Why was Samaria made the capital of the Kingdom of Israel?
By Norma Franklin
The Zinman Institute of Archaeology
University of Haifa
According to the biblical narrative the northern Kingdom of Israel was founded circa 930 BCE, following the fragmentation of the United Monarchy, which was based in Jerusalem. However, a permanent site for the northern kingdom's capital was chosen only circa 880 BCE, by Omri, its 7th king and the founder of a new dynasty.
The story of Omri's purchase of a suitable site and naming it Samaria (Shomron) after Shemer the previous owner is related in I Kings 16:24.
He bought the hill of Samaria from Shemer for two talents of silver and built a city on the hill, calling it Samaria, after Shemer, the name of the former owner of the hill.
But why did Omri choose the hilltop site of Samaria (Shomron) as his capital? It was not easily accessible, perched as it was atop a hill ca 400 meters above sea level and located deep in the mountainous countryside that formed the heartland of ancient Israel. Although it was served by the north-south mountainous Ridge Route (the “Way of the Patriarchs”), it was far from the Via Maris, the ancient international route, and it was south of the minor east-west route that ran through the Dothan Valley.
Why did Omri not choose an existing site, such as the traditional center at Shechem, or Tirzah, the city used as a temporary capital by his predecessor? A possible answer may be that he was the founder of a new dynasty, a usurper, and he felt that he needed to establish his powerbase somewhere free of the functionaries of the old regime. Perhaps the answer lies with the late Professor Benjamin Mazar's (1989, 215-219) suggestion that Omri had a familial connection to the eponymous Shemer and so would have viewed the hill as part of a family estate.
In fact both of these explanations may reflect a desire by Omri to emulate his powerful contemporary, Assurnasirpal, King of Assyria, who built a magnificent new capital city at Nimrud, ancient Kalhu, on the site of an ancestral domain. But were these reasons sufficient for choosing the site of Samaria as the national capital? For the answer, we must turn to archaeology.
Samaria was first excavated by the Harvard Expedition from 1908 to 1910 (Reisner et al. 1924). The excavators had wanted to reveal biblical Samaria and so they concentrated their excavation on the summit of the hill. There they exposed, amongst other monumental remains from later periods, the remnant of a magnificent building that they identified as the 9th century Iron Age “Palace of Omri.” and a slightly later casemate wall system that drastically changed the topography of the city that they designated the “Palace of Ahab.” Exposing the earliest city at Samaria is best summed up in Reisner’s own words (Reisner et al.1924, 60–61).
The identification of the Israelite buildings, once the rock was reached, was a comparatively easy matter.... The earliest building on the crest of the hill, the primary building site, was of royal size and construction, and must have been built during the early possession of the hill by the Israelite kings.... The oldest part, the core structure, was built on a pinnacle of rock made by cutting away the sides.
The next team, the Joint Expedition, excavated from 1931 to 1935, and brought together five institutions under the leadership of the director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem, J. W. Crowfoot. He accepted the earlier expedition’s findings but changed the terminology to Building Period I (instead of the “Palace of Omri”) and Building Period II (instead of the “Palace of Ahab”) (Crowfoot et al. 1942).
As the Harvard team had previously, the Joint Excavation also excavated the monumental Roman remains built during the reign of Herod the Great, who had changed the name of the city from Samaria to Sebastia to honor his patron, the Roman Emperor Augustus. whose name in Greek was Sebastos. Today the site is often referred to as Samaria-Sebaste.
But it is the earlier, pre-Omride remains that are the focus of this article. These remains consist of more than one hundred agricultural installations, the majority of which are rock-cut cisterns and preparation areas. The Harvard Expedition exposed and documented many of them but made no attempt to understand their function; the Joint Expedition incorrectly attributed those that they excavated to the early Bronze Age. Some of the early agricultural installation (those excavated by the Joint Expedition) were later reexamined by Professor Lawrence Stager and he correctly reattributed them to the early Iron Age, allocating them to a newly defined period, Building Period 0, which he dated to the 11th and 10th centuries BCE. Stager then proposed that Building Period 0 represented the estate that belonged to the biblical Shemer (I Kings 16:23-24) (Stager 1990).
When I started my analysis of the Harvard Expedition’s excavation reports and archival material relating to Samaria, I was immediately struck by the fact that there were many rock-cut agricultural installations not included in Stager’s research.
Altogether there are 36 known bottle-shaped cisterns cut into the bedrock of the summit but we know that there must be many more as 1) only a fraction of the summit was excavated down to bedrock and 2) the Joint Expedition considered it unnecessary to document all the cisterns that they excavated. Associated with these bottle-shaped cisterns there are also rock-cut presses for producing oil and rock-cut rectangular preparation areas. The largest of the rectangular installations measures over 5 m. wide ×10 m. long, and slopes from 60 cm. deep to 1 m. deep. This installation’s shallow depth and sloping floor indicate that it was probably a grape-treading area. It was well documented by the Harvard Expedition, which, despite the strategraphic impossibility, declared it to be the ‘Pool of Samaria,’ where the blood was washed from Ahab’s chariot (1 Kings 32:28). The lower rocky slopes of Samaria, although barely excavated, also provided evidence for even more rock-cut installations and bottle-shaped cisterns. Although only some of these agricultural installations had datable pottery from their period of use, stratigraphically it is clear that all of these elements originated in Building Period 0—the 11th and 10th centuries BCE—and that many of them continued in use during Building Period I.
This means that Building Period 0 agricultural domain was no small family holding but rather a major commercial enterprise comprising over 100 known bottle-shaped cisterns, and the capacity of just these known cisterns would have had an amazing circa 350,000 liters. Therefore. we can safely assume that they represent a huge agricultural concern that once belonged to Shemer. This must mean that Omri chose this rocky hill-top site as his new capital for its economic potential. There was oil " in them thar hills" and oil (olive oil) meant wealth; and what ambitious king could turn his back on such a lucrative venture? Omri’s choice of Samaria as his capital enabled him to line the state coffers and establish an economically-sound and strong powerbase from which to rule. His palace was built over a few of those installations, putting them out of action, but the vast majority continued to function during Building Period I for circa 60 years until the city was drastically altered during Building Period II (see Franklin 2004 for a revision of Building Periods I and II).
In short, the newly established capital of the northern Kingdom of Israel was not a militarily strategic site, nor was it located on any major trade route; rather it served as the hub of a highly specialized and lucrative oil and wine industry that flourished throughout southern Samaria. It must have been an important element in the kingdom’s economy and a key factor in the emergence of the fully fledged Israelite state during the Omride dynasty.
Crowfoot, J.W., Kenyon, K.M. and Sukenik, E.L. 1942 The Buildings at Samaria. (Samaria-Sebaste Reports I). Palestine Exploration Fund, London.
Franklin, N. 2004 Samaria: From the Bedrock to the Omride Palace. Levant 36: 189-202.
Mazar, B. 1989 The House of Omri. Eretz-Israel 20 (Yadin Volume) 215-219 (Hebrew).
Reisner, G.A., Fisher, C.S. and Lyons, D.G. 1924 Harvard Excavations at Samaria 1908-1910, Volume I. Text. Harvard Semitic Series (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press).
Stager, L.E. 1990 Shemer’s Estate. BASOR 277/278, 93-107.