Tag Archives: Susya

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: