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date: 26 November 2022



  • Zeev Weiss


In the heart of the Lower Galilee lie the remains of Sepphoris, capital of the Galilee during long periods of antiquity. Both literary sources and archaeological finds indicate that the city’s population included pagans, heretics, and Christians living alongside the Jewish population. Many sages lived in the city, which, according to rabbinic literature, boasted numerous synagogues and academies (batei midrash). When Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi (the Patriarch of Judaea) moved to Sepphoris at the beginning of the 3rd century, the Jews gained a significant presence on the city council. With the growth of the Christian community came the construction of churches and the involvement of the episcopus (head of the Christian community) in municipal affairs. Economically, Sepphoris had become a well-established city due to the fertile soil in the nearby valleys and its active trade with the immediate surroundings and distant markets.

Hellenistic Sepphoris was built on its hill and slopes. Early in the 2nd century ce, the city spread considerably eastward, boasting an impressive grid of streets with a colonnaded cardo and decumanus running through its centre. Various public buildings were built in the city, including a temple, a forum, bathhouses, a theatre, a monumental building identified as a library or archive, as well as churches, synagogues, and some other structures dating to the early Byzantine period. Most of the common people lived in simple houses, while the wealthy lived in spacious, well-planned dwellings. The architectural layout of these large structures is impressive, as are the more than sixty colourful mosaics from the 3rd to 6th centuries ce uncovered in its private and public buildings. The various depictions in the mosaics have parallels in other cities of the Roman and Byzantine East, not only enhancing the ancient ruins of Sepphoris but also providing invaluable information about the city and its population. The wealth of evidence emerging from Sepphoris offers perhaps the greatest insight into Jewish society and its changing attitudes towards the Graeco-Roman culture to which it was exposed. This new outlook did not occur overnight or in all strata of Jewish society; rather, it was an ongoing process that intensified in the Roman period and reached a peak in the 5th and 6th centuries ce.


  • Ancient Geography
  • Jewish Studies

Early Roman/Second Temple Period

In the heart of the Lower Galilee, midway between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee, around five kilometres west of Nazareth, lie the remains of Sepphoris, capital of the Galilee during long periods of antiquity (see Figure 1).

Figure 1. Plan of Sepphoris. Drawing by Anna Iamim.

Sepphoris’s history can be traced back to the Persian period; the city was probably populated by Jews from the 2nd century bce and up to the Great Revolt against Rome (70 ce), although a non-Jewish population of indeterminable size may have lived there as well. Herod the Great had a royal palace in the city (Ant. 17.271; BJ 2.56;), and after his death (4 bce), his son Herod Antipas made Sepphoris his capital until he founded Tiberias (Ant. 18.27).

Sepphoris from the Second Temple Period and up to the Great Revolt was constructed on the hill and its slope, resembling a large village with modestly sized buildings. Except for the road leading into the city, and some agricultural implements in the immediate vicinity, few isolated buildings would have been noticeable in lower Sepphoris. Besides the ruins of a large building with massive walls exposed at the western end of the hill, nothing has yet been found of the 1st-century city wall mentioned by Josephus (Ant. 18.27). The building’s remains include three rooms and two large ritual baths on the ground floor.

Remains of several dwellings from the early Roman period were discovered in some areas scattered over the acropolis, indicating that domestic construction in the early city occupied wide areas of the hill and its slopes. The houses that continued to be used by the local inhabitants in the early centuries ce were simply built, lacked a fixed plan, and contained ritual baths (miqva’ot) (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Ritual bath (miqveh) discovered beneath the remains of the House of Dionysos, on the eastern side of Sepphoris’s acropolis.

Photo: Gabi Laron.

No remains have been recovered of the palatial building, which—according to Josephus—stood in Sepphoris in the days of Herod the Great or where Herod’s son resided when in the city. Nevertheless, fragments of frescoes from fills beneath the House of Dionysos, on the eastern side of the hill, belong to a more luxurious building, perhaps a palace, and were adorned with floral patterns reminiscent of the Third Pompeian Style.

Flavius Josephus’s autobiography tells of the sequence of events preceding the outbreak of the Great Revolt in Galilee and conveys one clear message: that various factions—some pro-revolt, others pro-peace—existed in Sepphoris, as in other cities, but eventually the leaders from among the aristocracy appear to have gotten the upper hand, opposed the Jewish rebels, closed the city gates, and joined the Romans(Life 394). In 68 ce, at wartime, the city minted coins in honor of Nero. An inscription on the reverse of the larger denomination indicates that it was issued ‘in the days of Vespasian in Neroneas-Sepphoris, City of Peace’. This behaviour, whether resulting from internal circumstances that could be detrimental to the city and its economy or from the understanding that the Jews were incapable of fighting and triumphing over the Romans, greatly changed the city’s life. After the Romans suppressed the Great Revolt, Sepphoris earned the status of a Roman polis owing to its loyalty to Rome and boasting governmental institutions and public buildings, a change that profoundly affected the urban landscape, demographic structure, and daily life of the Sepphoreans in the following centuries. Sepphoris had now regained its primacy in the Galilee, and the rehabilitation and recovery of Jewish society and the ravages of war after the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem were made possible in no small measure by the stability of the city and the other Galilean settlements that accepted Roman rule.

From Galilean Town to Roman Polis

The rebuilding of Sepphoris as a Roman polis after the Great Jewish Revolt attests to the changes taking place in the Galilee vis-à-vis Rome and its culture. The early name, Sepphoris, continued to appear on the coins minted under Trajan, but the name Diocaesarea appeared on several milestones erected along the new road constructed in 120 ce leading from Legio (Caparcotna) into the city. Owing to its newfound wealth and prosperous economy, Sepphoris grew significantly and its population reached a peak of fifteen to twenty thousand inhabitants. Excavations on the plateau east of the hill indicate that by the end of the 1st or early 2nd century, the city’s impressive street network had expanded in this direction (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. Western view of Sepphoris.

Photo: Griffin Aerial Imaging.

Over the years, public buildings and private dwellings sprung up throughout the Roman city. Intended for the benefit of the local population, the monumental buildings constructed in Sepphoris fulfilled everyday municipal, religious, economic, and recreational needs.

Designed according to Roman guidelines and embellished with colourful mosaics, the city’s facelift in this period left its mark on the cultural life of the local population. This is particularly evident in the use of figurative images, which were almost completely avoided in the Second Temple Period. Coins, mosaics, statues, reliefs, and small finds began to portray a variety of images, including animals, human figures, gods, and mythological motifs.

Both literary sources and archaeological finds confirm that pagans and Christians lived alongside the Jewish population. Sepphoris is mentioned many times in rabbinic literature, providing important information about the city’s social, economic, religious, and cultural life. Many sages lived in Sepphoris, which boasted numerous synagogues and academies (batei midrash). When Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi (the Patriarch of Judaea) moved to Sepphoris at the beginning of the 3rd century (b. Ket. 103b–104a), the Jews gained a significant presence on the city council.

Sepphoris was immediately rebuilt after having sustained damage incurred by the earthquake of 363 ce. It has become evident that the city expanded during the early Byzantine period (second half of 4th–6th centuries ce) and even experienced an extensive building spurt and a flourishing revival. The network of streets and roads constructed in the Roman period continued to be used in the Byzantine city, as were several Roman buildings; some were reconstructed (the theatre and bathhouse), while others (the temple, forum, city archives, and House of Dionysos) ceased to function. New buildings were constructed adjacent to the main colonnaded streets and elsewhere in the city, including the Nile Festival Building and the open market to its north, a bathhouse, a synagogue, and two churches.

Christianity’s penetration into Sepphoris had a marked effect on the composition of the city’s population, yet its Jewish community continued to comprise a relative majority throughout the Byzantine period. The growth of the Christian community most probably included the construction of churches in the city and the involvement of the episcopus (head of the Christian community) in municipal affairs. Bishops Marcellinus and Cyriacus were active in the city in the first half of the 6th century, and Bishop Eutropius is attested to epigraphically in three different medallions set in mosaics adorning the sidewalks near the main intersection, although the dates of his activity are unknown.

Sepphoris retained its urban plan throughout late antiquity, although insufficient data prevent scholars from determining when and how the city declined, how its magnificent buildings were destroyed, and when its population dwindled. The city reached a nadir in the early Arab period: structures were abandoned and destroyed, earlier masonry was looted, and relatively simple buildings were constructed.

Public Buildings

Like other cities in the region, Sepphoris boasted a number of monumental buildings in the Roman and Byzantine periods that were meant to meet the everyday municipal, economic, religious, and recreational needs of the local population. These buildings were constructed primarily in the lower city, while a few stood on the hilltop. The Sepphoris excavations have revealed the remarkable relationship between private and public buildings and their spatial organization within the late antique city. Private homes were built beside public buildings in lower Sepphoris and on the hilltop, a phenomenon for the most part unknown in our region but well documented for other cities in the Roman empire.

Colonnaded Streets

The impressive network of streets in the lower city comprises the cardo and the decumanus—two colonnaded streets (about thirteen metres wide) intersecting at its centre—as well as five streets running parallel on a north–south axis and four on an east–west axis. The decumanus, the main artery by which one entered the city from the east, crossed the breadth of the lower city, reaching the foot of the hill (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. The decumanus, one of the main colonnaded streets that cuts through the civic centre and runs westward, towards the acropolis.

Photo: Gabi Laron.

The streets were paved with hard limestone, whereas the sidewalks lining both sides of the streets were covered with either plaster or mosaic floors. The stone slabs of the cardo are marked with ruts made by carriage or wagon wheels that passed over this thoroughfare for many years. The small shops along the colonnaded streets seem to have been part of Sepphoris’s lower marketplace, where the hub of work and commercial life in the city was undoubtedly centred (b.‘Erub. 54b). In addition, the city boasted a meat market, the ‘macellum of Sepphoris’ (y. Sheq. 7, 50c), although its exact location within the city is not known to date. The sidewalks close to the main intersection were renovated and adorned with geometric mosaics, which included three medallions containing dedicatory inscriptions recording that the work was carried out in the days of Eutropius, the bishop of the city in the late 5th or early 6th century.


A large building (40 x 60 m.) with a peristyle courtyard surrounded by many different-sized rooms and identified as a forum occupied an entire insula northwest of the main intersection. Constructed in the Severan era and in use until the mid-4th century ce, the building’s floors contain colourful mosaics featuring an elaborate acanthus scroll, a Nilotic landscape, and geometric designs; some rooms were decorated with frescoes. The large hall (8.5 x 6 m.) on the western side of the building is decorated with an overall geometric pattern of interlocking circles forming curvilinear squares with a partially preserved square panel near the centre of the pavement. It includes a variety of motifs: birds, fish, a syrinx, a shallow basket of fruit, a hare nibbling grapes, as well as flowers and pomegranates.


A monumental building (16.80 x 14.50 m.) dated to the Roman period is located on the eastern perimeter of the hill, facing the lower city. It includes a peristyle courtyard and a row of rooms to its south, of which only the western one is well preserved. This room has thick walls (1.15 m.) on all four sides, with niches constructed at repetitive intervals. Incisions found inside the two well-preserved niches indicate that they held marble or wooden shelves. The location of the building within the urban complex and its features suggest that it functioned as a public building, perhaps an archive or library. At a later stage, close to its final years, the building lost its splendor and was used for private purposes. The heavy collapse of debris throughout the building indicates that it was destroyed sometime in the 4th century and was never rebuilt.

The Temple

The temple, located in an insula southeast of the main intersection, is dated, based on a stratigraphical analysis, to the first half of the 2nd century ce. It was set in a large courtyard or temenos (50.49 x 55.75 m.) surrounded by a thick wall, and a monumental passageway (propylaeum) at the northern end of the temenos gave direct access from the decumanus into the Roman compound. Only the deep and massive foundations of the temple have been preserved, as the superstructure appears to have been completely dismantled in antiquity. The temple (24.24 x 11.88 m.) had a decorated façade facing northeast, in the direction of the decumanus. The size of the building and the assortment of decorated elements found in the excavation suggest that the temple’s façade was composed of four slender columns and its walls were decorated with semicircular engaged columns.

No epigraphical, statuary, or iconographic evidence has come to light that can determine to whom the temple was dedicated or which deity was worshipped there. Theoretically, it could have been one of the gods portrayed on the city’s coins from the reign of Antoninus Pius (Tyche, the Capitoline triad, Zeus, Hera, or Herakles). The monumental size of the temple and its location in the city’s centre suggest that it was dedicated to a prominent deity, probably Zeus, or to the imperial cult—a suggestion also befitting the city’s new name, Diocaesarea, most probably in the early days of Hadrian’s rule. The temple was abandoned sometime in the 4th century and completely dismantled with the construction of a church over it in the late 5th or early 6th century.


The theatre, which measured seventy-four metres in diameter and could seat 4,500 spectators, was built on the northern slope in the early 2nd century and abandoned in the 5th century (see Figure 5).

Figure 5. Theatre on the northern slope of the acropolis, looking east.

Photo: Gabi Laron.

The cavea was divided horizontally and vertically into cunei (wedge-shaped blocks), but most of the seats and steps were robbed in antiquity. The structure had five entrances: three vomitoria around the cavea and two paradoi leading to the orchestra. The stage building (scaena) and the stage itself (35 x 6 m.) are almost completely destroyed, aside from the foundations, but several carved stones found at the site indicate that it was lavishly ornamented with architectural decorations. The stage wall (proscaenium) was decorated along its entire length with alternating square and semicircular niches, while the spaces between them were embellished with miniature square pilasters.


Three bathhouses are known to date in Sepphoris, two of which are located on either side of the cardo. The eastern bathhouse, dated to the late 1st or early 2nd century, is a small structure with several rooms, including a rectangular caldarium, a stepped pool (miqveh), and two barrel-vaulted cisterns.

The western bathhouse, constructed in the 3rd century, was in use through the Byzantine period. The well-organized square building (27 x 26 m.) had two perpendicular axes of symmetry and lavish mosaic pavements. The courtyard was flanked on three sides by a single row of rooms, while its southern side had two rows, including several pools and caldaria with hypocausts (see Figure 6).

Figure 6. View of the southern hot rooms (caldaria) in the Roman bathhouse west of the cardo. Note that the westernmost caldarium was octagonal while the other two were square. The octagonal room was transformed into a pool at a later stage.

Photo: Gabi Laron.

A third bathhouse was constructed in the late 4th century above the northeastern corner of the destroyed forum. Only a few rooms of the original building have been excavated to date, including a courtyard, a caldarium, and several pools.

The Nile Festival Building

Constructed in the early 5th century, the building is located east of the cardo, opposite the bathhouse. The building (50 x 35 m.) was somewhat irregularly planned, with little attention paid to symmetry. It had at least two entrances, one on the west, from the main colonnaded street, and the other on the northern side of the building. A basilical hall (15 x 10 m.) flanked by corridors on all four sides was located in the centre of the building. The largest of the rooms surrounding the hall contains the Nile Festival mosaic. East of the hall is an inner courtyard surrounded by rooms of various sizes, including a lavatory. The building’s central location, artistic richness, size, and many rooms, as well as the fact that it bore no characteristic features of a dwelling, indicate that this was a public edifice, apparently a municipal basilica.

The entire building was paved with mosaics, some of which are very well preserved. Most rooms and corridors feature geometric designs, although several figurative panels (e.g., a centaur, hunters, and a hunting couple) are incorporated into geometric carpets. The floors of two of the building’s rooms were completely covered with figurative mosaics: the easternmost room contains a partially preserved mosaic depicting Amazons, and another one houses the ‘Nile Festival mosaic’. This last floor (6.2 x 6.7 m.) features Nilotic and hunting scenes; the upper central part depicts a Nilometer which was used to measure the Nile’s water level at high tide, while other scenes illustrate the Nile, the city of Alexandria, and various hunting scenes (see Figure 7).

Figure 7. Depiction of a nude man standing on the back of another to inscribe IZ (= 17 cubits) with a hammer and chisel on the Nilometer in the centre of the mosaic’s upper register. Nilometers were used to measure the flood level of the river, which, in turn, determined the annual tax rate in Egypt.

Photo: Gabi Laron.

Water Supply

Sepphoris received its water supply from two aqueducts emerging from the springs of the villages of er-Reina and Mashhad. The two aqueducts converged, but once close to the city again separated—the northern one leading to ‘the Arches Reservoirs’ and pool, and the southern one leading to a subterranean reservoir. Constructed in the 2nd century and used throughout the Byzantine period, the reservoir measures 260 metres long, 2–4 metres wide, and 10 metres high, and has a capacity of 4,300 m3. Water entered the reservoir from the east through a chute while a drainpipe with a stopper on its western side conveyed the water through a tunnel (235 m.) having six vertical shafts cut into bedrock. West of the tunnel, the conduit emerged at surface level and ran towards the city; however, this last section is not well preserved and therefore the actual spot where it entered the city has not yet been found.

The aqueducts supplied water to various parts of the lower city, but due to the differences in elevation the water did not reach the houses on the summit. Those received rainwater collected and channeled into subterranean cisterns hewn beneath each house. A large water cistern was discovered in the centre of the acropolis, in front of the Crusader fortress and south of it; owing to its capacity (380 m3) and location, it appears to have functioned as a public reservoir in the upper city.

Urban Dwellings

Private dwellings of several architectural types were scattered throughout the city. Most of the common population resided in simple houses characterizing local Galilean architecture. The wealthy inhabitants of the city resided in spacious, well-planned domiciles with colourful mosaic floors; the six houses of the wealthy known to date in Sepphoris followed Roman architectural tradition at its best. Monumental ornate residences were erected aside simple ones in both upper and lower Sepphoris, and it is thus impossible to point to a clear-cut division of the city, either by neighbourhood or by social, religious, or economic status.

Ritual baths (miqva’ot) and other finds uncovered in the simple dwellings are indicative of their owners’ identities. In contrast, excavations in the houses of the wealthy did not yield a single piece of information about the homeowners. Nevertheless, it seems that the wealthy pagan families resided in peristyle houses, especially those decorated with mythological images. While most of these residents were probably pagans, it could be argued that some of them were wealthy members of the Jewish community with a Hellenistic orientation.

Simple Houses

Simple houses were exposed on the western part of the hill, on the northern slope, and in the lower city alongside public buildings (see Figure 8). In some cases, the buildings constructed in the Roman period were still in use, with modifications, in the Byzantine period.

Figure 8. Remains of dwellings discovered on the western side of the acropolis. Some of the houses were built at the end of the Hellenistic period and continued to be used in the first century ce.

Photo: Joint Sepphoris Project.

They were constructed of fieldstones and cut stones of mediocre quality and the floors of the rooms were paved with plaster. On rare occasion, one of the rooms in these houses had a mosaic with simple geometric or floral designs. These houses also contained rooms of various sizes, courtyards, silos, underground storerooms, and water installations, including cisterns and a large number of ritual baths. Industrial or commercial installations, such as wine presses and large ovens (tabuns), were also evident.

The House of Dionysos

Located on the hilltop, the House of Dionysos was constructed c. 200 ce and was destroyed in the earthquake of 363 ce (see Figure 9). The building (45 x 23 m.) probably had a second story that covered only its northern and central parts. The courtyard, surrounded on three sides by rows of columns, was located in the centre of the building and had a triclinium to its north.

Figure 9. Northern view of the House of Dionysos, with its peristyle courtyard in the foreground and its triclinium after the removal of the mosaic.

Photo: Gabi Laron.

The other rooms of the house were arranged around the triclinium and the peristyle courtyard; the rooms south of the courtyard were on two levels, one at the elevation of the courtyard and the other below it. Some of the rooms on the lower level served as storerooms, while those on the south—which opened onto the street that ran along the southern end of the hill—functioned as shops.

Many rooms inside this house were paved with mosaics featuring colourful geometric patterns. The most outstanding one was located in the triclinium, whose decorated area formed the letter T to conform with the seating arrangement in this Roman-style dining room. The central carpet of the mosaic is adorned with fifteen panels portraying scenes from the life of Dionysos and his cult. The panels feature Dionysos, Heracles, Ariadne, and possibly Silenus, as well as satyrs and maenads. The outer frame of twenty-two medallions containing hunting scenes runs from the middle of the two short sides of the mosaic, which are adorned with portraits of two beautiful women (see Figure 10).

Figure 10. Half-medallion depicting an archer and a female bust in the centre of the northern side of the acanthus frame.

Photo: Gabi Laron.

The U-shaped band south of the main carpet depicts a rural procession in preparation of the Dionysiac festivities.

The House of Orpheus

Located in the lower city, adjacent to the main intersection, the House of Orpheus is named after the splendid mosaic that graces its triclinium. It was constructed in the second half of the 3rd century, was partly damaged in the mid-4th century, and was renovated immediately thereafter, remaining in use until the early 5th century. The restored building retained the original plan with some internal changes; it was paved with new mosaics laid ten centimetres above the previous ones. The building (28.5 x 17 m.) has three entrances, from the north, east, and south, but main access was through the eastern entranceway. The first phase of the building’s interior had a lavishly decorated triclinium (6.6 x 8.95 m.) abutted on the south by a peristyle courtyard with two aisles; another triclinium, smaller in size, was located south of the courtyard, opposite the larger one. Various rooms were set around the triclinia and courtyard, some containing mosaics with simple designs and others paved with plaster.

The T-shaped mosaic in the larger triclinium contained four colourful panels to be viewed from the south. Orpheus, the divine musician, is depicted in the larger panel, and the three others depict scenes from daily life—a banquet, two men playing dice, and two men embracing. In contrast, the small triclinium was less impressive in its measurements and appearance; it was decorated with a mosaic floor containing a single central panel with a partially preserved Greek inscription surrounded on three sides by a U-shaped band filled with a geometric design.

Burial Customs and Burial Places

Burial in Sepphoris was found primarily in hewn caves and less in mausolea (one of which was found in the northern necropolis). Some of the more elaborate caves contained chambers of various sizes with walls containing hewn loculi or multiple arcosolia. Burial in stone, marble, or clay coffins is evident in Sepphoris, but there are ample remains attesting to the Sepphorean practice of collecting bones in stone or clay ossuaries after the 2nd century. The few decorated sarcophagi and ossuaries from burial tombs or those in secondary use found embedded in the walls of the Crusader fortress use artistic formulas well known in Jewish circles.

Thirteen burial inscriptions mentioning the names of deceased came from Sepphoris’s ancient necropolis. Dated to the 3rd and 4th centuries, these inscriptions were painted or carved on the tomb walls and stone or marble plaques. Seven are in Aramaic, three are in Hebrew, one appears in Greek; two are bilingual (one in Hebrew and Greek and the other in Aramaic and Greek). Two of the plaques also contain Jewish symbols—either a palm tree or a menorah. Most of the names in the inscriptions are Hebrew in origin, and a few are foreign, some replacing Hebrew names and others well known in Jewish circles. Eleven names bore the title of rabbi; Simon was a priest; Yosa was a scribe; and another Yosa had the nickname Ḥirorah (meaning ‘white’ in Aramaic, the precise meaning of which remains unclear).

A cross engraved on the façade of one tomb in the eastern necropolis identifies the deceased buried in that cave. Nothing else from among the finds uncovered or surveyed in Sepphoris’s necropolis can be attributed to the pagan or Christian population residing in the city. This does not mean that pagans or Christians did not live in ancient Sepphoris or refrained from burying their dead in the local necropolis; rather, it may indicate the relatively small number of non-Jews in the local population.

Jews and Christians in Sepphoris

The penetration of Christianity into Sepphoris in the Byzantine period had a marked effect on the city’s demography, yet the Jewish community continued to comprise a relative majority. The two communities co-existed in the city, while each had its own places for communal gathering. To date, two or possibly three synagogues and two churches (the latter excavated in the city’s centre) are known in the city.

The construction of these synagogues in the 5th century and their long existence indicate, on the one hand, that the Jewish community preserved its status in the city even after the conversion of the empire to Christianity and despite the increased power of the church in the provincial government. On the other hand, the construction of the two churches in the heart of the civic centre emerged not only because of the natural expansion of the Christian community and its establishment within the Jewish city, but also because the imperial authorities wished to affirm to the local population that the Christianity was the true victor and legitimate ruler.


Two or possibly three synagogues dated to the 5th century are currently known in the city. One such building, only partially excavated in the early 20th century, is located on the western end of the hill, north of the Crusader church, while traces of coloured mosaic chunks with a few Hebrew letters found ex situ on the western side of the hill may suggest the existence of another synagogue building in the area.

The first complete synagogue unearthed, in the northern part of the city, was in use until the early 7th century. It is an elongated building (about 7.7 x 20.8 m.) oriented away from Jerusalem, with an entrance in the southern wall and a bema at the western end of the nave. The single aisle on the northern side of the main hall distinguishes it from most ancient synagogues.

The mosaic floor in the aisle bears geometric designs and several Aramaic dedicatory inscriptions, whereas the mosaic carpet in the main hall is divided into seven horizontal bands of unequal height, some of which have internal subdivisions featuring figurative scenes. Its fourteen panels contain thematic scenes accompanied mostly by Greek dedicatory inscriptions. The zodiac dominates the centre of the mosaic;

Figure 11. Zodiac in the centre of the synagogue’s mosaic floor. The inner circle is occupied by the sun (and not the personification of Helios, which appears elsewhere) riding a chariot drawn by four horses. The twelve signs of the zodiac are portrayed in the outer circle and allegorical representations of the four seasons appear in the four corners of the square delimiting the zodiac’s outer circle.

Photo: Gabi Laron.

the depictions below it illustrate the biblical narratives of Abraham at Mamre and the binding of Isaac, while the panels above it portray motifs related to the Tabernacle and the Jerusalem Temple (see Figure 11). In addition to the well-known Jewish symbols—the architectural façade flanked on either side by a menorah, a shofar, and tongs—these panels contain other themes such as Aaron’s consecration to the service of the Tabernacle, the daily sacrifice, the showbread table, and the basket of first fruits.

The rich iconography and elaborate themes of this mosaic floor are important in the study of Jewish art vis-à-vis early Christian art. The excavators maintain that the main message of the entire mosaic places God in the centre of the creation; He has chosen the people of Israel; and in the future, in fulfillment of His promise to Abraham on Mount Moriah, He will rebuild the Temple and redeem the children of Abraham.


Two churches dated to the late 5th or early 6th century, in the time of the bishop Eutropius, were constructed along the cardo, close to the main intersection in the lower city. The proximity of the remains to the surface and their poor state of preservation make it difficult to provide much detail about the two churches. The western church was constructed on top of the remains of an industrial area, whereas the eastern church was built on the foundations of a temple, which may attest to the preservation and perpetuation of the city’s sacred precinct. The orientation of the two churches to the southeast derives from the existing urban plan, which dictated the alignment of all monumental and public buildings in lower Sepphoris.

The church west of the cardo is an elongated building (c. 18 m. wide; its length has not yet been determined). An open plaza (8 x 10 m.) with a simple mosaic pavement located between the decumanus and the church’s northern wall, provided access to the atrium and, through it, to the prayer hall. The foundations, built of various sized fieldstones, are all that remain of the building, which contained a prayer hall flanked by several rooms that apparently served as chapels.

The triapsidal church (60 x 29 m.) east of the cardo follows the typical Christian basilical plan, with a rectangular prayer hall, an atrium to the west, and additional rooms to the south, two of which are paved with geometric mosaics. The foundation wall forming the central apse is especially thick (2.40 m.) and may suggest that it supported the wall demarcating the apse and the synthronon (the bench facing the nave on which the priests and bishop sat). A rectangular box-like depression in the floor of the apse held a reliquary that was placed beneath the altar.

An Appraisal of the Archaeological Finds

The rehabilitation of Jewish society after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 ce and its recovery from the ravages of the war were made possible, in no small measure, by the stability of the Galilean settlement to which Judaean refugees fled. In time, the Jewish settlement in the Galilee grew and extended its geographic and demographic borders. Renewed forces would resuscitate it and impact upon its construction, art, and, generally, the local population’s cultural patterns. Sepphoris the Roman polis flourished at the end of the 1st and beginning of the 2nd centuries, as attested by Jewish Galilee’s changing attitudes towards Graeco-Roman culture. An analysis of the archaeological evidence from Sepphoris, including the funerary and epigraphic finds, as well as the rabbinic literature, support the assumption that the Jews were the predominant social segment in the city in the first centuries of the Common Era.

The architectural remains, mosaics, and other artefacts from Sepphoris provide noteworthy information for the study of the art and architecture of ancient Palestine and also demonstrate how the Jewish population living in a multicultural environment conducted its affairs in a period of transition and change—from Rome to Byzantium and from paganism to Christianity—an ongoing process that intensified in the Roman period and peaked in the 5th and 6th centuries.

Literature and the Current State of Research

Sepphoris’s recent archaeological finds and their distribution at the site have shed light on the architectural, artistic, cultural, religious, and daily life in this hellenized city as well as defined and assessed its demographic composition and degree of Hellenization in times of shifting borders.

Excavations were first carried out at Sepphoris in the early 1930s under the direction of L. Waterman of the University of Michigan. Work was resumed about forty years later by several expeditions: since 1975, Tel Aviv University (under the direction of T. Tsuk) conducted a systematic survey and excavations of the water system at the eastern end of the site; from 1983 until 2003, the University of Tampa, Florida (under the supervision of J. P. Strange), excavated the theatre on the acropolis, revealing a large public building in the lower city. The joint project of Duke University, North Carolina, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (directed by E. Meyers, E. Netzer, and C. L. Meyers) worked at the site between 1985 and 1989, concentrating on the summit of the acropolis and its surrounding area, uncovering some simple houses, the House of Dionysos, and the theatre; since 1990, the Hebrew University’s expedition (under the supervision of Z. Weiss and E. Netzer, and since 1995 under the sole direction of Z. Weiss) has excavated on the summit, conducting most of its excavations in the lower city, where the network of streets, a Roman temple, archive, the House of Orpheus, the Nile Festival Building, a synagogue, and two churches were uncovered; from 1993 to 2000, Duke University (under the direction of E. M. Meyers and C. L. Meyers) excavated the residential area on the western acropolis.

The current state of research is characterized by publications on the finds uncovered by the aforementioned expeditions, some of which focus on specific buildings or finds—mosaic, pottery, ritual baths, or small finds. These publications are significant not only for scholars dealing with archaeology, art, architecture, and the material culture, but are also relevant to those interested in the social, economic, religious, and cultural history of the Galilee in the Roman, Byzantine, and early Islamic periods.

Other studies deal with the implications of these finds for life in the city or the wider Galilee, from the Second Temple Period through late antiquity. The broad range of topics pertains to the city and its history, cultural ambience, and society. Methodologically, these topics may be subdivided into several realms: the physical appearance of the city (urbanism, architectural development, the nature of public and private buildings); mosaics dated to the 3rd through 5th centuries (iconography, composition, style, production workshops); the implications of the artistic finds for the social, religious, and cultural life of the city; historical questions pertaining to the city from its early days through late antiquity (the profile of the 1st-century city, the revolts against Rome, demography, daily and religious habits of the Jewish population and its relationship to the Graeco-Roman world, early Christians and the establishment of Christianity in the city); demographic and social aspects pertaining to population and socio-religious groups residing in the city (the relationship between the various religious communities, the rabbinic class, priests, community leaders in Jewish circles, the role of bishops in the Christian realm); and information culled from talmudic literature in the analysis of the material culture (the relationship between Jewish society and Graeco-Roman culture, e.g., ritual baths, soft limestone vessels, ceramics, etc.).


  • Freyne, S. Galilee from Alexander the Great to Hadrian 323 B.C.E.–135 C.E.: A Study of Second Temple Judaism. Wilmington: M. Glazier, 1980.
  • Galor, K. “The Stepped Water Installations of the Sepphoris Acropolis.” In The Archaeology of Difference: Gender, Ethnicity, Class and the “Other” in Antiquity: Studies in Honor of Eric M. Meyers. Edited by D. R. Edwards and C. T. McCollough, 201–213. Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2007..
  • Levine, L. I., and Z. Weiss, eds. “From Dura to Sepphoris: Studies in Jewish Art and Society in Late Antiquity,” Journal of Roman Archaeology, Supp. 40. Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2000.
  • McCollough, C. T., and D. R. Edwards. “Transformation of Space: The Roman Road at Sepphoris.” In Archaeology and the Galilee: Texts and Contexts in the Greco-Roman and Byzantine Periods. Edited by C. T. McCollough and D. R. Edwards, 135–142. South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism 143. Atlanta, GA: Scholars, 1997.
  • Meshorer, Y. “Sepphoris and Rome.” In Greek Numismatics and Archaeology: Essays in Honor of Margaret Thompson. Edited by Otto Mørkholm and Nancy M. Waggoner, 159–171. Wetteren: Editions NR, 1979.
  • Meyers, E. M. “Sepphoris on the Eve of the Great Revolt (67–68 C.E.): Archaeology and Josephus.” In Galilee through the Centuries: Confluence of Cultures. Edited by E. M. Meyers, 109–122. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999.
  • Meyers, E. M., Hendin D., and C. L. Meyers. “Further Reflection on Sepphoris and Rome: Numismatic and Archaeology.” Eretz Israel 31 (2015): 132–140.
  • Meyers, E. M., and C. L. Meyers. The Pottery from Ancient Sepphoris. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2013.
  • Miller, S. S. Studies in the History and Traditions of Sepphoris. Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity 37. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1984.
  • Miller, S. S. Sages and Commoners in Late Antique ʾEreẓ Isael: A Philological Inquiry into Local Traditions in Talmud Yerushalmi. Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism 111. Mohr Siebeck: Tübingen, 2006.
  • Miller, S. S. At the Intersection of Texts and Material Finds: Stepped Pools, Stone Vessels, and Ritual Purity among the Jews of Roman Galilee. Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht: Göttingen, 2015.
  • Nagy, R. M. et al., eds. Sepphoris in Galilee: Crosscurrents of Culture. Raleigh: North Carolina Museum of Art, 1996.
  • Strange, J. F., T. R. W. Longstaff, and D. E. Groh. Excavations at Sepphoris. Brill Reference Library of Judaism 22. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2006.
  • Talgam, R., and Z. Weiss. The Mosaics in the House of Dionysos at Sepphoris: Excavated by E. M. Meyers, E. Netzer and C. L. Meyers. Qedem 44. Jerusalem: Institute of Archaeology, Hebrew University, 2004.
  • Tsuk, T., A. Rosenberger, and M. Peilstöcker. The Ancient Reservoir of Sepphoris: Excavations 1993–1994. Tel Aviv: Israel National Parks and Nataure Reserves, 1996.
  • Weiss, Z. The Sepphoris Synagogue: Deciphering an Ancient Message through Its Archaeological and Socio-Historical Contexts. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society, 2005.
  • Weiss, Z. “Josephus and Archaeology on the Cities of the Galilee.” In Making History: Josephus and Historical Method. Edited by Z. Rodgers, 392–394. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 110. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2007.
  • Weiss, Z. “Private Architecture in the Public Sphere: Urban Dwellings in Roman and Byzantine Sepphoris.” In From Antioch to Alexandria: Studies in Domestic Architecture During the Roman and Byzantine Periods. Edited by K. Galor and T. Waliszewski, 125–136. Archaeologia Transatlantica 24. Warsaw: Institute of Archaeology, University of Warsaw, 2007.
  • Weiss, Z. “Artistic Trends and Contact between Communities in Sepphoris of Late Antiquity: Recent Research.” In Religious Diversity in Late Antiquity. Edited D. M. Gwynn and S. Bangert, 167–188. Late Antique Archaeology 6. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010.
  • Weiss, Z. “From Roman Temple to Byzantine Church: A Preliminary Report on Sepphoris in Transition.” Journal of Roman Archaeology 23 (2010): 196–217.
  • Weiss, Z. “Images and Figural Representations in the Urban Galilee: Defining Limits in Times of Shifting Borders.” In The Image and Its Prohibition in Jewish Antiquity. Edited by Sarah Pearce, 130–144. Journal of Jewish Studies, Supp. 2. Yarnton: Journal of Jewish Studies, 2013.
  • Weiss, Z., and E. Netzer. “The Hebrew University Excavations at Sepphoris.” Qadmoniot 113 (1997): 2–21.
  • Weiss, Z., and R. Talgam. “The Nile Festival Building and Its Mosaics: Mythological Representations in Early Byzantine Sepphoris.” In The Roman and Byzantine Near East, III. Edited by J. H. Humphrey, 55–90. Journal of Roman Archaeology, Supp. 49. Portsmouth, RI: Journal of Roman Archaeology, 2002.