Although not mentioned in the Old or the New Testaments, the city of Sepphoris was under reconstruction when Jesus lived in Nazareth, just five miles away. Several Christian traditions suggest this was the hometown of Mary, the mother of Christ, and point to various buildings as being associated with her parents, Anne and Joachim.
As the capital of the Western Galilee, warring armies looking for control of the area were always overrunning Sepphoris. In the winter of 39-8 BC Herod the Great seized it during a mid-winter snowstorm, on his way to storming Jerusalem. After his death, the city rebelled against Roman occupation and was destroyed. His son, Herod Antipas rebuilt the city, but the Romans occupied it again during the First and the Second Jewish Revolts, giving it the Roman name Diocaesarea.
Only when the Jewish leadership promised to refrain from attempts to throw off Roman rule did Jewish life return to some semblance of normality.
With Jerusalem’s temple destroyed, the synagogue became the chief place of worship, and the Sanhedrin – the Jewish High Court – moved to Sepphoris. Here, under leadership of renowned scholar, Juda Hanassi, the Oral Law was codified into the Mishna, laying the foundations for the normative Judaism that has survived through to own day.
Under Byzantine rule Sepphoris flourished, with many large villas being constructed. Many of these patricians’ homes are still being uncovered, others have already revealed some of the country’s most magnificent mosaics. One is titled “the Birth of the Nile “and another, containing a face of haunting beauty, has been dubbed “the Mona Lisa of the Galilee”.
In Crusader times Sepphoris was a well-watered and fortified position. It was here that the young king, Guy de Lusignan, assembled his full force of Frankish knights to face the summer incursions of Saladin. A Kurd at the head of the greatest Moslem army ever gathered against the Crusaders, Saladin had laid siege to the Castle of Tiberias, with the Lady of Tiberias captive inside. Facing political factions that were just waiting for him to fail, Guy took the fatal decision to move against the superior Arab army. Harassed at every step as they moved towards Tiberias, the Crusaders camped for the night by wells at the double-hill dubbed the Horns of Hattin, only to find them completely dry.
By just after noon on Saturday, July 4, 1187, the young man who had barely ruled for twelve months had lost his entire fighting force of Crusader knights, the most important remnant of the True Cross, and the whole of his kingdom. After three months, Saladin had occupied the land and bloodlessly retaken Jerusalem. This was the end of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem that had lasted less than ninety years.
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