Daniel Eilon
English lecturer turned lawyer turned Israeli Tour Guide

Far From The Madding Crowd in Israel – 1 – Sussita

The city Sussita has been here since the second century BCE - the statue of the horse (sus in Hebrew) for not much more than a couple of weeks.  Photo: Daniel Eilon
The ancient city Sussita has been here since the second century BCE (but abandoned and buried since the earthquake of 749 CE). The statue of the horse (sus in Hebrew) has been there for not much more than a couple of weeks. Photo: Daniel Eilon

“This place would be perfect for tourists, if it wasn’t for all these crowds ….”

Tourists love to complain that a place is too touristy. Fair enough. As travellers they want to see places that are new and different and also – maybe – to see people unlike themselves.

It all depends on why you left home in the first place. When modern tourism began in the late nineteenth century it made travel to Palestine possible, affordable and popular. Lord Russell, a member of Britain’s ruling class, responded with patrician hauteur to the vulgar innovation of tours to Palestine organised by the Cook’s Travel Company, noting testily that it increased the risk that you might meet people there to whom you had not been properly introduced.

There are many places in Israel where you can get away from the crowds. Acco’s magnificent and massive crusader Knights Halls can easily accommodate several coach-loads of visitors at a time, and often they do. But if you time it right, as I did with two Canadian visitors this week, you can find it eerily calm and empty: to our astonishment we had the whole place entirely to ourselves.

I had the same experience yesterday at the newly-opened Sussita National Park above the Sea of Galilee, which is a hidden gem, not yet discovered by tourists. Tomer who was manning the brand-new visitors’ centre there had a lonely day yesterday. No visitors. When I popped my head around the door just to say hello he was so delighted, it was touching.  He was determined to show me the recently-completed two-minute movie explaining Sussita to visitors. What a shame that the audience was just me and Tomer – who has seen it before – because the new film is superb.

Nestled on the eastern shore of the Kineret, Sussita National Park beckons adventure seekers and history enthusiasts, above all because it is so picturesque. Mount Sussita rises 350 meters above the water, so the summit offers awe-inspiring panoramic views of the Kineret and the Golan Heights. It’s a treat for hikers, nature lovers, and photographers.

The ancient city of Sussita (otherwise known by the Greek name Hippos – both names mean horse), dates back to the Hellenistic period. The National Parks Authority has now put up a massive and magnificent new statue of a horse (sus in Hebrew) at the top of the hill so that the entrance can be seen from afar. The city has been there since the second century BCE – the statue for not more than a couple of weeks.

Be warned: there are quite a number of steps to climb on the gentle incline up to the top of Mount Sussita where the city crowns the hill. When you arrive and enter you find remarkably intact colonnaded streets, Roman baths, city walls, a forum, and a reconstructed Roman theatre.

The Roman basilica, built at the end of the first century, collapsed onto a young lady during the earthquake of 363 CE. We know that because the archaeologists found an exquisite pure gold pendant in the shape of a dove embedded with a turquoise eye and pearls – it was still hanging around her neck.

The archaeological work undertaken here since 1999 has only recently been completed. Four meters below the surface lay the ruins of the ancient city of Hippos. Treasures that have been buried at this spot since the earthquake of 749 CE which now await you include a stunning bronze mask of the god Pan – this was a pagan city for centuries – and in the Burnt Church a charming mosaic of a fat and happy fish. Christ’s famous words in the Sermon on the Mount, “A city that is set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14), almost certainly referred to Hippos. It is probable that Christ walked the city’s streets.

For contemporary walkers Sussita offers nature trails that wind through glorious landscapes, including oak forests, Mediterranean vegetation, and lush green meadows.

Apart from the birds and the breeze the new park was practically silent as I strolled through it yesterday. But hopefully that is just about to change as visitors learn how to make their way to this gorgeous destination. The empty car park will fill up, and the amazingly long and glorious decumanus maximus, the Champs Elysées of Sussita, will once again come alive.

Beat the crowds: come to visit Sussita before it becomes as popular as it so evidently deserves to be!

For opening times see:

About the Author
I'm a licensed Israeli Tour Guide, born in Haifa and raised in the UK where I was previously a university lecturer in English Literature and then a copyright lawyer. I'm a recent immigrant now living in Jerusalem. My father was born in Jaffa and my grandmother was born in Be'er Tuvia, so I am both new to this land and a third-generation Sabra.
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