Archaeologists Find Vast Pagan Sanctuary Outside Roman City in North Israel

Location of pagan cult site outside city walls of Hippos-Sussita suggests the primary purpose of the theater was to worship the gods, not entertain the masses.

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A view of Hippos, and the Sea of Galilee in the background, from the east.
A view of Hippos, and the Sea of Galilee in the background, from the east.Credit: Michael Eisenberg
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Archaeologists excavating the ancient Roman town of Hippos-Sussita in northern Israel have finally found the large theatre they'd been seeking for years. But based on its location outside town, they think the propylaea bathhouse-theater compound they discovered wasn't for entertainment, but for worship.

The ancients didn't have signs saying, "Line up here to adore Augustus." Building the tale of Hippos is like building a detective story, clue by clue, says Dr. Michael Eisenberg of Haifa University, head of the Hippos excavations project.

"First we found the Pan mask, in 2015," he says. "Then we found a monumental gate leading to what we surmised might be a site of worship. This year, in a single compound outside the city walls, we found a bathhouse and a theater."

The latest discoveries in Hippos-Sussita, which is within the Sussita Natural Park run by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, were unveiled Monday at the annual conference of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at Haifa University. At the conference, Eisenberg described the latest discoveries, including two burial grounds also located outside the city proper.

In support of his theory, Eisenberg points out that theaters for entertainment were typically within the cities, while the ancient Greeks and Romans often located sanctuaries to gods outside cities.

"The Asclepion outside Pergamon is one of the best examples of a huge healing sanctuary of the Roman period, and it's outside the city of Pergamon, in Asia Minor," he told Haaretz. "It was one of the most famous healing centers of the ancient world and it had bathing facilities and a theater."

Other examples of major religious compounds outside cities include Asclepios' sanctuary in Epidaurus, Greece, which also features a gate and a huge theater, and another on the island of Kos.

In Israel itself, in fact very near Hippos, a compound dedicated to healing was built by the Romans at Hamat Gader, featuring a theater and baths. (Today it's better known among Israelis for its crocodile farm, from which the reptiles have been known to escape.)

Aerial view of the monumental 'Pan's Gate', Hippos-Sussita excavation Credit: Michael Eisenberg

Roughly in the early second century C.E., about a century and counting after the Great Jewish Revolt of 67-70 C.E., the town of Hippos expanded outside its walls. Homes located beyond the walls would have been hard to protect from marauders, but clearly public buildings had been erected there too, Eisenberg says.

In any case, come the 4th century C.E., the town's fortunes receded again. "We don't know why," he admits, though the earthquake in 363 C.E. is likely among the reasons.

The case of the missing theater

Hippos was one of the Decapolis, a region of ten Roman cities along the empire's eastern boundary in the Levant, within what is modern-day Jordan, Syria and Israel. The cities were not formally united in a league, but in any case each was a hub of Latin culture in the alien Levant, with its Semitic languages and cults. (The nearby Hamat Gader complex is by another of the Decapolis cities, Gadara.)

Hippos was founded on a crest with a saddle ridge, connecting it to the southwestern Golan Heights, about two kilometers east of the Sea of Galilee. But whatever the marvels of the city itself, it is the discoveries beyond the city gates that set the Haifa University diggers aquiver.

One conundrum had been the mystery of the missing theater.

Every self-respecting ancient Roman city had a theater, where the citizenry would mass and watch plays. Yet none had been found in Hippos, which, says Eisenberg, is unthinkable.

At some point the city's excavators thought that an odeon unearthed within the city might have been the theater, albeit a poky one – for all its lofty political status, Hippos was not a major city. (An odeon is a small-roofed theater, capable of seating a few hundred people. The big Roman theaters could seat thousands.)

Eisenberg hadn't thought for a moment that the good people of ancient Hippos settled for that small odeon, a venue suitable for small plays and poetry readings. Also, Prof. Arthur Segal, a Haifa University expert on Roman theaters in the empire's east, was confident that a proper theater would be found, Eisenberg says. Now it has been, just not where they thought.

A theater is finally found in Hippos-Sussita.Credit: Michael Eisenberg

Finally, finding it

The extraordinary and extremely rare bronze mask of the god Pan had also been found outside the city, in 2015. At the time, discussing why it might have been there, Eisenberg noted that the ancient Romans would worship Pan and Dionysus, another god of nature, not only in city shrines but in the fields as well. Then last year the team discovered a monumental gate at Sussita, also from the Roman era, from where, by the way, the faithful would have had a terrific lake view.

Eisenberg credits the discovery of the theater to Dr. Alexander Iermolin, who found the Pan mask and who had been wondering about a depression filled with debris. He insisted the theater might lie there, in the dip; digging ensued and lo, there it was – signs of a full-sized theater, that may have been capable of seating as many as 4,000 people, the team speculates.

Only a small part of it has been exposed so far, but the archaeologists have recognized the remains of at least two semi-circular blocks of seats (lower by the orchestra and upper). They have also identified two vomitoria, typical of Roman-era theaters, by the telltale angled walls.

The sanctuary with the theater and bathhouse could have been dedicated to Pan and/or Dionysus – the two were often worshipped together, Eisenberg says. "Dionysus was the god of wine, and is associated with change and loss of identity, which is how he would connect to the theater and the masks used there. Worship of Dionysus centered on the theater since the earliest days of Greek culture, in the late 6th century B.C.E., predating the Roman Empire.

"Also, not rarely in both the Greek and Roman worlds, bathhouses were associated with temples to the god of healing and medicine, Asclepius," the archaeologist adds.

Layout of Hippos' saddle ridge in Roman times.Credit: Michael Eisenberg

The bronze Pan mask was probably affixed to the monumental gate leading to the compound. Possibly a mask or statue of Dionysus was placed at the gate. That gate has been dated, based on pottery and coins, to the reign of Emperor Hadrian; the theater is likely to be from around the same time, the early 2nd century C.E.

Of the bathhouse, only a small part has been excavated so far, but it's huge, the team says.

Destroyed by earthquake

The area on which Hippos arose has been occupied for thousands of years. Some pottery has been found from prehistoric times and a large stratum of evidence has been discovered from the following Chalcolithic period. As a military post, the Hippos ridge is believed to have first been occupied, under the Ptolemies, the Egyptian-based kingdom that controlled the Land of Israel, around 2300 years ago: Coins found at the spot during the last two weeks strengthen that postulation, Eisenberg says. It gained its name Antiochia Hippos after the Battle of Panium around 199 B.C.E., named for the Hellenistic Seleucid Greek king Antiochus III, or perhaps Antiochus IV.

During Hippos' slightly later Roman era, the vast majority of the town's population would have been pagans, Eisenberg says, though a Jewish minority did live there, according to Jewish sources and none other than Josephus Flavius in his book "Wars of the Jews."

It bears qualifying that the archaeologists could still find another theater inside Hippos proper. Meanwhile, Eisenberg wishes to thank the team of archaeologists and volunteers who devoted their best efforts to excavating Hippos-Sussita, with absolutely no funding from the Israeli government. "Could the absence of significant Jewish relics be the reason for the absolute absence of government support?" he speculates.

After all those years, Hippos was ultimately destroyed once and for all by earthquake in the year 749 C.E. But by then, it was almost history anyway. From the Early Islamic period, mainly, says Eisenberg, from the early 8th century to its destruction, it was no longer a thrumming capital of the region. It was an industrial town in decline.

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