Change is Hard

Historical facts are presented as hard fast numbers. Historical periods start and end on particular dates as marked by large scale changes in sovereignty or policy. In reality, though, it takes some time for those policies to trickle down and become reality for people. The edges of historical periods are marked by a lot of graying when the old ways and the new ways interact and intermingle.

Case in point is the city of Hippos/Sussita. One of the cities of the famed Decapolis (which included Beit Shean) Hippos/Sussita was a thriving, pagan metropolis situated above the Sea of Galilee in today’s Golan Heights. The Roman empire united under one emperor, Constantine, who moved the seat of the empire to Constantinople in 330 BCE, becoming what we call today the Byzantine Empire, which supported Christianity. Paganism and Christianity, however, coexisted for many years in the Decapolis, as in other parts of the empire.

Recent excavation in Hippos has uncovered a pagan amulet in the Northeast Church. The hematite pendent with the Greek inscription “Digest!” was crafted in the pagan Roman period (3rd-4th century CE) but only set into the gold pendant during the Christian Byzantine period (late 6th century CE). Because of the location of the find and the other finds around it, it was believed to be worn by a high ranking cleric (who probably suffered from indigestion).

Anti-digestion-talisman-combined-with-a-gold-pendant-

In a building adjacent to the church, a figurine of a dancing maenad, who would have accompanied processions devoted to the god Dionysus, was found. She was dated to the gray period between the Roman and the Early Byzantine era. What was she doing near the church?

Sometimes old symbols were re-purposed for new world-views. Such is the theory surrounding a fresco of the goddess of fortune, Tyche, found in a home near one of the churches. Her crown depicts the city walls of the Hippos. According to Dr. Michael Eisenberg of the University of Haifa, director of the expedition to Hippos/Susita, “During the Byzantine period, Tyche became a municipal emblem embodying a local patriotism that had deep roots in the classical tradition. As time passes following the transition to Christianity, Tyche and the other former religious emblems probably lose their ritualistic characteristics and become cultural symbols.”

The transition from paganism to Christianity is the last of the gradual changes which affect Hippos. The next change is sudden, as the city is destroyed and abandoned following the earthquake of 749 CE. Now, more than 1300 years later, we look back and uncover the process of change which affected the people of this great city.

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One thought on “Change is Hard

  1. Amazing peice! A similar case of the reuse of old religious symbles in a new society can be seen in the Qutub Minar complex in New Delhi. The mosque built by the Muslim Sultanate of Delhi used pillars depicting Hindu gods from local temples.

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