Tag Archives: Byzantine

Mysteries of Susya

Byzantine era synagogue in Susya --wood roof modern addition to protect
Byzantine era synagogue in Susya –wood roof modern addition to protect what remains

After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the Roman conquerors forbid Jews to live in Jerusalem. Although most Jews moved to the north, small groups moved south to Karmiya, Eshtamol, and Susya. Although the last town was well populated in the first millennium, we have no idea what its name was at the time. The Crusaders named it “Susya”  about four hundred years after it had been abandoned, because it sounded like the Arabic name of the area.

In the Byzantine period, from around 300 to 800 CE, it had been a relatively large, strong Jewish city, known for its wine and olive oil.  However, after the Muslim Conquest in 638, there was an upheaval in life all across the land. Wine is forbidden to Muslims; therefore, vintners in the land could no longer make and sell wine. Given the religious and political policies of the new government, some residents may have converted to Islam. The final death blow to the town was the earthquake of 749 CE, probably the worst in Middle Eastern history. Although town was not totally destroyed, its population disappeared.

What happened to all the people? It’s a mystery. Yitzchak Ben Zvi, a historian and the second President of Israel, had an interesting idea. He noted that all the residents of Yata, the neighboring Arab town, are Muslims. However, a small community within the town, called M’chamrim by their neighbors, are unlike the other Muslims. They refrain from eating camel meat, they drink wine, light Chanukah candles, and marry only among themselves. Ben Tzvi suggested that these M’chamrim are descendants of Jews from Susya who converted to Islam under threat of death. Nonetheless they maintained some Jewish customs.

At the time Ben Tzvi developed his theory, the M’chamrim were quite open about their special customs. More recently, they have been very quiet. Since the rise of Palestinian nationalism, it may have become dangerous to publicize their similarities to Israelis.

Susya is a wonderful example of a Jewish town from the Byzantine period. There is no destruction layer since it was never conquered or destroyed in a war. The main streets and the alleyways are clearly visible, as are the houses that line them. The house foundations are obvious, as are the shared courtyards bordered by homes on each side. The doorposts have indentations in them at the correct height and size for holding a mezuza, the small scroll with the Sh’ma on it. This prayer has marked the doors of Jews since God gave the commandment to Moses.

Interestingly, almost every house has a manmade cave under it. Here on the edge of the desert, having your own cave would have been sensible. The temperature in a cave is fairly constant throughout the year. These caves would have offered respite from the oppressive desert heat during the long dry season.

Susya is located in spar hamidbar, the border area between settlements and desert. The desert has always been home to nomads, raiders, and bandits. The caves would also have been good places to hide when raiders attacked.

Entrance to Byzantine era burial cave in Susya. The rolling stone protected the entrance.
Entrance to Byzantine era burial cave in Susya. The rolling stone protected the entrance.

On the right side of the main street leading up to the town, near the town wall, there is a large square depression. A cave sits at one end. This cave was employed for the two stage burial popular during the time of the Second Temple. The dead were first laid on shelves in an outer chamber of the cave. After about a year, the bones were then gathered and placed in a stone box, an ossuary, for preservation. Ossuaries were made to accommodate the largest bones in the body. They are the length of the thigh bones and the width of the skull. The ossuaries were kept in the burial cave.

A large round stone leans against the wall of the depression next to the cave’s entrance. It would have been rolled in front of the entrance to keep wild animals from entering and disturbing the bones.

In the rest of the land, people began to be buried in individual boxes (coffins) at some point in the second century CE. But in Susya secondary burial in ossuaries was practiced well into the 5th century. Were the people of the region so cut off from the rest of the Jews that they didn’t know burial fashions had changed? Or were they more resistant to change? Another mystery.

One feature of the town stands out. There are a relatively large number of mikves, ritual baths. Thirty-five have been discovered. That is many more than exist in religious towns of similar size today. That’s also more than in other towns of similar size from the Byzantine era that have been excavated. Most of these mikves seem to have been private, for use by residents who shared a courtyard.
Entrance to the synagogue in Susya
Entrance to the synagogue in Susya

The synagogue on the top of the hill has wood roof, which is obviously new, unlike the stone walls and floor. The original floor mosaic is in the Mosaic Museum near Maale Adumin. However, a copy of the mosaic is in the synagogue, with uncolored cement filling in for missing tiles. The mosaics are  Byzantine–the tiles are bigger and the colors not as varied as in Roman mosaics. The mosaics include geometric designs and Jewish symbols such as the menorah and the lulav, the palm branch waved during the Succot holiday. One of the mosaics contains an inscription, stating that it was donated by Rabbi Isai the Cohen. The date on the mosaic tells the year since the creation of the world, the usual Jewish format. Additionally, that mosaic is dated as year two of the seven year Shmitta, or Sabbatical, cycle.

On the northern wall of the synagogue, the one closest to Jerusalem, an indentation shows the location of the Aron Kodesh where the Torah scrolls had been kept. The Aron itself, however,  has been removed and can be viewed in the Byzantine section of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The building is oriented east-west, just as the Temple in Jerusalem. The steps going up into the synagogue are in three groups—three, five, and seven steps. This arrangement echoes the number of words in the three sentences of the Cohens’ blessing of the people.

The building is large for a city of this size, and clearly had a second story. In a modern synagogue, the second floor would be reserved for women. Whether or not the women actually sat separately from the men is another unanswered question. There are, of course, three possibilities. The women could have sat separately upstairs, or men sat up there because women did not go to synagogue. The men and women might have sat together throughout the building. No evidence exists to support or disprove any of the possibilities.

A very large round stone was standing inside the building near the entrance. It is thought that in times of danger, when bandits attacked the village, the residents would run to the stone walled synagogue. They would then roll the stone across the entrance for protection. Further evidence that the building was used for shelter in times of danger is provided by the entrance to a tunnel in the corner of the courtyard. The tunnel leads out to a cave in a nearby field. When marauders were sighted, the farmers could run to the cave, whose entrance was probably hidden by bushes. From there they could gain access to the synagogue. Several of the younger men from our tour went through the tunnel and reported that in places they had to crawl to get through. From the dirt on their trousers and shirts, I’d say it was a tight fit.

The many unusual features uncovered in the excavation of Susya have led to speculation about the origins and population of the city. One theory is that it was a city of Cohanim, of priests. Its location, fairly close to Jerusalem, meant that while the Temple still stood, the priests could travel there easily. After the destruction of the Temple, they remained ready to return to Jerusalem on short notice when it would be rebuilt. That would also explain the high prevalence of mikves. They could keep themselves in a state of tahara (ritual purity) for the imminent restoration of Temple worship. The orientation of synagogue, use of the double dating system, and Jerusalem style burial also point to preservation of the Temple culture. This would have been more important to priests than to the rest of the people.

The presence of the mezuzot, mikves, and menorah decorations indicate all the residents of Susya were Jews. But as for the other questions, we have no answers. They remain open mysteries.

Where Susya is:

Archeologist Shows Byzantine Jerusalem

Archeologist Dr. Oren Gutfeld at the excavation under Tiferet Israel Synagogue, in ancient Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter
Archeologist Dr. Oren Gutfeld at the excavation under the site of the Tiferet Israel Synagogue, in Jerusalem’s ancient Jewish Quarter

Much of Jerusalem and the area around it is basically one big archeological dig. In some places, like the Givati parking lot, it is a standard open excavation. In other places, like the Rova, the Jewish Quarter, much of what current excavators seek is hidden under buildings. Thus, the archeologists’ work is a matter of happenstance and serendipity.

Although it seemed like a disaster in 1948, the destruction of most of the Rova by the Jordanians was actually a gift to historians and archeologists. So many buildings had been destroyed and rubble was everywhere. Therefore, when the Israel recaptured the city in 1967, rebuilding had to start with clearing up and sorting through the remains. Nahman Avigad, a well respected and experienced archeologist was in charge of the first phase. For several years, reconstruction was done only with shovels. What they uncovered changed our pictures of Jerusalem back to the time of the book of Genesis.

Excavations in and around the Old City continue today. Our knowledge increases in fits and starts. Construction of new buildings always begins with a salvage dig, to find out what was on that site before.

Megalim, the Institute for Study of Ancient Jerusalem, is sponsoring a series of tours led by archeologists about finds in the city. Each “Tour with the Investigator,” features the supervising archeologist of a site. He discusses his project and what they have found at the dig itself. It is conducted in Hebrew, of course.

At the end of November I went on a tour led by Dr. Oren Gutfeld. When he met us, he told us his major field of interest was the Byzantine period. We would see remains of Byzantine structures in several places in the Jewish Quarter.

Oren, as he insisted we call him, describes himself as being the recipient of a nes, a miracle. Near the end of his doctoral studies at Hebrew University, he had to decide on a dissertation topic. His interest in the Byzantine period led him to examine two projects of the Emperor Justinian: the Cardo and the Nea Church.

The Cardo is the main north-south street in all Roman cities. Jerusalem’s Cardo had not yet been completely investigated. A major question remained: was its southern half Roman or Byzantine?

The Nea Church, the largest in the Middle East, was completed in 543 CE. It was largely destroyed about 70 years later when the Persians conquered Jerusalem in 614 CE. Many of the large stones that remained were taken to be used in construction in other parts of the city a few decades later.  Thus stones quarried and used by the Byzantines  can be seen incorporated into buildings from the Umayyad Muslim period.

At the time he started writing his dissertation, no one had examined the archeology of the Cardo or Nea Church incorporating contemporaneous Christian, Muslim, and Karaite texts. Nor had anyone yet fully compared their structure to other known Byzantine Churches or Roman and Byzantine Cardos. His work would change the conception of the size and layout of Jerusalem in the fifth and sixth centuries CE, and help us understand life in the city in the late Byzantine and early Muslim periods.

With that introduction, he led us into the basement of the Hurva Synagogue. I’ve been there before. I’ve seen the Second Temple period mikveh and the small Roman street that covers part of it. After pointing out these features, and explaining their significance, Oren led us into an area behind us. We stood there, fifty people crowded onto a small wooden platform, and looked down at the continuation of that Roman street. When I was in the Hurva basement less than a year ago, the street extended a few feet to a wall. The guide spoke for less than two minutes. Nothing to see here; we moved on.

Byzantine street that leads to the Cardo being excavated under the Hurva Synagogue
Byzantine street that leads to the Cardo being excavated under the Hurva Synagogue

Now that street extends much further. It still ends at the wall, but the wall has a hole in the middle through which you can see that pavement continues. The wall also has a wooden ladder leaning against it. And at the top of the ladder is another hole in the wall, through which one might crawl into the lighted area beyond it.

Oren explained to us that as part of his ongoing investigations of the Cardo, he visited all the modern shops on the eastern side of the street. Then he used the word nes again. In one jewelry store, he noticed the peak of an arch, filled in with other stone, coming up through the floor in the back. When he asked the proprietor about it, the man replied that behind the arch was an empty space. The man used it as a safe, to store things.

That was the clue Oren was looking for. With the store owner’s permission, his team broke through the wall, and found the continuation of the street we saw under the Hurva Synagogue. I don’t call that a miracle. That’s a scientist immersed in his work. He knows where to look and what questions to ask to find the missing parts of the story he wants to piece together.

After exiting the synagogue, we walked across Hurva Square to the Street of the Karaites. We stopped in front of a one story tall stone wall, pierced by several arched openings. This was once the Tiferet Israel Synagogue, which rivaled the Hurva in size and beauty. The top of its dome was even higher than that of the Hurva. The story is that the congregation ran out of moneyduring its construction and could not complete the building. In 1869, Emperor Franz Joseph stopped in Jerusalem on his way to Egypt. Noticing the synagogue, he asked Rabbi Nissan Beck why it had no roof. The Rabbi supposedly replied that it had removed its hat in honor of the Austrian Emperor. No doubt amused by the rabbi’s words, the Emperor donated money to build the dome.

The synagogue stood tall on the Old City’s hill, taller than the Dome of the Rock and Al Aksa mosque. During the War for Independence, the Jordanian Legion systematically worked its way through the Jewish Quarter. On May 21,1948, they destroyed the Tiferet Israel Synagogue. Only part of the front wall remained recognizable amid the rubble.

Looking down into completed archeological excavation where the destroyed Tiferet Israel Synagogue is due to be rebuilt in the Rova of Jerusalem's Old City
The archeological excavation where the destroyed Tiferet Israel Synagogue is due to be rebuilt

After standing as a reminder of the destruction for more than sixty years, the synagogue is about to be rebuilt, almost exactly the same as originally. Oren had the privilege of conducting the salvage dig to determine what was under the ruins. He pulled some keys out of his pocket and unlocked the padlock that secured the sheet metal fence around the site. We filed down the metal stairway to stand on the boardwalk on one side of a very deep pit.

From inside we looked up at the arches of the doors on street level. The arches will be incorporated into the reconstructed synagogue. People coming in will enter the new building through the original nineteenth century doorway.

The excavation, which is now completed, took several years because it had to be done painstakingly. Examining each layer required removing everything above it. Therefore, they systematically documented everything. Once a layer was fully excavated and examined, the archeologists dug out the next layer down. Gradually they moved down through the layers, finding artifacts from successively earlier times

In the synagogue basement level they found the mikve and the boilers that warmed the water. Heated mikvaot were rare in the nineteenth century, so this Ottoman period mikveh was famous.   Artifacts were found from many earlier periods as well, including the twelfth century Mamluk.   Findings from the Byzantine period included a white mosaic floor and a wall fresco. They also found the continuation of the street from the Cardo that ran under the Hurva. Below the Byzantine layer was a thick layer of black ash. The layer of ash this deep was evidence of the burning of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.

Below the ash they found artifacts dating back to the times of Second and First Temples. Oren told us about finding a broken stone, half hidden in the black ash. As they cleaned it, he saw that it had an inscription on it–two lines written in Aramaic. As he began to decipher the ancient Hebrew script, he realized that this was an official weight belonging to a member of the family of Katros. He reminded us that a similar weight was found many years ago in the ash layer of house not too far away. It also belonged to the same family, which makes sense historically. The Katros family is mentioned in the Bible as having been responsible for weights and measures in the Temple. He still sounds moved by uncovering something with directly connected to the Temple.

Learning how archeologists are recovering our past is always fascinating. Listening to them tell about it, at the site where they discovered the evidence, and hearing the excitement in their voices, makes it immediate. Even if I don’t understand every word, I catch that sense of wonder.

And if that archeologist says holding a Temple period relic is a miracle, I’m not going to argue with him.