Sebastia, as the city is known today, means 'Augustus' in Greek. This name comes from the year 27 BC, when Augustus bestowed the city to Herod the great.
However, the city was first built in 876 BC by Omri, the sixth king of Israel. Since it was located on a hill and completely isolated, it was easy to defend. King Omri transferred his residence from Terzah to what he then called Samaria, and made it his capital.
The successors of Omri, Ahad and Jeroboam II, embellished and fortified the city. Ahad, under the influence of his Phoenician wife Jezabel, built a temple there in honor of Baal. The temple was later destroyed by Jehu. But it was Jeroboam II (784-748 BC) who gave Samaria its greatest days. His long reign saw the development of a powerful aristocracy who became symbols of decadence for the prophets Hosea and Amos. Prophet Amos contrasts the miserable lives of the poor with the luxury of aristocratic houses, including their ivory couches. The prophets' predictions of Samaria were, “And I will make Samaria as a heap of stones in the field when a vineyard is planted, and I will bring down the stones thereof into the valley and will lay her foundations bare.”
In 721 BC the Assyrians, having defeated Hosea, the last king of Israel, captured the city after a three-year siege. This brought the downfall of the kingdom of Israel; the Israelites were captured and carried to Babylon and the land was peopled with Chaldeans. In 331BC, Alexander the great destroyed the city which had risen out of its ruins, as did John Hyrcanus in 108 BC.
Pompey rebuilt the town in the year 63 BC, and in the year 27 BC Augustus bestowed it upon Herod the great.
Herod did his usual first-class building job and to honor his patron, renamed the new city Sebaste, the Greek word for Augustus. In Sebaste, he celebrated one of his many marriages and saw the birth of two of his sons.
During the troubles of 64 BC, the soldiers maltreated the Jews, who revenged themselves by burning the city in 66 BC.
After the death of Christ, Philip the Deacon was the first to preach the gospel there with such success that soon Peter and John joined him in the field.
In 196, Septimus Severus imported a new population, rebuilding the public buildings. However, the city lost all of its population to nearby Nablus.
In the 4th century, Sebaste had a Christian community that boasted the fact that it possessed the tombs of St. John the Baptist and the prophets Abdias and Elisens. Although Julian the Apostate (331-63) scattered the prophets' ashes to the winds, Christians continued to venerate the tombs. The tombs were enclosed in a basilica which was destroyed by the Persians in 614, but rebuilt by the Crusaders, who placed a bishop there. In 1187 the Latin Cathedral was transformed into a mosque and the prophet Zechariah was added to the venerated tombs.
At a distance, the site appears insignificant. Only the view from the great temple on the acropolis reveals its dominating position. The surrounding hills stand at a respectful distance, and on a clear day, one can see the Mediterranean coast.
In the village of Sebaste, one can see the remains of the fine church or sanctuary of St. John the Baptist, built by Crusaders in 1165. The church was built on the ruins of a Byzantine basilica, in the crypt of which were the relics of the precursor and the relics of the prophets, Eliseus and Abdias. The only remains of the 12th century building are the apse, a few large pieces of the wall, together with a considerable portion of the western façade and a few clusters of pillars. The presbytery and the apse were transformed into a mosque called Nabi Yahya.
Among the superb vestige of Roman civilization, the following stand out: the forum, a vest area, enclosed within a strong wall and an external colonnade, the civic Basilica, a large hall divided into three naves by two rows of columns, the tribunal, the stadium, the theatre, a long colonnaded street, and a monumental city gate flanked by two towers to the west of the city.
To the south of the temple of Augustus are the ruins of the palace of Omri which Ahab had made bigger. Ostraca and Rhodian amphoras, which are pieces of pottery bearing Greek and Hebrew inscriptions, have revealed the Persian and Hellenistic quarter of the area. Seventy-five ostracas were found in 1908 in the palace of Ahab. They are shards of broken clay vessels with inscriptions in archaic characters, traced in ink. Most of them served as labels for jars of wine or for oil of the royal stores.
In 1932, a stratum with small ivory tables decorated with delicate reliefs was discovered. The stratum probably served to embellish the furniture of the ivory houses of Ahab, mentioned in the Bible. On the summit, the remains of a church built on the site of the first finding of the Precursor were found. It seems to date from the 5th century, but has since been through many transformations. In a crypt at the eastern end of the northern aisle, one can still see some frescoes representing scenes of the beheading of St. John. The ruins may not be obvious, but the strategic position of them are evident.
The Palestinian village of Sebatia today has a population of about three thousand.