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The lush beauty and fantastic archaeological finds at Zippori make this well worth a visit, especially if you have an interest in Roman culture or the beginnings of Talmudic thought. Like many places during the Roman era, Zippori—known by Latin and Greek speakers in the classical world as Sepphoris—was a prosperous city where Jews and gentiles coexisted fairly peaceably. The extensive ruins at the much-visited Zippori National Park include Israel's finest Roman-era mosaics. The ancient city, situated on a high ridge with commanding views, can be visited in two hours. The key sites are relatively close together.
Zippori's multiple narratives begin with a Jewish town that stood here from at least the 1st century BC. Christian tradition reveres the town as the birthplace of the Virgin Mary. Zippori's refusal to join the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans (AD 66-73) left a serious gap in the rebel defenses in the Galilee, angering its compatriots but sparing the town the usual Roman vengeance when the uprising failed. The real significance of Zippori for Jewish tradition, however, is that in the late 2nd or early 3rd century AD, the legendary sage Rabbi Yehuda ha-Nasi, head of the country's Jewish community at the time, moved here from Beit She'arim, whereupon the Sanhedrin (the Jewish high court) soon followed. Rabbi Yehuda summoned the greatest rabbis in the land to pool their experience. The result was the encyclopedic work known as the Mishnah. Further commentary was added in later centuries to produce the Talmud, the primary guide to Orthodox Jewish practice to this day.
Zippori also had a cosmopolitan sou and by the 3rd century AD, it had acquired a mixed population of Jews, pagans, and Christians. The most celebrated find on the site is the mosaic floor of a Roman villa, perhaps the governor's residence, depicting a series of Dionysian drinking scenes. Its most stunning detail is the exquisite face of a woman, by far the finest mosaic ever discovered in Israel, which the media dubbed "the Mona Lisa of the Galilee." The restored mosaics are housed in an air-conditioned structure with helpful explanations. In other parts of the park, the so-called Nile Mosaic displays Egyptian motifs, and a mosaic synagogue floor (below the parking lot) is decorated with the signs of the zodiac, like those found in Beit Alfa and Hammat Tiberias.
If the mosaic floors bespeak the opulence of Roman Sepphoris, the relatively small Roman theater is mute evidence of the cultural life the wealth could support. Take a few minutes to climb the watchtower of Dahr al-Omar's 18th-century castle for the panoramic view and the museum of archaeological artifacts. About 1 km (½ mi) east of the main site—near the park entrance—is a huge section of ancient Zippori's water system, once fed by springs just north of Nazareth. The ancient aqueduct-reservoir is in fact a deep, man-made, plastered canyon, and the effect is extraordinary.
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