On Sunday, the Israeli government voted to approve $8.8 million in funding to restore and develop the archaeological park of Sebastia which, in Biblical times, was called Shomron, serving as the capital of the northern Kingdom of Israel and later, became the burial site of John the Baptist.
The proposal was submitted by Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman, Tourism Minister Haim Katz, and Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu. The move is intended to save the archaeologically significant site from predation by the Palestinian Authority which is trying to take control of the site illegally, according to a report in Haaretz. The proposal stated that the PA recently “declared Sebastia a Palestinian heritage site and promotes illegal and destructive activity in the area with the aim of taking over the place,” while “severely damaging the antiquities at the site.”
The plans include building an access road, establishing a tourism center at the site, and increasing law enforcement in the area to prevent illegal PA construction. The Nature and Parks Authority will formulate within 60 days a plan for the preservation and rescue of the existing heritage assets on the site.
Israel controls the archaeological park containing the ancient finds, as it is in Area C and administered by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. But the nearby modern town of Sebastia is located 12 kilometers northwest of the city of Nablus/Shechem and is in Area B under joint Israeli and Palestinian control.
The PA has applied to have the site listed as a United Nations Heritage Site. The UN website describes the archaeological site as being in “Palestine” and, while citing the Biblical reference as being the capital of the “northern kingdom” during the “Iron Age”, it does not mention the connection to Jewish history. Israel is only mentioned as having “control” of the area.
In the 9th century BCE, the city was purchased and built by Omri, the sixth king of Israel (ruled 880s–870s BCE) and called Shomron (Samaria).
“In the thirty-first year of King Asa of Yehuda, Omri became king over Yisrael—for twelve years. He reigned in Tirtza six years.Then he bought the hill of Shomron from Shemer for two kikarim of silver; he built [a town] on the hill and named the town which he built Shomron, after Shemer, the owner of the hill.” I Kings 16:23
Shomron served as the capital city of the northern Kingdom of Israel until it was destroyed by the Neo-Assyrian Empire around 720 BCE. During the early Roman period, the city was expanded and fortified by Herod the Great, who renamed it Sebastia in honor of emperor Augustus. Since the middle of the 4th century, the town has been identified by Christians as the burial site of John the Baptist, whose purported grave is today part of a local mosque which was formerly a Crusader church built in 1160 and conquered by the Muslims in the 7th century. The mosque also contains the tombs of the Biblical prophets Elisha and Obadiah.
According to the New Testament, John, an apostle and forerunner of Jesus, was sentenced to death and subsequently beheaded by Herod Antipas around 30 CE after John rebuked him for divorcing his wife Phasaelis and then unlawfully wedding Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip I.
Attempts by groups of settlers to establish a Jewish community in the area have been dismantled by the Israeli government.
In 2013, the PA built an “Interpretation Center” at the Sebastia archaeological site but, despite funding from the United Nations, closed it down due to a lack of funds. Visits to the site by Israeli tourists are restricted and only permitted with IDF accompaniment arranged in advance and dependent on security developments.
Despite Sebastia’s historical significance, the site has barely been excavated and is neglected. The site is full of garbage and graffiti has been found on the archaeological remains.