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The ancient Jewish city of Susya is not mentioned in any textual sources. Everything we know, or guess, about it is based on the archaeological findings there — which are vast. Even these were completely unknown to Western historians until after 1967; until then, the Arabs knew there was a ruined, buried city and house of worship on the site, but assumed it was an old church. Only in the early 1970s did researchers discover an astonishing fact: the group of Jews who settled south of Jerusalem after their exile from that city by the Romans was much larger than anyone aever realized.
As explained to me by tour guide, Yossi Yeinan, director of group programs for Keshet: The Center for Educational Tourism in Israel, the 42,000 Jews who returned to Israel after the first exile settled around Jerusalem, but south of them, in what had formerly been land belonging to the tribe of Judah, the Edomites had moved into the empty land. A small number of Jews returned to the area, settling in hostile territory.
The community grew when the Romans exiled the Jews from Jerusalem; although most followed the Sanhedrin north, to Tzippori and Tiberias, a few went south in order to stay as close as possible to the holy city, building synagogues in Carmel, Maon, Eshtamoa (all documented in ancient literature; Eshtamoa is now in Area A of the West Bank and inaccessible to Jews) and, we now know, in Susya.
There is no evidence that anyone but Jews ever lived in Susya. The city reached its height in the years 400 to 800 CE, the late Talmudic, mid-Byzantine, and early Arab eras. At its largest, Susya appears to have been the home of around 3,000 people. Layers of construction around the city and tile work from different periods at the gorgeous synagogue indicate that successive generations built new infrastructure and enlarged the synagogue as the community grew.
There is, however, evidence of a sophisticated society that adapted well to the environment and lived in accordance with Jewish traditions. Most of the homes are in underground caves, with well-supported ceilings (still with holes in them for hanging baskets) and channels to drain water into the city’s 150 cisterns or into the mikvehs. A cemetery lies exactly the distance outside the city wall that is dictated by the Talmud.
The residents of Susya took careful security measures, building not only a wall around the city but also escape tunnels from each residential area up the hill to the synagogue. The synagogue entrance had a heavy rolling door in case of emergency, and yet another escape tunnel out of Susya; today, children love the 10-minute hike through that passage.
Susya also has an enormous number of mikvehs: over 35, or one mikveh in the courtyard of every extended family. Historians theorize that after the Christians disbanded the Sanhedrin in the fifth century, the priests took on leadership roles, and that in Susya, where they were surrounded by Christians, they “became very ‘into’ mitzvot,” Yeinan said. “They took on ritual purity because they were living in a hostile environment, and the mikvehs gave them a connection to Jerusalem and to the destroyed Temple.”
No one knows what became of the Jews of Susya. Sometime about 1,200 years ago they seem to have suddenly vanished. There is no evidence that anyone conquered them. Whether they moved due to drought, suffered a devastating plague or were forced out by others is the great enigma of Susya.
Still, a visit to Susya provides important context to the storyline that most tourists learn of Israel’s history.
Susya Touring Information
Hours: Open Sunday–Thursday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (winter until 4), Friday 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Closed Shabbat and holidays +972-2-996-3424
Entrance Fee: Adults 16 shekels (approximately $4), children age 3-18 and seniors 11 shekels.
An introductory film with English subtitles is available in one of the caves. There is a snack shop on site. English brochures are available.
Different areas of Susya are marked with phone numbers to call from your cell phone to hear recorded information about the site. You may bring your own tour guide. Group tours at Susya are in Hebrew; you can arrange an English tour for 350 NIS ($93).
Getting there: The Susya ruins are located off Route 317, an 85-minute drive south of Jerusalem. Signs are marked, but small. My tour guide characterized the roads in this area as “safe, but not a place you want to get lost.” If you aren’t an experienced West Bank driver, we recommend going with someone who is.
Day trip: Combine a tour of Susya with visits to the Efrat Founders’ Museum, a hike on Derech Ha-Avot (where Abraham probably walked with Isaac on the way to his “binding”), a hike on part of the Israel Trail; the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron; and Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem. If you are a wine aficionado, you can also arrange a private tour of the Yatir Winery a relatively short drive away (the winery is open to serious wine lovers and experts only).
Stop at Susya on your way to or from: the Dead Sea and Masada, Beersheva and Mizpeh Ramon, or Eilat.
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