Travel writer Fiona Dunlop went to the sleepy town of Sebastiya in the West Bank. She found a place trapped in history, with a bad connection to the outside world.
So, did she or didn’t she? No one is sure. Some maintain that Salome’s legendary dance for Herod, which earned her the head of John the Baptist, took place in Sebastiya, formerly the powerful capital of Samaria (aka Israel). Others disagree. Next question: where is the head now? In Damascus, in the Prophet’s shrine inside the Umayyad Mosque, in Egypt, in Jordan, in Rome, or in Sebastiya perhaps, where he was beheaded. It’s a toss-up because, as always, such ancient history is a confetti of myths and legends.
APART from those millennia-old issues, other historically rooted debates are very much alive in today’s Sebastiya, a small, sleepy town in the northern West Bank, that holds equal significance for Jews, Muslims and Christians. Here, as elsewhere in the occupied territories, clashes between Palestinians and Israeli settlers occur over water access or damage to olive groves. But in the summer of 2014, conflict also erupted over the extensive Greek and Roman ruins that Sebastiya encompasses, and for which it should be far better known.
© Fiona Dunlop
Behind the clash lies an anomaly: the ancient site actually straddles Area C (under Israeli control) and Area B (under the Palestinian Authority) – in fact the invisible border runs right between the ruins of a Roman forum and basilica. Usually deserted, the highlights of the site are the temple of Augustus, built by King Herod over an earlier Canaanite palace, which crowns the acropolis, a row of Roman columns that once edged a market and now stand in olive groves below, an impressive gateway that was part of the city walls, and a theatre.
SO WHEN Israeli authorities fenced off the main archaeological site and sent in a bulldozer “to clean up” the Roman theatre, uproar ensued among Palestinians. The Israeli aim was to protect the site, keep it litter-free and charge admission – but also, as a leitmotif, to emphasise its historical ‘ownership’. Today a fence is in place and a basic staircase dug out of the hillside beside the theatre, but there is no other evidence of their intervention. A precarious truce?
Israeli tour buses roll up occasionally and, I was told, during major Jewish festivals settlers flock into the theatre precinct to celebrate. Meanwhile, the old forum has become a parking lot where Palestinian kids play football right beside the basilica (destroyed centuries ago by an earthquake), and young girls play blackjack with fragments of Roman mosaic.
FROM THE HILLTOP TEMPLE, the views are stupendous over rolling limestone hills dotted with olive trees, pencil-like cypresses and lofty pines. It all looks idyllic until, in the distance, you spot the unmistakable red-tiled roofs of a settlement. Then, tucked around a corner of the hill comes a surprise: the ruins of a modest Byzantine chapel said to be the very spot where John’s head was discovered.
© Fiona Dunlop
History does not end there though. Sebastiya may not have the scale or quality of Leptis Magna, that incredible Roman site that has been struck off the tourism radar in Libya, but it does boast an extraordinary monument smack in the Ottoman town centre. The best place to view it, just five minutes’ walk downhill from the acropolis, is a lovely garden café, designed by an English architect during the British Mandate. Seated on a ubiquitous plastic chair beneath pine-trees, a coffee placed beside you on a recycled Roman capital, you can drink in the beauty of the building in front.
THIS CROWNING JEWEL is a rare amalgam of Muslim and Christian structures, originally a Crusader cathedral which was converted into the Nabi Yahya mosque. The fusion is surprisingly harmonious, not least because both are dedicated to John the Baptist. The motive for this lies below ground in a vaulted crypt that was part of the original Byzantine church. To visit, you need to use your persistence to find the caretaker with the key, who waits as you disappear down a dark, narrow staircase. Here, finally (and allegedly) is the tomb of the Prophet. There is little to see, just a niche between those of two other prophets – simple holes in the stone-wall. Somehow, though, that sobriety makes it feel all the more authentic; there is no caption, no embellishment.
Above ground, the muezzin loudspeaker crackles into life, stutters, then stops. “A bad connection to God!” comments the archaeological guide wryly. That just about sums up Sebastiya, a town with astounding historical significance, but, for the moment at least, a bad connection with the outside world.
© Fiona Dunlop
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