Ancient Tzipori

The sophisticated ancient northern city of Tzipori is the site of one of Israel's most interesting archeological sites.

In the year 67, Tzipori watched in somber silence from across the valley asthe town of Yodfat went up in smoke. Yodfat, the first Galilean city toseriously resist the Romans during the Great Revolt, had been soundlytrounced. Tzipori, on the other hand, had stubbornly refused to participate.Her attitude was understandable, perhaps, for 63 years earlier when Tziporiresidents had tried rebelling against Roman rule, their lovely city had beendestroyed.

Following that early Tzipori revolt, King Herod’s son Antipas had restoredthe city to its former beauty. And, while he was at it, Antipas added asmall amphitheater and an intricate underground water system. Now, blessedwith plenty of water, fertile fields flowing with milk and honey and lovelyhomes, Tzipori hoped to remain at peace with the Romans. Or, perhaps, it wasafraid to risk everything it had by joining the revolt. And, whatever thereason, Tzipori remained untouched.

Tzipori sat on a hill 292 meters above sea level, towering over the BeitNetufa Valley below. Its climate was perfect, for even in summer the cityremained cool as sweet breezes blew softly through the trees. Its namereflected its situation: the Babylonian Talmud notes that it ’sat at the topof the hill like a bird’ (tzipor).

The most famous of Tzipori’s residents was Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, tall,handsome, and extremely well-connected. One of the greatest Jewish sages ofall time, it is said that he was born on the day that Rabbi Akiva wasflogged to death by the Romans for his part in the Bar Kochba Revolt (’thesun rises and the sun sets and hurries back to where it rises,’ Jewishsources quoting Ecclesiastes 1:5).

Yehuda Hanasi, known simply as ’Rebbi,’ lived in Beit She’arim and reignedas president of the Sanhedrin (Jewish courts). When his health began tofail, the Roman Emperor Antoninus granted him land in Tzipori. Taking withhim his fellow sages, Rebbi set up house in Tzipori, a lovely city whereJews and pagans lived together in peace.

It was in Tzipori, at the end of the third century, that the eminent rabbiedited a compilation of Jewish traditional literature and Oral Law known asthe Mishna. Considered the second most important book in Judaism (after theTorah), the Mishna shaped, and continues to shape, all aspects of Jewishlife everywhere.

No wonder, then, that on the day that Rebbi breathed his last peoplethronged to the city to mourn him and follow him to his grave. The Talmudtells us that many miracles occurred on that fateful day, a Shabbat eve. Itseems that the sun stood still until every mourner returned home. And onlyafter each one had cooked his fish, filled a jar with water and lit his lampdid the sun sink in the Heavens and Shabbat commence.

Despite its indisputable importance, there was little to see at the site ofancient Tzipori until the early 1980s. Although small-scale excavations werecarried out during the British Mandate, and remains of a Roman theater werediscovered, no effort was made to find the rest of the famous Jewish city.Indeed, the hill on which it stood was completely covered with dirt, brush,and fruit trees left from the hostile Arab village that stood nearby until1948.

When serious digs finally began, archeologists could hardly believe theresult: not only did the ancient city sport a theater, but one that waswell-preserved. Unique mosaics were uncovered in several parts of the sitealong with entire neighborhoods, a market street and the marvelousunderground water system.

Today ancient Tzipori is one of the most exciting national parks in thecountry. When you visit, you follow a wide Roman Cardo to marvelousextensive fifth-century mosaics illustrating the Nile River Festival andAmazon warriors. If you look down at your feet you will see crevices made bychariot wheels and, carved into the stones, a menora and games played bychildren long ago.

Here at Tzipori you will walk atop the very stones which emperors used totread on their way to the theater, and sit in the seats from which theywatched their performances. Then head for a little lane that led to aneighborhood high upon the hill. Possibly, considering the unusualconcentration of ritual baths (mikvaot) discovered here, these would be thehomes of very Orthodox residents — perhaps even the High Priests who leftJerusalem after the destruction of the Temple and moved to Tzipori.

An (air-conditioned) Crusader citadel restored by Daher el-Omer, who ruledIsrael in the 18th century, features an exquisite museum of Tziporiartifacts. Then climb up to the rooftop for a fabulous view of the region.

Back on the ground, you will enter an exclusive villa featuring thebreathtakingly beautiful mosaic dubbed the Mona Lisa of the Galilee. Thatportrait is part of an enormous mosaic floor in what could very well havebeen Rebbi’s home. It certainly belonged to someone very important: a rarefind was the ancient toilet outside of the salon!

After the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, synagogues became the centerof Jewish life — as they are today. During the period in which Rebbi residedin Tzipori there were 18 (!) synagogues in the city, none of which has yetbeen discovered.

The fifth-century synagogue that you can visit almost makes up for this,however, for the mosaic floor is absolutely magnificent. Be sure to read theexcellent explanations.

Finally, move out of the main area and walk out of the city itself to wanderthrough tunnels in the city’s ancient water system.

Shabbat and Shavuot hours: 8-5; eves of Shabbat and Shavuot: 8-4. Tel.: (04)656-8272

Many thanks to Yehuda Zusman from nearby Mitzpe Hoshaya for his fascinatingguided tour of Tzipori.

Kitron & Kfar Kedem

I was delighted with an invitation to stay overnight at a brand new guestresort located inside the religious community of Mitzpe Hoshaya. The resortis called Kitron — one of several ancient names for Tzipori — and isconveniently located only minutes from the national park.

It isn’t easy to describe what makes beautiful Kitron different from otherguest houses where I have spent the night. In my rush to visit nearby sitesI didn’t have much time for relaxing in the gorgeous lobby, sitting on thelawn across from the view, or dining on the homemade cakes and ice-creamthat we understand guests are offered on a complimentary, nonstop basisduring their stay. I did thoroughly enjoy refreshing fresh fruit shakes thatseemed to appear from nowhere as I worked on my laptop (Internet is free).

But what impressed me the most — aside from the 21 well-appointed grandsuites, family suites, almost-completed spa chalets and thefree-during-the-week all-terrain vehicles — was the atmosphere. By nostretch of the imagination could anyone call me religious, but every time Istepped outdoors, especially sitting on the porch facing Tzipori and abiblical, Galilean landscape, I definitely felt a mystical pull. Part of itwas the accepting attitude of the staff, delighted to host a mixture ofobservant and non-observant guests. But there is also something incrediblyspiritual in the air itself.

What undoubtedly added to this unusually strong Jewish feeling over my24-hour visit, was the time I spent at adjacent Kfar Kedem. Located rightnext to Kitron, Kfar Kedem is an attempt to take visitors of all ages andreligious persuasions back to the time of the Mishna. You can pick theactivities you prefer: the group I joined — Jewish day-schoolers fromEngland and a smattering of Israeli children — began with a lively dialogueabout the Mishna.

Afterwards, dressed in garments from the time of the Mishna, we watched asAmir Cohen humorously demonstrated how the ancients got their bread and weall baked our own on an ancient saj. Best of all, even for me, was a donkeyride along a beautiful little trail facing Tzipori.

To join a group or book a session at Kfar Kedem call (04) 656-5511.

To reserve at Kitron, call (04) 646-6666. A weekday overnight stay at Kitron starts at NIS 590 per couple. Weekends are full board only and cost NIS 1,500 per couple.