City of Samaria

SAMARIA, CITY OF sə mâr’ĭ ə (שֹׁמְרֹ֛ון; Σαμάρεια, G4899). The capital of the northern kingdom of Israel.

The site.

Samaria had an excellent hilltop location c. forty m. N of Jerusalem and c. twenty-five m. from the Mediterranean. In the spring, when the wild flowers are in blossom, the setting is exquisite. The king could see the Mediterranean Sea from his palace windows as he looked W down the fertile “valley of barley,” leading to the Plain of Sharon and the sea. Samaria was located on the main N-S ridge road of Pal., and almost directly W across the mountain ridge from the preceding capital Tirzah. It was c. six and a half m. NW of Shechem, the kingdom’s first capital.

The city was on an oval hilltop c. 300 ft. high and isolated from the hills around it except to the E, where a saddle joined it to the N-S ridge. Although lower than some surrounding hills, it was beyond artillery (catapult) range from them. The city withstood several sieges by the Syrians, and one of three years’ duration by the Assyrians before it fell (2 Kings 17:5). This is esp. interesting in view of the fact that the city’s spring was a m. away and the inhabitants had to rely on cisterns. When Herod the Great rebuilt the city, he named it Sebaste in honor of his patron Augustus. (Sebaste is the Gr. name for Augustus.) The present Arab village at the E end of the site still carries the Herodian name, Sebastiyeh. The OT population of the city can only be conjectured, but Sargon deported 27,290 of its population. Its maximum population even in NT times was prob. not more than 40,000. The size of the hilltop, of course, determined the city’s size, i.e., c. twenty acres.

Israelite history.

The city of Samaria is referred to over 100 times in the OT although it was not built until c. fifty years after the death of Solomon. It was founded c. 875 b.c. by Omri. “He bought the hill of Samaria from Shemer for two talents of silver; and he fortified the hill and called the name of the city which he built, Samaria, after the name of Shemer, the owner of the hill” (1 Kings 16:24). Omri died before completing the new city and it was finished by his son, Ahab. The new capital was in every way an improvement on the former one, Tirzah.

The site was excavated by Harvard University in 1908 under the direction of G. Schumacher and in 1909-1910 under G. A. Reisner. A second expedition in 1931-1933 was sponsored by a multiple group: Harvard University, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Palestine Exploration Fund, the British Academy, and the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem. In 1935 the British institutions listed above carried on another dig. The last two expeditions were under the direction of J. W. Crowfoot. The most important findings of all these digs will be incorporated into the historical sections of this article.

There had been occupation on the hilltop in the Early Bronze Age, but the area apparently reverted to farm land until Omri purchased it. The city built by Omri and Ahab was largely replaced by later constructions; the portions of the original city which were found by the archeologists show that it was well designed and excellently constructed. The work was apparently done by skilled Phoen. craftsmen, as similar work has been found at Tyre. Israel and Phoenicia were allies, and Ahab had married the daughter of the king of the Phoenicians. The palace was prob. similar to others in the Near E, for it followed their pattern in that it was a two-story building; Ahab’s son Ahaziah was fatally injured in a fall from a second-story window (2 Kings 1:2-17). The palace buildings prob. also followed the usual design of being built around open courtyards. In one of the courtyards a rectangular shallow pool was found, which measured thirty-three and a half ft. by c. seventeen ft. Perhaps this was the place where the blood was washed from Ahab’s chariot (1 Kings 22:38). The total palace area seems to have been c. 178 x 89 meters.

The palace was called an ivory house (22:39; Amos 3:15). There are three theories of interpretation. One considers the polished white limestone of the buildings as “ivory colored.” Another thinks the reference is to wooden wall panels inlaid with ivory. The third, and most likely, is to apply it to the ivory inlay furniture used. Since the inlays are small, they fit the pattern of furniture better than large wall panels.

Over five hundred of the ivory plaques or fragments of them have been found. They were at times touched up with glass, enamel, and lapis lazuli inlays, and some were covered with gold leaf. There were figures from nature: plants, flowers, trees, and wild animals. There were also plaques portraying Egyp. gods. The ivories were prob. carved in Phoenicia; at least some of the designs were taken from Egyp. models. Work similar to that at Samaria has been found in Syria.

Other interesting palace finds were numerous clay sealings with imprints showing. These were the seals with which papyrus rolls were closed and made official by the seal imprint of a government official. The area where they were found would be the place where the government’s official documents, both foreign and local, were kept. The inside of the seals showed the impression of the strings that bound the papyrus.

The entire city of Samaria prob. occupied c. twenty acres. The palace area was at the higher W end of the hill. The common people lived in the lower city, i.e. the E end of the city. Less than one-third of the palace area has been excavated and only a small segment of the lower city.

The city was well fortified with both an outer and an inner city wall. The former averaged c. twenty ft. with the greatest width thirty-two ft. It was the casemate type and was provided with towers and bastions. The casemates were narrow rectangular rooms with the length of the casemate being the width of the wall. They were filled with earth. The inner wall was solid stone c. 5 ft. in thickness. There also seems to have been a third defensive wall on the hillside just below the outer wall, but the evidence is not conclusive.

The city’s main gate was naturally at the E end of the city where the hill joined the main mountain mass. This may be the gate where Ahab and Jehoshaphat sat on their royal thrones and listened to the prophets predicting the outcome of a battle with Syria at Ramothgilead (2 Chron 18:9). It may also have been the gate where the lepers were conversing with one another as to what death they would choose under the city’s siege by Ben-hadad. It would also be the place where the mob trampled to death the king’s captain of the gate as they rushed out of the city for food when the siege was lifted (2 Kings 7:1-20).

Near the gateway a fragment of a large stone stele was found, but only three letters remained and they gave no clue to the inscr. The script would date it c. the time of Jeroboam II, who was Samaria’s greatest king. Such memorial steles were common at the gates of capital cities. Limestone pilasters with proto-ionic capitals were found nearby, showing that an important public building had stood there. These are similar to those used by Solomon’s architects.

Omri’s place in Assyrian history is more significant than it is in Bible history. Although several dynasties replaced one another in the kingdom of Israel, Assyria always referred to each of them as “the house [or dynasty] of Omri.” Ahab has much more prominence in Scripture; even so, he was a minor figure in comparison with his wife Jezebel, and esp. with the prophet Elijah. Ahab built a temple for Baal to please his wife who was a worshiper of Melcart, the Baal of the city of Tyre, where her father was high priest and later king (1 Kings 16:32, 33). Ahab’s acquiescence to his wife’s religion occasioned Elijah’s dramatic appearance at Mt. Carmel and his demonstration there that Jezebel’s Baal and Ashera were powerless gods. Ahab’s Baal sanctuary in Samaria has not yet been identified by archeologists. The multiple rebuildings at Samaria have made it very difficult for archeologists to identify in detail any of the portions of major buildings found after the time of Omri and Ahab. The objects found in the buildings, the architectural fragments of walls, arches, etc., are the best clue to the use of the buildings.

Samaria was besieged by Ben-hadad of Syria, but Israel made a massive sortie from the city and defeated the Syrians, whose king was drunk at the time of battle (20:1-22). Ahab defeated Ben-hadad a second time the following spring; the Syrian king surrendered to Ahab. The Israelites were attacked by Ben-hadad a third time, but Ahab was critically wounded at Ramath-gilead and died before he could reach Samaria. His bloody chariot was washed in one of the palace pools, as mentioned earlier (22:1-38).

Ahab’s son Ahaziah reigned only two years. He died as the result of an accident when he fell out of a second-story window in the palace at Samaria (2 Kings 1:2-17). He was succeeded by his brother Jehoram. Ben-hadad again besieged Samaria and the situation was so desperate that some of its citizens resorted to cannibalism. The prophet Elisha predicted that the siege would be lifted within twenty-four hours, and so it was, for the Syrians thought that the Hittites and the Egyptians had become allies of the Israelites and were on the march ready to attack them (6:24-7:20). Like his father Ahab, Jehoram (or Joram) was wounded in battle at Ramath-gilead (8:28), but escaped with his life, only to be murdered shortly afterward by Jehu, one of his military leaders in that battle (9:24).

The dynasty of Omri was ended, and was succeeded by the dynasty of Jehu. The old dynasty of Omri was exterminated by the court officials of Joram who beheaded all the male relatives of Ahab at Jehu’s orders (10:1-11). In antiquity a royal coronation normally took place in the presence of the nation’s chief deity; so Jehu called for the service to be held in the great Baal temple that Ahab had built for Jezebel. When the temple was jammed with Baal worshipers, Jehu ordered his army to kill them all. He burned the wooden pillar of Baal and demolished the sanctuary. The site was then made a latrine. Although Jehu did everything possible to annihilate Phoen. Baalism, he still continued the synthetic Jehovah-Baalism of Jeroboam I as the nation’s official cult (10:18-31).

The kingdom of Israel suffered heavy defeats under Jehu. Hazael, king of Damascus, incorporated all Trans-Jordan into his kingdom (10:32, 33). Jehu became a vassal of Shalmaneser II, king of Assyria, according to the records of that monarch. Jehu’s son, Jehoahaz, suffered still more at the hands of the Syrians; but the tables were turned under his son Jehoash, for the Assyrian pressure on Damascus enabled that Israelite king to recover his Trans-Jordan territory; Jehoash even captured Jerusalem and made Samaria rich with its booty (14:8-14). Then Jeroboam II came to the throne at Samaria and the northern kingdom reached its greatest territorial expansion (from the Gulf of Aqaba to the entrance of Hamath) and its greatest prosperity. The prophets Hosea and Amos often concentrated their remarks on life in Samaria, the capital city, although the historical books said little of that city in this period of her history.

Samaria has been rebuilt so often in the areas excavated by archeologists that only fragments of buildings are left. The first major reconstructions seem to have come about the time of Jehu. The reason for this work is unknown. Perhaps destruction by an earthquake made rebuilding necessary, as earthquakes were frequent in the history of Pal. At any rate the new work was very inferior to that of Omri and Ahab. Jehu, of course, by his destruction of the Phoen. Baalism of the Omri-Ahab dynasty, would not likely be able to secure skilled Phoen. craftsmen; and apparently he had to rely on Israelite labor.

The next building phases came about the time of Joash and Jeroboam II, when wealth flowed into Samaria from all directions. Although there were several building phases, they were inferior to the earliest work. The excellent masonry has been replaced and the newer more crude work has its deficiencies concealed under heavy coats of plaster.

The most important objects found in this period were sixty-five ostraca from the time of Jeroboam II. These were business documents written on pieces of broken pottery (one of the most common writing materials used in ordinary business). Scholars differ concerning their exact nature but they seem to be receipts for produce (wine and oil) given to the government at Samaria as taxes. They list the name and city of the taxpayer and also the name of the tax collector. They seem to show that the federal departments set up by Solomon were still intact at this time in the northern kingdom. Twenty-two cities or towns are mentioned.

Although Samaria was at the peak of her glory under Jeroboam II, the city was to be destroyed within twenty-five years; the whole last time span was chaotic. Jeroboam’s son, Zechariah, was assassinated within six months by Shallum, who in turn was assassinated a month later (15:8-14). The latter killing was in the city of Samaria, and Menahem, the killer, was from Israel’s former capital city of Tirzah just E across the mountains from Samaria. The Assyrians, however, were again in the W, and Menahem paid tribute to Tiglath-pileser III, called Pul (15:19). Pekahiah, the son of Menahem, was soon killed by Pekah, one of his generals, in the palace at Samaria (15:23-25). Pekah along with other western monarchs rebelled against Assyria. Tiglathpileser III then captured most of the kingdom of Israel and made it into three Assyrian provinces: Gilead, Megiddo, and Dor (15:29). During this fighting, Hoshea killed Pekah, prob. with the help of the Assyrians, for he was accepted as king over the last remnant of the northern kingdom, i.e., the land adjacent to the city of Samaria itself (15:30). Hoshea was loyal to Assyria for a time, but when Shalmaneser found him planning to revolt, he imprisoned him and attacked Samaria (17:1-6). The city withstood a siege of three years but fell to the new Assyrian king, Sargon II, in 721 b.c. The excavations show that at least part of the city was burned at that time. Sargon’s records reveal that he deported 27,290 persons from Samaria.

Sargon specifically stated that he rebuilt Samaria and made it greater than it had been under the Israelite monarchs. The land was resettled with refugees from other Assyrian conquests (17:24), but it is uncertain whether Samaria in this text refers to the territory of Samaria or the capital city itself. More deportees came in under Esar-haddon (Ezra 4:2) and Ashurbanipal (Osnappar) (4:9, 10). Loyal Yahweh worshipers continued to come to Jerusalem from the city of Samaria even after Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of the city and Temple (Jer 41:5). Archeological data give the names of two of the Assyrian governors of Samaria in the 7th cent. A fragment of a cuneiform tablet addressed to a Babylonian governor was found in the city’s debris.

Archeologists have not found much evidence for this period in the palace area, since the Hel. and Rom. city builders removed much of earlier building and sank deep foundations in other places. The lower city where the common people lived, may supply the needed archeological information when this area is excavated at some future time.

When the Babylonians seized world power from the Assyrians, they continued to have Samaria as the capital of the province of Samaria now called Samerina; but they also added to it the territory around Jerusalem. When the Persians took over world empire, Samaria was continued as the capital of the province of Samerina. Although Sanballat, the governor of that province, plays a large part in the postexilic period, his capital city Samaria is mentioned only in Ezra 4:17.

Intertestamental history.

With the coming of Alexander the Great to Pal., the city of Samaria assumed a new character. It became the most important Gr. city in central Pal.; and the Samaritan influence in what was the old province of Samaria was now only religious. Shechem from this time became the important Samaritan city. Its importance was climaxed by the building of a temple on nearby Mt. Gerizim (see Samaritans).

When Alexander the Great moved S from Tyre to attack Egypt he appointed Andromachus as governor of Samaria, but Andromachus was killed by some of the Samaritan leaders who then fled to the Jordan valley. Their hideout has been excavated by the American School of Oriental Research and much valuable data on this episode has been found. Alexander punished the city by deporting a part of its population, and by making the city a Macedonian colony in 331 b.c.

The city’s defenses were greatly improved, prob. by Perdiccas, as soon as the Macedonians occupied it. Some scholars date these defenses later to the Ptolemaic-Seleucid fighting, but this is unlikely. The old Israelite defenses were used, but the walls on the middle terrace were strengthened with massive circular towers of excellent craftsmanship. They averaged forty-two to forty-eight ft. in diameter. A new defense wall with a battered face was found in one area and dated c. the 2nd cent. b.c. This wall, although c. thirteen ft. thick, was breached by the troops of John Hyrcanus when they captured Samaria in 107 b.c.

The objects found in the houses of this period show that Samaria was a typical Hel. city. The general cultural level seems to have been as high as that of any Israelite or Rom. city on the site. The city was economically prosperous and seems to have done much commercial trading of its grains for wine with the island of Rhodes, for Rhodian jar handles are found in great quantity (over 2,000) everywhere on the site. Greek and Egyptian deities were worshiped. After the death of Alexander the city belonged to the Ptolemies most of the time up to 198 b.c. when it became the permanent property of the Seleucids.

John Hyrcanus moved against Samaria after his capture of Shechem and his destruction of the Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim. The Samaritans had asked both the Seleucids and the Ptolemies for troops, but John Hyrcanus defeated both these units sent against him. He then besieged Samaria and captured it within a year, c. 107 b.c. Josephus states that the city was so thoroughly destroyed that no sign of it remained. However, archeologists found this statement to be a great exaggeration of the facts. The city was occupied at least in part by the time Pompey conquered Pal. and he added it to the Rom. empire in 63 b.c. The city, however, had not been refortified after its capture by Hyrcanus. Samaria was annexed to the province of Syria by the Romans.

The Rom. proconsul Gabinius (57-55 b.c.) ordered the restoration of Samaria; the breaches in the fortifications made by John Hyrcanus were repaired. New straight streets were also laid out and the houses were built in regular block patterns as today. Five different streets were found but they were very narrow, only c. eight to ten ft. wide. Each block averaged four houses and a row of shops. The best house occupied half a block and had three shops at one end and fifteen rooms built around two open courts. The houses were plastered and painted in panelings of red, purple, white, and yellow. This is a good picture of much of city life wherever Romans built their towns in NT times. The general layout of the city’s forum may belong to this period although it was certainly completed by Herod the Great.

The greatest builder in the history of Pal. was not Solomon, but Herod the Great. Samaria was a city he loved, and he embellished it in every way. He began the reconstruction of the city in 30 b.c. and spent at least ten years at the task. He renamed it Sebaste (the Gr. term for Augustus) in honor of his patron, Emperor Augustus. On the site of Omri’s palace, the highest point in the city, he erected a large beautiful temple for the worship of Augustus as a god! This is the same Herod who built the Temple of Yahweh at Jerusalem in which Christ Himself worshiped. Incidentally, the Rom. Emperor Augustus was not appreciative of this temple which Herod dedicated to his worship.

Josephus gives only a brief description of Herod’s Samaria (Antiq. XV, viii, 5) but archeologists have brought the city to life. Herod built a new city wall, strengthened with towers. The wall was more than two m. in length. The lower sections of the circular towers which constituted the W gate of the city are still intact. It is the only one of the city’s gates excavated to date. The construction work was prob. done by local craftsmen, as it is inferior to the work on the walls of Jerusalem, where Herod did his finest building.

Only small portions of Herod’s temple to the Divine Augustus have survived for the archeologist to study. This temple was rebuilt and radically modified in pattern at a later date, perhaps in the reign of Septimius Severus. Herod’s temple had a great forecourt which was approximately square, c. 240 ft. on a side. It was enclosed by several walls.

At the S end of the forecourt a staircase ninety ft. wide which led to the temple proper was in two units, broken by a landing c. halfway up. At the foot of the staircase and on the floor of the courtyard was a massive altar. In the debris just E of the altar a large fragment of a statue of a Rom. emperor was found. Some scholars believe this was a statue of the Emperor Augustus to whom the temple was dedicated. The temple itself seems to have had a wide portico in front of the cella. The latter was forty-five ft. wide. On either side of it were narrow corridors which made the temple proper the same width as the portico. The columns used in the temple were prob. of the Corinthian order as this order was used in his other major projects. Close to the temple were some major buildings which may have been used by the temple priests.

The dates of two of the city’s monuments are uncertain. Some scholars date them to Gabinius and others to Herod the Great. One is the stadium in the valley below the city. As its columns are of the Doric order, they may be the work of Gabinius since Herod preferred the Corinthian order. The first phase of the forum is also uncertain, although most of it that is seen today is much later. Herod was a great lover of the theater and he must have had one in this city he loved so well. The colonnaded street seen in the olive orchard above the ruins today is late Rom. in date, but Herod prob. constructed at least one major street of this same type.

Herod, like Alexander the Great, settled some of his military veterans in Samaria. Josephus mentions 6,000 of them pensioned off here (Jos. Antiq. XV. viii. 5). He mentioned these troops as Galatians, Thracians, and Germans. Samaria was a cosmopolitan city with Jews, Samaritans, Greeks, Macedonians, and Romans, besides the foreign mercenaries.

Herod the Great willed Samaria to his son Archelaus, but he was such a poor ruler that Rome removed him. Samaria was then placed under the jurisdiction of the Rom. procurator whose headquarters were at Caesarea.

New Testament history.

This Herodian city was the Samaria of the NT. It is not specifically mentioned in the gospels. In Acts the city of Samaria is mentioned as the center for the work of Simon the magician (Acts 8:9). In v. 5 of the same chapter the variant readings are “the city of Samaria” and “a city of Samaria.” In v. 14, however, “the city” seems more likely, as the apostles did their crucial doctrinal work in cities. There is a strong tradition that John the Baptist was buried at Samaria, but there is no proof. Two early churches here honor him.

When the Jews revolted against Rome, Samaria was one of the first cities to suffer. The Jews captured and sacked it in a.d. 66 in the first months of the revolt. The city, however, must have made a good comeback, for there is a fragmentary inscr. of Vespasian which would favor such a view. Neither written records nor archeological data throw much light on Samaria in the closing days of the NT.

The peak period of Samaria’s greatness was from c. a.d. 180-230. Most of the city’s Rom. ruins visible today belong to that period.

For the territory of Samaria, see Territory of Samaria. For the Samaritan people, see Samaritans.


G. A. Reisner, C. S. Fisher, and D. G. Lyon, Harvard Excavations at Samaria (1924); J. W. Crowfoot, K. M. Kenyon and E. L. Sukenik, The Buildings at Samaria (1924); J. W. and G. M. Crowfoot and K. M. Kenyon, The Objects from Samaria (1957); A. Parrot, Samaria, the Capital of the Kingdom of Israel (1958).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

sa-ma’-ri-a, (shomeron; Samareia, Semeron, and other forms):

Toward the western edge of the Ephraimite uplands there is a broad fertile hollow called Wady esh-Sha`ir, "valley of barley." From the midst of it rises an oblong hill to a height of over 300 ft., with a level top. The sides are steep, especially to the Samaria. The greatest length is from East to West. The surrounding mountains on three sides are much higher, and are well clad with olives and vineyards. To the West the hills are lower, and from the crest a wide view is obtained over the Plain of Sharon, with the yellow ribbon of sand that marks the coast line, and the white foam on the tumbling billows; while away beyond stretch the blue waters of the Mediterranean. On the eastern end of the hill, surrounded by olive and cactus, is the modern village of Sebastiyeh, under which a low neck of land connects the hill with the eastern slopes. The position is one of great charm and beauty; and in days of ancient warfare it was one of remarkable strength. While it was overlooked from three sides, the battlements crowning the steep slopes were too far off to be reached by missiles from the only artillery known in those times--the sling and the catapult. For besiegers to attempt an assault at arms was only to court disaster. The methods adopted by her enemies show that they relied on famine to do their work for them (2Ki 6:24 f, etc.). Omri displayed excellent taste and good judgment in the choice he made.

The city wall can be traced in almost its entire length. Recent excavations conducted by American archaeologists have uncovered the foundations of Omri’s palace, with remains of the work of Ahab and of Herod (probably here was Ahab’s ivory palace), on the western end of the hill, while on the western slope the gigantic gateway, flanked by massive towers, has been exposed to view.

Under pressure of Damascus Omri conceded to the Syrians the right to "make streets in Samaria" (1Ki 20:34).

Ben-hadad II besieged the city, but suffered ignominious defeat (1Ki 20:1-21; Josephus, Ant, VIII, xiv, 1 f). Persistent attempts by the Syrians to reach the city in the time of Jehoram were frustrated by Elisha (2Ki 6:8 ; Josephus, Ant, IX, iv, 3). At length, however, Ben-hadad again invested the city, and the besieged were reduced to dire straits, in which, urged by famine, scenes of awful horror were enacted (2Ki 6:24 ). A mysterious panic seized the Syrians. Their deserted camp was discovered by despairing lepers who carried the good news to the famished citizens of the plenty to be found there. Probably in the throat of the great western gateway occurred the crush in which the incredulous captain was trampled to death (1 Kings 7; Josephus, Ant, IX, iv, 5).

It is commonly thought that this city was the scene of Philip’s preaching and the events that followed recorded in Ac 8, but the absence of the definite article in 8:5 makes this doubtful. A Roman colony was settled here by Septimius Severus. From that time little is known of the history of the city; nor do we know to what the final castastrophe was due. It became the seat of a bishopric and was represented in the councils of Nicea, Constantinople and Chalcedon. Its bishop attended the Synod of Jerusalem in 536 AD.

The Church of John, a Crusading structure beside the modern village, is now a Moslem mosque. It is the traditional burying-place of John the Baptist’s body.

(2) he Samareia: A town mentioned in 1 Macc 5:66 as on the route followed by Judas from the district of Hebron to the land of the Philistines. The name is probably a clerical error. The margin reads Marisa, and probably the place intended is Mareshah, the site of which is at Tell Sandachannah, about a mile South of Belt Jibrin.