Samaria by Ron E. Tappy

The hill country of Ephraim—not of Judah—was the cradle of ancient Israelite civilization.  A triangle of three cities—Shechem, Tirzah, and Samaria—lay near the center of this area and served as religious and political centers. The claim on royal power, however, proved short-lived in Shechem and Tirzah. Around 884 B.C.E., King Omri of Israel purchased the family-owned estate of a man named Shemer, made it his political capital, and called the new city Samaria (Hebrew, Shomron). Throughout its existence, Samaria remained small in size—more a royal compound than a multifaceted city. In the center of the acropolis, Omri’s workers artificially extended various scarps in the bedrock to create a raised, rectangular platform (about 6,732 square meters) that rose approximately 3.5 meters above the surrounding rock. This elevated area accommodated the royal palace, a large courtyard, and smaller royal buildings. Until the fall of Israel in 721 B.C.E., Samaria remained that kingdom’s political hub. Even the surrounding region took on its name, and over 160 years later leading nations continued to refer to the city as the “House of Omri.”

What does archaeology tell us about Samaria during the time of Ahab and Jezebel?

Omri’s son, Ahab, ruled after him (circa 873–851 B.C.E.) and was one of Israel’s most powerful kings. Although Ahab and Jezebel, his Phoenician wife, became the infamous couple whom the biblical writers loved to hate, extrabiblical texts and archaeology tell the fuller story behind the grand city these powerful figures called home. Ahab expanded the size of Samaria and propelled Israel into international politics by fighting protracted wars against the kingdom of Aram, struggling for hegemony over Transjordan, and participating in an anti-Assyrian league at Qarqar. But his marriage, policies, and foreign alliances invited the biblical writers’ scorn.

The Hebrew Bible obliquely praises and criticizes the lavish royal houses purportedly constructed by Ahab. Excavators have recovered a staggering quantity of ivory objects, sculptures, wall panels, furniture trim, and glass inlays from Samaria’s summit. These items reflect Israelite, Phoenician, and Egyptian artistic motifs with some direct parallels to ivories found in the contemporaneous Assyrian capital, Nimrud. The presence of unworked tusks suggests that Samaria might even have been a production center for these carvings. The engravings seem to reflect two distinct styles—one in low relief with simple borders and backgrounds, the other in deeper relief with fewer traces of colored insets. The former group sometimes appeared so lavishly decorated with gold foil and inlays of lapis lazuli that precious little of the gleaming-white ivory actually remained visible. Such conspicuous opulence undoubtedly inflamed orthodox Yahwists like Elijah and the early writing prophets who focused on social justice and the poor.

Samaria’s wealth and importance during the peaceful and prosperous reign of Jeroboam II (793-753 B.C.E., according to E. R. Thiele) is seen in the 68 ostraca found in the “Ostraca House” that lay west of and below the palace. These ostraca (inscriptions on pottery shards) date to the early eighth century B.C.E. and record small shipments of wine and oil to the capital from clan-based communities in the surrounding countryside (including Shechem, but not the rebuilt Tirzah). Personal names attested on these shards belong either to absentee landlords temporarily residing in the royal compound of Samaria and receiving the shipments from their own local estates or to clan heads who were sending tax payments to the king. As the number of villages on the seaward slopes of the Ephraimite hill country grew, sparsely populated Samaria preserved its status as a city of the elite. It remained a “forbidden city” to local Hebrew prophets (Elijah, Amos), except for those imprisoned there (Micaiah ben Imlah).

Was Yahweh worshipped at Samaria?

Archaeologists have not found Israelite temples on Samaria’s summit, though a possible shrine lay nearly 900 meters east of the royal compound. But tantalizing scenes and inscriptions dating from the early eighth century B.C.E. have appeared far south of Samaria at Kuntillet Ajrud, an isolated caravanserai in the northern Sinai Desert operating as a state-sponsored way station (recall Elijah’s flight in 1Kgs 19:1-8) under the authority of Samaria’s kings. One graffito refers to “Yahweh of Samaria and his asherah.” Scholars debate whether “asherah/Asherah” refers to the fecund Canaanite goddess herself, to her cultic symbol (a sacred tree), or more generically to a shrine/sanctuary or goddess/consort. Whatever else this provocative inscription may imply, it seems to indicate the presence of an active cult and perhaps even a temple to Yahweh at Samaria. Though such a structure may indeed have existed there, Ahab (who gave his sons Yahwistic names: Ahaziah, “held by Yahweh,” and Jehoram/Joram, “Yahweh is exalted”) apparently also built temples or shrines to the Canaanite gods Baal and Asherah, according to the biblical text. Taken together, the biblical and extrabiblical evidence suggests a degree of religious pluralism at Samaria that would have enraged the orthodox Yahwistic establishment in Israel. In its broader world, Samaria seems to have maintained a kind of controlled syncretism, adopting elements of a variety of religious beliefs and practices. At home, its cult of Yahweh was, at best, monolatrous. The irony that the Ajrud inscription may recognize a Yahwistic temple at Samaria while the biblical writers mention only the shrines to Baal and Asherah underscores the historiography behind the Bible’s theological agenda against Samaria.

Ron E. Tappy, "Samaria", n.p. [cited 3 Dec 2022]. Online:


Ron E. Tappy

Ron E. Tappy
Professor, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary

Ron E. Tappy is the G. Albert Shoemaker Professor of Bible and Archaeology at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, the Director of the James L. Kelso Museum, and the Project Director of The Zeitah Excavations. He conducted a surface survey at Tel Zayit in 1998 and, to date, has completed nine seasons of excavation at the site, where his research focuses on the nature of borderland settlements during the Iron Age.

Samaria, the wealthy capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel, has a long and rich history attested in both the biblical text and the archaeological record.

Did you know…?

  • Samaria was the third and longest-lasting capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel.
  • Prior to Samaria’s service as capital of the northern kingdom, the small site was home to a family-owned villa that produced fine oils and wine.
  • In Hebrew, Samaria’s name is pronounced Shomron, which derives from a verbal root meaning “to guard or protect” or a nominal form meaning “watchman.”
  • Direct references to Samaria first occur in the historical books; 1-2 Kings account for 62 percent of the mentions of Samaria in the Hebrew Bible, which shows little interest in Samaria after its fall to the Assyrians in 721 B.C.E.
  • Even late in the history of the First Temple period, writers remembered Samaria as the elder sister of Jerusalem (Ezek 16:46, Ezek 23:4; compare the earlier Amos 6:1).
  • Herod the Great lavishly built up the city and called it Sebaste in honor of Emperor Augustus. (Sebaste, represents the Greek name for the Latin Augusta.)
  • The first major excavation of Samaria (by Harvard University in 1908–1910) began with a letter of personal support from President Theodore Roosevelt.
  • A late (mid-fourth century C.E.) tradition claims Samaria as the burial place of John the Baptist.
  • Both the capital city and the region over which it ruled bore the name Samaria.
  • Those who were not deported from the region during the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles came to be known as Samaritans; they built their own temple atop Mount Gerizim in the fifth century B.C.E. and adopted their own translation of the Torah (Pentateuch) as their entire biblical canon.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

The kingdom consisting of the northern Israelites tribes, which existed separately from the southern kingdom of Judah. According to the Hebrew Bible, all the tribes were part of a unified kingdom under David and Solomon, but the northern kingdom under Jeroboam I rebelled after Solomon's death (probably sometime in the late 10th century B.C.E.), establishing their independence. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to the Neo-Assyrian Empire in 722 B.C.E.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

Short written texts, generally inscribed on stone or clay and frequently recording an event or dedicating an object.

A recurring element or symbolism in artwork, literature, and other forms of expression.

An Assyrian city located on the upper Tigris River, known as Kalhu in Assyiran and Calah in the Hebrew Bible. Nimrud was the capital of the Neo-Assyiran empire for much of the ninth and eighth centuries B.C.E., and its palaces have yielded stunning archaeological artifacts.

Of or belonging to any of several branches of Christianity, especially from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, whose adherents trace their tradition back to the earliest Christian communities. Lowercase ("orthodox"), this term means conforming with the dominant, sanctioned ideas or belief system.

A city in northern Syria that was the site of a massive battle between the Neo-Assyrian king Shalmaneser III and an alliance of Northwest Semitic kings, including the king of Aram. The battle, which took place in 853 B.C.E., was a notable point in the ascendane of the Neo-Assyrian Empire.

Literally "across the Jordan," generally used to refer to the land lying immediately to the east of the Jordan River, which according to the Hebrew Bible includes some Israelite tribal territory, along with the territory of neighboring nations such as Ammon and Moab.

Prophets whose sayings and lives are depicted in the biblical books bearing their names, including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and the Twelve Minor Prophets.

Canaanite mother goddess

The supreme male divinity of Mesopotamia and Canaan.

A system of religious worship, or cultus (e.g., the Israelite cult). Also refers to adherents of that system.

the study or writing of history

An Israelite oasis in the Negev Desert, probably used as a way-station on Arabian trade routes during the period of the divided monarchy. The site is significant for an inscription found there dedicated to "Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah" and depicting a bull-like figure and a tree that many take to be representations of Yahweh and Asherah, respectively.

Characterized by the worship of one deity as chief among a pantheon of other deities. An example is the worship of Marduk as the chief deity of the Babylonian pantheon.

a site with religious significance

The blending of multiple religious traditions into one hybrid expression, faith, or practice.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Associated with the worship of Yahweh, the god of Israel and Judah.

1Kgs 19:1-8

Elijah Flees from Jezebel
1Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword.2Then Jezebel sent a messenger to E ... View more

People from the region of northern Mesopotamia that includes modern-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

An authoritative collection of texts generally accepted as scripture.

A site where older artifacts are dug up or otherwise revealed.

Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and sometimes also includes Ezra-Neh and Chronicles.

Ezek 16:46

46Your elder sister is Samaria, who lived with her daughters to the north of you; and your younger sister, who lived to the south of you, is Sodom with her daug ... View more

Ezek 23:4

4Oholah was the name of the elder and Oholibah the name of her sister. They became mine, and they bore sons and daughters. As for their names, Oholah is Samaria ... View more

Amos 6:1

Complacent Self-Indulgence Will Be Punished
1Alas for those who are at ease in Zion,
and for those who feel secure on Mount Samaria,
the notables of the first o ... View more

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