hippos (sussita) excavations Project
Main Excavation areas
For over 20 years Hippos Excavations Project has touched upon numerous buildings and structures that once stood in and outside of the city walls. Below described are the main areas of excavations, which give the sense of the fabric of the city and the manner of the excavation project (Hippos photogrammetry model). Additional information on these and many other remains and finds can be obtained from our publications and the recently released guidebook.
A drone's view of Sussita Mt., looking north.
General plan of Hippos with the main excavation areas.
Hippos city center with the main excavation areas. Click the area for additional information.
The Hellenistic Compound and the Northwest Church
The Hellenistic Compound is the oldest among the architecture excavated at Hippos, dated to the end of the 2nd century BCE. Its remains border the forum on the north, which most probably functioned as the main square (agora) already in the 2nd century BCE. The compound has been restructured in the Roman and Byzantine periods, but its original Hellenistic walls are clearly recognizable, built of small basalt ashlars with dressed margins and rough central bosses arranged in a regular pattern of headers and stretchers. The walls once enclosed a temenos (sacred compound that included a temple).
The Hellenistic temple has disappeared entirely when a new temple was constructed in the Early Roman period (during the reign of Augustus). The preserved remains of this temple include a plaza, paved with rectangular limestone slabs and surrounded by colonnades, a base of a staircase at the entrance to the temple, a frame of the walls identified under the later church building, and scattered/reused limestone architectural fragments.
The Northwest Church was built above the temple remains in the second half of the 5th century CE. Its whole area, including the atrium and the surrounding wine presses, was excavated up to 2009 by the Polish team directed by Prof. Jolanta Młynaczyk and Dr. Mariusz Burdajewicz. The church had two main construction phases and part of it has remained in use until it was destroyed in the earthquake of 749 CE. The excavations revealed partly preserved mosaic floors and three chancels with broken church furniture and reliquaria (boxes with remains of saints or sacred objects).
The Forum and Street Network
The forum was the main square of the Roman Hippos, 42 x 42 m, surrounded by porticoes and important Roman public structures. It has been exposed entirely through the first seasons, with about a half of its basalt paving preserved. A stairway located in the southern part of the square led to an underground water reservoir roofed with an impressive and amazingly preserved barrel vault. The porticos were constructed with columns of granite shafts and marble bases and capitals, which were found fallen on the forum paving.
Recent excavations below the forum, where the flagstones are missing, revealed many layers of packed-earth and plastered floors dated to the Hellenistic period, without any accompanying architecture. These seem to be the floors of the agora, Hellenistic-period main square, apparently situated in the same area as the later forum.
Hippos had only one main thoroughfare, which crossed the city from east to west and connected to the forum – the decumanus maximus. Its entire length from the eastern to the western city gate was about 550 m, it was 4.2 m wide, and it had colonnades on both sides made with local basalt stone (Hippos photogrammetry model). The entire stretch of the street between the eastern gate and the forum has been excavated, most of it still paved with basalt flagstones. The western stretch of the decumanus was unearthed only in part, with most of the paving robbed out, but with the stylobates of the colonnade still fragmentarily in place. The shape of the mountain left no space for a cardo maximus, but smaller north-south running streets has been exposed. Up to date excavated were sections of three cardines that intersected the decumanus maximus at right angles and shaped Hippos’ orthogonal plan.
Recent excavations under the paving of the eastern segment of the decumanus maximus allowed to date it more precisely, to the first half of the 1st century CE. The main streets continued to function during the Byzantine and Early Islamic periods, yet their colonnades were dismantled and reused in the construction of churches, and in many places the surrounding buildings encroached on the paving and narrowed the streets.
The city of Hippos was surrounded by a solid fortification wall built of basalt ashlars. Except for a few sections that collapsed, the course of the city wall is visible on the surface. The builders of the wall made a real effort to mount it exactly upon the edge of the cliffs surrounding the mountain top. Along the city wall, at irregular intervals, a small number of square or rectangular towers were erected. Until now, a few sections of the northern as well as the southern wall have been exposed. The earliest fortifications, dated to the end of the Hellenistic period, between the second half of the 2nd century and the beginning of the 1st century BCE, were identified only along the northern cliff. Most of the exposed city wall was dated to the Roman period, early 1st–early 2nd century CE. The city wall continued to function and was maintained during Roman and Byzantine periods.
The most unique example of Roman military architecture excavated in Hippos is the bastion (a battery for ancient projectiles, catapults and ballistae). The bastion, a basalt construction measuring 51 × 10 m, was built on the edge of the southern cliff, about 40 m south of the forum. Its solid basalt wall frame, exposed fully, is intersected by four chamber vaults and two towers. The chamber vaults were covered with floors, of which little survived. The bastion was built in the 1st century CE and partially dismantled during the 2nd century when the Southern Bathhouse was built into it, reusing its large basalt wall frames.
Hippos had two city gates. The West Gate was located at the western end of the decumanus maximus. It is partially preserved and has not yet been excavated. The East Gate at the eastern end of the decumanus maximus, has been excavated. It is located in the upper part of the rocky slope facing the saddle. The gate had one passageway 3.15 m wide, enclosed by two towers. The main surviving remains are that of the round tower, 8 m in diameter, solidly built of well-dressed basalt ashlars. The tower was designed in a manner typical of the Early Roman period, and it seems that missile launchers (catapults) could be placed on its upper storeys to fire at an enemy approaching with their siege machines along the only possible route, across the saddle in the east. The gate, dated to the 1st century CE, was integrated with the city wall, and together they created a defensive formation that controlled the main entry into the city.
The basilica, a main public building found in all Roman cities, may be defined as a sheltered alternative to the forum. While the forum was open-air, the basilica was roofed, allowing for its use also in bad weather conditions. The fully excavated Hippos basilica is an impressive building, 56 x 30.5 m, constructed at the end of the 1st century CE. The three doorways in its short south wall facing the forum provided easy access between the forum and the basilica. The rows of columns standing parallel to the four walls of the basilica supported the roof and created a central nave surrounded by four aisles. The interior sides of the walls were decorated with stucco pilasters embedded opposite each column. The inner space of the basilica was painted in shades of red, blue, green, and orange.
The architectural items that were exposed among the basilica ruins included basalt colonnade parts (80 cm in diameter drums, and excellently sculpted capitals and bases) as well as marble entablature fragments. The basilica collapsed during the 363 CE earthquake and has never been rebuilt, although many of its stones were robbed out from the ruins and reused around the city. It is one of the best-preserved and still representative such buildings in the region.
Excavations underneath the plaster floors of the basilica revealed many traces of earlier activity. It is possible that other public building/buildings stood here in the Early Roman and the Hellenistic periods.
The Southern Bathhouse
The Southern Bathhouse was the main public bathhouse of Roman Hippos. It was built over the solid frames of the bastion walls (which was no longer needed) in the 2nd century CE. The building measured ca. 50x30 m and about 65% of this area was excavated. It was a typical city bathhouse of the region, just over 1000 sq m, of asymmetric plan that fitted the restricted available city space, decorated with slabs of imported stones. The excavations revealed eight halls of the bathhouse. Three were service halls, which provided access to the furnaces for the bathhouse’s heated halls. Fours of the halls were heated since they featured hypocaustum, that is Roman-style floor and wall heating system.
They were roofed with impressive barrel vaults and domes made of limestone ashlars. To their east stood unheated halls, one of which was excavated fully. The unheated hall was surrounded by a low bench and close to half of it was taken by a 1.2. m deep pool accessed with two sets of stairs. Excavated were also three drains that evacuated the water from the unheated spaces.
The bathhouse was restructured in the mid-3rd century CE and functioned until the end of the 3rd or beginning of the 4th century CE, when it was abandoned. At this time, one of the service areas was filled up with layers of rubbish that reflects on the life of the Late Roman Hippos. In the Byzantine period all the bathhouse’s halls were reused for unknown purpose, the debris of the hypocaustum leveled and covered with plastered floors. Towards the end of the Byzantine period, the area immediately north-west of the bathhouse was occupied by a residential neighborhood, and its residents again filled up one of the service halls with their trash. The neighborhood was abandoned somewhere in the middle of the Early Islamic period, so when the bathhouse roofing finally collapsed (probably in the earthquake of 749 CE), there were almost no objects left under the ruins to tell the story of its past fortunes.
An odeion is a small, roofed theatre-like building for events with smaller number of audience, for example poetry reading with musical accompaniment. The fact that Hippos had an odeion indicates an affinity of the urban elite for classical culture. Moreover, the building could have been used for meetings of the city council since no other designated space for it has been found in the city.
The fully excavated odeion of Hippos was located about 80m to the west of the forum with the north-south axis of 27m and an east-west axis of 21m. The building consists of two main parts: a rectangular stage structure with the stage in the centre, and a semi-circular seating arrangement. None of the seats have survived but there were apparently 11 graded semi-circular rows of seats to accommodate maximum of c. 380 spectators. The orchestra, a semi-circular area between the stage and the seating arrangement, was paved with elegant rectangular marble slabs. The odeion was erected in the early 2nd century CE and probably destroyed in the earthquake of 363 CE, after which most of the building was dismantled. The Hippos odeion was smaller than others found in the Roman Empire, but it excels in the quality of its construction and careful planning
The Northeast Insula and the Northeast Church
The area of the Northeast Insulae, which included the Northeast Church has been excavated by the American team directed by Prof. Mark Schuler of Concordia University, St. Paul, Minnesota, up to 2019. The excavations encompassed the space to the north of the decumanus maximus and east of the Roman basilica. Archaeological investigations revealed a residential quarter, with a Roman-Early Byzantine villa and simpler late Byzantine-Early Islamic houses, as well as a small church that functioned between the late 5th/early 6th and the early 8th century CE.
The villa is currently the only one excavated in Hippos. Its main exposed feature is the colonnaded courtyard with an adjacent fountain-equipped garden space. The church, once decorated with figurative mosaic carpet, was distinct with burials in the chancel, one of which was a revealed elderly woman.
The Martyrion of Theodoros
The church, now known as the Martyrion of Theodoros, stood on the western edges of the hill, within the western living quarters. Its excavations begun when it was suspected to be a synagogue, yet no remains of a synagogue were found. The church, known also as the Southwest Church or the Burnt Church, is one of the ongoing areas of excavation. Up to date revealed was almost all the core of the building, 10x15 m, which main feature is a simple well-preserved mosaic floor full of colorfully executed motifs and five inscriptions.
Constructed in the second half of the 5th century CE, the building was emptied and destroyed by fire in the first half of the 7th century CE. Awaiting excavation are the side rooms of the church (some sealed before the building’s destruction) and its atrium (only one column of which is visible on the surface).
The church, deemed the cathedral of Hippos, was extensively excavated by the Department of Antiquities of Israel in the 1950s. Our renewed dig concentrated on exposing the southern frame of the building, as well as additional parts of its atrium.
The church was the largest at Hippos (15.5x21 m), and to its side attached was another basilical space, recognized as a baptysterium. The central apse of the baptysterium had a font used for the baptism ceremony. The wall above the partly preserved font still shows the lead pipe that supplied its water.
The baptysterium had a mosaic floor, while the main building was paved with opus sectile (imported stone slabs arranged in geometric patters). Both sections of the cathedral has colonnades made of reused Roman architectural fragments of marble and granite. The colonnades, and the rest of the buildings, collapsed in the earthquake of 749 CE, parts of them preserved in situ as they fell. The atrium that extends to the east and a series of additional rooms to the south still await full exposure.
The Saddle Compound: Monumental Gate, Bathhouse, and Theater
The Saddle Compound was an area of ca. 190x40 m that stretched on the western part of the saddle between the East Gate and the ditch cut in the middle of the saddle. Three features were identified inside it: a monumental gate (propylaeum) that was the entrance to the compound, a public bathhouse ca. 800 sq m large, and a theater build partly against the slope. The whole area has been excavated from 2014 and the investigations are ongoing.
The gate is a solid structure of basalt ashlars with a single profile decoration running along its lower part. Most of the gate was excavated, revealing two square towers, each measuring 6.4 m, which flanked a 4-m-wide portal. The bathhouse has been excavated only in two small sections, one featured with hypocaustum and the other with a colorful mosaic preserved only in patches by a wall. The theater was also excavated only in small sections, among them a vomitorium, part of the orchestra, and a small part of the scaena.
The excavations indicate a single construction phase for the whole compound – the early 2nd century CE, and the destruction in the 4th century CE, perhaps following the 363 earthquake. Judging by the extra-mural nature of the compound, its main features, and the find of a bronze mask of Greek god Pan in one of the gate towers, it is possible to assume that the compound was a sanctuary dedicated to one of the rustic gods, most probably Dionysos; however, it is also possible that the compound simply housed buildings for which there was no space in the small area enclosed by the city walls.
Three cemeteries (necropoleis) were identified in the vicinity of Hippos. The Southern Necropolis, also known as the ‘Hill of the Caves,’ is the largest burial ground, surveyed but not excavated so far. The Eastern Necropolis is located on a small rocky hill. Dozens of pit graves, basalt covering slabs and one short inscription in Greek on a tomb stone were identified, but no excavations were conducted.
The Saddle Necropolis is the only one excavated extensively in the recent years. It was used from the 1st century CE to the beginning of the 4th century CE. It stretches ca. 150 m along the southern part of the saddle, from the saddle’s southern tip (the location of the modern parking lot) in the south to the ditch cut in the middle of the saddle in the north. It was the most prestigious of the three necropoleis, with mausolea, hundreds of limestone and basalt sarcophagi, and pit graves quarried in bedrock. The 7-m-wide protective ditch, cut in the middle of the saddle in the soft limestone, served as a clear border between the necropolis and the polis.
The three most prominent features of the necropolis were the Lion’s Mausoleum, the Flowers Mausoleum, and a series of 13 funerary podia topped with sarcophagi. The wholly excavated Lion’s Mausoleum was named after a sculpture of a lion found inside it. The Flowers Mausoleum, also excavated but preserved in worse shape, was named after the most magnificent piece of its decorations – flowers carved in basalt in the metopes of the building’s frieze.