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Sussita, archaeology in Israel, conservation, history of Israel

What is Sussita?

During two weeks in July 2013 I participated in an archaeological dig on Sussita mountain.  The town that was once called Hippos – Antiochia by the Greeks and Sussita by the Jews was destroyed by an earthquake on January 18, 749 C.E.  The city was soon after abandoned, never to be rebuilt.

For over a thousand years the city has lain silent and untouched, its treasures hidden under ruins.  Although some investigations have been made on the site over the years, excavations did not start in earnest until the year 2000.  Each season of excavation brings us closer to unearthing Sussita’s history, buildings and perhaps the lives of its citizens.

Since the city was never reoccupied after its destruction and no modern construction has been done on or in the vicinity of the site and with the site being declared a national park, the urban character of the city as well as its surrounding cemeteries has remained unmarred. This makes Sussita a unique archaeological site.

Sussita: Location

On a mountain located 2 km east of the Sea of Galilee and 350 meters above that sea’s level is the site of the ancient city of Sussita – Hippos.  The mountain of Sussita is linked on its eastern side to the south western slopes of the Golan Heights by a narrow saddle ridge.

The top of the mountain is flat and diamond shaped but the town plan is rectangular.  The top of the mountain is 144 meters above sea level.  The highest point is on its eastern side and the town slopes gently to the west.

The northwestern slopes of the mountain are very steep and this is where the Ein Gev stream flows.  A more moderate stream, Sussita, flows at the foot of the southern slope of the mountain.   The western edge of the mountain slopes steeply to the sea; however, the eastern side allows an easy ascent to the mountain.

On the western side there is a snake path leading steeply up the mountain.  The ascent from the east is an easier climb.  This topography made the location a suitable place for a city.  The city enjoyed the natural protection of the mountain and the fertile fields near the lake.

By modern standards the size of the city is not large.  It is 600 meters in length from east to west and 250 meters from north to south.  Along the narrow saddle ridge which led to the Golan Heights ran the main road to the city.

The city was enclosed by a solid wall approximately 1350 meters long with two gates.  The main gate on the east faced the saddle ridge.  The gate to the west led downwards along a winding snakelike road to the shores of the lake.

Sussita, Archaeology in Israel

History of Sussita

The Land of Israel was captured by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.E.  After Alexander’s  death in 330 B.C. his empire was divided into three parts.  One part was in Macedonia,   another was in Egypt and called the Ptolemaic Empire and the third was located in Syria and called the Seleucid Empire.

At first the Land of Israel was part of the Ptolemaic Empire.  However, there were constant wars between the two empires and the land of Israel was eventually conquered by the Seleucid king.

Sussita – Hippos was originally a military stronghold at the end of the 3rd century B.C.E. However, after the conquest of the Land of Israel by the Seleucid king, the city, which was originally called Antiochia – Hippos,  was founded in the first half of the 2nd century B.C.E during the reign of Antiochos IV (175 – 164 B.C.E).

In order to strengthen their hold on the regions under their rule, the Seleucid kings founded new cities to contain Greek speaking and Hellenized populations.  The Syro-Phoenician population regarded itself as the spreaders of Greek culture.

Hippos, which means horse in Greek, became a polis.  In 83 B.C.E. the city was conquered by the Hasmonean King, Alexander Janneus.  In the year 63 B.C.E Sussita – Hippos came under Roman rule after the conquest of the Land of Israel by Pompeii.

The city became one of 10 Hellenistic cities called the decapolis.  These cities included Gadara, Scythopolis (Bet Shean), Philadelphia (Amman), Dion, Canatha, Abila and Gerasa.  They were influential centers of Greek culture.

The citizens of Sussita – Hippos were proud of their Greco-Roman heritage, so much so that they began to date their city from the Pompeian era beginning from 63 B.C.E.   Although the surrounding populations were Semitic and not Greek, the Decapolis was not a league of cities.

When Augustus Caesar gave Hippos and Gadara to Herod to rule in 37 B.C.E. these cities complained that they wished to remain within the Provincia Syria.  After Herod’s death these cities reverted back to Provincia Syria.

During the years of the Pax Romana (the Roman peace) the city prospered and much of the architecture being unearthed in Sussita today dates from this time. Most of the public buildings built in Sussita were built in the period between the 1st century and the 3rd century C.E.  These were expressions of urban pride and a tribute to Rome.

Sussita – Hippos is mentioned several times in the Talmud and in the writings of Yoseph Ben Matityahu (Josephus Flavius) and it is believed that there was a small minority of Jews living in the city, despite the fact that the remains of a synagogue have yet to be found there.   During the Great Revolt in 66 C.E. Jews attacked Sussita. Sussita is mentioned several times in the Talmud as a gentile city with a Jewish minority.

During the 4th century C.E. there was a Christianization of the Roman Empire which was eventually divided into several smaller empires.  During the Byzantium Period, which lasted from the 4th to the 7th centuries C.E., Sussita-Hippos continued to prosper and eight churches were built there during this time.

During the first half of the 7th century C.E. the Land of Israel was conquered by Arab Moslems.  Although, the Arabs allowed the citizens of Sussita to continue to remain Christian, the decline of the city’s status which began during the end of the Byzantium period continued until the destruction of the city in the earthquake of January 18, 749 C.E.

Significance of Sussita

During the Roman and Byzantium times Sussita – Hippos was an important city, indeed it was the capital city of the district called Sussita.  During the Byzantium period Sussita was part of Palaestina Secunda, the northernmost of three administrative districts.

During this time most of the inhabitants of Hippos were Christian and Hippos was a Bishopric. Within the urban area of Hippos there were a number of Jewish villages.   These villages had good trade relations with the inhabitants of the city of Sussita.  However, the Jewish city of Tiberius across the lake regarded Hippos as a competitor and enemy.

During the early Arab period the Umayyad Caliphate allowed the churches to continue to thrive.  However, no new public buildings were built during this time and whatever private buildings that were built were carelessly planned and constructed. This construction marred the beauty of the original city which was destroyed in the earthquake of 749 when Sussita was abandoned and never rebuilt.

It is important to note that Sussita, which is the Aramaic word for horse, was considered by the Jewish population as part of the biblical land of Israel.  The borders of the district of Sussita were the Golan Heights in the north, the district of Gamla in the east, the Sea of Galilee in the west and the Yarmuch River until Chamat Gader in the south.

There are a number of sources which show that the Jews believed that Sussita and its whole district were part of the land of Israel and therefore anyone living there was bound to fulfill commandments (mitzvot) that are only performed within the boundaries of the Land of Israel.

One such source is the Rehov Mosaic which shows the boundaries of Israel as settled by Jews returning from Babylon.  The Rehov Mosaic states that in areas within those boundaries Jews must give a tithe and uphold shmita laws.  These are two mitzvot that are required only of Jews living within the boundaries of the Land of Israel.

Bet Shean and Caesarea were not included in this but Hippos was.  Years later, after the destruction of the second temple, Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi passed a decision concerning the gentile cities in the Land of Israel.  These cities included Caesarea, Ashkelon, Akko, Bet Shean and Sussita.  Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi decided that although those cities are exempt from the tithe and shmita laws they are still within the boundaries of the Land of Israel.  The reason they were exempt from the tithe and shmita was to encourage Jews, who were a minority at this time in the land, to settle in these cities and to encourage other Jews who already lived there to continue to do so.  Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi felt it was important to make sure that there would be strong Jewish communities in these cities.

The Town Plan, Major Buildings and Monuments of Sussita

The shape and plan of the city conform to the natural contour of the mountain.  The city walls follow the line of the natural cliffs surrounding the top of the mountain and are 1550 meters long.  There are two main gates, one in the east and one in the west.

The urban plan is orthogonal where the streets intersect at right angles and they enclose rectangular or square areas (insulae) like modern city blocks where public and residential quarters are built. The city walls are built of basalt ashlars and at irregular intervals there were square towers.

The construction of the city began during the Hellenistic period during the 2nd century B.C.E.  From this period onwards the walls were repaired and rebuilt many times using materials from other buildings in secondary use.

Between the two gates runs a colonnaded street paved with basalt flagstones.  This is the decumanus maximus, the main street of the cityOn either side of the eastern gate were two towers.  Hardly anything remains of the north tower although some parts of the south tower still remain.

It is clearly visible that the south tower was round and the size of it can be computed as having been 8 meters in diameter and 3 stories high.  This gate is built of basalt ashlars and conforms to the style of such edifices built during the Hellenistic times.  The gate is dated to the 1st century B.C.E.

The decumanus maximus, which runs from east to west had columns on the north and south sides.  It is stopped at midpoint at the forum.  There are two cardines running north to south that intersect at right angles with the decumanus maximus.

The decumanus maximus, the cardines and the forum are paved with basalt flagstones.  On either side of the decumanus maximus were monolithic columns of gray granite imported from Aswan, Egypt.  The columns are 4.6 meters high with a base of 0.6 meters, weighing approximately 3.7 tons.  The columns are mounted on attic bases with Corinthian capitals of white marble.

Sussita, Archaeology in Israel

Decumanus Maximus

The forum is in the center of Sussita.  It is 42m x 42m and is paved with rectangular basalt flagstones. On the southern side of the forum, stairs lead to an underground water reservoir roofed by a barrel vault.  On the south, east and north sides of the forum were colonnades arranged in the form of a U.  The columns are of gray granite with Corinthian capitals and an attic base of white marble and there were also columns on pedestals of limestone.

On the west side of the forum are two structures.  One is the Kalybe, a temple for the imperial cult with its semicircular niche facing the forum.  Presumably a statue would have stood in this niche.   The roof, which is not in good condition, would have been a half dome.

North of this was another building of which nothing remains except a decorative gate between the west side of the forum and the decumanus maximus.  A similar gate appears at the western end of the decumanus maximus.   There is a bath house complex on the east of the forum.

North of the forum is a wall made of several rows of basalt ashlars set in headers and stretchers.  This method of construction is typical of the Hellenistic period and this is one of the only remnants of the Hellenistic period found in Sussita.  This was a Hellenistic temple or temenos.

Sussita, Archaeology in Israe.

Foundation of Greek Temenos

During the Roman period (1st century B.C.E.) a Roman temple was built over the Hellenistic temple. On top of this is a row of huge limestone ashlars of the northwest church.  There are more remains of the Roman temple such as a stairway and a podium and these items were used by the northwest church.

The erection of a church on this very spot is a symbol of the victory of Christianity over paganism.  The existence of the decumanus maximus, the cardines, the forum and the water supply system shows us that the urban plan of Sussita was determined during the early Roman period and not the Hellenistic period.

It is assumed that Antiochia – Hippos was founded during the Seleucid rule as an administrative center with a small fortress and sanctuary.  The road that led from the east to the sanctuary became the decumanus maximus of the Roman period.  The urban plan of Sussita resembled that of Gadara and other cities of the decapolis.  An Odeon or small theatre from the Roman period was also unearthed at Sussita, as well as a cathedral and seven other churches.

The people of Sussita were proud of their Greek culture and their form of government but the major architecture was the architecture of imperial Rome. It is important to note that the town has a cemetery, necropolis, located on the southeast side of the saddle ridge and an aqueduct that transported water from the Golan Heights.

Discovering Sussita

In 1885 the German researcher, Gottlieb Schumacher, conducted a detailed survey of Hippos in which the street network and some of the public buildings were identified.   In the 1930’s Hippos was further explored by setters of Kibbutz Ein Gev.  Between 1950 and 1955 formal excavations were carried out by Claire Epstein.

At this time the IDF built two buildings on the site for military use.  During the construction of the southern building the Cathedral south of the decumanus maximus was unearthed.   This is one of eight churches unearthed in Sussita. Avi Yonah conducted an archaeological survey in 1951 and further surveys were conducted on behalf of the Israel Antiquity Authority in 1952. These surveys revealed more buildings from the Byzantium period.

In the 1990’s a team of Israeli and German researchers studied the city’s water supply system. For the past 13 years excavations have been carried out by archaeologists from the Zinman Institute of Archaeology of the University of Haifa, headed first by Arthur Segal and then Michael Eisenberg, the Department of Archaeology of the University of Warsaw led by Jolanta Mlynarczyk and Marius Burdajewicz of the National Museum of Warsaw and from Concordia University of St. Paul, Minnesota, led by Mark Schuler.

In November 2004 M.Heizelman and R. Rosenbauer conducted a survey on behalf of the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology in Jerusalem and created a partial reconstruction of the street network in the southwestern part of the city. During the first five excavation seasons at Sussita, the teams of researchers worked on excavations of the Hellenistic Compound, the Northwest Church, the Northeast Church, the Assembly Hall, the Eastern Gate, the Forum, the remains of the Chalcholithic period, the Southeast Residential Quarter and the Decumanus Maximus.

During the 2005 excavation season work was continued on the Hellenistic Compound, the Northwest Church, the Northeast Church, the Decumanus Maximus, and new excavations were begun on the South Wall.

During the following three seasons work was continued on the Hellenistic Compound, the Northwest Church, the Northeast Church, the Decumanus Maximus, and excavations were started on the Area East of the Hellenistic Compound, the area above the East City ate, the Southwest Church, the South City Wall, the Bathhouse adjacent to the South Wall.

In 2009 and 2010 excavations commenced on the Odeion, the public building west of the Forum, the Northeast Insulae, the Tal fortress and the Basilica (which was previously called the area east of the Hellenistic Compound).

I participated in the 14th season of excavations in July 2013 within the framework of my studies at the Department for Conservation Studies at the Western Galilee College in Acre.

What I Conserved

From July 15, 2013 until July 25, 2013 I worked on the south eastern side of the central portal leading into the basilica together with my fellow classmate, Shira Aharoni.

Location of the Basilica of Sussita

This portal is located north of the decumanus maximus.  On the north eastern side of the forum, just before the decumanus maximus meets the forum is a mosaic floor and then two stairs of basalt flagstones leading up to a space, also paved with basalt flagstones.  At the northern side of this space is a portal that leads to a basilica structure that is located beyond the portal.

This portal is one of three entranceways into the basilica arranged in symmetrical order on the southern wall of the basilica.  This portal is the middle and widest entranceway into the basilica from the southern side.  The southern wall of the basilica faces the forum and decumanus maximus.  The basilica is located in the center of Sussita just north of the forum.



Discovery and Excavation of Sussita’s Basilica

The basilica was previously called “the area east of the Hellenistic compound”. During the eighth and ninth excavation seasons the area south of the southern wall of the Hellenistic compound was excavated.  Ovens were found here as described below.

In addition to this a large square south of the wall and next to an area of rooms built during the Byzantium and Umayyad periods which was discovered during the seventh season of excavations was further excavated. This area turned out to be the area that leads to one of the portals of what was to be recognized as the basilica structure.

In the sixth season of excavation a podium was discovered.  In the ninth season of excavation three more podiums were discovered.  It was unclear what this area was and the researchers thought that perhaps these podiums were part of an archway.

However, in the tenth season of excavations, after clearing the area with a tractor it was discovered that these pedestals were part of a series of pedestals that supported the columns of a large building of a basilica like structure.  More columns were discovered on the site at this time.

The basilica was erected to the east and immediately adjoining the Hellenistic compound.  The western wall of the basilica is the eastern wall of the Hellenistic compound.  The southern wall of the basilica was a continuation towards the east of the south wall of the Hellenistic compound.

The basilica is built of ashlars and measures 55mx30m.   A few sections of the basilica were exposed during previous seasons, but not until the 10th season was it identified as a basilica structure.  During the 11th season of excavations the southeast and northeast areas of the basilica were excavated.  The portal wall that I conserved is located in the southeastern part of the basilica.  During the 11th season of excavations the southern aisle (south of and adjacent to the south wall) was excavated.

On the south side of the southern wall of the basilica there was an industrial area which contained six large baking ovens dating from the end of the Byzantium period to the early Umayyad period.  They were set up over the flagstones of the plaza extending to the south and parallel to the south wall of the basilica.

The ovens were removed to reveal the paved area that extends opposite to the main entranceway in the south wall of the basilica.  The paving did not survive in front of the two other walls and was dismantled when the basilica was no longer in use and the area south of the basilica and of the Hellenistic compound became an industrial site.

To the east of the central portal a passageway was exposed on a northwest axis that connected the decumanus maximus with the building complex to the north.  The southern passageway to this street was marked by an arch composed of various architectural items originating from buildings of the Roman and Byzantium periods.

This passageway or cardo led north from the decumanus maximus and forum in the area of the Umayyad buildings. To the west of this area and south of the basilica a plaza paved with a mosaic floor was exposed in the 2008 excavations.  This mosaic floor was bordered on the south by the decumanus maximus and in the north by two steps built of basalt ashlars.

There was a carelessly built wall from east to west (from the Byzantium or Umayyad periods) over these steps but in the 2012 excavations this wall was removed.   From the steps to the central entrance of the basilica is a floor paved with rectangular basalt flagstones.   The level of the mosaic floor is 0.40 meter lower than the level of the paved wall adjacent to the southern wall.

The paved section that was exposed opposite the central doorway indicates that there was a plaza extending parallel to the outer south side of the southern wall of the basilica, measuring 5meter width on a north south axis and probably as long as the wall itself.   The mosaic floor was built later but before the destruction of the basilica in the earthquake of 749 C.E.

The central doorway is 5.70 meters wide and the two narrower doorways are 3 meters wide.  These three doorways or portals were uncovered during the 2010 excavations.  The excavation of the southern aisles was executed during the 2006 season and every season after that.

Sussita, Archaeology in Israel, History of Israel

The Basilica’s Portal

The Basilica

A basilica is a large and roofed public building.  It is rectangular in shape and the entrance is usually set in one of its two long walls (a broad room structure). The interior is usually divided by four colonnades ranged parallel to the four walls of the building, creating a central nave and four aisles.  Usually one of the long walls faces the forum.

This building served as an alternative to the open forum on rainy days, a meeting place, a courthouse and a place to conduct other public activities. The basilica in Hippos dates back to the end of the 1st century B.C.E. or early 2nd century B.C.E.

It is rectangular and lies on a north-south axis.  The basilica in Hippos is unique in that its entranceway is from the shorter and not the longer side.  The only other known basilica structure with the entrance in the short wall is the one discovered in Pompeii.

The basilica in Sussita has three doorways on its southern wall facing the forum with four colonnades ranged parallel to the four walls which create a central aisle (nave) and aisles on both sides. The inner side wall is decorated with pilasters of stucco, each of them facing one of the colonnade columns.

The interior of the basilica was painted in strong shades of green, blue, red and orange.  Many architectural items were found in situ such as column drums, Corinthian capitals, friezes and bases.  The walls, columns and capitals were made of basalt but there were also items of marble.

The word basilica is derived from the Greek word Basileus which means king.  It is a Roman building erected in towns at government expense by the king for public use.  It is an edifice that builders were familiar with and it was inexpensive and relatively quick to build.

The Original Technique of Execution

The central threshold and doorposts of the central doorway was found in ruins.  On the outer side of the central doorway the floor was paved with basalt flagstones except in the corner near the center of the doorway.  Here the flagstones were removed and in its place a round oven was installed, similar to the six ovens found to the east of it.

The east wall was built of three courses of solid basalt ashlars 1 meter wide and 2 courses of limestone ashlars.  The construction of the lower part of the wall was executed in the opus quadratum method typical of buildings of the Roman period.  The lower basalt ashlars were laid with a band of mortar but the lime ashlars were held in place with small stones and mortar.  Chips of basalt were used to support the lime ashlars and fill in gaps.  A similar wall was built on the other side (western) of the central entrance.  The height of the wall that we worked on was at its highest point 2.50 meters.

The State of Conservation

The limestone ashlars became loose and unstable.  The limestone was very eroded, crumbly and worn.  The original mortar had disintegrated.  There were gaps between the stones filled with loose earth.  Some ashlars were resting on dirt and appeared to be on the verge of falling.

The Reasons for Conservation

The upper part of the wall was unstable and continued to disintegrate.  There was a clear danger that the winter rains would exacerbate the situation, causing further damage to the wall.  Unstable walls pose a danger to visitors to the site.   The wall is an important part of the Roman era basilica and therefore has a high scientific value for the site and for this reason as well it was worthy of conservation.

Applied Treatments

The treatment had to be carried out in stages due to the instability of the wall.  The treatments were applied from the lower portions of the wall, just above the top row of basalt ashlars where the limestone ashlars begin to the top of the wall.  We especially worked on the middle or internal part of the wall and filled it in, thereby strengthening the entire wall.

At each stage of work on the wall we first cleaned all the dirt from between the lime ashlars with several size paint brushes and broom heads.  After this was done water was poured over the ashlars and the empty spaces to clean the area further.

Gaps were filled by basalt chips found on the site.  The chips were first soaked in water and then fitted into gaps between the ashlars and held in place by a lime based mortar prepared from natural hydraulic lime 3.5  produced by Lafarge and sand.  This mortar was mixed by Shira Aharoni and myself at a ratio of 1 part hydraulic lime to four parts of fillers (2 parts of medium sized aggregate and 2 parts of fine aggregate).

When preparing this mixture, we first mixed the dry ingredients making sure the resulting powder was without lumps.  We then slowly added water to the dry mix using a shpachtel and then our hands to mix in the water until we got a smooth mortar base.

The mortar was applied by hand to the wet surface of gaps that had been brushed clean and the wet basalt chips were inserted into place and then surrounded with more mortar.  All small cracks between the chips, mortar and larger ashlars were filled by shaping the mortar with our hands and pressing it into the small remaining cracks and then applying more water to the area of the small cracks with the tip of a wet paint brush.  In order to give the newly applied mortar a more natural appearance, earth was spread over the area.

In the course of this work two large limestone ashlars that were situated at the top of the wall were dislodged and fell, nearly injuring both Shira Aharoni and myself.  These ashlars were removed and set aside.

The area where they stood was cleaned with the use of brushes and broom heads and then water.  The wall was built up again with basalt chips and mortar in the method set out above especially in the interior part of the wall.

In this way the wall was strengthened and its width leveled out until the two large fallen limestone ashlars were returned to their original places and bound in place by mortar and basalt chips in the same manner as set out above.

In addition, the corner southern side of the wall was filled with mortar and basalt chips as well after being cleaned of loose dirt with the use of brushes broom heads and water.  In this place, on the floor next to the wall was the remnants of an oven built in the Omayyad period.  This was removed by us with the use of a pick axe revealing the floor in the corner of the wall which was not paved by basalt flagstones like the rest of the floor in front of the central doorway.

At a 90 degree angle with the wall we worked on was the wall which was the western side of the Umayyid Period buildings, situated to the south east of the basilica.  We did not work on this part of the wall.

After completion of this work the portion of the wall that we worked on is stronger and looks cleaner and more organized than it did before.

Sussita, Conservation

Basilica Wall After Conservation


As the excavation seasons unfold it is clear that Sussita-Hippos was an important polis at the time of its existence.  It was first built as a military outpost by the Seleucids during the first half of the 2nd century B.C.E. and it became a polis, and one of the Decapolis that existed in the region. Since I was there, more has been discovered.

The city was destroyed during an earthquake on January 18, 749, never to be rebuilt.  Sussita is therefore an important multi level archaeological site which teaches us much about the history, architecture, and town planning of Hellenistic and Roman cities in the land of Israel of that time.

Although, it was not a Jewish city, there were Jews there who played the important role of living in all parts of  the land of Israel. For this reason they were given exemptions from certain mitzvot as a way of encouraging more Jews to settle in these cities. This way the Jewish presence in the land continued to exist through the ages.

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