Israel Travels

Revamped as a national park, ancient Sussita’s rich history is even more accessible

Settled 2,200 years ago and razed in an earthquake in 740 CE, the Golan Heights site changed hands numerous times over the years. It is now easier to reach for intrepid visitors

  • In Sussita, a marble pillar lies next to a platform that likely once held a statue donated by a prosperous couple who moved to Caesarea. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    In Sussita, a marble pillar lies next to a platform that likely once held a statue donated by a prosperous couple who moved to Caesarea. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The basilica at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The basilica at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Baptismal font at the cathedral at Sussita.(Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Baptismal font at the cathedral at Sussita.(Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • An inscription in the floor of the northeastern church at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    An inscription in the floor of the northeastern church at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A group on its way up to the national park at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A group on its way up to the national park at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Antiquities in the basilica at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Antiquities in the basilica at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The main street at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The main street at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • An Israel Defense Forces communications tunnel from before the Six Day War at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    An Israel Defense Forces communications tunnel from before the Six Day War at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Steps going down into a cistern at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Steps going down into a cistern at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Remains of the kalybe as seen from the forum at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Remains of the kalybe as seen from the forum at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A stonemason left his mark in a flagstone at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A stonemason left his mark in a flagstone at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Sussita looks different today than it does in this photo from 2007. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Sussita looks different today than it does in this photo from 2007. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The view from Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The view from Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Kibbutz Ein Gev, a small fishing and farming village, was the only Jewish settlement on the eastern coast of the Sea of Galilee during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Although it sat right below a number of Syrian military bases in the Golan Heights, it wasn’t attacked until Israel was declared a state on May 14, 1948. Immediately after Israel declared its independence, Syrian forces began to mercilessly shell the little settlement.

From its military base at Sussita, a flat-topped hill located 350 meters (1,150 feet) above the lake and directly above Ein Gev, the Syrian army made three attempts to conquer the kibbutz. Each assault was repulsed by the settlement’s defenses.

It was obvious, however, that as long as the Syrians remained on Sussita, Ein Gev would never be safe. In a surprise night attack on July 17, settlers and Israeli soldiers hiked the gully south of Sussita, climbed the narrow ridge on its eastern side, and managed to take the mountain. Following their success, the army built fortifications on Sussita and remained there until Israel took control of the Golan Heights during the 1967 Six Day War.

Sussita was called Hippos, which is Greek for “horse,” when it was first settled in the mid-second century BCE after Greek general Ptolemy took possession of the Land of Israel (in the third century CE it became known by its Aramaic name Sussita, which also means horse).

Like modern-day Syrians and Israelis, the Ptolemies appreciated the mountain’s strategic value and established a frontier post on its peak. Later, at a fierce battle in 198 BCE, Greek Seleucids annihilated the Ptolemaic army. It is the Seleucids who first established a town on the mountaintop.

Hasmonean king Alexander Yannai conquered Sussita from the Greeks a century later, around 80 BCE, destroying much of it in the process. But Roman general Pompey recaptured Sussita in 63 BCE and included it in the Decapolis, a union of 10 Hellenistic cities.

The view from Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Sussita was then rebuilt and rapidly began to grow, reaching its peak during the years of Roman rule that followed with a population of nearly 5,000 people. Christianity reached Sussita in the fourth century CE and the town gained a magnificent cathedral as well as over half a dozen churches.

Excavations have uncovered a multitude of exciting and often exquisite artifacts, like a pendant of pure gold dating back to the Greek era, at Sussita. Yet for decades after the Six Day War, if you wanted to explore the cathedral and other ruins at this unique, ancient site, you had to pick your way carefully along uneven paths and through rocky terrain.

That is why we were delighted to learn that on March 29 Sussita opened officially as a National Park. Features include easy paths within the site, meticulously restored and well-preserved antiquities, beautiful overlooks, a charming animated movie, a shop, and restrooms. But Sussita is a work in progress; restoration continues, and hopefully, additional explanatory signs will soon join those already in the park.

Sussita looks different today than it does in this photo from 2007. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

A newly-paved, winding road begins across from Kibbutz Ein Gev and ascends up the mountain. But although there is an easy path to the excavations from the parking lot, it is all uphill and takes five to 10 minutes to complete. Construction on a road that will reach all the way to the excavations was temporarily halted: the colorful bee-eater, a small species of bird in danger of extinction, has chosen that area of Sussita as its summer nesting ground.

We toured Sussita last week with the park’s Tomer Hemo, who pointed out the Israeli army’s former communications tunnels before leading us down the main street of the city. Called the Decumanus Maximus, it was 550 meters (1,800 feet) long and lined with approximately 500 columns. Its basalt flagstone pavement had lain completely hidden underground until uncovered during excavations.

Sussita’s splendid cathedral was erected in the sixth century CE. Signs of its original glory include a large, colored baptismal font, beautiful mosaics inscribed in Greek, a row of decorative marble pedestals that once held columns, and a stunning red and white tiled marble floor.

A red and white tiled floor at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Most impressive, perhaps, are the cathedral columns. Made of Egyptian granite, they are laid out on the ground at perfect angles, exactly as they fell during the earthquake in 749 that completely demolished the city.

Almost every city in the Roman Empire featured a basilica and a forum standing side by side. The basilica was a large, covered hall surrounded by four aisles and four rows of columns supporting a gabled roof; the forum was an open-air town square where people gathered, gossiped, shopped, or held meetings.

Legal proceedings, commerce, and money-changing took place in the forum but when inclement weather made it impossible to remain outdoors, everything moved to the basilica. Sussita’s basilica was built at the end of the second century but collapsed in the city’s first earthquake in 363.

The basilica at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

You may wonder why there are white patches on many of the black pillars in the basilica. It seems that the color black was held in low esteem during the Roman era, that’s why the pillars were covered in a mixture of plaster and ground marble powder.

Strange marks were carved into many of the flagstones in the pavement. This is how ancient stonecutters signed their work.

It is possible that the Romans invented speed bumps! While flagstones on the main street are set at angles to one another, at the entrance to the basilica they suddenly become parallel. As a result, carriages traveling along the main street in Roman times were forced to slow down before entering the crowded basilica.

Sussita boasted a grand bathhouse, visible just outside the park proper, which would have required plenty of water. But Sussita had no water sources of its own and a Roman aqueduct from a nearby river transported water into the city in a siphon of interlocking basalt rocks. Most of the 25-kilometer-long aqueduct (15.5 miles) ran along the Golan Heights’ almost vertical slopes: at times it was cemented onto the hills, at times carved within the rocks.

Remains of a Roman bathhouse outside of Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Visitors will see a number of broken pieces of hollowed-out basal links; the round openings on top probably made it easier to clean or were there, perhaps, to relieve pressure from the onrush of water. Water was collected in cisterns, like the one you can see with stone steps and a beautiful arched opening.

One marble pillar, discovered in pieces at the edge of the forum and lovingly glued together, features a 13-line-long inscription in Greek. It tells the story of a husband and wife born in Sussita who moved to Caesarea when the husband became finance minister of the Syrian-Palestinian province. But they never forgot their hometown and sent the column and a statue, dedicated to the governor of the province, to the forum in Sussita.

In Sussita, a marble pillar lies next to a platform that likely once held a statue donated by a prosperous couple who moved to Caesarea. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

More antiquities in the park include a kalybe, or a type of temple common in the Roman East, as well as a Roman odeon — originally a covered, theater-like structure where musicians and poets performed for a few hundred people. Near the forum are several partially restored churches.

From the two overlooks there are fabulous views of the Sea of Galilee, the hillsides, the chasms, and the winding road far below. While standing at one of the overlooks we heard loud bird cries but didn’t see the bee-eaters who are known for their shrieks (in Hebrew, the bird is called shrakrak, or whistler). What we did see was a stunning blue rock thrush, standing on the park’s fence before it spread its wings and flew away.

Remains of the kalybe as seen from the forum at Sussita. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

A short film is a delight to watch (even though the few words displayed are only in Hebrew at the moment). It is located in the visitor center, along with a snack bar, shop and restrooms.

At the edge of the park stand a modest monument and an olive tree, memorials to Rami Zayit, the last Israeli commander of Sussita. On Independence Day of 1967, shortly before the Six Day War brought Sussita and the rest of the Golan Heights under complete Israeli control, he walked down to Ein Gev. Tragically, as he returned to his post he was accidentally killed by his own troops.

Note: For the next few months entrance to the park will be free. Visitor center summer hours: 8:00 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday to Thursday; 8:00 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays and holiday eves. For questions, call the Parks and Nature Authority’s hotline: 3639*

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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