The Churches of Sussita
Interim Report at the End of
Seven Excavation Seasons (2000-2006)
The seventh excavation season in Sussita ended on July 27, 2006. In spite of the hostile activities that broke out in the north of the country during the period of excavation work, the full season was maintained as planned. In this season, as in all the previous seasons, we continued to excavate two of the eight churches known to exist in the site. The Sussita excavation project is an international scientific enterprise in which the participants, besides the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa, include two institutions from abroad: The Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw and the Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. The excavation project is headed by Prof. Arthur Segal of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology, University of Haifa, and is co-directed by Prof. Jolanta Młynarczyk of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Dr. Mariusz Burdajewicz of the National Museum in Warsaw and Prof. Mark Schuler of Concordia University, St. Paul, USA.
The excavations in Sussita were organized, according to established practice, for a period of one month every year, usually July, and were conducted as a study excavation. This means that in addition to the work of excavation, conservation and reconstruction, the site was also used as a place of study for the students of archaeology at the University of Haifa preparing for their B.A. and M.A. degrees. Some of the research students, those preparing for M.A. and Ph.D. degrees also served as areas supervisors, and took active part in processing the material and preparing it for publication.
The Churches of Sussita
It is somewhat surprising that we do not know exactly how many churches are to be found in Sussita. Gottlieb Schumacher, in his survey of the city in 1885, had already clearly marked a number of churches, but we know today and the end of seven seasons of excavation of the existence of additional churches that Schumacher did not notice. So far we know for certain about four churches that have been excavated to some degree or other. These are: the South-East Church (the Cathedral), the North-West Church, the North-East Church and the South-West Church in the southwest part of the city, which is also called the “Synagogue Church”. During our surveys of the city we think we have located three additional churches: to the southwest near the Kalybe structure, that is to say at the eastern end of the central residential quarter of Sussita, there are visible remains of a small church with a single apse with a fairly distinct shape. Another church can be found south of and close to the southern building erected by the Israeli Army in the 1950s, and still another is situated about 100 m. to the east of it. There may even be a church that was part of a monastery complex. This monastery was partially exposed while during the construction of the northern of the two buildings erected by the Israeli Army in this site. Sussita may therefore have had eight or even nine churches. The four excavated churches that were partially excavated during the seven excavation seasons are briefly described below.
The North-West Church
The North-West Church has been excavated by the Polish team headed by Prof. Jolanta Młynarczyk and Dr. Mariusz Burdajewicz. We have here an impressive building complex that includes the structure of the church itself, its prayer hall, the area of the atrium on the west, and the two annexes (wings) that contain additional halls and rooms located along the northern and southern walls of the church. These annexes also contain agricultural installations, three wine presses and an oil press. There is no uniform degree of preservation of this church; its eastern and southern sections were better preserved as compared with its northern part. The North-West Church is built of ashlars, most of which were taken from both the Hellenistic and the Roman temples. Some of the walls of the church are built directly upon the walls that belong to the Roman temple. The column drums and capitals in the prayer hall as well as in the atrium are made of basalt, and it can be seen clearly that they were prepared especially for the church and are not construction material in secondary use. The construction of the North-West Church may be dated to the end of the fifth or the beginning of the sixth century. It continued to serve its original purpose until its destruction by the earthquake of 749 CE.
Description of the Church
We have here a rectangular structure with an east-west longitudinal axis. On the eastern of the two short walls there is the central apse. To the north of this lies a rectangular hall into which, at a later stage of its existence, a small apse was incorporated, while to the south of the central apse there was a rectangular room that served as a martyrion. In the western wall of the prayer hall there were three doorways, the middle one wider than the two narrower ones on either side of it. The main doorway led into the nave while the side doorways led into the aisles. The nave was separated from the aisles by two rows of columns, each having six columns made of basalt drums and carrying pseudo-Ionic capitals also of basalt. The whole area of the prayer hall was paved with colored mosaics, mostly of geometric patterns and some of stylized plant forms and concentrated in the nave. It was the mosaic in this section that was damaged the most, and very little has remained of it. On the other had, the mosaics in the two aisles have survived almost completely. At the foot of the wall of the central apse, there was a stepped seat of semicircular shape matching the shape of the apse (synthronon). Facing the central apse was an elevated platform (bema) of rectangular shape, and on its western edge there was a partition, a marble chancel screen. There were chancel screens placed also at the eastern ends of the two aisles, the northern and southern ones. It is especially fortunate that the two chancel screens in the southern aisle survived, fixed into their original sites until today. It is not known what led to the change in the purpose of the room to the north of the central apse, since it was disconnected from the northern aisle by a small apse. It may be assumed that there was some unknown liturgical reason for this. Compared with the uncertainty regarding the northern room, it is clear that the southern one served as a martyrion, since an impressive reliquarium made of red limestone was found in its floor, and next to it there was another reliquarium made of marble in the shape of an small, sarcophagus like chest. Its gabled lid, also made of white marble, was decorated with four small acroteria. The walls of the church, as well as the columns and capitals were all covered with a thick layer of plaster and colored with strong shades of blue, red, green and yellow. Several sections of colored plaster with stylized plant patterns were also exposed, with leaves and grape clusters noticeable among them.
The atrium of the North-West Church is very large, with an area even greater than that of the prayer hall. The central section of the atrium is paved with basalt flagstones, while the four aisles (porticoes) are paved with a white mosaic. Parallel with the four walls of the atrium there extend colonnades built upon stylobates and it appears that the four aisles (porticoes) had single-slope roofs which created a shaded spaces around the open central courtyard. The entrance to the atrium was from the west through a gateway in the western wall of the atrium on the same axis as the main doorway into the prayer hall. Another entrance into the atrium is on the south side leading directly from one of the cardines linking the area of the forum with the church. Parallel to the long walls of the prayer hall, both on the northern and southern sides, there were annexes (wings) that contained a number of rooms. The eastern and central room in the southern annexe served as a diakonikon. Here various finds were discovered including additional reliquaries, bronze vessels among which there were two bronze candelabra (polykandela), work tools, etc. On the south side near the southern annexe there was an impressive and well-preserved agricultural installation including two wine presses and an oil press. Another wine press was discovered in the northern annexe (wing), as mentioned earlier.
Three short Greek inscriptions were found incorporated into the mosaic floors of the North-West Church. Two were located in the southern aisle of the prayer hall. In these two the donations of Heliodora and Petros, most likely members of the local community, were commemorated. The third inscription placed in the southern portico of the atrium, commemorates Antonia, a deaconess.
The North-East Church
This church is situated about 50 m. to the east of the North-West Church, and it has been excavated by the University of Concordia team headed by Prof. Mark Schuler. The plan, method of construction and design of the North-East Church differ in various ways from its western neighbor. This difference is expressed first and foremost with regard to the construction materials used in building it. This was constituted mainly of rough stones and small ashlars in uneven layers very carelessly laid. We may recall that in the North-West Church, extensive use was made of limestone and basalt ashlars taken from earlier structures. Here, on the other hand, in spite of the fact that here and there we find ashlars from earlier structures, the number is far smaller in comparison. The degree of preservation of this church is also poorer than that of the North-West Church.
Description of the Church
We have here a rectangular space with an east-west longitudinal axis. This space is divided by two rows of columns, each with five columns, into a nave and two aisles. In the center of the eastern wall of the prayer hall there was a single apse of semicircular shape protruding outwards from the wall of the church. This is the only church of those known to us today in Sussita that has an external apse. Two doorways led into the prayer hall of the church, one being situated in the centre of the western wall, led to the nave, and another doorway to the south of it that led to the southern aisle. The lack of symmetry is obvious here, since there was no doorway leading to the northern aisle. The absence of this doorway may be explained by the existence of a large water cistern, access to which, for some reason, was in the northwestern corner of the prayer hall, where there should have been a doorway into the northern aisle. To the west of the prayer hall there was an atrium, the exact dimensions and shape of which are unclear to us, since excavation in this area has not yet been completed. Annexes built parallel to the northern and southern walls of the prayer hall contained several rooms. In the northern annexe there were three rooms arranged in a row along an east-west axis, and apparently two more rooms were built on the north side parallel to the northern wall of this annexe. Excavation in this area has also not yet been completed. This is the same situation with regard to the southern annexe in which only one hall has been exposed in its entirety, and appears to have served as a diakonikon. This hall is noted for its fine structure and good state of preservation. In the northeastern corner of the diakonikon an entrance was located leading to an underground water cistern.
The entire floor of the prayer hall was paved with mosaics that have survived in only a few sections. The excavators have succeeded in distinguishing the existence of two floors, an earlier and a later one, with the earlier one noted for its excellent mosaic workmanship with geometrical and plant patterns. Crosses were also found among the patterns of the earlier floor.
The unique find of the North-East Church are the burials. At the eastern end of the southern aisle, near the eastern wall of the prayer hall, a limestone sarcophagus was discovered still covered with its limestone lid. Inside it were the remains of a skeleton belonging to a woman about 50 years old, small in proportion, and who had, as shown by pathological examination, been suffering from osteoporosis. Another burial was found in the bema area, near the apse. Within the tomb, built very carefully of ashlars, a sarcophagus was found that was also made of limestone and contained the skeletons of one woman and two men. The pathological examination of these skeletons is still ongoing. The existence of the burials within the church is rather rare in churches of this country during the Byzantine period. But their location in such a prestigious position near the apse is definitely exceptional.
The South-West Church ("Synagogue Church")
Before describing the South-West Church, we should first explain the meaning of the strange name and the special circumstances in which it was excavated. The southwestern area of Sussita had already been surveyed in the 1960s by the late Dr. Zvi Ilan, who had characterized this area as an extensive residential quarter that stretched southward from the decumanus maximus and to the west of the forum.
In the winter of 2004 this area was surveyed in detail by Prof. Michael Heinzelmann and the architect Mr. Robert Rosenbauer of the German Protestant Institute of Archaeology in Jerusalem. The German researchers mapped the residential quarter, locating the network of secondary streets parallel and perpendicular to the decumanus maximus. At the western edge of this residential quarter, many architectural items were found on the surface that indicated the presence of some public building. In the introduction to this article we mentioned that there is reference in Jewish halachic sources to the existence of a Jewish settlement in Sussita with a synagogue at its centre. The late Dr. Zvi Ilan had already indicated in the 1960s that the synagogue of Sussita might be found in this location. In the summer of 2005, during the sixth season of excavation, we decided to excavate in this area, and on the very first day we exposed, among other architectural segments scattered around, a fragment of the basalt lintel with symbols typical of synagogue decorations. However, after a few days, when parts of the building were exposed, it became clear beyond all doubt that this was another church and not a synagogue.
Description of the Church
The church has been excavated only in its eastern section, the area near the apse. We have nevertheless managed to determine its general plan. The structure is rectangular with an east-west longitudinal axis, and a semicircular apse located in the centre of its eastern wall. The prayer hall is divided by two rows of columns, each having five columns, into a nave and two aisles. The entire floor of the prayer hall is paved with mosaics, with geometric patterns in the aisles and stylized plant patterns in the nave. The mosaic in the area of the elevated rectangular bema opposite the apse is of especially high quality and is decorated with geometrical patterns in the form of fish scales. In the mosaic on the north side of the bema, two fish appear in a heraldic position facing each other.
In the center of the apse a reliquary was discovered built of red limestone, almost identical in shape to the one found in the martyrion of the North-West Church. Here too, in the centre of the reliquary, there was a bowl-shaped depression, on each side of which there were two rectangular compartments. It seems that these compartments held holy relics of some kind, and in the southern compartments a marble rectangular tile was found that served as a covering.
The area of the elevated bema is separated from the rest of the prayer hall area by chancel screens placed between chancel posts, both made of white marble. One of the broken chancel screens was decorated with a very fine relief of two rams facing each other in a heraldic composition on both sides of a schematic design of Golgotha. Since the western area of the prayer hall has not yet been excavated, it is not possible to know its exact plan, but from the surface one can make out a western wall that encloses the prayer hall, and that has three doorways. The exact plan of the atrium cannot be determined at this stage, but it appears to be very small in area because of the steep cliff which is only about ten meters from the western wall of the prayer hall.
The South-West Church is built of both rough stones and ashlars, and its construction is of a much higher quality than that of the North-East Church for example. Its state of preservation is better in the area of the apse where the walls today rise to a height of 2.5 m. On the north side of the apse we exposed a doorway into a room located between the eastern wall of the church and the prayer hall. We have here an asymmetrical arrangement, since no room was found on the south side of the apse. All the walls of the church were covered with a thick layer of plaster, and in some places there are still signs of colored remains, but we have not managed to locate any patterned designs.
In contrast to the other churches of Sussita, we found clear evidence that this church was burnt in a big fire, the roof over the prayer hall collapsed, and the roof tiles together with burnt organic materials covered the floor of the church in a thick layer of debris. We are unable at this stage to determine exactly when the fire occurred, but it appears that it preceded the fatal earthquake of 749 CE.
The South-East Church (the Cathedral)
This is the only structure in Sussita that had been excavated before our own excavations began in the year 2000. The South-East Church underwent a rescue dig conducted by the Antiquities Authority between the years 1951-1955, when the Israeli Army built fortifications facing the Syrian border. A few researchers headed by the late Dr. Claire Epstein took part in this excavation. Since it was conducted in special circumstance and under difficult conditions, it was unfortunately hardly documented. The area of the church has only been partially uncovered, and therefore the description below will be far from complete.
The South-East Church was the largest and most magnificent of all the churches in Sussita. If we judge according to the method of its construction, building materials and the way it was decorated, it surpasses all the other churches that have been excavated or surveyed so far in this site. The late Dr. Claire Epstein called the church a cathedral not only because of its magnificence but also on the basis of the dated inscription that were discovered there (591 CE). This is so far the only church in Sussita that has any dated inscription.
Description of the Church
The South-East Church has a rectangular shape and its longitudinal axis has an east-west orientation. In the center of the eastern wall there is an internal semicircular apse. The prayer hall is divided into a nave and two aisles by two rows of columns, with eight columns in each row. In the western wall, opposite the apse, there were three doorways arranged symmetrically that led from the atrium to the nave and the two aisles.
On the north side near the northern wall of the church there was a baptistery also shaped as a rectangular hall divided into a nave and two aisles by two rows of columns. In the eastern wall of the baptistery there were three apses, the central one larger than those on each side of it. In the middle of the floor of the central apse there was a round baptism basin, well plastered. Above it, in the center of the rounded wall of the apse, there are clear signs of the remains of a lead pipe through which the water flowed into the baptism basin.
The South-East Church is noted for its firm construction. Its walls are built of well-dressed ashlars while the floor is paved with mosaics (in the nave of the church and in the baptistery). The aisles of the church were paved with colored opus sectile made of both, marble and limestone tiles, in various shades of red, white, gray and green. All column shafts, both in the church and in the baptistery, were made of granite and marble, and it is clearly visible that these column shafts, as well as the bases and capitals, were taken from monumental structures of the Roman period. Of especial beauty are the column shafts make of red granite (porphyry) and gray granite originating from the Aswan region in Egypt. The marble columns are made of white and green marble (cipollino) that excel in their careful workmanship. The same applies to the Corinthian capitals and bases that are also made of white marble.
The atrium has been excavated only in its northeastern corner, but from what has already been exposed it is clear that it was also embellished, like the prayer hall, with imported building materials.
The exposure of the churches of Sussita is still far from complete. The exposure of the North-West Church and the North-East Church that have been excavated by the Polish and American teams, will probably be completed in the next season, in the summer of 2007, but it will take more time to complete the work of conservation and restoration of the mosaics and walls remaining in the area. The other churches that were described in our brief survey were either excavated in part or are still waiting to be excavated. Despite this, from what we know today at the end of seven excavation seasons in the site, it may be said with certainty that the churches of Sussita faithfully reflect the rapid and radical process of Christianization of the population in Sussita, whose residents erected for themselves houses of prayer that, in their variety, style of decoration and wealth of artifacts give evidence of the religious life and practical everyday occupations of a diversified Christian urban community, proud, confident and full of vitality.