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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:

The Synagogue by the Hot Springs

Symbols of the Temple depicted in the mosaic floor of the 4th century CE synagogue at Hamat Tveriya, just south of modern Tiberius
Symbols of the Temple depicted in the mosaic floor of the 4th century CE synagogue at Hamat Tveriya, just south of modern Tiberius.

Steam rose from the open drain next to the sidewalk where we stood. My class from Pardes Institute was at Hamat T’veriya, listening to Leah Rosenthal review the Talmudic discussion about the use of hot water on Shabbat. Is it permissible to warm food with steaming water from such a spring on Shabbat? Is it permissible to bathe in a hot spring? Well, it depends….

Steam rises from the underground hot water through the chimneys at Hamat T'veriya, near the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee)
Steam rises from the underground hot water through the chimneys near the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee)

Behind her, steam rose from chimneys built into the ground.

Hamat, or Hot Place as it was originally called, sits at the southern end of the modern city of Tiberias. It’s near the southern end of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). The hot springs have drawn people to the area for millennia, and are reason Tiberias is located where it is.

If you come here by cab, you have to be sure the driver understands you want to see the archeological area and national park. Most drivers will automatically take you a little further south to the modern installations of Hamat Gader. There, you can indulge in a leisurely soak in the mineral-rich waters that bubble up, pre-heated by geological forces.

In 1985, our family had spent a couple hours at the modern hot springs on a synagogue-sponsored trip. It was late December, and we had just passed several cold damp days in Jerusalem. Between the normal Jerusalem winter chill, and the lack of heat almost everywhere, I had often felt like I could never get warm. I was unenthusiastic about putting on a bathing suit and immersing in an outdoor pool. But the building itself was very warm. My youngest child needed close adult supervision. And the steam rising off the indoor and outdoor pools enticed me.

The warm water quickly warmed even my cold feet. It was so warm and relaxing, I didn’t feel like swimming—I just wanted to drift near the inlet where the hot water entered the large pool.

My son asked me to come to the outdoor pool with him. Standing in the pool was a surprise. The water, heated underground, was hot, but the air above the pool was chilly. I quickly bent my knees to keep as much of my body underwater as possible. I understood the appeal of hot springs, and why Sir Walter in Jane Austen’s Persuasion took his family to Bath.

On our trip current to Hamat T’veriya with Pardes, however, we were interested in the hot springs only in passing. We had come to see the remains of a synagogue from the Mishnaic period.

Past the chimneys venting underground steam, a side path leads uphill a short distance to a modern shed-like building. It protects a fourth century CE synagogue, which was discovered in 1920. The archeologists who excavated the sanctuary discovered two older synagogues under it. A holy place is a Holy Place. If a particular site was hallowed by house of prayer, then it was only logical to build its replacement on the same site.

Visitors are restricted to an elevated platform that runs along two sides of the preserved structure. The remaining walls, about waist high, surround a beautiful mosaic floor. The mosaics follow the same pattern as I’ve seen in other synagogues of the Mishnaic period.

Because it was built in the north, the building faces south. A clear glass sheet stands on the south side, where an indentation in the floor indicates the Aron might have stood. “Ve’ahavta l’rayacha camocha” (You shall love your neighbor as yourself) is painted in black letters on the glass.

The architectural details of the synagogue, however, are not terribly interesting. The mosaics are the focus of attention.

Mosaic floor dedicatory inscriptions in Greek in the synagogue at Hamat T'veriya
Mosaic floor dedicatory inscriptions in Greek in the synagogue at Hamat T’veriya.

On the north side are several inscriptions that sound familiar to anyone who has ever entered a synagogue. One says, in Greek, “May he be remembered for good and for blessing, Profoturos the elder constructed this aisle of the synagogue. Blessing upon him. Amen. Shalom.” Shalom is written in Hebrew. The inscriptions, ancient equivalents of “Dedicated to the memory of Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Cohen,” shows how some things just never change.

Closest to the south wall, a row of mosaics depict symbols of the Temple: shofars, trumpets, an incense shovel. The center of this mosaic shows a large menorah, which had become the prime symbol of Judaism. There are no six-pointed stars in the building, or indeed, in any of the early synagogues. Today’s symbol of Judaism, now called the Star of David or Magen David, did not come into common use until the 17th century CE.

The most striking mosaic, in the center of the floor, is a large circle, enclosed in a square. On its circumference, the circle is divided into twelve sections, each one portraying a sign of the zodiac, or as they are called in Hebrew, a mazal. The term mazal refers to the belief that one’s sign determines one’s fate in life—a belief borrowed from surrounding cultures. We’ve seen zodiac cycle mosaics in other Byzantine era synagogues. They seem to have been a common decorative motif of the period.

Signs of the Zodiac, in mosaic floor of 4th century CE synagogue near the Kinneret
Signs of the Zodiac, in mosaic floor of 4th century CE synagogue near the Kinneret

The signs of the zodiac are symbolic of the sun’s position in the sky at a particular time of the year. Therefore, it is natural to see some symbolic depiction of the sun in the middle of the zodiac cycle. However, this mosaic seems to go a little too far. In the chariot, which carries the sun through the sky every day, stands not the sun, but the figure of a man. Helios, the sun god, rides his chariot across the synagogue floor? That seems strange to our eyes.

Today’s belief in the power of astrology is most likely not the same as it was ancient Israel. Lester Ness postulates that ancient Jews believed that because God created the stars, He controlled their powers. TThe signs of the zodiac were thus visual symbols of God’s power. Jews could not make a picture or a statue of God for their synagogue. Instead, they made mosaics that showed the emissaries through which He worked. In this way, they showed they were both part of the cultures that surrounded them, and also separate from those cultures. Their use of imagery of the zodiac and of Helios symbolized God’s power and control of the world.

The synagogue in Hamat T’veriya is an example of how Judaism has changed over the centuries, yet how it has remained the same. It doesn’t matter how God’s power is expressed. It could be through the astrological power He gave the stars, through the ten plagues that led to the Exodus from Egypt, or through the miraculous survival of the Jews through so many centuries. But our belief in one God remains steady.

Golan Synagogue: Majduliya

Archaeologist Michael Osband explains his findings at Majduliya in the Golan
Archaeologist Michael Osband explains his findings at Majduliya in the Golan

About thirty-five of us followed the archaeologist down a dirt track across the high plain of the Golan. In every direction, all we saw were dried yellow grasses and an occasional purple thorn flower. Here and there, a black basalt rock stuck up through the vegetation. In the distance, off to the northwest, the faint blue gray mountains reached up into the bright blue sky.

Mechael Osband PhD, the archeologist who had discovered this site, reached the seven wire cow fence. He opened the gate by lifting one post and peeling the wire back to let us through, asking one of the men in our group to close it after everyone had walked through. He was not about to let any cow wander through his site.

From a short distance you can't tell that this is the site of an ancient Golan synagogue
From a short distance you can’t tell that this is the site of an ancient synagogue in the Golan. Sign reads: Danger. Entrance forbidden. Archaeological excavation.

My class on the development of prayer and the synagogue carefully walked down the track. Neither Mechael (pronounced Mee-chah-el) nor Shulie Mishkin, our guide, felt the need to make sure we didn’t wander off on our own; the thorns on either side of the path were too numerous. They grabbed at our skirts and slacks. My classmates wearing sandals complained that they should have worn sneakers.

We passed through another gate in a wire fence, all but invisible a few feet away, and saw black earth, some black rocks, and lines of white sandbags. This was Majduliya, Mechael’s first archeological dig of his own, one he had discovered about a year and a half ago during his post-doctoral research. He was now preparing for the new season.

This part of the Golan was known as an area of Jewish settlement in Second Temple times. Not far from Majduliya are the remains of Gamla, a Jewish stronghold during the Great Revolt, which was captured and destroyed by the Romans in 68 C.E. Many other towns in the Golan are mentioned in the Talmud.

Thus, it has long been of interest to archaeologists. Gottlieb Schumacher, the German-American engineer who surveyed the route for the Damascus-Haifa railway and excavated at Megiddo, came by here in the late 19th century. In his survey of the Golan plateau, he mentioned Majduliya, saying that its original name is not known. He did find four ancient olive presses, but the area was already known to be an olive growing area. He concluded that there was “nothing of interest here.” Little did he know.

Mechael discovered the site while conducting a survey of Roman pottery in the Golan. A pool of water in the middle of the field attracted his attention. Then he found something man made, some dressed stones in a row—a portion of a wall. Inside wall or outside wall? That was yet to be determined.

When you find a wall, he told us, the first thing you want to do is find a corner. That will tell you the orientation of the building. Starting from the corner, you can then look for other corners and determine the size of the structure in question. Before he walked over to the first corner, he pointed out indentations in two stones, evidence that two doors had led into the structure.

He walked along the northern wall over to the eastern corner, pointing out benches built into all four walls. From the size of the building— about 50 by 75 feet—and the presence of the benches, he determined that this was obviously some type of public building. But he still needed to determine the ethnicity of the village in which it was found.

The presence of a mikveh is the generally accepted sign of a Jewish town. In most of the places where synagogues have been found, at least one mikveh has been found nearby. But almost no mikvaot have been found in the Golan. This site isn’t completely excavated yet, so the lack of a mikveh is not significant. However, the excavators also look for artifacts that are associated solely with Jewish habitation—stone vessels.

The Jews in earlier periods observed laws of ritual purity and impurity strictly. The advantage of vessels, such as cups and bowls, made of stone is that stone cannot contract impurity. The presence of stone vessels means that Jews lived in the area. Although stone vessels have been found at other sites in the Golan, none have been found yet at Majduliya. Finding them would show the archaeologists that this was a Jewish village, so they will continue to look for stone cups and dishes this season. Finding such vessels will confirm that building must have been a synagogue because the only large buildings found in Jewish villages of the Roman period were synagogues.

But more evidence was waiting to be discovered.

He turned the corner and walked along the southern wall of the building, the wall closest to Jerusalem, the direction of Jewish prayer. About halfway along its length, he knelt down, and leaning over, moved a few sandbags. “These things were found in the last week.”

During the month-long active archaeological season in midsummer, dozens of students and other volunteers will be busy here. They will carefully dig with small shovels and clear away soil and debris with brushes. But now, four weeks before the volunteers arrive, Mechael is the only one at the site. He’s getting ready for the busy time. Nonetheless, the lure of possible discovery is too strong. It may not be the season yet, but as he examines the site to see what has changed during the rainy winter, he is not averse to uncovering something that looks promising. Which is what he did on this southern side of the building.

As he hunched over, he pointed out that the area he was leaning over was lower than the rest of the building. A lower area on the side closest to Jerusalem is typical of synagogue architecture of the Roman period.

The sandbags he moved had been protecting two objects, which he now held up. They were red and looked like pottery. “Anyone know what these are?” he asked.

Most of us shook our heads. One brave person hazarded a guess. “Roof tiles?”

Mechael smiled. “These are tiles from the roof. Tiles came with the legions; they show that the synagogue was built in Roman times.”

From seeing excavations of earlier towns, I knew that roofs had been constructed either from stone beams or wood and mud. When the Romans ruled the land, they needed to provide year-round work for the soldiers. In the winter, the cold rainy period when fighting ceased, the legions were put to work making tiles. When digging the foundation for the Binyanei HaUma, the international convention center in Jerusalem, builders had discovered the Tenth Legion’s tile factory.

Carefully placing the roof tiles on the ground, Mechael moved two more sandbags and lifted the corner of a rubber mat. He peeled it back, and then brushed some of the dirt from the surface. Small white spots appeared through

When the black earth was removed, some white mosaic tiles were found.
When the black earth was removed, some white mosaic tiles were found.

the black dirt. He brushed some more dirt away and sat back on his heels, a pleased expression on his face.

The white spots looked to be the size of the small tiles used to make mosaics. And indeed that is what they are. Most Roman period synagogues found so far have mosaic floors, and Mechael believes he has found one here as well. Only time, and painstaking removal of the dirt covering the floor, will confirm his belief, or tell him he jumped to an erroneous conclusion based on too little evidence.

As he discussed the possibility that he has found a mosaic floor, he mentioned that finding it cleared up another mystery. Now that it is summer, the whole area is dry, but when he first saw this field in the winter, a pool of water filled this area. “Of course,” he said, as if the idea had just then occurred to him. “There’s no drainage here–there’s a floor under it!”

A small village once stood here, with a synagogue near its edge. The whole site is about seven and a half acres, and only a small part of it has been excavated–a few houses and the synagogue. Much work remains to be done, and will no doubt take several years to accomplish.

Mechael Osband is enthusiastic about the prospect of uncovering all of it.