Beautiful Mosaics and Misspelled Inscriptions Uncovered at Archaeological Site in Northern Israel

Findings discovered in the 'Burnt Church,' which was built in the late fifth century. Ironically, the ash from the church's destruction preserved its artifacts

Mosaic inscription in bad Greek found at the Burnt Church, Hippos
Mosaic inscription in bad Greek found at the Burnt Church, HipposCredit: Rami Shllush
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Exquisitely preserved mosaics showing birds, animals, geometric forms, and Greek inscriptions spelled so badly that the lingua franca of the locals has become disputable, have been found in the “Burnt Church” in Hippos-Sussita of the Decapolis — the ruins of a city perched on a hilltop overlooking the Sea of Galilee.

However, whatever language the people of Hippos spoke, it can be said that the discoveries in the 20th season of excavations directed by Michael Eisenberg and Arleta Kowalewska of the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa support the central thesis that the city was the dominant Christian presence in the region.

Dr. Michael Eisenberg presenting a brass door knocker shaped like a lion's head, HipposCredit: Courtesy of Michael Eisenberg

The Burnt Church, better known to academics as the southwest church, is one of at least seven found in Antiochia Hippos (Sussita in Aramaic), which is now a national park managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. In fact, the southwest church had been found and partially exposed 10 years ago by archaeologists looking for the remains of a synagogue in Hippos, Eisenberg tells Haaretz. At the time, only the eastern side of the edifice was explored — and a synagogue it wasn’t.

In any case, one reason to further excavate the church was to try to date it, he says.

The Northwest Church, HipposCredit: Rami Shllush

All along, they had suspected that this particular house of worship didn’t collapse when Hippos was destroyed by earthquake in the year 749. It was long gone by that time, having burned to the ground apparently during the Persian Sassanian conquest of the land in the early seventh century, Eisenberg says.

The Christian monastery in nearby Kursi, which was within Hippos’ sphere of influence, was burned down during the Sassanian invasion, which predated the Islamic caliphate conquest later in the seventh century, he points out.

In Hippos’ Burnt Church, under the supervision of Jessica Rentz, the team found ceramics from that same period, Eisenberg tells Haaretz, the typology of which supports the dating of the church to that time.

At this point, the evidence supports the theory that the Burnt Church was built in the second half of the fifth century, underwent two major changes — one in the first half of the sixth century and one in the second half — and then burned down, possibly by the invading Persians, in the early seventh century. The other churches in Hippos did not burn down, however.

It’s all bad Greek to me

Churches built after Christianity’s adoption by the Holy Roman Empire in the fourth century abounded in the villages around the Sea of Galilee — actually a freshwater lake known as Kinneret in Hebrew. Just last week, Haaretz reported on the possible discovery of the Church of the Apostles on the other side of the lake.

The lakeshore area was a popular venue for the early Christian devotees because, as Eisenberg points out, about half of the miracles ascribed to Jesus happened in that vicinity. But Hippos stood out and had a bishopric of its own.

“There’s no other city like it in the area,” he says. “All the other sites around the Kinneret were small villages — Capernaum, Tabgha. They all looked at the mountain on other side of the lake with its city and the bishop.”

The various churches built on the mountaintop at Hippos may date from different times and all probably operated simultaneously in the sixth century. The latest excavation exposed most of the structure of the Burnt Church and the mosaics decorating the floors. In fact, it was helpful for posterity that the church ended in a conflagration, Eisenberg explains: “The mosaic floor is the best preserved in Hippos thanks to the sudden collapse of the roofing and walls, which instantly covered up the entire mosaic with a protective layer of ash.”

Other churches in the city collapsed gradually and were exposed to weathering, leaving their main mosaic carpeting ruined. Not this one. “We could identify the burned logs, dozens of nails and roof tiles that fell,” he says. “We could practically smell the fire.”

They could also identify the tiles that fell from the gabled roof and burned beams, and also found hundreds of nails that had held the wooden beams in place.

Nina Koskanen, assistant conservator, cleaning the mosaic of a pomegranate, Hippos Credit: Rami Shllush
Vladimir Lechem cleaning a mosaic of fat fish, which had decorated the floor of a church in Hippos.Credit: Rami Shllush

With the soot carefully cleaned off, the beauty of the mosaics shines forth again for the first time in centuries. Depictions of appealingly plump fish are yet further confirmation that this edifice was a church. The species of the birds gracing the floor has yet to be identified.

Another bit of the mosaic shows a pomegranate — a fruit sacred since time immemorial. The Christians, however, morphed its symbolism from fertility and death to resurrection and eternal life.

Past archaeologists digging up Hippos found a small inscription in Greek in the apse of the Burnt Church. Now the archaeologists have found two bigger ones in the nave.

Perhaps the best part is that the discoveries in the Burnt Church are two previously unknown inscriptions, almost perfectly preserved thanks to the fiery collapse and written in terrible Greek. The newly unearthed inscriptions cleaned of soot have yet to be properly deciphered, but the very first reading by the team’s epigraphist, Gregor Staab of the University of Cologne, was enough to notice some major anomalies in the ancient Greek. “There is a nonexistent word,” Eisenberg says. “There are spelling mistakes throughout the writing.”

The incompetence of the writing, especially in contrast to the artistry, leads to the suspicion that Greek wasn’t necessarily spoken by the artisans or priests of the Burnt Church.

Cleaning a mosaic of beautiful birds of undetermined species, HipposCredit: Rami Shllush

“It may have been relegated to being their holy tongue. We are starting to wonder if their speech was Aramaic, and only the holy scripture and ceremonies were in Greek,” he says. Otherwise, the mistakes — including in the spelling of names — is hard to explain.

Yana Vitkalov, head conservatorm celebrating the discovery of the medallion mosaic in the Burnt Church, HipposCredit: Michael Eisenberg

One of the Greek inscriptions mentions two “Abbas” — abbots or priests, fathers of the church: Theodoros and Petros, who built a martyrion. The second exposed inscription in the main medallion gave the answer who was the martyr: Theodoros. Now it seems that the entire church was built as a martyrion, based on the initial impression of the inscription saying: “In the days of Bishop [name is broken] — the entire mosaic in the sanctuary of the martyr was finished.”

However, who exactly Theodoros was is not yet clear. There were several martyrs named Theodoros, including one in Madaba (southwest of Amman), and there could have been more. “We aren’t sure who the best candidate might be,” Eisenberg admits.

The only thing that is clear at this point is that the Burnt Church was erected as a martyrion to a Theodoros and it could even — based on Christian practices — contain a reliquary in the center of the apse. This could have contained a body part or other memorabilia from the holy man.

Demons in the wadi

So what started as a search for a synagogue a decade ago has culminated in more evidence of how important the city was to early Christians. Indeed, Eisenberg suspects that Jesus’ miracle popularly associated with Kursi — in which he exorcised demons from a tormented man, and let the demons possess pigs instead who rushed to the lake and drowned (Mark 5: 1-20) — originated in Hippos.

Given how active Jesus was around the Sea of Galilee, it is possible he visited Hippos as well given its importance as a Roman city. “Jesus could have walked down the main street,” Eisenberg speculates. “Some of his miracles, such as with the fish and loaves, could have happened in the Sussita wadi, where water runs all year.” He also notes that the lush wadi is a favored stamping ground for wild pigs, aka boars. They’re still there.

One upside of the conflagration that destroyed the church is that nobody looted the small stuff, Eisenberg observes.

Other discoveries in the latest Hippos-Sussita church excavation include two bronze door knockers shaped like roaring lion heads. They were made so well that they could still be used, he says.

Bronze door knocker in shape of roaring lionCredit: Rami Shllush

Lion-shaped door knockers were a popular Roman and Byzantine motif, but were also popular before Christianity arrived: The knockers could have been made in the Roman times and reused in the church.

The knockers had been on the main door, which burned, but the excavators exposed its charred remains leading to the nave, where they found dozens more nails and metal tracks for the door, which however didn’t survive. They also found a chain made of iron that may have stretched over the side entrance, keeping the hoi polloi outside the church: they could watch the ceremony but not enter.

Cleaning a mosaic of birds on the floor of the Burnt Church, preserved by the ash of conflagration in Hippos.Credit: Rami Shllush

In the name of the mouse-tailed bat

Hippos was ultimately destroyed by the great earthquake of 749, though by then its fortunes had waned. From the Early Islamic period in the early eighth century, it was no longer a thrumming regional capital but an industrial town in decline.

The hilltop would enjoy a brief status resurrection in modern Israel, when the army stationed heavy artillery aimed at Syria — on what now turns out to have been the apse of the Burnt Church. But after 1967, when Israel conquered the Golan Heights, the army didn’t need that observation point anymore and moved its forces away, happily without causing damage to the relics beneath the surface.

Before that, though, the army had built two bunkers in the 1950s. These bunkers were not left bereft. One has a population of common bats, but is going to be converted by the Parks Authority for the site’s own use. The other bunker houses a population of rare migratory mouse-tailed bats and isn’t going to be touched — at least until micromammals migrate in September. Then it will be spruced up and prepared for the bats’ return in the summer of 2020, Eisenberg says.

What they have not found anywhere in Hippos so far is a synagogue, though it is known that Byzantine Hippos had a minority Jewish population.

“I don’t believe in the need to search for a synagogue,” Eisenberg snorts. If he finds one, terrific, but he is not interested in searching for one just because it is a provincial, Diaspora-driven obsession that might win funds from the Prime Minister’s Office. “Scientifically, there is no importance in finding another Byzantine-period synagogue in the Golan,” he notes, asking, “What difference is it if there are 41 synagogues instead of 40? I am secure in my Israeliness.”

In contrast, synagogues from the Roman period in the second and third centuries are rare, Eisenberg says. “As we speak, my regional research partner at Hippos, Mechael Osband of the University of Haifa, is excavating one such synagogue just on the outskirts of the Natur settlement [in the Golan Heights]. These are crucial for the understanding of this ‘missing link’ in the history of synagogues.”

Hippos-Sussita, the main Byzantine Christian city in the regionCredit: Rami Shllush

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