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
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.”
article in the October 2005 issue of ERETZ Magazine.
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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
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.
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
Vat at an ancient winery complex
Cleaning the Decumanus Maximus
Path to Susita between two fenced off and marked
The churches on the Greek temple platform
Golden amulet found at Susita
Cleaning an ancient oven
Photos: Michael Eisenberg and Yadin Roman. All rights