by Jacqueline Schaalje
Arial View of tel Bethsaida
Bethsaida is not one of Israel’s main archeological sites, like Hazor, Megiddo and Dan, and its name does not ring a bell immediately, except among the most dedicated archeological buffs. Yet there is more than meets the eye, and as it’s a relatively young site, excavated since 1987, more may lie hidden. A first surprise that the excavators got was when they discovered, under a unconspicuous first century fishing village, which is important for christians, the remains of a powerful Iron Age city, which is mentioned in the Bible.
Pilgrims had been roaming the northern coast of Lake Galilee to no avail for the last 2000 years, searching for Bethsaida, when finally the American Edward Robinson, one of the first Bible archeologists, followed his compass to a promising mound in 1938. Robinson’s candidate for Bethsaida lay one and a half kilometers north off Lake Galilee, on the east of the river Jordan; in what is nowadays the Golan.
It was not a good place for a fishing village. But modern scientists, who only got a chance to check it out after the Six Day War in 1967, are now certain that the archeological treasures that were found belong to Bethsaida. According to modern research, the lake’s shore used to be higher in antiquity, due to an earthquake and landslides. However there is one authority on Lake Galilee who disagrees, he says the lake’s water level stands higher now.
The area of Bethsaida is first known from the Amarna letters, a 14th century BCE correspondence between Egyptian pharaohs and rulers in Palestine under Egyptian administration. From the 10th century BCE Bethsaida was the capital of a small Aramaean kingdom, called Geshur; mentioned in the Bible. According to Joshua 13 the territory of the Geshurites became part of Israel when the 12 tribes divided the land amongst them. "The Israelites failed to expel the Geshurites and Maacathites, and Geshur and Maacah dwell among the Israelites to this day."
Gold Earring from Bethsaida
In practice, it became part of ancient Israel only when it was conquered by King David. And with this a full-blown dynastic soap story begins. The Bible mentions two kings of Geshur, Amihud and his son Talmai (II Samuel 13:37). David married Talmai’s daughter, Maachah (II Samuel 3:3), presumably, as was the custom, to strengthen ties between the two states. The land that was the stronger would provide the daughter, so this means Geshur may have been stronger than Israel.
A new queen would bring her whole court with her, including architects. This is interesting, because of the wealth of Syrian influences on Israelite royal architecture. Some of the art work can be seen today in Bethsaida.
Maachah was the mother of King David’s son, Absalom, who murdered his half-brother Amnon (II Samuel 13), and later staged a rebellion against his father, but he was killed in turn by David’s general Joab (II Samuel 14-18).
Absalom left a daughter, also called Maachah, who married Rehoboam, the son of Solomon, who ruled Judah after the split of the Israelite kingdom into Judah and northern Israel. According to II Chronicles 11:21, the king loved Maachah more than his other wives and concubines, but she was surely also an important link to the northern royals, against whom they waged incessant strife (I Kings 15:6).
It was an impressive, well-defended city. In the 9th century BCE, Bethsaida was conquered and annexed by the rival of the Israelites, Aram; their capital was Damascus. In the 8th century BCE, Bethsaida was gobbled up by the powerful Assyrian empire. Their emperor Tiglath-Pileser III conquered it forcefully, burning parts of the city, in 734 BCE (II Kings 15:29-30; 16:7-9).
In the same swoop he conquered Aram, the Golan, Galilee and Gilead (a region south-east of Lake Galilee). Tiglath’s successor, Shalmaneser IV, conquered the whole north of Israel and deported the residents. They would never return to Israel again.
Bethsaida was not completely destroyed, but barely survived the Assyrian onslaught. It only flourished again in the Greek period (4th century BCE), when its location was just on the border between the Ptolemaic empire in the south, and the Seleucid empire in the north.
It also played a small role in Roman history. The Jewish historian Josephus Flavius relates that in 30 CE, Philip, the son of king Herod, elevated Bethsaida to city status and renamed it Julias, after the mother of the Roman emperor.
In the first Jewish War (66-70 CE), Josephus as commander of the Galilee, was responsible for the defense of the city, but as he claims, early in the battle he fell from his horse and sprained his wrist. The Romans destroyed it, but a small community survived, which enjoyed the abundant fish and fowl, as Talmudic and Roman sources testify. Rabbis like Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai visited it.
The main sight is the 9th century BCE gatehouse, one of the best preserved that was found in Israel, on a par with famous places like Hazor and Megiddo. According to radar scans which have been made, the 10th century gate and bullwarks lie just under the present one. The city wall may go back to even older, early Israelite, times.
The early city was built in two parts, as was usual then, forming an upper and a lower city. The upper city has public buildings and fortifications, the lower city is the residential quarter.
The city wall is preserved to a height of 1.6 meters, and filled with field stones and outside layers of large boulders. It is built on a steep ramp and would have been difficult to approach.
There are two gates, with an outer and inner entrance, separated by a large paved plaza. Both gates are flanked by a tower on each side. The pavement shows erosion, but unlike many other sites, it lacks wheelmarks. Bethsaida was a chariot-free city apparently.
The inner gatehouse has four chambers and is the best preserved gatehouse of this type in Israel. It was found in a large heap of rubble and stones, caused by the Assyrian destruction. For years the excavators did not suspect what it might contain. Maybe the wooden beams that were built between the stone courses of the gate helped it to be saved; they absorbed shock, for instance when an earthquake occurred.
Figure of god Pataekos
Its outside walls are of dressed basalt stones, which were plastered and covered with whitewash. In antiquity the black stone would have been invisible. On the outside, along the towers, there ran a low bench, for the city elders who held court in the gate.
There are two chambers on either side. They would have had two or three upper stories. The rooms are built of large sun-dried bricks, almost 3 meters thick. Two of the rooms were granaries, one of them was full of burnt barley. The other rooms had a public or cultic function. One of them contained arrows and spear heads, from the campaign against Tiglath-Pileser. Also a jug was found with the Egyptian sign of life, an ankh.
On the outside, on both sides of the inner gate there are niches, for cultic purposes. On the right there are two steps, leading to a smooth basin made of basalt stone; in it two incense burners were found: small perforated cups with three short legs, with burn marks. Visitors would have poured a libation into the basin or they would have burned incense.
Around the niche there were scattered pieces of a basalt stele, a standing stone, which would have stood behind the basalt basin. It has been reassembled, and depicts a fierce-looking bull-headed figure with horns, carrying a dagger. It is the only stele of this kind which has been found in Israel, where steles are very rare in any case. Only three other bull steles were found, all in Mesopotamia.
The figure is probably the Mesopotamian moon god Sin. He was one of two highly popular gods in the Near East, believed to be the creator of the universe (like the moon, the moon god creates light in the darkness). Interestingly, the cult was most popular in places where Abraham lived or traveled. Bethsaida’s inhabitants imported the cult from the east, and in turn they could have influenced early Israelite identity.
Figure of Bull Stele
That the stele was smashed, was probably no coincidence, as can be concluded by comparing to Lamentations 4:1, where the prophet mourns for the destruction of Jerusalem: "The sacred stones are scattered at the head of every courtyard."
On the left the cultic niche contained a shelf, maybe a biblical bamah, or platform. There are no steps in front of it, maybe this has something to do with the ban on stepped altars in Exodus 20:26. In any case, scientists conclude that both niches are an interesting sampling of Israelite and heathen cults. They think that the left niche was for Israelite visitors of the city, or maybe Israelites who had married Geshurites, and the other one for doters on the moon god.
On the inside of the gate, there was a 9th century palace. It had a vestibule, a main room, probably a throne room; and 8 rooms surrounding it. It survived the Assyrian conquest, and was renovated several times.
Inside the palace a small figurine of the Egyptian god Pataekos was found. He is one of the children of one of the main Egyptian gods, Ptah, the god of artists and craftsmen. The statuette is very finely made, depicting a dwarf with an elaborate beaded necklace and two knives or daggers. He probably stood on a crocodile, as in other statues of him, but on his leg there is a sharp cut which maybe separated him from his animal. The statuette bears traces of faience, a turquoise glaze.
The palace also yielded an interesting ostracon, or pottery inscription, from the 8th century BCE, with the name Akiba (possibly from the Aramaic form of Jacob). It is the first time that this name crops up. Rabbi Akiba was the famous rebel against Rome in the Second Jewish Revolt (132-135 CE).
There were also two handles with inscriptions: one was stamped with the name Zechario (‘remembered by the Lord’). A similar stamp was found in Tel Dan. Although the stamp had no royal mark, it could have belonged to the son of Jeroboam II, king of Israel, maybe before Zechariah became king himself, in 748 BCE. The second handle bears the letters MKY, short for Michyahu, or ‘who is like the Lord.’
Also a temple was dug out, dated to the Roman period; it partially covers the Israelite gatehouse. Its plan is familiar from other temples: a columned porch, hall, a long rectuangular holy of holies, and a small back room. The walls were made of dressed stones with rosettes, some were reused in nearby Bedouin tombs.
Interestingly, also the outside lintel with a meander and floral motifs were reused: in the 5th century CE synagogue in Chorazin, only 2 kilometers from Bethsaida. What is more, this synagogue has exactly the same plan as the Bethsaida temple. And lastly, the synagogue has a pediment with an eagle, the symbol of the Roman empire.
A figurine excavated near the temple portrays a woman with a veil, probably she officiates in a temple cult. There are also three coins with the effigy of Philip, maybe the coins were given out in the renaming ceremony of Bethsaida.
A beautiful find was of a bronze incense shovel. Although more of these shovels were found in Israel, the only later examples are in floor mosaics, like in the Sepphoris synagogue. There the shovel appears in a collage of typical Jewish symbols, including a menorah, shofar, lulav and etrog, and ark. The conclusion is that incense was burned in both Roman and Jewish ritual. Exodus 27:3 describes "firepans … of bronze."
From the Greek and Roman times some private houses were dug out, one is dubbed the Fisherman’s house, because of fishing implements that were found, like lead net weights, anchors, needles and fishhooks. Also a clay seal depicts two figures casting a net from a Phoenician style boat, called a hippos (horse) boat because its prow is shaped like a horses’ head.
The second house is called Wine Maker’s House, it had a wine cellar with four large wine jars. Some other finds included fine jewelry and vessels. In this years’ season a Hellenistic doctor’s house is going to be excavated.
from the August 2003 Edition of the Jewish Magazine