Bethsaida – Lost City of the Apostles

by Beatrice Guarrera

Have archaeologists finally found this mysterious location? Excavations are underway at a new location.

n the Master Bath: During the excavations of 2017 on the site of el-Araj, in what had to be the Roman baths.

In the Master Bath: During the excavations of 2017 on the site of el-Araj, in what had to be the Roman baths. © Zachary Wong

The excavations continue at et- Tell, the site originally thought to be Bethsaida. But simultaneously, two other candidates are now vying to be identified as Bethsaida: el-Araj and el- Mesadiyeh. Archaeologist Jim Strange conducted research at el-Mesadiyeh in 1982 without finding any ceramic artifacts whatsoever dating from the beginning of the Roman era.

The Excavations of El-Araj

Interesting discoveries have recently been made at el-Araj, strengthening its claim to be Bethsaida/Julia. Dr. Mordechai Aviam, archaeologist and Director of the el-Araj project told The Holy Land Review, “During our first research, we found a ceramic of the Roman period – something which suggests the existence of a Roman level in the soil. We, therefore, decided to proceed with the excavations.” The first stage of the excavations began during the summer of 2016 at the initiative of the Kinneret Institute for Galilean Archaeology, under his direction.

The site of el-Araj is located near where the Jordan River empties into the Sea of Galilee, on the northeast bank at the foot of the Golan Heights, annexed by Israel and claimed by Syria since 1967.

Vessel from the first centuries after Christ, found on the site of et-Tell / Julia, being excavated since 1987.

Vessel from the first centuries after Christ, found on the site of et-Tell / Julia, being excavated since 1987. © Hanan Shafir

The Objects Found

At the conclusion of two rounds of excavations in 2016 and 2017, led by Israeli archaeologists, the most interesting discoveries were the following: a collection of Roman ceramics from the first and third centuries, two Roman coins (one from the first and another from the second centuries), a wall and a fragment of a floor mosaic and parts of a Roman bath. The silver coins would be from the time of Nero, whereas the elements connected to the Roman baths make one think of a type of urban culture that could be present at Bethsaida/Julia. The walls and the mosaics of golden glass from the fifth century AD would suggest the existence of a church from the Byzantine period. A Bavarian bishop, Willibald of Eichstäat, travelling in the region in 725, mentions a church built over the house of the Apostle Peter and his brother Andrew. (A similar Byzantine church was found at Capernaum, built over a Roman house.)

The objects were found under a thick layer of earth, itself located six-and-a-half-feet under a Byzantine layer from the fifth century, already previously analyzed. The depth of the layer is astonishing, since researchers had always looked for Bethsaida at a higher level. They thought that at the time of Jesus, the Sea of Galilee was over some 680 feet below sea level. Instead of that, the Roman layer which these discoveries come from, is found at 696 feet below sea level.

A small piece of mosaic found at el-Araj: a precious indication for dating.

A small piece of mosaic found at el-Araj: a precious indication for dating.

It is probable that over the course of time, the site had been covered over with mud and clay, carried along by the Jordan at the end of the Roman era, and then repopulated again in the Byzantine period. “I cannot say with 100-percent certainty to have rediscovered the real Bethsaida; but it is clear that el-Araj is a good candidate at least on a par with et-Tell, and that it is the better candidate for Julia,” declared Dr. Mordachai Aviam. “We hope to continue the excavations on a greater scale next year in July. We will be widening the digging zone of the Roman period, and we will be looking for the Byzantine church.”

Controversies

The new hypotheses on Bethsaida have attracted numerous researchers, and they have not been accepted without their critics. Dr. Rami Arav, who had in the past led some small archaeological digs within the region of el-Araj, has suggested that there could not have been life here before the Byzantine period. “By relying on a silver coin of the emperor Nero from the years 65-66 AD, the expedition rushed to the conclusion that this small element was the beginning of a great town, identified by them as Bethsaida/Julia,” Dr. Arav explained.

“The fact that we have not found any similar residue in our excavations means that the discovered site is rather limited. The assertion of the expedition of the Kinneret College is extremely premature. The site of et-Tell is a better candidate.”

Dr. Mordechai Aviam, in any case, has always been prudent in the conclusions he has drawn from the excavations done at el-Araj. “I have not said that it was actually the real Bethsaida,” he has stated; “I have only wondered whether ‘the real Bethsaida/Julia’ might have been found. Our discoveries have put the site at the heart of the discussions about its identification. They have first of all proven that el-Araj existed during the Roman era. Secondly, we have clear proof, albeit weak, of the existence of a Roman public bath which is a good indicator of urban life. This is more than what et-Tell has furnished by way of showing any kind of urban living.”

The professor’s team in front of the section excavated at el-Araj.

The professor’s team in front of the section excavated at el-Araj. © Zachary Wong

According to Dr. Arav, however, since the first century, Bethsaida no longer was in existence, and Byzantine pilgrims identified it with a village near the estuary of the Jordan. “I think that this is precisely what the excavations of al-Araj have discovered,” Arav declared. “I also think that they likewise found there the military camp which Flavius Josephus mentioned, still in this region at the time of the Jewish War from 65 to 73, AD.”

Due to the disaster caused by the earthquake, the fishermen of Bethsaida would have abandoned the site of et-Tell, now too far from the sea, and would have emigrated towards the town which is today el-Araj. Is this hypothesis credible? Dr. Mordechai Aviam responded curtly, “No, I don’t think so. Now we have the proof! We have found a Roman layer six-and-a-half-feet beneath the Byzantine layer.” It seems that the mysteries surrounding Bethsaida will continue for the foreseeable future.

Have archaeologists finally found this mysterious location? The site thought to be ancient Bethsaida now has a rival.

The ruins at et-Tell

The ruins at et-Tell

During the time of the Gospels, Bethsaida was a fishing village located somewhere between the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee (the Lake of Tiberias), perhaps not far from Capernaum. The village was ruled by Herod Philip, son of Herod the Great, tetrarch of Gaulanitis. According to historian Flavius Josephus, Herod Philip decided to elevate Bethsaida to the rank of a city in the years 30-31 AD and rename it “Julia” in honor of Tiberius, the mother of the Roman emperor at the time.

Bethsaida was destroyed in the year 67 AD at the same time as other cities of Galilee during the First Jewish War (war against the Romans). Later, a strong earthquake shook the whole region, considerably altering the terrain. Pliny the Elder recounts that, because of this seismic event, the Lake of Tiberias shrunk in size, going from 14 miles in width to almost 11 miles. Due to this, Bethsaida lost its access to the sea. For a city that lived from fishing, this was a catastrophe.

The town disappeared in the fourth century; but in Christian memory, it remained the place of origin for the apostles: the place where Jesus accomplished great miracles. Two thousand years later, we are still trying to find it.

The Excavations at Et-Tell

At the beginning of the 19th century, a traveler suggested identifying Bethsaida with the place known today as et-Tell. In 1838, archaeologist Edward Robinson declared the same thing; but at that time, no excavations were done. Many years later, in 1967, the question was reopened by a Benedictine monk, Bargil Pixner. It was only in 1988 that archaeologist Dr. Rami Arav began the excavation of et-Tell. “The question of Bethsaida left me perplexed; it was the only site known to history that has not been identified,” explained Dr. Arav.

A mock-up of et-Tell

A mock-up of et-Tell

Et-Tell is located on a small hill east of the Jordan, a little over a mile from the lake. The excavations have uncovered ruins from the Hellenistic and Roman periods (second century BC until the years 65-66 AD), among which was a Roman temple. According to Dr. Arav, this represents sufficient enough proof to identify et-Tell as the biblical Bethsaida. To have found, among other things, a house containing professional fishing equipment allows one to guess the occupation of its owner.

The identification of et-Tell with Bethsaida seemed so certain that the State of Israel has officially recognized it as such. Pope Saint John Paul II, when he came to the Holy Land, even visited the site. However, today’s specialists remain perplexed: the site is located far away from the Sea of Galilee at an elevation higher than the lake of yesteryear. There are few Roman remains from the first century which might prove the presence of urban life.

The excavations continue at et-Tell. But simultaneously, two other candidates are now vying to be identified as Bethsaida: el-Araj and el- Mesadiyeh. Archaeologist Jim Strange conducted research at el-Mesadiyeh in 1982 without finding any ceramic artifacts whatsoever dating from the beginning of the Roman era.

Excavations at el-Araj

Excavations at el-Araj

In next week’s blog, we’ll share more on the excavations of El-Araj and what archaeologists have found there. Until then, you can read more about Bethsaida in the Holy Land Review magazine, Summer 2018 issue.

 

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