Archaeologists have uncovered startling evidence of a severe earthquake that rumbled more than 1,700 years ago in the region of the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus performed most of the miracles described in the New Testament.
Skeletons crushed under a collapsed roof depicted a scenario of death and destruction caused by the earthquake that hit Israel and the region in 363 A.D.
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The ancient city of Hippos, known as Sussita in Hebrew (both names mean "horse") was among the most damaged centers. However, it was another powerful quake, on Jan. 18, 749, that razed the city, leaving it covered in debris, never to be resettled.
"While the evidence of the final destruction are clear and dramatic, those of the 363 are less known and not as evident in the ruins of Hippos," said Michael Eisenberg, director of the Hippos-Sussita project, an international enterprise affiliated with the Zinman Institute of Archaeology at the University of Haifa.
"The reason is rather simple. The city was rebuilt and some of the ruins cleared while others were buried as new building enterprises took place," he added.
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A mountaintop town overlooking the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, Hippos was founded during the Hellenistic period, in the 2nd century B.C.
In Roman times it became known as one of the Decapolis, a group of 10 cities in Jordan, Israel and Syria which were regarded as centers of Greek and Roman culture. Hippos became a powerful city-state, allowed to mint its own coins, with the emblem of a horse on the back of each coin.
With its Graeco-Roman temples, its large marketplace and colonnaded streets, Hippos would have been for Jesus the "city set upon a hill" that "cannot be hidden."
The city was prospering and was almost entirely Christian when the 363 quake violently struck its walls.
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Eisenberg's team found a number of skeletons crushed under a collapsed roof in the northern section of the Basilica, the largest structure in the city. Built at the end of the 1st century A.D. during the peak of Roman building in the city and the region, it served as marketplace and main seat of the judge.
Among the bones of the people killed in the collapse, the archaeologists found the skeleton of a woman with a golden pendant in the shape of a dove.
"Looking at the angle of the skeleton's head we realized it was facing south towards the entrances to the basilica, about 140 feet away," Eisenberg told Discovery News.
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The skeletons could be dated to the 363 earthquake because of coins found trapped between the basilica floor and some architectural elements made of marble.
"The latest of those coins dated to 362 A.D. About three feet above the debris of the basilica we found Early Byzantine rooms dated by dozens of coins in the floors themselves to 383 A.D.," Eisenberg said.
"It shows that major parts of the city were totally destroyed and neglected for a period of about 20 years," he added.
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The earthquake also destroyed the Roman baths. Located on the southern mountain cliffs and overlooking the Sea of Galilee, Tiberias and the Galilee itself, the baths' dramatic location provided a remarkable view and breeze.
"Under the debris of the 363 earthquake we found part of a Roman statue. Superb Roman craftsmanship in marble, but just the right leg of a muscular man leaning on a trunk was found," Eisenberg said.
He noted it's hard to identify the statue that was above 6 feet in height, as no attributes survived.
"We do hope to find additional parts next seasons once we clear the debris of the earthquake. Like the basilica, this bathhouse was never rebuilt and another bath house was built in Hippos later on some 500ft to the north-east," Eisenberg said.