Israel’s Capital City

Credit:, Samaria, Israel

In Genesis 41, the “Pharaoh sent for Joseph, and he was quickly brought from the dungeon. When he had shaved and changed his clothes, he came before Pharaoh,” presumably to his palace. Joseph so impressed the pharaoh that “Pharaoh said to Joseph, I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt. Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. He had him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and people shouted before him, Make way! Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt.”

As Egypt’s viceroy, Joseph would likely have been housed in a royal residence.

In 1 Kings, the northern Kingdom of Israel began with the secession of the Israelite tribes from Rehoboam’s Davidic monarchy, and began a merry-go-round of dynasties and capitals. Jeroboam started his reign from Shechem and moved his capital to Penuel on the eastern side of the Jordan. Baasha killed King Nadav the son of Jeroboam and moved his capital to Tirzah. Zimri killed Elah ben Baasha, then Omri defeated Zimri to become king. “In the thirty-first year of Asa king of Judah, Omri became king of Israel, and he reigned twelve years, six of them in Tirzah. He bought the hill of Samaria from Shemer for two talents of silver and built a city on the hill, calling it Samaria, after Shemer, the name of the former owner of the hill.”

The site that Omri chose, Samaria, which has become a term to describe the northern central hill country, is today known by its Roman name, Sebastia. Samaria/Sebastia is located northwest of Shechem, strategically positioned overlooking the roads to the Sharon Plain and onward to the Jezreel Valley.

Samaria is set on the top of a hill. The site has been a difficult one in which to assign periods due to ancient construction on the site having frequently cleared the dirt layers down to the bedrock. From what archaeologists are able to determine, in the Iron I period Samaria was home to a small settlement, consistent with the Bible’s civilian Shemer preceding the royal Omri.

Atop the hill was the acropolis, a leveled enclosure four acres in size. The acropolis was shaped by a four meter high scarp, a very steep slope, across its northern, western and southern sides. The site revealed a large palace complex along the southwestern edge. This royal building contained ashlar masonry, with the stones dressed into smooth surfaces. The exposed area of the palace alone would suggest that this was one of the largest Iron Age buildings in the entire Levant.

The palace was surrounded by administrative buildings. The area was surrounded by casemate walls, with rooms built up against the defensive wall. The gate was on the eastern side, where proto-Ionic capitals, the crowning parts columns, were found, and there was a protective tower.

At this site archaeologists found a large collection of ivories. These demonstrate the considerable level of wealth of the inhabitants.

There are debates about which kings built what on the acropolis, whether structures could be assigned to Omri or Ahab. There are also debates about how large the city was in the 9th or 8th century BCE, whether it included only the royal compound or if it also included of the lower city below the acropolis. Regardless of the correct allocating of time and size to the site, the idea that this was Omri or Ahab’s palace is considered secure, given the references to the Omride dynasty in Assyrian records and the similarities to other construction at Jezreel, another royal site in the biblical account.

The image above is of the Samaria acropolis, with its visible scarp around the edges of the acropolis.