Sights and Insights: A capital city on a hill

Tel Samaria remains a testimony of all earthly glory; the only beauty that remains is what was there to begin with.

Samaria Hellenistic tower and Roman theater 390 DO NOT REUSE (photo credit:
Samaria Hellenistic tower and Roman theater 390 DO NOT REUSE
(photo credit:
Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at
I stood on the crumblings of an Iron Age acropolis with a valley all around the isolated hill. Cool breezes offset the summer heat, but the haze still obscured the western hills toward the Mediterranean.
With a squint in the other direction, I could make out the hilltop of Mount Ebal, towering over Shechem (modern day Nablus). It seemed a lot closer than it looked on a map. Shechem was the first capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. The final capital stood beneath my feet, rising three hundred feet above the valley floor.
After King Solomon’s death, the nation of Israel divided north of Benjamin’s border. Jeroboam chose Shechem as the capital for the Northern Kingdom, perhaps because of the significant history there for Ephraim’s tribe. Or maybe because Shechem had great spiritual significance for Abraham, Jacob, Joseph, and Joshua. Or possibly because Shechem lay along an essential crossroads along the Way of the Patriarchs. But the capital wasn’t there for long.
Succeeding kings relocated Israel’s principal city from Shechem (to Penuel) to Tirzah. But when King Omri moved the capital finally to Samaria, the capital stayed put, and the nation enjoyed its prime. Samaria served as the northern kingdom’s administrative center for 160 years. Samaria took its name from Shemer, the man who sold Omri the hill (1 Kings 16:24-28).
I only had to stand atop Tel Samaria to see why Omri selected it. This place, it seemed, could almost defend itself. The high hill had steep slopes all around and could accommodate as many as 40,000 citizens. In years to come the city expanded to 150 acres. Virtually impregnable during times of siege, the city could hold out until its cisterns went dry—its only supply of water. Although this proved a major drawback in times of siege, the city withstood the onslaught of the Arameans, Assyrians, and Hasmoneans for as many as years at a time.
Samaria tell and Mt Ebal from north ( tell and Mt Ebal from north (
Samaria enjoyed much produce from the nearby fertile valleys. Trade proved better in Samaria than in any other of the previous capitals, perhaps because it lay only about five miles off the International Highway and along a major road to Shechem.
The peaceful and beautiful surroundings of Tel Samaria would not betray its history. But as I listened, I could almost catch the echoes of the bloody past that raged there. At Samaria, Ahab’s blood was washed from his chariot (1 Kings 20). It was here that Jezebel killed the prophets of God, and later, where Jehu killed the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:13; 2 Kings 10:17ff).
Although Jeroboam II gave Samaria its heyday of success, God called it a failure. The Prophet Amos spoke against the godless leaders: “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure in the mountain of Samaria . . . those who recline on beds of ivory . . . Therefore, they will now go into exile at the head of the exiles” (Amos 6:1, 4, 7). The people were boasting of their security and power. Sure, they had a great location, but they had forsaken their relationship with God. Some of the carved ivory pieces appear on display in today’s Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem.
After the Assyrians dragged the Northern Kingdom into exile in 722 BC, they repopulated the area, producing a mixed breed—partly Jewish, partly Assyrian—called Samaritans. When Alexander the Great placed some Macedonians at Samaria, the religious Samaritans relocated to nearby Mount Gerizim.
Samaria ruins of Iron Age acropolis ( ruins of Iron Age acropolis (
Caesar Augustus gave Samaria to Herod the Great, who rebuilt the city to his usual high standards and renamed the place Sebaste (Greek for Augustus). Herod the Great married Mariamne here (but later killed her). Herod also strangled his sons in Samaria. Some traditions hold that Samaria was also the place of John the Baptist’s execution (but it wasn’t). 
As I stood on the acropolis, I could see in one glance the crumbling ruins that represented hundreds of years of history. The place where the glorious kings of Israel made their palaces was largely destroyed as Herod the Great erected his obsequious temple to Caesar. The large steps leading to the top of the temple reflect a second-century repair job. All around the tell I saw ruins of various eras: Israelite walls, a basilica, a Roman theater, Hellenistic round towers, Herodian stylobates—and more.
Like so many great cities of yesteryear, Tel Samaria remains a testimony of all earthly glory. The only beauty that remains is what God put there to begin with.
What to Do There: Allow at least two hours to walk among the ruins. While standing on the acropolis, read Amos 6:1-14.
How to Get There: Best to avoid Nablus and approach from the west, assuming the political climate allows. From outside Tel Aviv, take Route 6 north, to Route 55 east, to Route 60 north.
Wayne Stiles has never recovered from his travels in the Holy Land. Follow him on Twitter (@WayneStiles) or on his blog at