Geographical and Historical Background
The ancient city of Hippos-Sussita is located on the east shore of the Sea of Galilee, on the top of a flat, diamond shaped mountain, 350 m above the lake. City and mountain are almost entirely isolated from their surroundings, with just a narrow 'saddle' bridge leading towards the western slopes of the Golan Heights.
The ancient city moulded itself to the contours of the mountain, giving Hippos a rectangular shape. Its length from east to west was about 650 m and its maximum width from north to south about 170 m. The entire city was surrounded by an imposing fortification wall.
Sussita, or as it was known by its Greek name, Antiochia-Hippos, was founded after 200 BC, when the Seleucids seized the Land of Israel from the Ptolemies. During the Roman Period Hippos belonged to the Decapolis, a group of ten cities which were regarded as centers of Greek culture in an area predominantly populated by Semitic peoples such as Jews, Aramaeans, Ituraeans, and Nabataeans.
The oldest and most reliable historical source on the Decapolis is Pliny the Elder (c. CE 23-79) who, in the Naturalis Historia, reported that near Judaea in the direction of Syria extends the Regio Decapolitana, so called because of the number of cities it contained: Philadelphia (modern Amman), Raphana, Scythopolis, Gadara, Hippos, Dion, Pella, Gerasa, Kanawat, and Abila. The concept of the Decapolis is associated in the minds of historians with the 'new order' that Pompey installed along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean after the fall of the Seleucid Empire in 63 BC and after the liberation of the cities from Hasmonaean rule.
The cities of the Decapolis had much in common. Most were founded during the Hellenistic period and were given the encouragement and support of the Seleucid kings, who saw them as a counterweight to the kingdoms that lay to the west (the Hasmonaean Kingdom of Judaea) and to the east (the Nabataean kingdom). Most of the population in the cities was Hellenised and the citizens saw themselves as citizens of a polis in every respect.
From the days of Pompey the cities were part of Provincia Syria. Yet the Roman authorities did not hesitate to transfer (although temporally) Hippos and Gadara to the area ruled by Herod the Great. After the annexation of the Nabataean kingdom by the Romans in CE 106, the Decapolis region was included in Provincia Arabia that more or less extended over the former Nabataean kingdom. From then onward, the residents of the Decapolis were subject to the governor of the new province who was stationed in Bosra.
In the Jerusalem Talmud, and in other Jewish Halakhic literature, Hippos was considered to have a mainly non-Jewish population. Despite the trade connections between Hippos and the Jews dispersed in the towns and villages along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and the nearby Golan Heights, Hippos was regarded as the sworn enemy of Jewish Tiberias.
By the 4th century CE, the majority of residents in the city were probably Christian, since it was the seat of an episcopate, and at least five churches were built there, within the see of Palaestina Secunda. Hippos continued to exist and prosper until the mid-8th century when the city was destroyed by the catastrophic earthquake of CE 749, never again to be resettled.
The Modern Research
Remains of Hippos-Sussita, known in Arabic as Kulat el-Husn, have been known since 1883, when Gottlieb Shumacher visited the site. Following the construction of a military post by the Israel Defence Forces in 1951, limited rescue excavations were carried out by the Israeli Department of Antiquities until 1955. In 1964 Sussita Mt. was declared a National Park and in 2004 the area around it including the site itself, were declared a National Reserve. Following an archaeological survey conducted in 1999, it was decided to embark on a large-scale scientific project of excavations and in july 2009 the tenth season of excacvation was conducted.
The research of Hippos-Sussita is an international project. The first ten seasons (2000-2009) were an Israeli-Polish-American project collaboration
co-directed by: Professor Arthur Segal and Dr. Michael Eisenberg from the Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa; Professor Jolanta
Mlynarczyk from the Research Centre for Mediterranean Archaeology, Polish Academy of Sciences; Dr. Mariusz Burdajewicz of the National Museum,
Warsaw and Professor Mark Schuler from Concordia University, St. Paul, USA.
In summer 2010 the Israeli-American team continued the excavations in the Roman basilica, odeion, north insula, domestic quarters, southern bathhouse and Tal Fortress.
As from 2012 a new session of excavations began, directed by Dr. Michael Eisenberg on behalf of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology. Prof. Mark Schuler, head of the University of Concordia team, continue to unearth the North Insula.
The objective of the expedition is to uncover the entire ancient city, the street network, the main public
secular and religious buildings, as well as the domestic quarters. We also hope to survey and excavate the two necropoleis located to
the south and the south-east of the city. The relationship between the city and the surrounding countryside will also be examined in future
seasons, especially the area stretching between the city and the lake. Further, we plan to conduct a detailed survey of the lake's shore to
establish the exact location of Hippos' port.
Hippos' Ancient Plan
The main colonnaded street of Hippos, the decumanus maximus, traverses the city along its full 650m length on an east-west axis. At the center of the city is a broad, rectangular-shaped forum paved with carefully laid flagstones, underlying which is an underground water reservoir roofed by an impressive and perfectly preserved barrel vault. The forum is bordered to the west by a monumental structure built of basalt ashlars. In the centre of its main facade, facing the forum, is a semi-circular apse, originally roofed by a half dome. This structure has been identified as a kalybe, a temple dedicated to the Imperial cult and dated to the second or the beginning of the 3rd century CE. The forum was surrounded on its three sides by porticoes of grey granite columns set on white marble bases and surmounted with beautifully executed Corinthian Capitals. On the eastern side of the forum is a bathhouse, while the temenos of a Hellenistic sanctuary lies to the north.
The sanctity of the site was retained for a very long time by temples of both the Hellenistic and Roman periods being built within it. The Hellenistic sanctuary is bounded on its western and southern sides by an imposing, beautifully built wall, of which about 40m length has been exposed. The basalt ashlars have protruding bosses and roughly dressed margins, which give the impression of order and unity. It is clear that this extensive sanctuary continued to fulfill its original religious function into the Roman period. During the Byzantine period the North-West Church was erected over the remains of the pagan structures, one of seven churches built during this period. This was a deliberately symbolic gesture signifying the victory of Christianity over Paganism.
Hippos-Sussita, like other cities of the Decapolis, was surrounded by a
massive fortification wall, whose courses are still visible today in some segments. The Roman period wall combines superb craftsmanship; its ashlars are
beautifully dressed with smooth bosses and delicate margins and were laid with great accuracy in uniform layers of opus quadratum.
About the middle of the southern cliff a Roman period bastion was unearthed. It is 45 m long based on series of 1.8 m basalt beams. It is built out of five
vaults and a tower in between. The vaults were built at the edge of the cliff in order to support the upper fortifications which did not survive. It is most
likely that at least one of the vault's chambers, been excavated here, was used as a protected hangar for the defender's artillery.
The city possessed two gates, one located at the west and the other at the eastern end of the decumanus maximus. The latter has been entirely
uncovered and dates to the beginning of the Roman period (although they must have been altered and repaired many times during the Byzantine period).
The Eastern City Gate of Hippos-Sussita is located at the eastern end of the decumanus maximus, which
functioned as the main colonnaded street of the city. The Eastern City Gate was incorporated into the city wall and situated at the end of a cliff
that overlooks the saddle that links the mountain of Hippos to the
western slopes of the Golan Heights. The gate has one passageway with two towers on either side that protrude eastward
from the wall. The unique aspect of the gate is the lack of symmetry with regard to the placement of its twin towers, and their totally different plan.
The round one, which is incorporated into the city wall, created a killing field opposite the gate itself facing towards the mountain saddle and also towards
the slope to the south of it. A square tower located at the edge of the cliff, on the other hand, dominates only the narrow space near the gate's passageway.
The main public square of Roman Hippos was paved with carefully dressed basalt flagstones and was planned as a tristoon: a broadly rectangular plaza surrounded on three sides by colonnades. Fourteen column shafts of Egyptian grey granite have been found scattered across the forum's pavement, a silent testimony to the fatal earthquake which struck in CE 749. Many architectural fragments were also located amongst this deposit including bases, pedestals, and capitals made of local basalt or limestone, as well as of imported marble or granite. Local architects were obviously highly aware of the different qualities that different kinds of buildings materials offered. The most important find from the forum area is a limestone semi-circular podium, presumable meant to carry a statue of a prominent citizen of Hippos. In order to erect such a statue in the forum of a Roman city, one had to obtain the approval of the City Council (boule). This podium is thus important testimony to the character of Hippos as a true polis.
The North-West Church being excavated by the Polish team is a basilica church of about 277 square meters, and was paved with polychrome mosaic decorated with schematic floral motives, geometrical patterns, and two short Greek inscriptions. To judge by similar mosaics found in the Galilee and dated by inscriptions, the church's pavement was laid in the 580s CE. Here two reliquaries were found, indicating that this area of the church actually served as a martyrion, the cult place for a martyr.
Also completely excavated is the southern wing built parallel to the southern aisle of the church. This long hall is divided into three rooms which served as the diakonikon, a storage area for agricultural products to be consumed by priests and monks. This area proved extremely rich in finds, ranging from iron agricultural tools to bronze vessels, especially a marvelous Umayyad copper decanter that proves the church was still in use in the 8th century CE.
The North-East Church
Approximately 50m east of the North-West Church is another church, similar in plan, but smaller then its neighbor. This North-East Church is being excavated by a team from Concordia University, St Paul, Minnesota, headed by Professor Schuler. Most of the church, have been fully excavated. The chancel area in front of the apse was exposed, revealing two burials, one in a limestone sarcophagus covered with a monolithic lid. The sarcophagus contained the bones of a woman aged about 60 years old.