants, on the other hand, prefer to describe Herod as a Roman ruler or appointee. Each side holds their own perception of history.
On the same issue, our Sebastiyan guide mentioned that while the architecture indeed looks Roman, “the craftsmen and engineers were local, therefore Palestinian, or at least Canaanite.” This hints at two things:
a) Nuances in the historical narratives serve to establish territorial ownership
b) Palestinian identity is somewhat based on indigeneity, or being native
Another clue to Palestinian identity came in the form of this personal story, as told by our guide:
“A Greek pilgrim visited Sebastiya and said that Christians were here before us Muslims. My reply to him was that my ancestors were here before the Christians, they were here as Jews and later converted to Islam...”
(indeed, in Sebastiya we find Byzantine and Crusader churches, today used as mosques).
When asked about more ancient times, our guide explained that King Omri built his capital here in 780 BCE, for its strategic location, nearby water sources and proximity to older Shechem [today Nablus].
What we didn’t hear was the name of the people over whom Omri ruled, the name of his kingdom, even his own bloodline. Other peoples and empires were explicitly mentioned elsewhere in our guide’s presentation.
Pushed more clearly to name the civilization over which Ormi and his son Ahab ruled, our guide quoted archaeologist Kathleen Kenyon, suggesting that they were originally Phoenicians, and that Jews accused them of conversion to the worship of Ba’al. But, some Israelis wondered out loud, why should Phoenician conversion matter to Jews?
Our local guide dedicated much of his presentation to describing the hardships of occupation, with regards to the historical site, but also in general. For instance, the site is poorly maintained because access to it with heavy machinery is restricted (the site falls under Area C where Israel maintains security control and civil administration). The local villagers like to hold festivals at the archaeological site but they sometimes cancel when there’s escalation in fighting elsewhere or when they don’t receive permission. Indeed, visitor numbers at the site are low, in part because the Christian narrative of John the Baptist’s imprisonment and beheading has shifted from this site to other locations.
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