I grew up with RIF (Reading is FUNdamental) in school and television ads. Literacy is more than just being able to read, though; writing is perhaps the ultimate test of proficiency in language. In an archaeological site on the Golan Heights, this divide between reading and writing has been discovered on a church floor from 1500 years ago.

The town of Hippos sits on the Golan Heights overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Established during the 3rd century BCE as a border fortress for the Ptolemy Greeks, the city only really took off when the Seleucids conquered in the middle of the 2nd century BCE. It became one of the ten cities in the Decapolis, independent city states, during the time of the Roman conquest in 63 BCE. Roman pagans,  Jews, and eventually Christians will call this city home; but, it is Christians who will contribute the most to its history.

Christian Byzantine development came late to the city as evidenced by no 4th century CE churches found to date in Hippos. There was a bishop in Hippos by 359 CE., however, and from the 5th century CE, many churches were built in the city.

hippos inscription burnt churchMany Byzantine era church floors also included mosaics and dedicatory inscriptions in Greek, the worldwide language of the day. In one of the churches, the Burnt Church, mosaics include geometric designs, birds with vivid colors and a “very happy, fat fish” according to excavation director, Haifa University’s Dr. Michael Eisenberg.  The dedications, surprisingly, include many misspellings. Imagine today that if a worker made a spelling mistake, most likely his boss would catch it, and the work would need to be redone. The fact that these mistakes remain means that neither the worker nor the patron, probably a member of the clergy, had a good grasp of Greek. According to scholars of the period, Greek, although it remained the international language was used rather poorly. Clergy and perhaps even laymen could read and understand Greek, but writing well implies a higher understanding of the language. I’m reminded of many American Jews who can read, and perhaps even understand Hebrew, but make many mistakes writing Hebrew. The mosaics were preserved by a layer of ash, giving the Burnt Church its name.

Who caused the destruction of this church in the 7th century?

Immediately, one thinks of the conquest by the Moslems (see my recent post here); but here they are not responsible for the damage. Before the Moslems, Persian Sasanids took advantage of a weakening Byzantine empire to try to restore Cyrus the Great’s Persian empire, stretching from Persia to Egypt. Hippos stood in the way; and in 613 CE, the Sasanid army came to conquer. For unknown reasons, the only church to be flagrantly destroyed in Hippos at that time was the Burnt Church.

The Persian army could not maintain its grip on the region, and the Arabs will conquer a few decades later in 637 CE. In Hippos, records show that the inhabitants capitulated after receiving a promise that they would not be harmed. Indeed, that treaty is honored and the city continues as a Christian city. As with other Byzantine cities under Arab rule, however, it lost its radiance and glory with the loss of political and economic independence.

Eisenberg thinks that most likely Christianity was the dominant faith when the town was finally destroyed by an earthquake in 749 CE. From that point until modern archaeologists return in the 1950’s, the once glorious city is abandoned, burying all of its mistakes.

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