Many people--myself included--sometimes forget how extensive the ancient Hellenic empire was. It wasn't just what is now modern Greece. It extended all the way down to, for example, Syria. Today: Hippos.
Between the 3rd century BC and the 7th century AD, Hippos was the site of a Graeco-Roman city, which then declined under Muslim rule and was abandoned after an earthquake in 749. Besides the fortified city itself, Hippos controlled two port facilities on the lake and an area of the surrounding countryside. Hippos was part of the Decapolis, or Ten Cities, a region in Roman Jordan, Syria and Israel that were culturally tied more closely to Hellas and Rome than to the Semitic ethnoi around.
Established as Antioch of Hippos (Ἀντιόχεια τοῦ Ἵππου) by Seleucid settlers, the city is named after the Greek language word for horse, Hippos, and a common name of Seleucid monarchs, Antiochus. The Seleucis Empire, by the way, was a Hellenistic state ruled by the Seleucid dynasty, which existed from 312 BC to 63 BC; it was founded by Seleucus I Nicator following the division of the Macedonian empire vastly expanded by Alexander the Great.The Aramaic name, Sussita (Hebrew: סוסיתא), was also adopted into Hebrew and also means horse, while the Arabic name, Qal'at al-Hisn, means 'Fortress of the Horse/Stallion'. Other names include the alternate spelling Hippus and the Latinized version of the Greek name: Hippum. The precise reason why the city received this name is unknown.
Excavations in Hippos have revealed traces of habitation from as early as the Neolithic period. The site was again inhabited in the third century BC by the Ptolemies, though whether it was an urban settlement or a military outpost is still unknown. During this time, Coele-Syria served as the battleground between two dynasties descending from captains of Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. It is likely that Hippos, on a very defensible site along the border lines of the 3rd century BC, was founded as a border fortress for the Ptolemies. The city of Hippos was most likely established in the middle of the second century BC.
As the Seleucids took possession of all of Coele-Syria, 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 an Hellenic 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.
Hellas' rule did not last. The Maccabean revolt resulted in an independent Jewish kingdom under the Hasmonean dynasty in 142 BC. In c. 83-80 BC, Alexander Jannaeus led a Hasmonean campaign to conquer lands east of the Jordan River.
In 63 BC the Roman general Pompey conquered Coele-Syria, including Judea, and ended Hasmonean independence. Pompey granted self-rule to roughly ten ten cities on Coele-Syria's eastern frontier; this group, of which Hippos was one, came to be called the Decapolis and was incorporated into the Roman Provincia Syria. Under Roman rule, Hippos was granted a certain degree of autonomy. The city minted its own coins, stamped with the image of a horse in honor of the city's name.
Its rule exchanged hands several more times before the Romans created the province of Palaestina in 135, of which Hippos was a part. This was the beginning of Hippos' greatest period of prosperity and growth. It was rebuilt along a grid pattern, centered around a long decumanus maximus 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 Kalybe (a shrine to the Emperor), a theatre, an odeon, a basilica, and new city walls. The most important improvement, however, was the aqueduct, which led 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.
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. 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 4th century. A Byzantine-era pagan tomb of a man named Hermes has been found just outside the city walls, attesting to the relatively late presence of pre-Christian religions here. Gradually, however, the city was Christianized, becoming the seat of a bishop by at least 359. One Bishop Peter of Hippos is listed in surviving records of church councils in 359 and 362.
The Muslim armies of the Rashidun period invaded Palestine in the 7th century, completing their conquest by 641. Hippos' new Arab rulers allowed the citizens to continue practicing Christianity, a policy then continued by the Umayyad Caliphate. However, the population and economy continued to decline. The earthquake of 749 destroyed Hippos and it was abandoned permanently.
Archaeological surveys were conducted here in the late 19th C by Gottlieb Schumacher. During the early 50s there were clashes on this border, and the IDF fortified the Sussita hill as a front post. This is an archaeologist's dream--the ruins were mostly undisturbed, and the treasures found under the debris are fascinating. However, it will take years to complete this enormous task of excavation, reconstruction and preservation.