Neapolis, the new city, was founded in 72 AD by the Flavian Emperors, as part of the Roman dynasty. Built on the northern slope of Mount Gerizim, around 2 km west of Tell Balata, the Roman city was marked on the Madaba map as early as the sixth century AD. Over the years, the original Greek name, Neapolis, was Arabicised into the city’s modern name, Nablus. It was printed on the first city coins issued during the reign of Domitian and Marcus Aurelius. The city developed into a major centre in the second century AD. Major building projects were launched, including the hippodrome, the theatre, and other public buildings. A Roman temple dedicated to Zeus was erected on Mount Gerizim during the reign of Antonius Pius. During the reign of Philip the Arab, the city of Neapolis was raised to the status of a Roman colony: Colonia Flavia Iulia Sergia Neapolis.
The city of Neapolis flourished during the Byzantine period and became the seat of a bishop. In 484 AD, during the reign of Emperor Zeno, a large octagonal church was built on the summit of Mount Gerizim, dedicated to Mary Theotokos. In the sixth century, Justinian (530 AD) fortified the church by building an enclosure encircled by towers.
While depicted on the Madaba map, the representation of the city was badly damaged, though some details are still visible, including parts of the city wall and its towers. A colonnaded street runs east to west, and seems to be crossed by a shorter street running from north to south. The large church in the southeast of the depiction might be the cathedral of Neapolis.
In the first half of the seventh century, the city was conquered by the Arabs of the Umayyad Dynasty. From the tenth century it was known as little Damascus, as the growing city found itself in the province of Damascus when that city was made the seat of Umayyad power between 661 and 750. Since then the old city has been extensively damaged by a series of earthquakes, which destroyed some of the architectural sites.
The seven quarters of the old city represent a distinctive example of traditional urban architecture in Palestine. The city centre features a bustling market, or souq, with impressive mosques, Turkish baths, and traditional soap factories. At the end of the eighteenth century, the city began to expand outside its original walls.
Today, Nablus is considered the major commercial, industrial and agricultural centre in the northern region of Palestine. It is known for its olive oil soap, talented goldsmiths, and traditional sweets. Nablus is considered to be the best place in Palestine to eat knafeh, a beloved Palestinian dessert made from cheese and semolina flour, and dripping with sweet rose water syrup.
Tell Balata (Balata Hill)
Tell Balata is identified as the Canaanite town of Shechem, which was mentioned in several ancient sources dating from the first and second centuries BC. The site is located near Nablus, and it lies between the famous hills of Gerizim and Ebal where the main north-south and east-west routes of Palestine crossed. It is said to have been the hub of an extensive early road network.
Tell Balata rises some 20 m above the 500 m contour passing through the village of Balata at the lowest point of the valley. It has been called ‘the uncrowned queen of Palestine’ because it is endowed with many water sources in addition to good winter rainfall, thus providing agricultural security.
Excavations have revealed much about the history of the site, particularly that it was an urban centre during the second urbanisation period in Palestine in 2000 BC. Of the most impressive surviving ruins is a fortress temple, which is thought to have been used for public worship. Other visible ruins include two monumental gates, massive city walls, a governor’s palace with a small private temple, guardrooms, an assembly, living quarters, and a kitchen. Between 2010 and 2012, the site was rehabilitated as an archaeological park in a joint project between the Palestinian Department of Antiquities, the University of Leiden, and UNESCO.
Mount Gerizim, or Jebel At-Tor, is the sacred mountain of the Samaritans and has been so for thousands of years. It consists of three peaks: the main summit, a wide flat western hill, and Tell Ar-Ras to the north. It has been traditionally identified as the sacred mountain upon which a blessing was delivered by divine decree, a claim which, in Samaritan belief, overrides that of the rival Temple of Jerusalem. On the summit is a rock that the Samaritans believe was the place where Abraham was about to sacrifice his son Isaac.
The Samaritans, now a small Palestinian community of only a few hundred people, believe the temple on the mountaintop was the first temple built by Yosha’ Bin Noun in the Holy Land. Archaeologically, the temple discovered on the summit existed before the second century BC. It was apparently built nearby a considerable settlement area on the mountaintop, which archaeological excavations have shown was occupied, not necessarily continuously, during the Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, and Islamic periods. The archaeological remains on the main summit consist of a large acropolis with paved temenos and massive fortifications with casemate walls and chamber gates, surrounded by a residential quarter. The ruins probably represent the Samaritan town during the Hellenistic period, destroyed by John Hyrcanus in 128 BC. In the early Roman period, the main summit seems to have been deserted, though a temple to Zeus was built in the second century just to the north on Tell Ar-Ras overlooking Nablus.
In 484 AD, during the reign of Emperor Zeno, a large octagonal church was built on the main summit, dedicated to Mary Theotokos. The church was turned into a fortress, and later strengthened by Justinian. The Samaritans were insulted by the presence of a church on their sacred mountain, and this affront contributed to their revolt in 529 AD. The church was abandoned in the eighth century, and the fortress was dismantled in the ninth. In the sixteenth century, a shrine to the Muslim saint Sheikh Ghanim was built on the east corner of the ruined church.
Mount Gerizim continues to be the religious centre of the Samaritans. Their village is below the summit and now includes a museum. Every year, many visitors come to see the Samaritans’ ceremonial procession to and around the mountain summit, a contemporary version of a tradition that they believe to be thousands of years old.
Bir Al-Hamam (The Pigeon Well)
Bir Al-Hamam is on the northwestern upper slope of Mount Gerizim, around one km west of Tell Ar-Ras on the northern edge of the mountain, overlooking the western part of the city of Nablus. Bir Al-Hamam rises 750 m above sea level and offers an impressive view of the valley below.
The site features a small monastery complex with a gate, stable, courtyard, cistern, prayer room, and meeting room. The whole area was enclosed by a large stone wall. There was also a cistern, which was apparently fed by water from the roof surface of the church complex.
The area was first inhabited in the late fifth century and early sixth century when the monastery was built. It was occupied again during the Ayyubid period, evidenced by three inscriptions that were found at the site. The preserved part of the inscription reads as follows: ‘for the salvation of the armigeri (the soldiers).’ The second inscription reads, ‘O Lord Jesus Christ) give rest to lovers of Christ.’ The third inscription reads, ‘By vow and for the salvation of Esuchios and Megalos and Prokopias the lovers of Christ.’ The names mentioned in the inscription were three brothers who were benefactors of the church.
Sebastia (Sabastyia) is located around 10 km northwest of Nablus at the junction of two main historical routes, the northern Nablus-Jenin route and the western route from the Jordan valley to the Mediterranean coast. The site offers a magnificent view of the surrounding farmland.
Sebastia was a regional capital during the second Iron Age and a major urban centre during the Hellenistic-Roman period. It is one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in Palestine and remains known by its ancient name, indicating a strong element of cultural continuity. Christian and Islamic traditions place the tomb of John the Baptist there.
A series of excavations were carried out at the site, the first conducted between 1908 and 1910 by Harvard University. The most recent was carried out by the Palestinian Department of Antiquities in 1994, and uncovered part of an Iron Age city including a royal palace complex and a central courtyard. One of the major discoveries was an ivory collection from the eighth and ninth centuries BC.
Sebastia flourished during the Iron Age II as a regional capital. It was captured by the Assyrians in 722 BC during the reign of Sargun II and became the centre of the Assyrian province in Palestine. Later, under Persian rule, the city remained a provincial capital for central Palestine. In 332 BC, the city was captured by Alexander the Great. Massive fortifications around the acropolis were added, including a circular tower. The city was destroyed by John Hyrcanus in 107 BC. Then, in 63 BC, the city became part of the province of Syria. Emperor Augustus later gave it to Herod, who renamed it Sebaste (in Greek Sebastos is Augustus) in honour of the emperor. Severus gave it the name Colonia in 299 AD. A large building programme was carried out during the Roman period, including the city wall, a gate, a colonnaded street with 600 columns, the basilica, the forum, a theatre, a temple for Augustus, a stadium, an aqueduct, and cemeteries.
During the Byzantine period, Sabastyia was a seat of the bishop. A church dedicated to Saint John was built on the southern slope of the acropolis. A Byzantine church and a Crusader church, both dedicated to Saint John, were built in the centre of the old village. A mosque was also built in honour of Saint John (Nabi Yahyia).
The present town of Sabastyia, including the archaeological remains, the historical town, and the cultural landscape, is a major tourist attraction in Palestine. A series of restoration activities was carried out in the historic core, including renovating the mosque, the shrine of Nabi Yahyia, the Cathedral of John the Baptist, the Roman mausoleum, the olive press, Kayed palace, and the traditional buildings, along with a walking trail.
Situated at a slight distance from Balata village, near the eastern base of Mount Gerizim, Jacob’s Well is a pilgrimage destination that commemorates the encounter of Christ with the Samaritan woman . A church was built over the well, then destroyed, and then restored by the Crusaders. Today Jacob’s Well stands within the walled complex of the Greek Orthodox Monastery.
A little to the north of Jacob’s Well is the traditional site of Joseph’s tomb. An Ottoman building with a white dome marks the site.