Archaeologists expose Hippos-Sussita’s Byzantine Cathedral
Did this cathedral in the Galilee play an exceptionally large role in the daily practice of baptisms during the Byzantine period (c. 324–634 CE)? According to excavators Arleta Kowalewska and Michael Eisenberg from the University of Haifa, it likely did.
Within the archaeological site of Hippos-Sussita, near the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee, sits the ruins of a once large and magnificent cathedral. With inner dimensions of 92 by 59 feet, the church—one of seven built in the city—was certainly the largest in the area. However, archaeological reconstructions of the cathedral suggest that it was important not only for its size but also its function as a key site for local baptismal rituals.
Although it was in use at the same time as the other churches in Hippos, the cathedral had something the other churches did not. While other early churches contained baptismal fonts or small chapels, the cathedral boasted a large photisterion, a specific hall dedicated for baptismal rites. The hall alone measured nearly 60 by 40 feet. In addition to the photisterion, the team also uncovered a smaller baptismal chapel in the cathedral’s southern wing. This small chapel featured a marble chancel screen and a small baptismal font that may have been used for children. They also discovered a large marble block, with three rounded indentations that could have been used to hold oil during baptismal ceremonies.
What does all this mean for the practice of baptism in the Galilee? According to the team, the cathedral likely played a very important role, perhaps performing the majority of adult baptisms in the entire region. While small baptismal fonts—like that found in the cathedral’s southern wing—were likely used for children, the exceptionally large photisterion was almost certainly utilized for the adult baptism. As such, it may have been the main site of conversions in the area, and the place where new believers received the sacrament. Indeed, the bishopric commanded by the Hippos-Sussita cathedral possibly extended across much of the eastern shore of the Galilee and into sections of the southern Golan as well. After all, Hippos-Sussita was the largest Christian city in the region, having been one of the ten cities of the Decapolis.
Excavations have revealed much more than just the baptismal area. While many of the churches in the city were beautiful structures, the cathedral is by far the most exquisite. Decked out with a red-and-white marble checkerboard floor and brightly plastered walls, the main prayer hall’s two-story space would have been a sight to behold. Along the nave were two rows of pristine granite columns, topped with ornately decorated marble capitals. These columns, tinted with pink and green, would have added even more color to the cathedral. In all, there are 18 columns that each stand over 15 feet tall and weigh nearly 4 tons.
“To our eyes today they might look tacky, kitschy even, but that was their taste,” Eisenberg told Haaretz. The stones used for constructing many of the imposing Byzantine buildings at Hippos had been taken from earlier Roman-period temples and public buildings that had collapsed after an earthquake in 363 CE. Yet, the awe-inspiring cathedral had the first choice for the most impressive building materials. Indeed, analysis revealed that its columns originated from sites as far away as Egypt, the Aegean, and Asia Minor. While these were impressive building materials in the Roman period, they were even rarer during the Byzantine period, which highlights the cathedral’s importance and status in the Christian city.
The team uncovered several inscriptions throughout the early Christian cathedral and the baptistery hall, one of which even helped the team in the building’s identification. According to Eisenberg in an interview with Bible History Daily, the inscription “mentions the function and terminology of the hall—photisterion (φωτιστήριον)—‘place of illumination.’” While most halls of this type are commonly referred to as baptisterium, the region east of the Galilee apparently used this alternate term. “It served several liturgical functions, and the baptismal font was one of them,” said Eisenberg.
Other inscriptions within the church helped date the uppermost phase of its construction to the late sixth century. However, as excavations revealed, this was not the first phase of the church, and a lower level was discovered about 2 feet below. Unfortunately, the earliest phase is hard to date. “It most probably dates to before the sixth century or the end of fifth, but it may be even earlier,” Kowalewska told Bible History Daily.
Other finds from the early Christian cathedral included a 3-foot-tall candelabrum and an intriguing reliquary discovered on the floor of the baptistry. The 92-pound stone box would have been used to store relics belonging to the church, although those have long since disappeared. The box featured a carved cross on one side and a stone lid that would have added even more weight to the hefty object. Although larger reliquaries are known, the team suggests that this one might have been portable and paraded around the cathedral on various holy days. This could make it one of the heaviest portable reliquaries ever excavated.
A second earthquake in 749 CE likely caused the early Christian cathedral’s eventual collapse, leaving the columns strewn around the site in much the same way they were found when the church was first built.
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We have in the first 1000 years AD, the establishment of the “Apostolic Fathers” followed by local church clergy or priests serving congregations and edifices. To apply the term “Cathedral” to these finds without correlating the service of a ruling Bishop before Gregory the Great, may be a false term. The etymology and function of a building term is defined by who directs it’s function. Can you connect the name of a Apostolic Father, or Bishop to this dig? If not, Latin terminology or Greek terminology used to define liturgical function doth not a “Cathedral ” make,
“Two bishops from Hippos Palaistinēs were signatories to synods of Jerusalem in the first half of the 6th century: Bishop Colon in 518 CE and Bishop Theodorus in 536” (Mark Schuler: The Northeast Insula and Late Antique Christianity at Hippos Palaistinēs, in: Michael Eisenberg (ed.): Hippos of the Decapolis and its Region. 18 Years of Research, Haifa 2017, p. 26). And Epiphanius (Haer. 73, 26) already mentions a 4th century bishop, Πέτρος ἐπίσκοπος Ἵππου Παλαιστίνης (Petros episkopos Hippu Palaistinēs, cf. Schuler, p. 19).