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Now a small moshav, or cooperative agricultural community, the ancient city of Sepphoris dates from the era of the Maccabees in the 2nd century b.c. An enormous period of expansion and building that started in the a.d. 1st century turned the city into “the ornament of the Galilee,” according to Flavius Josephus, the famed 1st-century Romano-Jewish scholar.

With its worldly, mixed population of Hellenistic pagans and Jews, it’s interesting to speculate about the influence of Zippori on Jesus, who grew up in what was then the small village of Nazareth, a mere 6.5km (4 miles) away. According to some traditions, Zippori was the birthplace of Mary. As a city requiring the services of many skilled carpenters and builders, Zippori may have been a place often visited by Jesus; the landscapes and vistas around Zippori, unlike those of modern, urbanized Nazareth, may still resemble the countryside Jesus knew. The Crusaders built a church in Zippori, the ruins of which can still be seen, dedicated to Saint Anne and Saint Joachim, the parents of Mary. Another tradition, however, holds that although the home of Mary’s family was in Zippori, Mary was born in Jerusalem.

The Jewish community in Zippori grew rapidly after the Bar Kochba revolt of a.d. 135, when thousands of refugees from Judea migrated into the Galilee. By the late 2nd century, Zippori was the seat of the Sanhedrin and the home of many great rabbinical sages, including Yehuda Ha-Nassi, who codified the Mishnah. During the Talmudic era, the city contained numerous synagogues; in 1993, archaeologists uncovered a mosaic synagogue floor from the a.d. 5th century, decorated with an elaborate zodiac design and inscriptions in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek.

Other impressive finds in Zippori are the ruins of a 4,000-seat Roman amphitheater and a vast, late Roman–era Dionysian mosaic floor of a villa that includes the “Mona Lisa of the Galilee”, a hauntingly beautiful depiction of a young woman that is one of the greatest examples of ancient mosaic portraiture ever discovered. There is also an intricate mosaic depiction of Nile landscapes, including the famous Nilometer. In other parts of the excavations, you’ll find a Crusader fortress and church. A computer/multimedia program has been set up to help bring the site to life for visitors. By prior reservation a vehicle for those with disabilities can be ordered without charge.