Hippos (Hippus, Antioch ad Hippum)

Map of the Decapolis showing the location of Hippos (here spelled Hippus)

Hippos was a Greco-Roman city in Palestine. It was located on a flat-topped foothill of the Golan Heights 350 meters above and 2 kilometers east of the Sea of Galilee. The city also controlled a small port facility on the lake itself. Hippos was part of the Decapolis, or Ten Cities, a group of cities in Roman Palestine that were culturally tied more to Greece and Rome than to the Middle East.

From above, the plateau Hippos lies on very vaguely resembles the head and neck of a horse. This is why early Greek settlers named it after the Greek word for horse, Hippos. The local Aramaic and Hebrew name, Sussita, also means horse, and the Arabic name, Qal'at el-Husn, means "Fortress of the Horse." Other names include the alternate spelling Hippus and the Latinized version of the Greek name: Hippum.

Hellenistic period

It is possible that Mount Sussita was occupied before Hellenistic times, but the city of Hippos itself was built by Greek colonists, most likely in the mid-200s BC. During this time, Palestine served as the battleground between two dynasties descending from generals of Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. It is likely that Hippos, on a very defensible site in the north of Palestine, was founded as a border fortress for the Seleucids. Its full name, Antiochia Hippos, reflects a Seleucid founding.

As the Seleucids took possession of all of Palestine, Hippos grew into a full-fledged polis, a city-state with control over the surrounding countryside. Antiochia Hippos was improved with all the makings of a Greek polis: a temple, a central market area, and other public structures. The availability of water limited the size of Hellenistic Hippos. The citizens relied on rain-collecting cisterns for all their water; this kept the city from supporting a very large population.

The Maccabean revolt resulted in an independent Jewish kingdom under the Hasmonean family in 142 BC. In c. 83-80 BC, Alexander Jannaeus led a Hasmonean campaign to conquer Hippos. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Alexander forced the entire population to convert to Judaism and be circumcised.

Roman period

In 63 BC the Roman general Pompey conquered Palestine and ended Hasmonean rule. Pompey granted self-rule to roughly ten Greek cities on Palestine's eastern frontier; this group came to be called the Decapolis. Hippos was one of these cities. Under Roman rule Hippos was granted a certain degree of autonomy. The city minted its own coins, which were stamped with the image of a horse in honor of the city's name.

Hippos was given to Herod the Great in 37 BC and to the Province of Syria in 4 BC. According to Josephus, during this time Hippos, a pagan city, was the "sworn enemy" of the new Jewish city across the lake, Tiberias. However, Hippos must have had some Jewish residents in the city. Josephus reports that during the Great Jewish Revolt of AD 66-70, Hippos persecuted its Jewish population. Other Jews from Sussita participated in attacks on Magdala and elsewhere. Hippos itself fell under attack by rebels at least once.

In the years after the Romans put down the revolt, they created the province of Palestina in the 100s, and Hippos was part of it. This is the beginning of Hipops' greatest period of prosperity and growth. It was rebuilt on a grid pattern, centered around a long Decumanus Maximus street running east-west through the city. The streets were lined with hundreds of red granite columns imported from Egypt. The great expense required to haul these columns to Palestine and up the hill is proof of the city's wealth. Other improvements included a shrine to the Emperor, a theater, and new city walls. The most important improvement, however, was the aqueduct, which piped water into Hippos from springs in the Golan Heights, 50 km away. The water, collected in a large, vaulted cistern, allowed a large population to live in the city.

Byzantine period

The imperial restructuring under the emperor Diocletian put Hippos into the province of Palestina Secunda, encompassing Galilee and the Golan. When Christianity became officially tolerated in the Roman Empire, Palestine became the target of Imperial subsidies for churches and monasteries, and Christian pilgrims brought additional revenue. So industry expanded and more luxury goods became available to common people.

Christianity came slowly to Hippos. There is no evidence of any Christian presence before the 300s. A Byzantine-era pagan tomb to a man named Hermes was found just outside the city walls, attesting to the relatively late presence of paganism here.

But gradually, the city was Christianized, becoming the seat of a bishop by at least 359. One Bishop Peter of Hippos is lested in surviving records of church councils in 359 and 362. Four Byzantine Christian churches are known to have been built in the city.

Byzantine Palestine declined throughout the 500s; a Samaritan revolt, a Sassanid Persian invasion, plagues, and earthquakes made life difficult for people in the region.

Umayyad period

The Umayyad Caliphate invaded Palestine in the 600s, completing their conquest by 641. Hippos' new Arab rulers allowed the citizens to keep practicing Christianity. However, the population and economy continued to decline. An earthquake in January 748 flattened Hippos. The city was abandoned permanently.


The German explorer Gottlieb Schumacher first surveyed Hippos in 1885, although he incorrectly identified the ruins as those of the town of Gamala.

The first excavations were carried out by archaeologist Claire Epstein in 1951-1955. She unearthed the main Byzantine church that had probably been the seat of Hippos' bishop. After her excavations, the Israeli Defense Forces again used Hippos as a fortress. It was used as a border defense against Syria until the Golan Heights were occupied by Israel in the Six Day War.

Further excavations began in 2000 under Arthur Segal of the University of Haifa. The excavations, expected to continue until 2009, have focused on six sites in the city: the city's forum, a small Imperial Cult temple, a large Hellenistic temple compound, the Roman city gates, and two Byzantine churches. The Hellenistic temple and one of the churches are revealing fascinating cultural interplay. The temple, though Greek, may have been for the worship of the Nabataean god Dushara. In Byzantine times, the temple was demolished and a Christian church built on exactly the same site.

Biblical connection

In the New Testament, when Jesus mentions a "city set upon a hill" that "cannot be hidden" (Matthew 5:14) he may have been referring to Hippos. In addition, a miracle of Jesus recounted in Mark 5 and Luke 8 may also be related to Hippos. See Gergesa for a discussion of the location of this miracle.


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