Sussita, the horse-shaped city

Visitors drawn to the Golan Heights can explore Sussita's ruins and enjoy a panoramic view of the Kinneret.

Sussita 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy Hippos Excavation Project)
Sussita 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy Hippos Excavation Project)
Sussita was the central city of the Golan in Hellenistic and Roman times, though its name was then Hippos. It was still the central city in Byzantine times, when it was the seat of the bishop of the See of Palaestina Secunda, but its name was then changed to Sussita. Both names, in Greek and Aramaic, mean "horse" or "horse-shaped" and the city is so, perched on a rounded hill, with its head to the Golan and its tail to the Kinneret. The first city was built on the hill that rises 350 meters above the lake, just south of the brook of Ein Gev, with a panoramic view of the Kinneret. It is first mentioned in the conquests of the Hasmonean King Alexander Jannai (103-76 BCE), when its full name was Antiochia-Hippos, having been founded during the reign of the Seleucid kings, whose capital city was Antioch, named after their second king, Antiochus Soter. Because of the civil strife between Jannai's sons, Aristobulos and Hyrcanus, in 63 BCE Rome sent its general Pompey to impose direct rule over the whole area and consequently Hippos became one of the Roman cities of the Decapolis. The Decapolis was originally a loose federation of 10 cities, in southern Syria and Transjordan, that conducted their affairs on Greek and Roman cultural lines. The federation included Scythopolis (Beit She'an), which the Jewish historian Josephus claimed was the largest of the 10. The cities enjoyed considerable autonomy under the Romans and Hippos prospered and was allowed to mint its own coinage, with the emblem of a horse on the reverse. According to Josephus, Hippos had a mixed population of Jews, pagans and Christians. The city continued in use after the Muslim conquest, but was destroyed by the powerful earthquake of 749 CE, which also destroyed Beit She'an and many places in the Golan, after which Sussita (Hippos) was abandoned and not rebuilt. Following earlier surveys and excavations, dating back to the work done in the late 19th century by Gottlieb Schumacher (the German Templer railway engineer of Haifa) and that of archeologist Claire Epstein in the 1950s, a large-scale expedition was started at Sussita in 1999, under the direction of Prof. Arthur Segal of the University of Haifa. He was later joined by teams from the Polish Academy of Sciences, the National Museum of Warsaw and Concordia University of Minnesota. Their excavations, which are planned to continue for two more seasons, have uncovered rich data of the history of Sussita-Hippos. After the conquest by Pompey, the city was expanded and rebuilt on Roman lines, with a rectangular street pattern and important public buildings at the intersections. The layout can easily be appreciated by approaching the site from Route 92, on a turnoff (marked "for farm vehicles only") opposite Kibbutz Ein Gev, driving up the winding road to the small parking lot (stop at the large Sussita sign) from which there is a short climb onto the head of the "horse." Here one is led straight into the Decumanus ("the straight line from east to west") Maximus, the main street that runs like a spine across the site, with the major buildings on either side of it. Intrepid walkers may want to follow this spine road to its west end, enjoy a panoramic view over the Kinneret, and take the steep serpentine path back to the Ein Gev road. It was at the foot of this path that the pioneers of Ein Gev started their kibbutz with a tower and stockade in 1937. But due to constant harassment by Beduin in this isolated spot, they moved their settlement down to the edge of the lake, near the ancient port of Sussita, the present site of the kibbutz. For those who stay on top of the mountain, there is a feast of ruins to enjoy. On entering at the east gate, one walks along until arriving at the Forum on the south (left) side and opposite it, the Hellenistic (third century BCE) compound on the north side. The Forum was the center of the Roman city and was built in the late first century CE and lasted until the eighth century. On one side there are stairs to a large underground cistern that is nine meters deep, storing all the rainwater of the mound. This will have been the original rainwater collection point for the inhabitants in the earliest times, when the city was relatively small and there was no other water source. At one end of the Forum, there appears to have been a triumphal arch, marking the crossroads with the Cardo (the "heart"), the chief road to run across the Decumanus Maximus. Next to the arch was a monumental building, which may have been a nymphaeum, the major water distribution point, but as no pipes or basins were found here, it could also have been part of an open-air shrine, dated to the third century CE. Opposite the Forum on the north side of the Decumanus, lay the earlier Hellenistic compound. It was surrounded by a colonnade and may have had a limestone temple at its center, built on a stepped podium and forming a splendid pagan cult center, that was continued in Roman times with a new temple in basalt stonework. That in turn was dismantled by the Byzantine Christians, who built their church on top of the pagan cult center in the late fourth century, using much of the limestone and basalt work of the earlier temples. This northwest church, as it is called, is one of eight at Sussita, showing the importance of the site for the early Christians. The church is in the standard basilica form of a nave with columns to the aisles each side, and a semicircular apse at the east end. It was repaved in the sixth century in colored geometric patterns, in white, red, black and yellow mosaics, which have survived well in the aisles but less so in the nave, which of course saw much more wear. There are two inscriptions recording the generosity of donors, one named Heliodora and the other Petros. The church, like the rest of Sussita, was destroyed in the earthquake of 749 CE. Still in the Hellenistic compound, there was a small so-called industrial area, with an oil press and a wine press and treading floor, built on top of an earlier complex, presumably to supply the cultic needs of the compound. Another smaller church (each trade and neighborhood had its own house of prayer) also stands on the north side of the Decumanus. It is in the classic basilica style but has several unusual features. The apse was left unroofed in the open-air, and was divided from the body of the church by screens which were presumably movable for summer use. At the east end of the south aisle there was a burial consisting of a limestone sarcophagus half-buried in the floor and screened off from the rest of the church. The cover was inscribed with a cross containing the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, alpha and omega. This must have been a very important burial, perhaps of one of the bishops. With its complement of Jewish inhabitants, it is curious that so far no synagogue has been found. An eagle-carved lintel, typical of a synagogue, was found on the west side of the hill, but when the staff dug around it, according to Michael Eisenberg, the deputy director, it turned out to be just another church, though it is possible that the stone was stolen from a synagogue. The search continues. The other churches are still in the process of being excavated, as is the west gate, facing the Kinneret. The east gate, however, has been uncovered. It had a tower each side of the entry and is of a unique design as one tower is square and the other one round. The round tower, on top of a very steep slope, was well built of carefully cut basalt laid without the use of mortar. The square tower was poorly formed and preserved, and seems to have been repaired with cement at a later stage. Hippos, being situated on top of a mountain, had a water problem. The large central cistern under the Forum may have been sufficient to serve the older Hellenistic city, which was important to the Seleucids, but relatively small. When it was expanded in Roman times, the water collected from rainfall would have been insufficient, so Roman ingenuity came into play. An aqueduct was constructed, starting from the so-called "black waterfall" of Nahal El-Al, 20 kilometers away. The problem was how to get it across the valley and up into the city. Here the Romans applied siphonic action for the first time in this region, using interlocking stone pipe rings, made airtight with caulking, which brought the water down into the valley and up again into the city. Pieces of the pipe are still visible by the east gate, where the water entered a cistern. Such an innovation, complex and labor-intensive, demonstrated the richness of this Hippos of the Romans and the importance of Sussita to all its inhabitants, pagans, Christians and Jews. The writer is a senior fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem.