Holy Land Highlights -- Hippos




Holy Sites -- Gila's Highlights

Let's ramble through Hippos, a Decapolis City

Which city "on a hill" is Jesus referring to?  It’s certainly not San Francisco, or even Tiberias or Safed, for that matter.  Tiberias in Jesus’ day stretched along the shore
of the Sea of Galilee, from the hot springs northwards.  And Safed in the Upper Galilee was not yet a city, only a fort.

Map of Galilee with towns and villages of Jesus' day

Adapted from Bible Mapper by itsGila

Map of Galilee -- towns and villages in Jesus' day

Hippos, a hill with a horse-shaped neck (admittedly one needs a great deal of imagination to see this!), across from the Mount of Beatitudes on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee, seems to be our best candidate.  Its white limestone and marble buildings would have been gleaming and beckoning in the eyes of a crowd standing on a western hillside above the Sea of Galilee, especially as the afternoon sun dipped down towards the Mediterranean.

The ruins of Hippos are at the top of the rounded hill

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

The ruins of Hippos can be found at the top of the rounded hill

Hippos belonged to a league of 10 Greek cities called the Decapolis.  Each city had civic independence from its local ruler and even held the right to mint its own coins. Hippos is believed to have boasted a large theater, an Odeon (a smaller 600-seat theater for musical performances), a nymphaeum with fountains dedicated to water nymphs, and stately pagan temples to Zeus, Aphrodite and perhaps even Dionysus.

The inhabitants of Hippos (shall we call them Hippies?) believed that their gods – and there were dozens – schemed, squabbled, copulated and manipulated.  This is quite a contrast to the Jewish farmers and fishermen who believed in One God who championed the poor, the meek and the downtrodden.

Main Street Hippos has recently been uncovered by archeologists

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Main Street Hippos from the Roman? period

From Hippos, perched a thousand feet above the Sea of Galilee, we have a commanding view of the area where the man possessed by demons dwelled among the tombs.  Jesus cast the demons into a herd of swine who charged down the cliff into the sea to drown.  One would naturally find pigs on the pagan, (non-kosher) side of the lake.  “So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him.” (Mark 5:20)  The first city in the Decapolis the demoniac would have reached would be Hippos.

Western shore of the Sea of Galilee as seen from Hippos

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

From Hippos, Tiberias on the western shore is clearly visible

Not having visited Hippos since excavations began in the year 2000, I decided to take advantage of a free day to update myself.  I approached Hippos the traditional way we always did, from the Golan Heights on the east.  My trusty fire-engine-red Daihatsu negotiated the many hairpin turns along the old Syrian/Jordanian border quite gracefully.

I alternated between observing the old pre-1967 Syrian bunkers once shielding its gunmen beside each curve to watching for a speeding car careening from the opposite direction.  At the top of the ascent my senses were assaulted first by golden fields of wheat, and then by a strong whiff of scallions and garlic.

Finally I turned west onto a deeply rutted agricultural road which is unfortunately forbidden to tour buses.  On either side of the road are signs warning, “Danger mines.”  After a steep descent of two miles, I recognized the protruding black basalt rocks of Hippos, which did not look like a horse at all.

Approaching Hippos from the southeast

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Approach to the Decapolis City from the southeast

Ruins at the eastern entrance to Hippos

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Eastern entrance to the city of Hippos lies in ruins

Climbing up a path into the city, I found myself walking along a long stretch of the original basalt paved avenue, similar to Main Street, Beth Shean (Scythopolis). Archeologists have recently uncovered a number of public buildings, temples or churches with apses facing east.  Many long reddish and grayish granite columns, imported from Egypt, were strewn about.

Strewn around are ruins of a once-pagan temple

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Ruins from a public building at Hippos, perhaps a pagan temple or church

It’s exciting to walk in solitude through a site where the archeologists’ spade is adding flesh to the historical skeleton.  One’s imagination starts to work overtime. I had read that during the last season, three clay statues of Aphrodite, each nearly a foot long, had been discovered.  Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love, fertility and childbirth. Her temples were pilgrimaged by young maidens seeking true love, as well as by pregnant women praying for a safe birth.
As I rambled, my eyes strayed to the Sea of Galilee and I thought of the Galilean fishermen looking across to this ostentatious metropolis crowned with pagan temples dedicated to Zeus and Aphrodite.  Then I contemplated the words of the great historical geographer George Adam Smith:

“The Decapolis city overhanging the Lake of Galilee which sent its scholars to Greece and Rome proves that the Kingdom of God came forth in no obscure corner, but in the face of the kingdoms of this world.”

Hippos as seen from a fishing vessel on the Sea of Galilee

Photo:  Gila Yudkin

Hippos as seen from a fishing boat sailing the Sea of Galilee

At the present moment, Hippos is not accessible by tour bus, but hope springs eternal that the road from the sea up to the site will be renovated soon.  And if you want to really go off the beaten path in Galilee, you can book a jeep tour up from the sea to the Golan Heights which includes a ramble through Hippos.  It’s not cheap, but intensely memorable and tons of fun for the young in spirit.

Copyright 2010, 2012 Gila Yudkin.  Permission needed for any reuse.

Gila Yudkin, who calls herself a Connecticut-born Yankee living in King David’s court, is always on the lookout for new angles on ancient sites.  She loves working with groups thirsty for biblical insight, archeological anecdotes and old-fashioned fun.  She wishes she could have toured with George Adam Smith in 1880, or been Mark Twain’s tour guide way back in 1867.
You may be familiar with another Decapolis city, Beth Shean called Scythopolis in the Roman period.  For its biblical past, see "Let's lament King Saul at Beth Shean."

SIGN UP for the FREE quarterly e-letter:
"Holy Sites: Gila's Highlights"


"Let's ramble through Hippos, a Decapolis City" (as text without the photos) is one in the series of free quarerly e-letters sent on request to tour leaders, pastors, clergy, teachers, Bible students, colleagues and friends.  If you'd like to receive "Holy Sites: Gila's Highlights" please contact Gila. 


More Biblical Archeology:

Let's saunter through Solomon's Stables at Megiddo

Let's talk about Armageddon at Megiddo

Let's find Herod's tomb at Herodion

Megiddo / Solomon's Stables


Discovery of Herod's Tomb


Let's follow Abraham all the way to DAN

Let's visit Gezer, Solomon's wedding gift

Let's lament King Saul at Beth Shean

Dan / Abraham  

Gezer / Solomon's wife

Saul's end at Beth Shean





Copyright © 2005-2019 Gila Yudkin. All rights reserved.
Holy Land Photography by Gila Yudkin