The Israeli government has pledged A$13 million for the restoration and development of a long-neglected archaeological site that has been identified by both Christians and Muslims as the burial place of John The Baptist.
It’s not far from the West Bank city of Nablus which was once the Biblical city of Shechem, beside the Palestinian village of Sebastia.
The site used to be known as Shomron and Samaria when it was the capital of the northern Israelite kingdom around 700-900 BC before being destroyed by the Assyrians. Israelis still refer to the northern West Bank as Samaria.
Sebastia which was named by Herod the Great in honour of Emperor Augustus, is believed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited places in the West Bank.
Evidence that it was once a major city and trading centre can be seen in the ruins of its Roman theatre, temple, palaces, forum, hippodrome and marketplace that are still visible today.
John the Baptist’s purported grave is part of the Nabi Yahya Mosque in the centre of the village. It’s built on the site of a Byzantine church and a Crusader cathedral.
The Times of Israel reports that despite its historical significance, the site has barely been excavated.
The news outlet writes that Israeli government ministers claim the Palestinian Authority is trying to illegally take control of the largely forgotten archaeological site while “severely damaging the antiquities at the site.”
The government funding would go towards a tourism centre at the site as well as new roads, new mapping and extra security to prevent illegal activity.
Visits to the site by Israeli tourists are restricted.