Tzippori (Hebrew: צִפּוֹרִי, ציפורי‎‎), also known as Sepphoris, Dioceserea and Saffuriya (Arabic: صفورية‎, also transliterated Safurriya and Suffurriye) is located in the central Galilee region, 6 kilometers (3.7 mi) north-northwest of Nazareth, in modern-day Israel. The site holds a rich and diverse historical and architectural legacy that includes Assyrian, Hellenistic, Judean, Babylonian, Roman, Byzantine, Islamic, Crusader, Arabic and Ottoman influences.

Interest on the part of Biblical archaeologists is related to the belief in Christian tradition that the parents of the Virgin Mary, Anna and Joachim, were natives of Tzippori, at the time a Hellenized town. Notable structures at the site include a Roman theater, two early Christian Churches, a Crusader fortress that was renovated by Daher El-Omar in the 18th century, and upwards of forty different mosaics.

Tzippori once served as a center of Jewish religious and spiritual life in the Galilee; remains of a 6th century synagogue have been uncovered in the lower section of the site. In the 7th century, it came under the rule of the Arab caliphates like much of the rest of Palestine. Successive Arab and Islamic imperial authorities ruled the area until the end of the first World War I, with a brief interruption during the Crusades. Until the forcible expulsion of its inhabitants by Israeli forces in 1948-1949, Saffuriya was an Arab village. The Israeli moshav Tzippori was established adjacent to the site in 1949, and the area occupied by the former Arab village was designated a national park in 1992. Moshav Tzippori falls under the jurisdiction of Jezreel Valley Regional Council, and in 2006 had a population of 616.

Early history

Although the date of the city's establishment is a point of some dispute, it is at least as old as the 7th century BCE, when it was fortified by the ancient Assyrians, and subsequently served as an administrative center in the region under Babylonian, Hellenistic and Persian rule. Throughout this time period, the city was known as Sepphoris.

In 104 BCE, the Hasmoneans settled there under the leadership of either Alexander Jannaeus or Aristobulus I. The city was called Tzippori and may have derived from the Hebrew word for 'bird,' tsippor, perhaps because of the bird's-eye view the hilltop provides.

The Hasmonean Kingdom was divided into five districts by the Roman pro-consul Gabinius and Sepphoris came under the direct rule of the Romans in the year 37 BCE, when Herod the Great captured the city from Mattathaias Antigonus reportedly at the height of a snowstorm.

Tzippori of the time of Jesus was a large, Roman-influenced city and hotbed of political activism. Archaeological evidence supports the idea that Jesus, while living in Nazareth, did most of his business in Tzippori.

After Herod's death in 4 BCE, the Jewish inhabitants of Tzippori rebelled against Roman rule and the Roman army moved in under the command of the Roman Governor in Syria, Varus. Completely destroying the city, the Roman army then sold many of its inhabitants into slavery.

Herod's son, Herod Antipas was made Tetrarch, or governor, in 1 CE, and proclaimed the city's new name to be Autocratis, or the "Ornament of the Galilee." A ancient route linking Tzippori to Legio, and further to the south to Sebaste-Samaria, is believed to have been paved by the Romans around this time.

The inhabitants of Autocratis did not join the resistance against Roman rule in the First Jewish Revolt of 66 CE Rather, they signed a pact with the Roman army and opened the gates of the city to the Roman general Vespasian upon his arrival in 67 CE They were then rewarded for this allegiance by having their city spared from the destruction suffered by many other Jewish cities, including Jerusalem.

Coins minted in the city at the time of the First Revolt carried the inscription Neronias and Eirenopolis, "City of Peace." After the revolt, symbolism used on the coins was little different from other surrounding pagan city coins with depictions of laurel wreaths, palm trees, caduceus', and ears of barley.

Just prior to the Bar Kokhba revolt, the city's name was changed yet again to Diocaesarea. Following the Bar Kokhba revolt in 132–135, many Jewish refugees settled there, turning it into the center of religious and spiritual life in the Galilee. Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, one of the compilers of the Mishnah, a commentary on the Torah, moved to Tzippori, along with the Sanhedrin, the highest Jewish religious court. Before moving to Tiberias by 150 CE, Jewish academies of learning, Yeshivot, were now based there. Diocaeserea, so named in honor of Zeus and the Roman Emperor, became not only a center of spiritual and religious study, but also a busy metropolis of trade because of its proximity to important trade routes through the Galilee region.

Diocaesarea was destroyed by the Galilee earthquake of 363, but rebuilt soon afterwards, and retained its importance in the greater Jewish community of the Galilee, both socially, commercially, and spiritually. Jews and pagan Romans lived peacefully alongside one another during the Byzantine period, and the city welcomed a number of Christians, as well.

Islamic conquest and the Crusaders

Ya'qubi noted that Saffuriyyah was taken during the first conquest by the Arab armies in Palestine, in 634 C.E. The city was incorporated into the expanding Umayyad dynasty, and al-jund coins were minted out of by the new rulers. Saffuriya was engaged in trade with other parts of the empire at the time; for example, cloaks made in Saffuriyya were worn by people in Medina.Umayyad rule was replaced by Abbasid rule, and Arab and Islamic dynasties continued to control the city, with a brief interlude during the Crusades, up until its conquest by Israel in the war of 1948. Throughout this period of time, the city was known by the Semitic name Saffuriya.

In the 14 centuries between the rule of Herod of Antipas and that of the Ottoman empire, the city reportedly thrived as a center of learning, with a diverse, multiethnic and mutlireligious population of some 30,000 living in relatively peaceful coexistence.

The early 12th century brought the Crusaders to Palestine. They built a fortress and watchtower atop the hill, overlooking Saffuriya, and dedicated it to Anne and Joachim, the parents of the Virgin Mary. This became one of their local bases in the Kingdom of Jerusalem and they renamed the city La Sephorie. In 1187, the Crusaders were dispatched from La Sephorie to fight the Battle of Hattin, against Saladin. They were defeated at Hattin, and the Third Crusade ultimately failed as a whole.

After the defeat of the Crusaders by Saladin, the Ayyubid Sultan renamed the city Saffuriya. In the 15th century, Saffuriya came under the control of the Ottomans. It remained a titular see of the Roman Catholic church.

Modern history

Saffuriya (Arabic: صفورية‎, also transliterated Safurriya and Suffurriye) , along with the whole of Palestine, came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire after it defeated the Mamluks at the Battle of Marj Dabiq in 1516. An Ottoman firman of 979 H. (1572 C.E.) describes Saffuriyya as one of a group of villages within the sanjak of Safad, which was part of the Qaysi faction, and that had rebelled against the Ottoman authorities. At the end of the 16th century, the population was recorded as consisting of 366 families and 34 bachelors, all Muslim. Saffuriyya was larger than neighboring Nazareth but smaller than Kafr Kanna. A number of important scholars came from the village during this period, including the qadi, al-Baq'a al-Saffuri (d.1625) and Ahmad al-Sharif (d.1633), a poet and qadi.

In 1745, it is reported that Zahir al-Umar built a fortress on the hilltop above Saffuriya. In the early nineteenth century, the British traveller J. Buckingham noted that all the inhabitants of Saffuriya were Muslim, and that the house of St. Anna had been completely demolished.

In the late nineteenth century, Saffuriyya was described as village built of stone and mud, situated along the slope of a hill. The village contained the remains of the Church of St. Anna and a square tower, said to have been built in the mid-eighteenth century. The village had an estimated 2,500 residents, who cultivated 150 faddans (1 faddan = 100-250 dunums), on some of this land they had planted olive trees. In 1900, an elementary school for boys was founded, and later, a school for girls. A local council was established in 1923. The expenditure of the council grew from 74 Palestinian pounds in 1929 to 1,217 in 1944.

Though it lost its centrality and importance as a cultural centre under the Ottomans (1517-1918) and the British Mandate (1918–1948), the village thrived agriculturally. Saffuriyya's pomegranates, olives and wheat were famous throughout the Galilee.

In summer of 1931, archaeologist Leroy Waterman began the first excavations at Saffuriya, digging up part of the school playground, formerly the site of a Crusader fortress. In 1944/45 a total of 21,841 dunums of village land was used for cereals, 5,310 dunums were irrigated or used for orchards, mostly olive trees. By 1948, Saffuriya was the largest village in the Galilee both by land size and population, which was estimated at 4,000 Arabs.

On July 1, 1948, during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, the village was bombarded by Israeli planes. It was captured by Israeli forces along with the rest of the lower Galilee in Operation Dekel. All but 80 of the villagers fled northwards toward Lebanon, some settling in the refugee camps of Ein al-Hilwa, Sabra and Shatila in Lebanon. After the attack, the villagers returned but were evicted again in September 1948. On January 7, 1949, 14 residents were deported and the remaining 550 were resettled in neighboring Arab villages such as 'Illut. Many settled in Nazareth in a quarter now known as the al-Safafira quarter because of the large number of Saffuriyya natives living there. As the Israeli government considers them absentees, they cannot go back to their old homes and have no legal recourse to recover them.

The site of the Arab village was planted with pine trees. On February 20, 1949, the Israeli moshav of Tzippori was founded southeast of the former village. The pomegranate and olive trees were replaced with crops for cattle fodder.

Archaeological sites in the National Park

The history of Tzippori as presented in the modern day national park covers the periods up to Roman and Byzantine rule, with a brief mention of the Crusades. The period of rule under the Arab caliphates, Ottoman Empire and the rest of the modern history of the site is not mentioned at all.

The Crusader/Ottoman tower sits high atop the hill, overlooking both the Roman theater, the majority of the Jewish city and the destroyed Palestinian village. It was built in the 12th century, on the foundation of an earlier Byzantine structure. The tower is built as a large square, 15m x15m, and approximately 10 m. high. The lower part of the walls are built of reused antique spolia, including a sarcophagus with decorative carvings. The upper part of the tower and the doorway were constructed by Zahir al-Umar in the 18th century. Noticeable features from the rebuilding are the rounded corners which are similar to those constructed under Daher in the fort in Shefa-'Amr. The upper part of the building was converted for use as a school during the reigh of Abd al-Hamid II in the early 1900s, and used for this purpose until 1948.

Much of the town itself has been excavated, revealing Jewish homes along a main cobblestone street. Several images have been found carved into the stones of the street, including that of a menorah, and another image that resembles some ancient game reminiscent of tic-tac-toe. Mikva'ot (pl. of Mikvah ), or Jewish ritual baths, have been found as well, identified by the steps leading to the bottom, carved out of the earth along with the rest of the bath.

The Roman theater sits on the northern slope of the hill, and is about 45 m in diameter, seating 4500. Most of it is carved into the hillside, but some parts are supported by separate stone pillars. The theater shows evidence of ancient damage, probably from the earthquake in 363, but also quite possibly from the Arab conquest.

A modern structure stands to one side of the excavations, protecting the remains of a 5th century public building, with a large and intricate mosaic floor. Some believe the room was used for festival rituals involving a celebration of water, and possibly covering the floor in water. Drainage channels have been found in the floor, and the majority of the mosaic seems devoted to measuring the floods of the Nile, and celebrations of those floods.

Finally, a Roman villa is arguably the centerpiece of the discoveries, containing one of the most famous mosaics in all of Israel. It was built around the year 200, and destroyed in the earthquake in 363. The villa is in the traditional form of a triclinium; seats would have been arranged in a U-shape around the mosaic, Roman villa mosaic floor and people would have reclined while dining and drinking, talking and contemplating the mosaic images. The mosaic, for the most part, is devoted to Dionysus, god of wine, and of socializing. He is seen along with Pan and Hercules in several of the 15 panels.

The centerpiece of the mosaic floor, however, at least for the archaeologists, is an image of a young lady, possibly meant to be Venus, which the researchers have dubbed "The Mona Lisa of the Galilee." Smaller mosaic pieces, called tesserae, were used to allow for greater detail and a more life-like result. The image is certainly more life-like, and more detailed (as in the shading and blush of her cheeks) than most expect mosaics to be.


The remains of the ancient Tzippori Synagogue have been uncovered in the lower section of the city. It was built in the late fifth or early sixth century, at a time when the town's Christian population was increasing and the strength of the Jewish population was diminishing. A mere 20.7 meters long and 8 meters wide, it was located at the edge of the town.

The mosaic floor is divided into seven parts. Near the entrance there is a scene showing the angels visiting Sarah. The next section shows the binding of Isaac. There is a large Zodiac with the names of the months written in Hebrew. Helios sits in the middle, in his sun chariot. The last section shows two lions flanking a wreath, their paws resting on the head of an ox.

The most interesting are the central sections of the mosaic. One shows the "tamid" sacrifice, the showbread, and the basket of first fruits form the Temple in Jerusalem. Also shown are a building facade, probably representing the Temple, incense shovels, shofars, and the seven-branched menorah from the Temple. Another section shows Aaron dressed in priestly robes preparing to offer sacrifices of oil, flour, a bull and a lamb.

An Aramaic inscription reads: May he be remembered for good Yudan son of Isaac the Priest and Paragri his daughter Amen Amen