Samaria -- Watchtower
Samaria lies a few miles to the northwest of Shechem in Israel. Samaria, or Shomron, means something like “watchtower,” and this is very evident when you stand upon the hill. Omri purchased this hill from its owner, Shemer, for two talents of silver, and then built a new capital at Samaria in about 876 BC. The new city had the advantage of easy access to the Phoenician coastal cities, which played a large part in the life of King Ahab.
Samaria – An Ancient Israelite City
Samaria is unique in that it is the only known major city that was founded by the Israelites, and so its earliest strata is easily identified as Iron Age II (9th century) Israelite. Because Samaria was built of stone instead of mud brick, much of the ancient buildings were reused in later construction, leaving little of the ancient Israelite city intact.
A royal citadel was found on the summit of the hill constructed of fine ashlar masonry (1 Kings 16:24). At a Samaria section named Building Period I appears to be the citadel built by Omri, while Building Period II appears to be a later expansion, possibly under Ahab. The Old Testament claims that six kings were buried in Samaria: Omri, Ahab, Jehu, Jehoaz, Joash, and Jeroboam II. During excavations, two tombs were discovered under the Omride palace at Samaria. Tomb A was made at the same time that the palace was built, while Tomb B was made either at the same time or slightly later. It has been recently suggested that these tombs were built for Omri and Ahab. Omri and Ahab were both famous and powerful kings of the Northern Israelite Kingdom. Both are mentioned on steles and inscriptions of foreign powers. For example, the Mesha Stele (or Moabite Stone) records Omri and his conquest and submission of Moab (cf. 2 Kings 3:5), while the Khurk Stele records the contribution of Ahab’s army in the battle of Qarqar.
Samaria – The Ivory House
At Samaria, Ahab expanded the palace and decorated it with ivory (1 Kings 22:39). Excavations revealed many ivory items from Ahab’s palace in a building dubbed “the ivory house,” where many fragments of carved ivory plaques were found. These are often called the “Samaria Ivories.”
A group of 64 ostraca inscribed in archaic Hebrew, found in the treasury of Ahab’s palace, probably date to the reign of Jeroboam II (ca. 785-753 B.C.), or Menahem (752-742 B.C.). The ostraca appear to be receipts of goods such as wine and oil, and many being with the line “In the xxx year,” presumably of a king’s reign, and include the names of the taxpayers and royal officials. Some scholars argue that the numbers on the ostraca only bear the regnal year numbers 9 and 10, and since Menahem ruled only 10 years and heavily taxed his subjects to pay the Assyrian tribute, that they date to his reign (2 Kings 15:19-20). They are significant primarily for the study of ancient Hebrew script and language, but they also contain several personal names which appear in the Old Testament.
In the Annalistic Record of Tiglath-Pileser III, the record of his conquests, Israel is called the land of the House of Omri, in reference to Omri, the first major king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and founder of the Omride dynasty. Inscriptions from his reign also mention how he spared only Samaria, overthrew King Pekah and installed Hoshea as king, and defeated and forced Menahem to pay tribute (2 Kings 15:19, 30). Later, Shalmaneser V laid siege to Samaria (723 B.C.), which held out for three years, before finally being captured by Sargon II. According to Assyrian records, Sargon conquered Samaria, among other places, and led away thousands of prisoners (2 Kings 17:3-6, 18:9-12). He established complete control over the capital city and the remainder of the Northern Kingdom, evidenced by the sudden appearance of Assyrian pottery and a fragment of an Assyrian stele of Sargon II found in Samaria. In Sargon’s palace at Khorsabad, a wall relief in Room 5 appears to depict Samaria and its defeated defenders. And, many ivories thought to be from Samaria were also discovered at the Assyrian palace at Nimrud. New inhabitants were brought in from the east (2 Kings 17:24), forming a new population. The city and the surrounding area became known as Samerina and was ruled by an Assyrian governor. The mixture of the 10 tribes of the Northern Kingdom with the Assyrian imports is thought to be the beginning of the Samaritan people, which have lived in the area, on Mount Gerzim, since that time. After the return of the Judean exiles from Babylon, apparently the Samaritans offered to help rebuild the temple but their offer was rejected and they attempted to thwart the rebuilding in retaliation (Ezra 4). Sometime following this, probably around 330 BC, the Samaritans built their own temple on Mount Gerzim and made that their holy mountain, changing necessary passages in the Torah, which are the only five books they accept. The Samaritan community, although only numbering about 700 people, still lives there, continuing to practice all of the commandments and festivals of the Samaritan Torah.
Samaria – Herod’s Sebaste
In New Testament times, Emperor Augustus gave the city of Samaria to Herod the Great in 30 BC, who renamed it Sebaste to honor the emperor (Sebaste is the Greek of Latin, Augustus). There, Herod built a temple to Augustus over the palace of Omri, a stadium, a forum, an aqueduct, and a colonnaded street running east-west. The temple to Augustus is an impressive structure which still stands today, as do many of the Roman remains. Philip the evangelist went there to preach the gospel and perform miracles, and would have walked the same streets and seen the buildings of Herod (Acts 8:5-13).