BETHAR (Betar) (Heb. בֵּיתָר),
's last stronghold in his war against Rome. It is identified with Khirbet al-Yahūd ("ruins of the Jews"), an area of ruins on the summit of a steep hill, northwest of the Arab village of Battīr which has preserved the ancient name. Bethar is mentioned in the Septuagint in a verse added after Joshua 15:59 (Βαιθηρ) together with several other cities of Judah, including Beth-Lehem. It also appears in a manuscript of the Septuagint (Version "A") after Beth-Shemesh in the list of Levitical cities in I Chronicles 6:44. The various transliterations of the name in the Septuagint and in Eusebius (Historia Ecclesiastica 4:6) – Bitter, Better – seem to indicate that it was originally called Bet-Ter (בֵּית־תֵּר). In aggadic literature the name has been preserved in the Aramaic Bei-Ter (בֵּי־תֵר).
Bethar lies on a rocky spur 7 mi. (11 km.) southwest of Jerusalem; it is bounded by the Rephaim Valley on the east,
north, and west. The upper part of the hill, c. 2,300 ft. (700 m.) above the level of the Mediterranean, constitutes the tongue of a plateau, sloping gradually to the north to the steep drop of the Sorek Brook c. 490 ft. (150 m.) above the bottom of the valley. The northern half of the spur may have served as an area of orchards of the ancient town and contains few building remains. A spring, the source of water of ancient Bethar and at present of the Arab village of Battīr, flows from a rock southeast of the spur. Part of a defaced Latin inscription on the rock near the mouth of the spring mentions the Roman legions V Macedonica and XI Claudia, which participated in the siege of Bethar. Since Hadrian was forced to bring these legions from the northern part of the Empire this probably indicates the extent of the difficulties that the Romans suffered in overcoming the revolt. The site has been investigated by various explorers since the 19th century, notably by V. Guérin in 1863, who made the identification of Battir with Bethar, and by C. Clermont-Ganneau in the 1870s, who was the first to note the Latin inscription at the spring. Explorers and archaeologists who studied the site include: Germer-Durand (1894); Zickermann (1906); Caroll (1923); Alt (1927); Reifenberg (1950); S. Yeivin (1944–46); Kochavi (1968); and Z. Yeivin (1970s). This work indicated that the summit of Khirbet el-Yehud was surrounded by a fortified wall, with aerial photographs and ground surveys showing the existence of a Roman siege system, comprising a surrounding circumvallation wall and two Roman camps to the south, and with pottery evidence suggesting that archaeological remains at the site date not just from the Roman period but also to as early as the Iron Age II (7th–6th centuries B.C.E.).
In 1984 excavations were conducted at the site by Tel Aviv University under the direction of D. Ussishkin, and the history of the site and its features are now more or less clear. Access to the site was from the southeast with a path linking it to its agricultural hinterland and to the spring and its irrigated terraces. The fortifications visible around the site of Khirbet el-Yehud, encompassing an area of about 10 acres (40 dunams), did indeed date from the time of Bar Kokhba and showed evidence of having been hastily built. The surrounding defense wall had at least six semi-circular towers and three square ones. Segments of the curtain walls and three towers were uncovered during the excavations. Pottery, slingstones, iron arrowheads, and a few coins dated from the time of Bar Kokhba.
With the outbreak of the revolt, Bethar was chosen as Bar Kokhba's headquarters because it was situated close to Jerusalem, it was strategically located above the main road running between Jerusalem and Gaza, it had a spring with an abundant source of water, and it was provided with natural defenses by deep valleys on three sides. The settlement could have had a population of between 1,000 and 2,000 individuals. Bethar was Bar Kokhba's last bastion, but it appears from the careless and inconsistent way that the fortifications were built that they were erected not long before the siege by the Romans. It would appear that most of the defenders' efforts went into cutting a moat at the southern approach to the site to render difficulties to the attacking Romans. The reference to the men "who went down to the rampart of Bethar" (Tosef., Yev. 14:15) may refer specifically to the southern side of the site. No archaeological evidence however exists at the site for a siege ramp. The Romans built a surrounding circumvallation siege wall and two rectangular camps, and it would appear that one section of the siege wall succeeded in cutting off the settlement from its spring. No historical account exists relating to the actual battle at Bethar, but the discovery of unused slingstones on the top of the wall suggests that the subjugation of Bethar may have been quite rapid. Following the conquest of Bethar, its inhabitants were slaughtered and the town was razed and never rebuilt.
In Israel's 1949 armistice agreement with Jordan, most of the village, together with the historical mound, remained on the Jordanian side, but the railway line at the bottom of the gorge and a narrow strip of land with a number of houses and gardens on its southern side were included in Israel territory. A certain area with a few dozen inhabitants belonged to Israel from 1948 but from 1967 the bulk of the village, with 1,445 inhabitants, became part of the territory under Israel administration. In recent years the village has been designated as part of the territory falling under Palestinian administration.
[Encyclopaedia Hebraica /
Shimon Gibson (2nd ed.)]
A town with a similar name, Bethar Illit, was established nearby, 6 miles (10 km.) from Jerusalem, on the southwest side of the Judean hills. The settlement was the first town established under the program for public housing for the ultra-Orthodox population. Founded in 1988, it received municipal council status in 1990 and absorbed newcomers mainly from Jerusalem and Bene-Berak. In 2003 the population was 22,926.
[Efraim Orni / Shaked Gilboa (2nd ed.)]
J.K. Sepp, Jerusalem und das Heilige Land, 1 (1873), 647ff.; Zickermann, in: ZDPV, 29 (1906), 51ff.; Schuerer, Gesch, 1 (19013), 693ff.; Carroll, in: AASOR, 5 (1925), 77ff.; Schulten, in: ZDPV, 56 (1933), 180ff.; Reifenberg, in: Archaeology, 3 (1950), 40ff. D. Ussishkin, "Betar: The Last Stronghold of Bar-Kokhba," Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society, 6 (1986–87): 49–50; idem, "Archaeological Soundings at Betar, Bar-Kokhba's Last Stronghold," in: Tel Aviv, 20 (1993): 66–97; B. Bagatti, Ancient Christian Villages of Judaea and Negev, (2002), 27–28; P. Schäfer (ed.), The Bar Kokhba War Reconsidered. New Perspectives on the Second Revolt Against Rome (2003); Y. Tsafrir, L. Di Segni, and J. Green, Tabula Imperii Romani. Iudaea – Palaestina. Maps and Gazetteer. (1994), 86–87.
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