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Archaeology in Israel: Bethsaida

Bethsaida is known as the birthplace of three of the Apostles – Peter, Andrew and Philip. Jesus himself visited Bethsaida and performed several miracles there. (Mark 8:22-26; Luke 9:10)

Et-Tel, the mound identified as ancient Bethsaida, is located on a basaltic spur north of the Sea of Galilee, near the inflow of the Jordan River into the Sea of Galilee. The tel covers some 20 acres and rises 30 meters above a fertile valley. Geological and geomorphological studies show that in the past this valley was part of the Sea of Galilee. A series of earthquakes caused silt to accumulate, thus creating the valley and causing the north shore of the Sea of Galilee to recede. The result of this process, which continued until the Hellenistic period, was that Bethsaida, which had originally been built on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, came to be situated some 1.5 km. north of the shore.

The name Bethsaida means "house of the hunt" in Hebrew. Identification of Et-Tel with the site mentioned in the New Testament was proposed as early as 1838 by Robinson, but was not accepted by most contemporary researchers; yet excavations conducted since 1987 have confirmed the identification.

Biblical Period

The excavations revealed that the settlement at Bethsaida was founded in the 10th century BCE, in the biblical period. By that time the areas north and east of the Sea of Galilee were part of the Aramaean kingdom of Geshur. Its royal family, which ruled for several generations, was connected by marriage to tDavidic dynasty. King David married Ma’acha, daughter of the King of Geshur; she was the mother of Absalom, who later found refuge in the Land of Geshur. (II Samuel 3:3; 14:32) Archeological excavations conducted at the site revealed impressive structures and fortifications, and the excavator therefore surmises that during this period Bethsaida was the capital city of the Kingdom of Geshur and the seat of its monarchs.

The city was divided into two parts: a lower city, extending over most of the mound; and an upper city – the acropolis – on the higher, northeastern part of the mound. During the 9th century BCE, the acropolis was surrounded by a massive, fortified wall with a gate, constructed of large basalt stones. The 6-m.-wide wall, together with buttresses projecting from both sides, reached a width of 8 m.

The city gate complex discovered on the eastern side of the tel consisted of an outer and an inner gateway. The outer gateway included a passageway between two massive towers; thus far, only the western tower, measuring 10 x 8 m., has been excavated. In the outer gateway, a 30-m.-long walkway paved with flat basalt stones led to the "four-room" inner gatehouse, typical of this period and measuring 35 x 17.5 m. It is preserved to an impressive height of 3 m. This is the largest city gate of the biblical period excavated in Israel. It is constructed of large basalt stones, some slightly trimmed, laid in courses. Above the stone structure stood a brick superstructure, both entirely coated with light plaster. Two huge projecting towers, 10 x 6 m. each, protected the entrance to the gate. The threshold of the gate consisted of large basalt stones with depressions that served as door-hinge sockets.

Vivid evidence of the battle that took place here at the time of the city’s conquest and the conflagration which destroyed the gatehouse, is found in the fired bricks, the pile of carbonized wood and the arrowheads.

A unique feature of the Bethsaida gate is the variety of cultic installations in front of the inner gate. An entire "gate altar" (bama) measuring 2.1 x 1.6 m. and constructed of basalt stones covered with light plaster was found there. Two steps led to the top of the bama which had a recessed, 35 cm. deep stone basin, measuring 60 x 50 cm. A basalt stele that once stood at the back of the bama was found, broken, on it. The stele, 1.15 m. high, 59 cm. wide and 31 cm. thick, was carefully shaped with a rounded top. On its front was carved the stylized figure of a horned bull, armed with a dagger. In the Mesopotamian pantheon, the bull represents the moon god. It was adopted by the Arameans as the symbol of their main deity, Haddad, identified as the figure represented on this stele.

Inside the gatehouse was a broad, paved plaza. On its northern side stood the palace of the kings which measured 28 x 15 m. with 1.4 m. thick basalt walls. The palace of Bethsaida is a typical example of the palaces of the Aramean kingdoms during the biblical period; it included a central hall which served as the throne room, surrounded by eight rooms.

The Aramean city of Bethsaida was conquered and destroyed by the Assyrian king Tiglath Pileser III during his campaign in the region in 734 BCE. (II Kings 15:29-30; 16:7-9)

From the time of that destruction, and until the Hellenistic period, the site was only sparsely inhabited.

The Hellenistic – Roman Periods

The importance of Bethsaida during the Hellenistic-Roman period is apparent from references to it in ancient sources. Josephus Flavius states that King Herod Philip, whose kingdom included the northern part of the country, changed the name of the city at the beginning of the 1st century CE to Julias, after Julia Livia, wife of the Roman Emperor Augustus, and granted it municipal rights. (Antiquities 104, 18, 28) Also according to Josephus, Philip died in the city and was buried there with great pomp. (Antiquities 104, 18, 108)

Several courtyard-houses dating from this period were uncovered in the excavations. Constructed of basalt and probably two storeys high, they included a paved, open courtyard surrounded by several rooms. Numerous fishing tools – lead weights for nets, iron anchors, needles and fishing hooks – were found in the houses, attesting to an economy based on fishing. One of the houses had a cellar in which ceramic wine amphorae and several vine pruning hooks were found.

At the beginning of the first century CE, a building with particularly thick walls, measuring 20 x 6 m. was constructed above the remains of the city gate of the biblical period. Only very fragmentary remains of the foundations were found. Limestone ashlars brought from a considerable distance and fragments of decorated architectural elements are suggestive of the elegance of this building. Ritual vessels, including two decorated bronze incense shovels, indicate that it functioned as a temple. Perhaps these are the remains of the temple that King Philip built in honor of Julia Livia.

Excavations at the site are still underway. It is assumed that further finds from the periods of settlement await the archeologists’ spades. In the meantime, the site has been opened to visitors.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry