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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

    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.