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ERETZ 100 - September-October 2005

Susita Gallops into Sight

Perched on a mountaintop Susita-Hippos, the city called horse, has been referred to as the most impressive classical city in the Eastern Mediterranean. Now, after six seasons of excavations, it is beginning to reveal its secrets.
Let’s say you owned an ancient city, with colonnaded streets, walls and gates, a theater for plays and a hippodrome for chariot racing, and temples, churches, and even a cathedral decorated with mosaic floors. Let’s say your ancient city was perched on a mountaintop surrounded by steep cliffs overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Let’s say that this city was connected to the New Testament and mentioned in the Talmud. Let’s say that the city was destroyed suddenly by an earthquake and never settled again so that everything was still there - lying on the ground intact. With all this, would you have left this city unexcavated, undeveloped? Would you not have utilized its potential as an amazing visitors’ site? Well, Susita is all this and if you add its recent history, much more.
In 1990, archaeologist Professor Vassilios Tzaferis published an article in the Washington, D.C.-based Biblical Archaeological Review entitled “Susita Awaits the Spade.” How is it, asked Tzaferis, that no one is interested in excavating one of the most beautiful and well-preserved classical sites in the Eastern Mediterranean? Prof. Arthur Segal, of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at Haifa University, decided to take up Tzaferis’s challenge. Segal heads the Susita Project, and is assisted by Michael Eisenberg. Co-partners in the project are the Polish Academy of Science, Warsaw, with a team headed by Prof. Jolanda Mlynarczyk and Dr. Mariusz Burdajewicz, and Concorde University of St. Paul, Minnesota, with a team headed by Prof. Mark Schuler.
Following a survey of the site in summer 1999, Segal’s team began excavating in autumn 2004. The discoveries after a mere six seasons of excavations are mind-boggling. “Susita collapsed in the massive earthquake of 749 - never to be settled again,” Segal explained as we sat on the monumental steps of the imperial temple in the city’s forum. “Everything is still here, just under the surface. All we have to do is uncover it and put it together again.”


Read full article in the October 2005 issue of ERETZ Magazine.
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Visiting Susita

An old untended road leads to the beginning of the path to Susita. To get to the path you have two options. From the Golan: Turn right at the Afik junction and drive towards Kfar Haruv on road number 98. 2 km. down the road, another road branches off to the right. This is the top entrance to the untended road leading to Susita. Drive carefully down this road for 4.5 km. until you see a small parking area on your right - with a green Israel Nature and Parks Authority sign in front of it. The path to Susita starts here.
The alternative way to get to the path is to enter the road to Susita from the Sea of Galilee side. The road starts opposite the entrance to the Ein Gev holiday village (not the entrance to the kibbutz). It is marked with a large "Do not enter" sign - so that the Road Works Department will not be sued. Enter at your own peril. Drive for 3.5 km. up the road. Just before you reach the parking area, there is a hairpin turn in the road. At this spot, the road paving has broken up and you need to drive very carefully. Take the outer edge of the road. After another hairpin turn, you will see the Parks Authority sign on your left in front of the little parking area.

Up the Path
The path to Susita is marked in black. It runs along the same ridge followed by the eastern approach way to Susita. The path runs between two fenced mine fields (the mine fields are marked - see photo). Do not deviate from the path.
At the beginning of the path, you are in one of Hippos' two cemeteries. Notice the carved stone graves strewn all around the path. As you walk up the path you will see portions of a basalt stone pipe that brought water via an aqueduct from the springs of Ein Fik, situated in the ravine far off to your right. The path enters Susita through the city's eastern gate.

Touring the Town
Susita is not your regulated tourist site. There are no organized paths, walkways, railings and fences. As you walk down the path from the eastern gate you are actually walking along the Decumanus Maximus - Roman Susita's main road. Near the gate some of the basalt flagstones of this road have been exposed.
About 50 meters from the gate, on your left, is an entrance to a tunnel. This is a covered trench used by the Israeli forces stationed here until 1967 - under the Syrians guns on the Golan. The trench runs through ancient Susita's water system. The tunnel led to Israel's easternmost bunker, which you walked by as you entered the city gate. Just under the bunker, the old border marker between the British Mandate in Palestine and the French Mandate in Syria still stands.

You can now walk through the tunnel to the center of the town, or, if old tunnels are not your thing, continue along the path. Either way you will reach two buildings - to the left and right of the path. These were the headquarters and dining room of the Israeli outpost. Even though they were military installations, great care was taken in order to try and make them fit into the ancient site. From the verandah of the building on the left a panoramic view of the Sea of Galilee opens up. Just in front of the verandah are the remains of Byzantine Susita's cathedral.

The Forum
Follow the path westward, in the general direction of the Sea of Galilee. It is unexcavated, dusty, and full of rocks. But 150 meters along the path you will reach the excavated part of the Decumanus Maximus. Walk west along the Decumanus to the forum. Dozens of granite columns are strewn all around. The ones that haven't been moved are all lying in the same direction as a result of the earthquake (similar to the columns in the cathedral). At the western edge of the forum stand the remains of the Imperial Roman Temple. Just in front of the temple is a huge intact cistern. (The biggest Byzantine cistern ever found. Take care - don't fall in!) To your right, on the northern edge of the forum is a large wall made out of blocks with carved, raised margins. The blocks are laid as headers and benders (one set lengthways, the other set sideways). This kind of construction is typical of the Hellenistic period. The wall is the southern edge of a huge platform on which stood the Greek temple of Hippos. On top of the platform, two large churches were built as soon as Hippos turned Christian. After examining the churches (there are two more further to the east), return to the forum. Now walk to the Roman Temple at the western edge of the forum and locate the unpaved road that leads past the right side of the structure towards the Sea of Galilee.

To the Western Gate
Walk down the road. You are still on the decumanus maximus, a fact easy to discern by the column bases protruding out of the ground (the columns themselves are still buried underneath). As you walk down you will see a large mound on your right. Inside it is Hippos' theater - still waiting to be excavated. 150 meters further down the road, on your left, you will pass an old shed - from the Israeli military days. To you right are the remains of the pulley that used to pull the supply cable car up the mountain. Past the shed, you will reach a fork in the road. Take the left fork and continue for another 50 meters until the road ends. In front of you is yet another church - the one that was thought to be a synagogue. The mosaic on the floor is covered with sand.

Back to the Car
From here you can return to the car the same way that you came up - or cut around the back of the church and walk along the paths in the general direction of the forum (don't do this if you don't have a good sense of direction). You are now walking over the remains of the city - lying in ruin since the earthquake of 749. Walls, stones, doorways, and lintels are strewn all over the place - waiting for the excavator to put them together again.



Professor Arthur Segal, Head of the Susita Project

Cistern under one of Susita's eight Byzantine churches

Vat at an ancient winery complex

Cleaning the  Decumanus Maximus

Path to Susita between two fenced off and marked minefields

The forum

The churches on the Greek temple platform

Golden amulet found at Susita

Cleaning an ancient oven

Restoring plaster

Photos: Michael Eisenberg and Yadin Roman. All rights reserved.

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